I’m going to address an issue which is sufficiently abstract and pedantic that it may be too persnickety even for the pages of CRANK: the energy economy of pretty much every popular science fiction TV series or film makes no sense at all. 

To begin with the most notorious example, the villains of THE MATRIX are a race of ruthless hyper-intelligent machines who can only survive by harvesting the energy produced by the remnants of the human race, who have been imprisoned in endless arrays of slimy pods for this purpose. This is impossible, because human bodies don’t actually generate energy: they merely convert the energy contained in the food they eat—whether this be nutritious quinoa salads, chocolate, caffeine, or the unpleasant black goo made from rendered-down cadavers which is fed to the Matrix’s inhabitants—into other forms, such as body heat, daydreams and internet arguments. Moreover, humans are very inefficient converters of energy, and a large fraction of their caloric input is dissipated in the form of farts, indigestion and bad dreams, or stored on the hips and belly, and would thus be unavailable for use by evil AIs. It should also be remembered that these evil AIs must be devoting a substantial fraction of the energy generated by their captives to powering the computers maintaining a simulation of Sydney in 1999, chasing Morpheus around with those squid robot things, and pumping black goo back into the pods, not to mention all the wasteful lightning crackling off the big pod towers. Lastly, I note that the paragon of humanity in this scenario was Neo himself, and that even if the aforementioned items in the debit ledger were to be ignored, it still seems unlikely that a high standard of machine civilisation could be maintained using the leftover wattage from Keanu Reeves.

You may object that THE MATRIX is an exception: a triumph of style over substance, an inept hybrid of vulgar Marxism and stoner paranoia which shouldn’t be used to indict an entire genre. But it is not the only example.

In endless films, aliens invade our solar system in search of fresh resources, having used up their own home worlds: in a handful of others, with a somewhat firmer grounding in psychological realism, humans bridge the gulf of interstellar space to steal resources from aliens. The problem with this scenario is that interstellar space is so mind-bogglingly enormous that if you have the wherewithal to up and haul your civilisation across the light years between the stars, you obviously don’t have a resource problem. Earth’s colonial history is not a sound guide to the challenge of travelling to even the closest stars. Try imagining if the Atlantic Ocean were millions, rather than thousands, of kilometres wide. And even if, as you may object, some kind of warp drive could make the journey faster, any imaginable technology capable of faster-than-light travel requires either vast energy inputs or technology so far in advance of ours that it would also solve any crisis you are trying to fix with an interstellar trip.

The same goes for that subset of films in which interstellar expeditions are mounted to find rare commodities or ingredients. Many people were annoyed at the plot of AVATAR being driven by a quest for a substance giving the snidely lazy name “unobtainium”; your author, by contrast, was annoyed by the fact that the rest of the galaxy is made out of the same sort of stuff as our solar system, and that an interstellar expedition to find this MacGuffinite would almost certainly be more expensive than just making it one atom at a time in a particle accelerator.

Conversely, no matter how desperate and grinding a science fiction dystopia gets, there is always, it seems, a surplus of capital to be devoted to high-tech fighting arenas, elaborate costumes, futuristic robot-police and high-speed snow-piercing trains. The worst example of this is found in the MAD MAX films, which posit a world in which oil is more precious than gold, but also in which the main leisure activity consists of driving ferociously around the outback in cars and trucks with very poorly-tuned engines. In reality, a world where oil is more precious than gold would feature much less thrilling forms of transport, like pack animals or bicycles.

Even the rebooted BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, justly celebrated for its gritty and dark sf vision, still scores badly in this regard. If an army of sexy robots is pursuing the desperate remnant of humanity through interstellar space, the desperate remnant of humanity is going to run out of fuel first, simply because the sexy robots don’t need to waste resources on air, food, gardens or overheated political intrigues which exactly mirror those of 2000s America. Unless, of course, the sexy robots are squandering their budget on bikini waxes, facial peels and hair salons. It’s worth noting that BSG is one of the only shows to even address this problem, in an episode which focuses on an industrial dispute on the fleet’s “refinery”, but it’s also worth noting that this was a really embarrassingly bad episode which seemed to be constructed from the writers’ high-school memories of Cannery Row rather than any knowledge of actual workplace relations.

Perhaps the flaws in these fantastic universes are echoes or dim reflections of the wealthy parts of a global economy, in which the labour done to produce iPhones and cheap clothes is kept from our sight, in which the effects of our own real energy economy are having permanent effects on climate and which, as a society, we seem hopelessly unable to grapple with. Either that, or they are the symptom of one man devoting his own surplus energy to ruining his own ability to enjoy harmless, escapist entertainment. I hope it’s the latter.


An early steampunk-themed storyboard for THE MATRIX. Neo (centre); Trinity (lower right); evil AI, tending human-powered battery pods (lower left); concentrated human woes, etc. The telephone system of Melbourne . Wood engraving, engraved by F A Sleap. Published 1 September, 1890, Melbourne, by David Syme & Co. State Library of Victoria, accession no. IAN01/09/90/8.

An early steampunk-themed storyboard for THE MATRIX. Neo (centre); Trinity (lower right); evil AI, tending human-powered battery pods (lower left); concentrated human woes, etc.The telephone system of Melbourne. Wood engraving, engraved by F A Sleap. Published 1 September, 1890, Melbourne, by David Syme & Co. State Library of Victoria, accession no. IAN01/09/90/8.

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