Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Is Cowboy Bebop science fiction?

Recently, I've been on a Cowboy Bebop kick, so I figured I'd address it in this week's blog post. For the uninitiated, Cowboy Bebop is an anime series revolving around the exploits of a team of bounty hunters in a spaceship called the "Bebop." It's set in 2071, when Earth has been decimated by a terrible accident, leading its inhabitants to terraform and colonize the solar system's other planets. In addition, it has one of the most fantastic soundtracks of any TV series, ever. Is it awesome? Absolutely. But is it science fiction? Unfortunately, no.

So why isn't it science fiction?

Well, because it's an adventure that just happens to be set in space; more specifically, it's a western. It's a story about vigilantes traveling between scattered colonies, visiting saloons, being mysterious, pondering lost loves, etc. I mean, it's called Cowboy Bebop for a reason; just about every episode ends with a message reading "See you, space cowboy." And whether or not any of this is actually related to the content of the show, each and every episode could be transposed with little difficulty into just about any setting other than science fiction. Examples:
  • Episode 16 - Prisoners take control of the ship transporting them and attempt to escape. Jet (one of the show's bounty hunters) hooks up with his old police partner to hunt them down.
  • Episode 19 - The Bebop is attacked by pirates, and the team must work together to hunt them down and bring them to justice.
  • Episode 21 - Jet receives a message from an old friend, sent after his friend died. He teams up with his friend's daughter to solve the mystery.
Etc. As you should be able to see, not one of these plots relies on the science fiction setting in any meaningful way. I should point out, in the interest of covering my bases, that Cowboy Bebop shares all of these traits with a very similar, American, live-action TV show: Joss Whedon's Firefly. Joss Whedon himself has admitted that he wasn't aiming for science fiction so much as "space western" and in fact inserted the following shot into the show's opening title sequence to represent what he was aiming for:

If you can't see it very well because of the poor quality of my screen capture, it's Firefly's titular Firefly-class transport vessel buzzing a herd of wild horses. If that's not representative of "space western," I don't know what is. Not that I have any problem with space westerns. The original Star Trek certainly contains space western elements (i.e. "Space: the final frontier"), and Star Wars too (the film opens by introducing a farm boy, on a homestead, in the desert), and endless others: Titan A.E., the classic computer game Starcraft, even the recent Avatar (cowboys and Indians, anyone?). All this should demonstrate is just how easy it is to create something the masses will call science fiction by setting it in space. Certainly, western elements lend themselves incredibly well to a space-y or futuristic context. Space, like the old west or even the "high seas" of pirate stories, has the potential to be lightly colonized and loosely governed, and because of this, lends itself well to the same kinds of stories. It has even provided enough flair and distinguished itself enough as an interesting setting to establish itself as its own sub-genre within the realm of adventure plots. Hence, Cowboy Bebop is a lovely show, a pinnacle of achievement in the space western sub-genre. But being a space western doesn't make it science fiction; that makes it an adventure story, with western elements, set in space.

...With one notable exception. In episode 23, "Brain Scratch," the team unravels the mystery behind a cult. The cult revolves around convincing people to digitize their consciousnesses, then commit suicide, thus making them immune to death and unhindered by debt, possessions, bodies, or any of those other physical... impediments. Already, it should be obvious that this story would not be possible as a western or even modern-day tale; it uses its setting to create a conflict and to ask questions that would not be possible in any more normal setting. Is a "person" wholly encapsulated in his/her consciousness? Is a person without a body truly a person at all? If you've got 25 minutes free, you can watch the episode here. Then you can ask those questions for yourself, and listen to Cowboy Bebop's truly amazing soundtrack.


Trent said...
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Lord Baal said...

It is science fiction, even if you don't want it to be. You are leaving aside tons of things that require the scifi to work. Most of the time they are seen trough the eyes of common people with no scientific background beyond some mechanic skills, with the exception of Ed.

The Gateway Shuffle for example requires a futuristic DNA changing virus and the climax of the episode depends and revolves around the whole concept of the hyperspace gates.

The thing here is that the fictional science is not usually the protagonist, instead is used to support the great histories told.

Frankie said...

I understand and respect where you're coming from, but I think 'Cowboy Bebop' is science fiction, but maybe not 'hard science fiction', although it's a bit harder than a lot of what passes for hard science fiction. While it's true that a lot of the stories center on universal human truths that transcend setting, with various genre mash-ups interlaced into each session--the show really does do a great job of world-building the solar system, enclosed settlements and indefinitely delayed terraforming projects and whatnot.

If the mark of science fiction is speculating on the future of humanity, Cowboy Bebop does a good jop of showing a future that feels lived in. If you take out the faster than light travel, then it'd almost qualify as hard science fiction, except for one problem. Hard Science fiction fans want one big speculative 'what if' scenario, rather than a realistic potrayal of human beings. Those two ideas aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but they very often seem to be in execution. In my view, human nature barely changes. Most wonderous, technological advancements become trivialized within decades, or less than decades. People once thought that the Internet was going to be this great, egalitarian whatever whatever. To some extent it is, but the people who really dreamed of something Earth-shattering tend to be the most dissapointed by social media. I think the same would hold true no matter what the context. That's why most classic hard science fiction novels are about cardboard characters. The second you put really accurate potrayals of people in a story, the purists feel like the concepts aren't being explored adequately. (Look at Alastair Reynolds one star reviews on Amazon.) Cowboy Bebop is a futuristic society in perpeutal decay. Maybe an accurate depiction of the world we are currently living in. :P