Why the West Loves Sci-Fi and Fantasy: A Cultural Explanation

The world's largest film industry—that'd be India's—is largely barren of the superhero and spaceship films that dominate Hollywood. What, exactly, accounts for the difference?
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Warner Bros.

Hollywood's had a long love affair with sci-fi and fantasy, but the romance has never been stronger than it is today. A quick glance into bookstores, television lineups, and upcoming films shows that the futuristic and fantastical is everywhere in American pop culture. In fact, of Hollywood's top earners since 1980, a mere eight have not featured wizardry, space or time travel, or apocalyptic destruction caused by aliens/zombies/Robert Downey Jr.'s acerbic wit. Now, with Man of Steel, it appears we will at last have an effective reboot of the most important superhero story of them all.

These tales of mystical worlds and improbable technological power appeal universally, right? Maybe not. Bollywood, not Hollywood, is the largest movie industry in the world. But only a handful its top hits of the last four decades have dealt with science fiction themes, and even fewer are fantasy or horror. American films in those genres make much of their profits abroad, but they tend to underperform in front of Indian audiences.

This isn't to say that there aren't folk tales with magic and mythology in India. There are. That makes their absence in Bollywood and their overabundance in Hollywood all the more remarkable. Whereas Bollywood takes quotidian family dramas and imbues them with spectacular tales of love and wealth found-lost-regained amidst the pageantry of choreographed dance pieces, Hollywood goes to the supernatural and futurism. It's a sign that longing for mystery is universal, but the taste for science fiction and fantasy is cultural.

Cultural differences are fascinating because even as we learn about others, we learn about ourselves. As an anthropologist, I want to flip this conversation: Why are we so into science fiction and fantasy? Nineteenth-century German sociologist Max Weber had a useful theory about this: The answer may be that we in the West are "disenchanted." The world in which we live feels explainable, predictable, and boring. Weber posited that because of modern science, a rise in secularism, an impersonal market economy, and government administered through bureaucracies rather than bonds of loyalty, Western societies perceived the world as knowably rational and systematic, leading to a widespread loss of a sense of wonder and magic. Because reality is composed of processes that can be identified with a powerful-enough microscope or calculated with a fast-enough computer, so Weber's notion of disenchantment goes, there is no place for mystery. But this state of disenchantment is a difficult one because people seem to like wonder.

And so we turn to science fiction and fantasy in an attempt to re-enchant the world. Children and childhood retain mystery, and so one tactic has been to take fairytales and rewrite them for adults and here we get the swords and sorcery of modern fantasy. Another strategy was to reinsert the speculative unknown into the very heart of scientific processes. But just because we have mined myth for magic—and, remember, even what we define as myth would have been called religion two millennia early (and the very fact that we think those two terms equivalent is also cultural)—does not mean that this fills the same need for wonder elsewhere.

India has developed many of the same features as America: a capitalist economy, an enormous bureaucratic government, and cutting-edge scientific expertise. But its intellectual history is different. Weber's argument is much more nuanced and substantive than the cursory description I have given here, but, in sum, disenchantment is rooted in the intellectual tradition of the 18th-century European Enlightenment with its struggles over the place of religion versus rationality. The aftermath of that contest in the West was to relegate the supernatural mysterious to a lower position than material-based reason. The key point is that this is a particular moment in cultural history, not some necessary and universal stage of human societal "development." Similarly, for that reason, I'd guess Japan's vibrant tradition of the supernatural in its anime, and China's recent taste for American FX spectacles, results from those countries' specific cultural contexts rather than from disenchantment. (And some of the ways the West looks to the non-West for re-enchantment are another, Orientalist can of worms best left for a different day.)

Presented by

Christine Folch is an assistant professor of anthropology at Wheaton College and sits on the board of ZanaAfrica. She writes about culture and power in Latin America.

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