It's not difficult to find elements of metaphysics in science fiction. A genre that deals extensively with exploration of possibilities, other worlds, and fantastic technologies is ripe for questioning perceptions and existence. But there is something inherently metaphysical, and even existential about space travel. We as a species are only vaguely aware of anything outside of our own planet, and we have only had the concept of “outside our own planet” for a few thousand years. When confronted with the vastness of space and the infinite number of other possible worlds, it’s no wonder we question the nature of our existence.
Humans have, since our primitive monkey brains became self-aware, tried desperately to explain the world, and our reason for existing. The world is filled with horrors and evil, pain and suffering, and our primitive existence was merely survival. Once we no longer had to spend all of our time surviving, we started to ask questions about the world around us. As soon as humans started to ask these questions we created all sorts of myths, legends, gods, and other stories in an attempt to satisfy all the “whys” in our world. Sun gods that blaze across the sky in chariots, thunder gods that command the rain and lightening, animals that talk to one another and stripe-less tigers that go in search of wisdom.
As our collective knowledge grew, our world also grew. Humankind began to spread. We began to cross the mountains over which we were certain lay the realm of the gods. We found only more Earth. We built boats and ships and sailed out to where the world ends. We expected to drop off the flat surface, only to find yet more Earth. Our gods were nowhere to be found, and our stories began to seem small and irrelevant. Science could explain away sun gods and talking tigers. Eventually, we visited and cataloged the entirety of our planet's surface. We proved the Earth was round, proved that it and seven other planets orbited the Sun, which turned out to be just one of a countless number of stars in a single galaxy. It also turned out that there are a countless number of galaxies in the universe. Infinity piled on top of infinity. The existential absurdity of it all makes space and space travel the perfect setting to explore those concepts anew.
Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Arthur C Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey is fantastic example of our search for some sort of meaning in a vast and absurd universe. It may not seem that way at first, but consider the meaning of existential absurdity: the human tendency to seek inherent meaning and value in life, and the inability to find any. In the beginning of the film, the apes awaken to find the black monolith, and after direct contact with it, they begin to use tools. Thus, the “Dawn of Man.” We jump to the near future, and another monolith has been discovered on the moon. This monolith sends a radio signal to Jupiter, which of course sends humanity to find what is out there. Eventually, one of the astronauts, Bowman, finds another monolith in orbit around Jupiter. He takes a personal EVA pod to investigate closer, and is pulled into something.
This last sequence is beautiful, and it raises more questions than it answers. Is Bowman taken to another dimension, a different plane of reality, or possibly where the gods reside? Was it aliens who put the monoliths there for us to find? Are the aliens merely so advanced that we perceive them as gods? Were they able to create us, and when bored by their creation, did they send these monoliths to guide our development? All of these are questions without answers, and they mirror our own questions about our existence and place in the universe. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY offers suggestions and possibilities, and although it isn't as concrete as our more primitive stories, it is still a story about finding an explanation about our existence, and a meaning to life.
As if that weren't enough existential metaphysics for one film, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY also touches on another. Through the artificial intelligence, HAL 9000, Kubrick and Clarke question what constitutes life itself. HAL “malfunctions” during the trip to Jupiter. Bowman and Poole, the other crew member awake for the trip, (the others are in stasis) discuss shutting him down in order to continue with the mission. HAL discovers their idea, and kills off the crew, save Bowman, whom he locks out of the main craft in one of the EVA pods. Bowman has to force his way back in to the ship, and then proceeds to shut HAL down. HAL appeals to Bowman, telling him that he doesn't have to do it. HAL's emotionless monotone voice pleads with Bowman, asking him to reconsider, even saying that he is afraid. Bowman effectively kills HAL. Is HAL alive, and what constitutes a life? If life is self-awareness, the ability to make decisions independently and feel emotions, then HAL certainly qualifies. He also qualifies as the Other, meaning he can validate the experiences of the humans with whom he interacts.
In existentialism, the concept of the Other is about mutual experiences and deals with intersubjectivity and objectivity. When something occurs, if another person (the Other) is also experiencing this same thing, it is more likely that said thing is “real” or “true.” In the objective sense it can be as simple as seeing something unusual, like a cat that is half black and half white. If you and another person (the Other) see it together, you agree that yes, you saw both saw that very strange cat. You experience the Other experiencing the same thing as you, making you sure that this cat exists.
Stories that question the concepts of humanity, reality, self and the Other can be found in another great work of philosophical science fiction, Andrei Tarkovsky's SOLARIS.
After a strange report by a fellow cosmonaut, scientist Kris Kelvin is sent to investigate a manned space station on the ocean surface of the fictional planet Solaris. Upon arrival, Kelvin finds that the crew have been experiencing “visitors.” These visitors are not aliens in the traditional sense of the word, but they are physical manifestations of the crew's memories. What is important to note about these visitors is that each of the crew experience the other crew's visitors. Kelvin sees a woman in another crewman's quarters. These beings aren't hallucinations or apparitions, they physically exist, and are objectively real, or at the very least intersubjectivly real.
Soon, Kelvin is confronted by his dead ex-wife, Hari, who years ago had killed herself. Kelvin is torn by the knowledge that this visitor can't be his wife, but yet it looks and acts like her. In an existential sense, Kelvin struggles with the question of this new Hari's humanity. Is she in fact a person, and what, in turn, constitutes a person? Logically, of course, this visitor isn't Hari. The real Hari is long dead and gone, but this new Hari looks, feels and acts like the original. The new Hari fits many of the same criteria as HAL 9000, and of course raises similar questions. Do those qualities make her just as real as the original Hari, and more importantly just as real as Kelvin himself?
Further, the new Hari sees herself as human. She has to struggle with the strange nature of her existence, knowing that she isn't human, yet feeling as if she is. Hari is, arguably, more human than Kelvin in some senses, as Kelvin doesn't display the best attributes of humanity. When Kelvin is first confronted with Hari, he tries to get rid of her by launching her into space. She reappears, and Kelvin is forced to accept her presence. When Kelvin tells Hari that his original wife killed herself, Hari tries to kill herself by drinking liquid oxygen. She dies a brutal and horrifying death, only to resurrect moments later.
At the end of the film, Kelvin and the other scientists on the base agree to broadcast Kelvin's brain waves into the ocean of Solaris, in an attempt to stop the visitors from returning. The other option is a device called the annihilator, which they theorize could destroy the planet Solaris and thereby destroy the visitors as well. At the same time, Hari asks the scientists to destroy her, as she can't live knowing she isn't the real Hari, nor even a real person, and she can't be happy with Kelvin knowing that he will never be happy with her. Had Kelvin been a better person, his original wife may have never killed herself, and now, given a second chance, he still can't get it right, and she kills herself again.
The broadcast seemed to work, as the visitors have disappeared. They have been replaced by islands on the ocean surface of Solaris. Kelvin debates returning to Earth, or staying on Solaris. He knows staying will give him those things he has loved and lost, but Earth is what is “real.” In the final scene, he approaches his parent's house, and is met by his father. They embrace on the steps, and the camera pans out to reveal they are on one of the islands in the oceans on Solaris.
We are left with the impression that Kelvin chose the reality of Solaris rather than the reality of Earth. More importantly, is the idealized reality of Solaris any less real than the reality of Earth? Further, does that idealized reality not give Kelvin's life the meaning each of us seek?
As our scientific knowledge expands, we as humans will continue our efforts to find order and meaning in a chaotic and unpredictable universe. Our stories have always reflected our desire to explain the world around us and make sense of things that are inexplicable. When before we sent our heroes into deep caves or over the horizon, we now send them into the vast, unknown reaches of space. We replace talking tigers with sentient computers. We replace wish-granting genies with thought-reading planets.
Humanity will always tell stories to explain the inexplicable or give meaning to the meaningless, and those stories need a setting that is unexplored. Space travel opens up an infinite number of possible worlds, all with their own new and unexplained phenomena, all ripe for exploration. But, will we ever find that value and meaning in our lives for which we search so desperately?