Late in season one of HBO’s The Leftovers, two men hold a conversation. They are father and son; the father is the police chief of the absurdly normal “Mapleton,” New York; his son, Kevin, is a police officer in the town, a married father of two. The conversation is a flashback. It takes place before the event that will change the world—the “sudden departure” of 2 percent of the world’s population one October morning. That vanishing (which is not “the rapture” of evangelical theology, since it takes people of all faiths and no faith, good and bad alike) leaves the world shaken and damaged, infected with new cults and messianic prophets. But this is the night before, and Kevin Garvey and his father are at a birthday party. They sneak away to smoke—in a show in which smoking and fires are rich with symbolism. The world is not going up in flames; it is smoldering in slow despair.
The father notes that Kevin doesn’t seem quite right. Kevin agrees, asking him, desperate, “Why isn’t it enough?” The father knows what Kevin means—this life, this lovely family. And he responds with an angry-but-wise tirade. Of course you’re upset, he says. “Because every man rebels against the idea that this is fucking IT. Fights windmills, saves damsels . . . all in search of greater purpose.” Then, slowly, he spells it out: “You have no greater purpose. Because IT is enough.” The father puts his hand on the son’s shoulder, kindly. “So cut the shit, OK?”
The scene is intense, intimate, and a bit nostalgic. It is a flashback, after all, nine episodes in, so we already know where this is going: the Departed are about to disappear, and the father, who is still police chief in this moment, will soon start hearing voices and end up in a mental health facility. “It”—the two-kids-and-a-wife-normalcy that can lead to despair—is about to become a sepia-hued memory.
The Leftovers is filled with dread, and the world it depicts is made strangely numinous by the characters’ pain, and by the mystery they cannot solve. Did God take the people? Or does the Departure prove that there is no God? Or perhaps it shows only that S/He is a sick piece of work? There are other, smaller mysteries too: magical characters who know things, pretenders who are perhaps not pretending, ghosts who also know things, and, in the second season, a single town from which no one disappeared. Not surprisingly, the town has rechristened itself “Miracle” and has become a global tourist attraction.
I like The Leftovers a lot, and I watch it greedily, if also warily—one has to face the screen with emotional shields at the ready. One review called the show “the most desolate, despairing television on air.” And Willa Paskin in Slate commented, “It is hard to imagine a show less designed for binge-watching than The Leftovers; in the case of this show, such an activity would be more aptly described as binging spiritual despair.”
The show operates on a terrain of changed, strange worlds—and that’s fine with me; as a fan of speculative fiction (SF), both novelistic and filmic, I’m used to strange. But I also think the show is a bit of a cheat in that it promises (and withholds) deities and demons seemingly at random. Like most SF, the question The Leftovers asks is not just “Does the world have meaning?” but rather: “Is there more?” And, like most SF, it answers: “Of course there is.” After all, whatever else happened with the Sudden Departure, it showed the utter failure of the natural laws you learned in sixth grade. This is not the this we thought it was. Whatever it is—and The Leftovers circumnavigates more questions than it answers—it includes many forms of the supernatural.
I, however, prefer the differently natural. On the topic of the allness, or not, of “this,” I lean toward the science fiction that deals in aliens and interplanetary travel and far-flung futures. In much of the science fiction I love best, there is at least the veil of science, even as things are simultaneously more and otherwise. In my teens and twenties, my preferences as a reader hewed pretty closely to the more science-focused definition that many (white, male) writers and fans of science fiction insisted upon, starting in the 1950s, with the rather masculinist demand for “real science” or “possibly real science” as the basis of the story.
I’m not sure when the sacred distinction between sci-fi and fantasy began to blur, when exactly bookstores (and it happened when there were bookstores) began to create a single space for “speculative fiction.” But at some point the aisles began to wantonly mix tales of swords and wizards with stories of tentacled Onkali people (Octavia Butler’s Dawn) and near-future dystopias (from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to, eventually, every young adult novel on the market). After some raging against the machine, I began to see the logic. Maybe my attitude began to evolve when I noticed that Dune had both swords and spaceships, or that Dawn was all about aliens but cared little about the details of technology.
I do enjoy books in the science-of-science-fiction mode, as in Kim Stanley Robinson’s careful three-volume analysis of how we might terraform Mars (starting with Red Mars). But I equally enjoy the flashy tech-fantasy of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, where “data cowboys” surf his technicolor vision of what would become the internet.
The more I read, the less interested I am in policing the borders of “real” science fiction, since I’m pretty sure that Hugo Gernsback (he of Amazing Stories) had a fair definition of “scientifiction” back in the 1920s: “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.”1 Besides, those “real science” genre-defining practices often marginalized the work of people of color and white women who inhabited science fiction’s traditional conceptual borders—and who now are defining the terrain of SF writ large. Postcolonial SF studies is blossoming, as are its fictions.2
Sometimes, it seems to me, SF’s defining feature is its simple cosmopolitan longing. After all, what better place to teach ourselves lessons about humanism and pluralistic tolerance than on a space station filled with other Others? And what place is more richly diverse than TV’s Babylon 5? Perhaps only Triton, where Samuel Delany posited a futuristic, fashion-forward, queer utopia. And what else could bring the Israelis and Palestinians to peace if not the shared battle against alien danger in Independence Day?
Indeed the genre is most interesting to me when it finds strange new worlds, imagining with some sympathy forms of life and nature that are different than our own—but also somehow not too different. (In Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin posited some aliens whose way of thinking was so foreign that it exploded the brains of those who tried to learn their language. But that plot line had its limits.)
It’s not that I have much invested in space travel. Short of the near-miraculous means that various SF narratives offer—the “protomolecule” of The Expanse, the “spice” of Dune, the “space warping” of warp drive—I can’t imagine that human beings will get to go very far beyond Mars, or maybe, if we don’t destroy our own planet first, a moon of Jupiter one day. But the point is not the likelihood of going; it lies in knowing that the vastness of space and time mean that, while we seem pretty damn alone in the universe, there is much that is long ago and far away.
(I was once in what is now South Sudan with a group of evangelical Christians on a short-term mission. I was doing some research for my book on evangelicals, and we were sitting in a small village near the Ethiopian border, with stars above us so bright and thickly layered they looked like a river. I asked the group—three Americans and one Sudanese—whether they believed there might be life on other planets. Three of them looked at me like I had just suggested eating the local children as a snack. The fourth, a minister who would become a friend, said that he believed that God’s creation was bigger and more wonderful than we can imagine. “Besides,” he said with a shrug, “we believe in angels, so . . . .”)
Just writing about my SF obsession brings up images from a sci-fi movie: the various idiots who, hearing of aliens arriving on earth, rush to watch from the rooftops, cheering the UFO that calmly blasts them. But don’t send me your old Comic Con T-shirts just yet. Do I believe that, halfway across the universe, there is a planet where people formerly of Earth live in an Embassytown, where strange beings from many planets cross paths and attempt to communicate (and China Miéville gets to meditate on how language works)? I think probably not. Or, in a thousand or so years, will Caribbean peoples have made it off-world and inhabit a place that both is, and is not, like Jamaica, as Nalo Hopkinson would have us imagine in Midnight Robber? Highly doubtful. But space-based science fiction offers us the richness of thinking through alternative worlds, and in the process it provides a site for critique of the world we have made, without having to posit Lost islands or ghostly interventions into our quotidian lives. The possibilities of other kinds of life are there—tenuous, the very evocation of them bordering on absurd. And yet we science fiction writers and readers imagine it so, and posit a (generally) godless but potentially populated universe.
So, if the question is “Is this all there is?” then my answer is yes, this is it—if by “this” we mean a septillion stars (that’s a one with twenty-four zeros), a universe forty-five billion light-years wide and expanding, and imaginations unbounded.
Gary Westfahl, “Who Governs Science Fiction?,” Extrapolation (Pre-2012); Brownsville 41, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 65.↩
Of the vast literature on postcolonial SF studies today, I found particularly useful Jessica McDonald, “Beyond Generic Hybridity: Nalo Hopkinson and the Politics of Science Fiction,” Canadian Literature; Vancouver, no. 228/229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 133–149, 269.↩