In Science Fiction, We Are Never Home

Halfway through director Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Sandra Bullock suffers the most cosmic case of homesick blues since Keir Dullea was hurled toward the infinite in 2001: A Space Odyssey nearly half a century ago. For Bullock, home is (as it was for Dullea) the Earth, looming below so huge it would seem she couldn’t miss it, if she could somehow just fall from her shattered spacecraft. She cares about nothing more than getting back to where she came from, even as 2001’s Dullea is in flight, accepting his exile and even embracing it.

Science fiction has long been distinguished by these dual impulses—leaving home and returning—when it’s not marked by the way that home leaves us, or deceives us when it’s no longer the place we recognize once we’re back. As a genre, science fiction has become the cultural expression of how progress and technology by definition distance us from what we recognize, turning the home that once was a sanctuary into a prison when we feel confined and then a destination when we’re lost. Earth-bound, claustrophobic, curbed by our dimensional limits, we’re compelled by the imperative of exploration; far-flung, rootless, untethered to reference points, we covet the familiar where we believe we’re safe, even if the familiar never really was all that safe.

Through intersecting themes of estrangement, memory, and exodus, science fiction, more than any art form, means to destabilize surroundings

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