The Sci-fi Mind Undone



A look into the world of mental wellness and science fiction.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Into the padded cell the patient goes, probably wrapped in a straitjacket and gagged for good measure before being carted around to psychologists, wardens, and therapists inside a huge prison of an asylum, itself most likely done up in miserable and dour colonial red brick or grey concrete. The action soon moves from the stereotypical asylum to another prison — the victim’s hapless and malfunctioning mind, a jail cell in miniature populated by anthropomorphic representations of split personalities and devilish antagonists, cartoon representations of the havoc wrought by the very real menace of rogue neurotransmitters and errant brains.

As viewed by the media, this has served as the clichéd visual language of mental illness, the traditional medium through which various cultural works of yore and today have woven its tales and delivered its own gently judgmental parables on the nebulous and often-misunderstood world of mental health. Played straight, of course, such imagery can often deliver powerful and lasting messages on disparate topics from the realities of authority (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) to the loss of innocence in the face of racism (To Kill a Mockingbird) and indeed does still hold relevance today. Nevertheless, the imagery from the bad old days of mental health perceptions in the media has given way to an altogether more nuanced look at mental health issues; television shows such as Monk and United States of Tara offer thoroughly modern, sensitive and insightful views on mental illness today.
But what of mental illness tomorrow, and indeed by extension into the next years of the future and beyond? This is the realm of science fiction again, and indeed it too offers much in the way of everything from parochial closed-mindedness to high-level analysis of mental illness and the mental condition, all within the lens of the future. The Victorian era saw the first mention of mental health in science fiction with Robert Lewis Stevenson’s seminal 1885 proto-science-fiction horror novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The novel itself has become a veritable byword for dissociative identity disorder in modern culture, what with the help of Stevenson’s gift for dramatic storytelling and the collective ardor of pop-culture cartoonists and filmmakers alike. Behind the gothic undertones and early-horror theatrics, however, Jekyll and Hyde offers a piercing indictment of Victorian-era mores: Dr. Jekyll represents the straight-laced and stuffy Victorian gentleman, while Mr. Hyde encapsulates the raw animalistic desire suppressed during that very era. Science has a role in this as well, with the mystical potion Jekyll uses to suppress his alter ego being indicative of the role civilization has had in suppressing the human psyche’s atavistic instinct.

While Jekyll and Hyde does integrate mental illness into the overall fabric of the novel as a whole, Stevenson nonetheless does not confront the issue itself head-on, instead using mental illness as simultaneous subtext and a dramatic tool (camouflaged by the speculative-fiction aspects) for advancing the plot. Fast-forward some 80 or so years later and mental illness and its treatment received scathing criticism in works such as Anthony Burgess’s 1962 dystopian science-fiction novel A Clockwork Orange and Stanley Kubrick’s classic film adaptation of the same name. Certainly the protagonist qualifies as mentally disturbed: Alex is a sociopath in every sense of the word, indulging in horrific acts of “ultra-violence” throughout the whole of the movie. Nor is the future in A Clockwork Orange particularly pleasant either, with wandering gangs of youth (who speak a crypto-psychopathic blend of Slavic languages and English called Nadsat) menacing an England tightly ruled by a quasi-totalitarian government.

As a dramatic construct, however, A Clockwork Orange presents far more than some mere mental-health-mentioning sci-fi thriller; rather, it wields a double-edged sword that hacks through the dual controversies of psychological therapy as it existed in the 1960s and the inability of governments to even so much as comprehend urban blight. Though Alex’s acts and deeds, ranging from the rape of two ten-year-olds (Alex himself is but 15 years old) to the robbery and eventual murder of an old cat lady, are most assuredly brutal in the extreme, they are matched by the outright torture that is the government rehabilitation “aversion therapy” he is put through.

A clear stab at the behaviorist theories of prominent psychologists such as B.F. Skinner, the “aversion therapy” Alex endures is behaviorism (and for that matter Pavlovian classical conditioning) taken to its illogical extreme. In the course of his therapy, Alex is injected with nausea-inducing drugs and forced to watch videos depicting extreme violence – a blunt application of classical conditioning to forcibly dissuade Alex from violence of any sort or form. The therapy did not solely focus on violence as well: Beethoven was the soundtrack Alex (a classical-music aficionado) received to the violence and nausea, thus removing even the small joy of artistic appreciation from Alex’s already-fractious life. Nor is the government any wiser to how to deal with youth problems: Alex’s social worker in A Clockwork Orange is totally and utterly removed from the complex fabric of the youth gangs in this Britain of the future, and the government itself lacks large-scale effective rehabilitative solutions. At the end of A Clockwork Orange (at least the Stanley Kubrick movie – the book includes a redemptive chapter), Alex is ultimately left the same violent and depraved killer – perhaps the harshest indictment of a government and society unable to render assistance in the face of mental illness.

Science fiction perspectives on mental health issues are not perpetually gloomy, however, for the happy-go-lucky Star Trek franchise certainly represents the more optimistic side of mental health in science fiction. Star Trek’s take on mental health issues comes packaged in the form of one Lieutenant Reginald Barclay, an engineering officer shackled by social anxiety, phobias of everything from the franchise-famous transporters to spiders, and an addiction to the holodeck, a holographic simulation chamber. Star Trek, however, does not offer impassioned tour-de-forces railing against the injustices of governments or Victorians; rather, it depicts a Barclay rehabilitated gently with the help of fellow officers and an in-ship counselor in a rolling character arc spread over a few episodes. Star Trek offers perspectives on more potent mental issues as well, with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine addressing post-traumatic stress disorder in the course of its sprawling Dominion War arc and even the original series hamming it up in an admittedly heavy-handed action story concerning panaceas for mental illness. The overarching theme with Star Trek in regards to mental wellness, though, is one of optimism, one that focuses on the individual human struggle with the concurrences of events and mental imbalances that precipitate mental disruptions — and that optimism, more so than heavy-handed criticism and raging polemic, is the true gift of science fiction to all those struggling with mental illness.

Andrew Lin ’17 (andrewlin@college) prefers box sets of various seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to promote his personal mental health.