The following is not a review of Elysium, the new film by Neill Blomkamp starring Matt Damon, but it does contain spoilers for the film and I discuss certain plot elements in some detail.
In popular science fiction, films in particular but in many novels as well, usually hinges upon a singular technology or scientific principle, then fails to explore the real impact of that technology or principle in any depth . This is because the technology is most often chosen to serve the story the author or filmmaker wants to tell, rather than the other way around. This is understandable, especially in media like short stories and novellas or films where the story space is very limited, and in many cases is a good thing: concise storytelling can sometimes seem a lost art when one looks at a bookstore shelf and sees series after series of thousand page, multi-volume epics in every genre from high fantasy to space opera to supernatural romance.
The film Elysium is no exception. What is interesting, though, is that the core technology driving the plot is not the titular habitat for Earth’s wealthy and elite that orbits above a destitute planet. In fact, there is no reason in the film at all for Elysium to be a space station; any separate, hard to reach utopia would have sufficed, from super tall skyscrapers over shadowed slums to a domed city on the ocean floor to a simple gated and well guarded community. All that mattered for the story of the film to work was that getting access to Elysium was reserved for the privileged and dangerous for everyone else.
The real science fiction technology at the heart of Elysium’s story is the near-magical “med bays” that can instantaneously heal not just chronic diseases like cancer but also severe physical trauma, even going so far as to bring back the recently deceased so long as the brain is still intact.The primary motivation of Matt Damon’s protagonist Max is dependent entirely on this technology, as is the secondary plot that provides the emotional punch of Max finally learning not to be such a self centered prick. Once we accept the magic of the med bay, the film is a fun ride with a slighted ham-fisted social and moral message coupled with some great design and absolutely wonderful bodily dismemberments.
The thing is, those magical med bays are emblematic of the unexplored impact so common in popular science fiction. In the film, the med bays are common enough to be found in every home on Elysium, relatively small and, we learn at the end of the story, can be loaded on shuttles en masse for medical relief of large populations. Unlike similar devices in Ridley Scott’s Alien “prequel” Prometheus, the med bay is not just an automated surgical unit. We are never told precisely how the med bay works, but we are given a tantalizing hint when a child is saved from advanced stage leukemia when the illness is “re atomized.” That sounds quite a lot like magic wrapped up in Star Trekian technobabble. Moreover, its only limitation seems to be that it cannot repair a damaged brain, or if it can it cannot return it to its previous state so perhaps the revived subject would be brain dead; it’s unclear.
The technology working that way is fine for the plot on hand. In fact, it is perfect for it and I suspect that it was created specifically to serve the story, both overall and at particular plot points. This is as it should be for a concise tale, as mentioned above, but does leave open a vast sea of unexplored impacts.
Imagine a device that can re-arrange biological matter at the atomic level so as to eliminate everything from radiation poisoning to blunt trauma to cancer. Even if the power of the med bay is limited to returning biological mass to an undamaged state, it has huge implications in not just medicine, but food production — GMO crops not allowed, or absolutely required! — and ecology — bring on the oil soaked pelicans and glean their insides, too! We know that genetic predisposition is different than genetic expression, so how do the med bay’s interact with conditions caused by prenatal exposure or childhood malnutrition? Can you “fix” a birth defect or erase the impact of years of smoking? If so, how does that effect attitudes toward pollution or drug abuse?
The point of this post is not to answer those questions, but rather to point out that they exist. Similarly, the real impact of the transporter system in Star Trek is largely unexplored (although The Next generation did tie it to the food replication system, which was an admirable step in the right direction). Cyberpunk fiction rarely looks at how human-machine interface and bionic enhancement effect, say, agriculture and it is rare indeed for works relying on cryonic hibernation for slower than light travel (Aliens and Avatar are both guilty here) interacts with life extension. Let’s not even get into how time travel could impact experimental research.
Every time a science fiction writer invents a new technology or adapts a well worn trope to fit their story, an opportunity presents itself to explore potential impacts. Writers that do this are often referred to as Futurists, whether or not the technologies presented in their works have any chance of becoming reality. I think the reason for this is that we intellectually separate a story from a thought experiment. They are not really separate things, though, as a good science fiction tale is a thought experiment with plot, character and other story elements grafted on.
If you are a science fiction writer, the next time you come up with a plot (a Martian falls in love with a Europan mermaid) and a technology to make that story work (a bloodborne nanoswarm that allows the Martian to live in the frozen sea) stop for a moment and consider at least one of the impacts of that technology (a nanoswarm that breaks oxygen away from water and release heat in the process could be widely used in agriculture in environments otherwise too cold to support it) and write a story centered on that impact instead (there’s just not enough pastoral sci-fi).