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Thunderbirds are go…ne

There are two distinct streams in science fiction, the technologically focused and the socially and politically focused. That is not to say that there is a simple dichotomy – most science fiction covers off both elements to one extent or another, however there is a tendency for much science fiction to sit more distinctly in one category or the other.

Thunderbirds, made in the mid 1960s, ventured into the future some distance (apparently there are fan disputes about the actual distance into the future, though I note the DVDs say 2065). Interestingly, while technology had certainly moved on from the perspective of 1965, the social had not changed a lot. Following are some key reasons why the non-technological remained firmly mired in the past.

1) No change in gender positions: In some ways, Thunderbirds fights a rear-guard action for traditional gender roles in the face of 1960s questioning. Rather than seeing that these trends may have led to change by 2065, it appears that women are still secondary to men. All the Thunderbird pilots are men – now OK, this might be just because Jeff Tracey had only sons, but you know what I mean. The three women who are featured regularly are Lady Penelope, Tin-Tin and Grandma. Now sure, Lady Penelope is a jet-setting super spy, but as her cover she is a model, she launches ships, and she is a judge of prize dogs. While she doesn’t mind packing a pistol, she nonetheless drives a pink Rolls Royce, uses a compact as her communication device and screams at the sight of mice. OK, so she sounds like a Bond girl (except perhaps for the mice bit – that is more Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, worst heroine ever) – and perhaps she was an early model of one, but that certainly doesn’t indicate any change in gender relations. Tin-Tin is educated, as Jeff Tracey has paid for to have the finest of educations. She puts this to use by working for International Rescue – sometimes as an assistant to Brains in his scientific experiments, and memorably, she does form part of  the crew of Thunderbird 3 when it is sent to rescue (all male) astronauts in Sun Probe. However, there is some protesting over this. And on more than one occasion, Tin-Tin heads off to the kitchen when some crisis occurs. The less said about Grandma, the better. Over all, Tin-Tin and Lady Penelope’s meagre entree into the business end of International Rescue is advanced feminism compared to the rest of the planet. Every pilot, explorer and business person encountered is male. Woman haven’t even made it past bad driving jokes, as it is a woman’s poor driving which causes the accident which sparks the inferno in City of Fire.

2) No change in class divisions: The Tracey’s have Kirano their (Asian) house-man – father of Tin-Tin whose education Jeff Tracey, the paternalistic millionaire, has funded a la Sabrina. Society is not egalitarian – “Lady” Penelope still lives in a big house and has a chauffeur, the wonderful Parker, and English aristocracy is alive and well. An entire episode is dedicated to the fate of the Duchess, who is facing genteel poverty due to her gambling habits. Rich industrialists are all about the place, and the poor don’t rate much of a mention, except when coming for tours of Lady Penelope’s place.

3) No change in racial lines: As noted above, Kirano, the servant to the Tracey’s is Asian. So is their arch enemy, who, by some bizarre coincidence, is Kirano’s brother. The anti-Asian approach is reinforced by the use of  Asian-ish mysticism is some of the enemy’s activities. There are no black characters anywhere evident in either Britain or the US and when events occur in more exotic locales, it is still white characters who are engaged. The indication is that at the elite levels of business, the armed forces and government, those in control are all still white. The civil rights agenda and increased immigration in the UK during the 1960s have not created pause for thought that 100 years into the future, things might be different.

4) No geo-political change: This area isn’t quite as clear as others, however it is very evident that there is still a US government and a British government and there is nothing to indicate any major differences in the way the world is governed. The area of the Cold War and possible geo-political upheaval seem to be an absence, but there has certainly not been a nuclear war, despite the fears of the early 1960s in this area.

5) Fashions are the same: The boys sit around in their best skivvies smoking cigarettes – Lady Penelope’s fashions are solidly 1960s era, most of the furniture is still the same as always. Apparently every century the same set of fashions comes around.

Overall, there is a failure in imagination of the future beyond the technology it may entail. Space travel to the sun might be possible, giant walkers may be used by the US army to traverse the jungle, but the world still otherwise dwells in the same era as always. I think this makes Thunderbirds possibly the most technologically and least socially driven science fiction ever, but I could be wrong. I note that Peter Hamilton’s two books Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained (which I enjoyed a lot) envisage a future which is just like now + – more wealth concentrated in oligarchies – and that most of the imagination is concentrated in the technology. I don’t necessarily think this is a fault, but for someone who grew up on Ursula Le Guin, it certainly is a limitation.

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2 responses to “Thunderbirds are go…ne

  1. This is what I found when I read a collection of E. E. Doc Smith’s Lensman books that my Mum lent me. Hundreds of years in the future and women are still fragile (but plucky) and in need of male protection. Many of the other points you note could apply to Smith’s fiction. So when did it change? What happened to make science fiction more socially aware and who were the pioneers?

    • godardsletterboxes ⋅

      It is a good question really. I think there has always been part of science fiction that has been focused on social and political comment, but in the middle of the 20th century I think the focus on and fascination with technology became so strong that it came to dominate a lot of science fiction. But people like Ursula Le Guin dragged it back – and I guess that eventually the social change of the 1960s and 1970s combined with the possibility of nuclear apocalypse became things that people writing speculative fiction just couldn’t ignore.

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