Even the Minor Names Matter

Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium

I was watching Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 film Elysium again the other night, a visual spectacle which effectively builds a dystopian future which physically divides the rich and poor. While the economy of this setting isn’t fleshed out (and I struggle to find a way to make it really work) it nevertheless serves as a visual allegory for the problem of social mobility in the face of hard social stratification – a daily experience for many people in the world today. If you’ve not seen it and don’t mind a violent action romp, check it out. I’ll try and avoid spoiling anything significant here.

But I got a chuckle out of a very minor prop used during the course of the film. At one point, Matt Damon’s character Max is exposed to a lethal medical condition, and to manage this condition his workplace provides him medication. Now given that this takes place far in the future, in a dystopian allegory for an experience in the modern world, what should the writer have called that medication?

I can think of three obvious answers:

  1. Research current medications, scientific development in therapies, and project a convincing future technology based on this.
  2. Redirect the audience elsewhere and fix the problem off-stage.
  3. Make something up.

Answering this very question is something I was asking myself earlier this week when I found my own writing needed to address a future medical scenario, and it was fun to see just how different Blomkamp’s approach is to that of my current read, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, a hard-SF epic where you’d expect to encounter the first option above.

This is the first novel of Robinson’s I’ve read, so I can’t comment on any pattern with his other work, but certainly a lot of 2312‘s appeal is it’s well researched look at the science of its fictional world. The book takes us on a future journey which affords us an exploration of the solar system, a place of wild and curious history, fascinating possibility, and amazing spectacle. With glimpses at uncommon facts of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the challenges of quantum computing or the effects of the relativistic precession of Mercury, it’s invokes the big picture wonder many of use go to SF for in the first place.

Along the course of 2312, main POV character Swan suffers from effectively the same condition as Max. In a novel there’s room to dig into the science of a situation, and in “Hard SF” we generally expect it. So does Swan’s therapy get a detailed treatment in this novel – option one above? No! It’s simply not the focus of the story, and medical technology isn’t what’s fuelling our sense of wonder here. 2312 instead goes with option two: It establishes there’s a wide variety of longevity treatments available, shifts the character off stage for a few pages and brings her back fully healed.

Miporol prop from Elysium, from user rkpeterson of yourprops.com

Elysium has 120 minutes to tell a thriller, but in this case we need the treatment visible, where it acts as a timer to help build tension. Being on stage it needs a name, and so the story goes with option three, introducing capsules of the fictional medication “Miporol”. We know it’s serious stuff when even people on the street know about it, like when Max says to Julio “they gave me Miporol, man.”

No doubt I’ll pick something else up from this film the next time I watch it, but for now I’m going to sit back and appreciate that Elysium didn’t choose option three as any lazy shortcut. As the story starts out, Max is an ex car thief who served time in prison and is out on parole. When he is inflicted with an otherwise agonising fatal condition he heads back to the underworld he’s been trying to escape in the hope of finding a way out, but even losing the ankle bracelet which ties him to his previous sentence he’s far from free: in the face of his otherwise terminal condition, it’s now the medication that’s his parole.

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