Satire, Sci-Fi, and the Smiths: Why Rick and Morty is Revamping A Too-Serious Genre
by Courtney Vice
“Okay, well, sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. A lot of people don’t realize that.“
Inspiring words, if they weren’t said after a super genius just turned the entire world into a Cronenberg-esque nightmare. Or, well, daydream for Cronenberg.
Rick and Morty isn’t a new show. Having only recently launched its third season, its been rapidly gaining popularity amongst sci-fi and fantasy fans while also having a fanbase that just likes toilet humor. It’s funny, it’s gross, and it’s insightful. For an Adult Swim cartoon, that’s a lot.
The premise of this show is simple: take Back to the Future and make it vulgar. But the show goes far deeper than that. Entire episodes are dedicated to mocking classic sci-fi tropes such as time travel, love potions, and reality warping. There’s a sense of sarcasm when all this is going on, a sort of “I can’t explain it, just deal with it” ideology that a lot of sci-fi writers have fallen into in the past.
Combine that with a nihilistic philosophy, and you have one of our main characters: Rick. Rick is a character that every sci-fi protagonist both longs to be while simultaneously despising him. Take Doc Brown and add a bit of alcoholism, and you have Rick. He’s above science, yet is a man of science, and thinks that everyone else is a complete idiot which, in this universe, isn’t really untrue.
Oh, and that’s just this universe. You heard me right—Rick and Morty plays on the multiple world theory too. No science, including real science, is safe from Justin Roiland, the creator of the show. Philip K. Dick’s, writer of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, quote sums up Rick and Morty’s multiple-world theory very nicely: “If you think this Universe is bad, you should see some of the others.”
Rick also knows that there are tons of sci-fi tropes in the show and constantly comments on it as well. A pinpoint example of this is the quote: “Quantum carburetor? Jesus, Morty, you can’t just add a sci-fi word to a car word and hope it means something.” Funny, but definitely something you’d see in a new-age sci-fi novel.
So, why is this a good thing? Wouldn’t this make sci-fi just seem like a big joke?
It’s good because it’s easy to understand and everyone, including people who aren’t self-proclaimed sci-fi nerds, can enjoy it. The nods and visual references to various books, including Stephen King’s Needful Things, H.P. Lovecraft’s various eldritch horror stories, and even Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers has seasoned geeks grinning, but it makes those unaware of these stories get interested. Entire episode plots and titles, story elements, and characters are taken from these classics, but with a twist added to them. It makes people intrigued and makes the not-so-nerdy realize they might like sci-fi a bit more than they’re letting on.
Furthermore, in sci-fi, authors must write a world with a complex set of rules and a society alien to our own. It’s hard to understand and a bit overwhelming, especially for someone just stepping into the genre. Rick and Morty has rules, but they’re not complex and usually contradict each other, and their society is just like ours, except a bit dumber.
Morty, our other main character, is a representation of us. We have no clue how the world works. We just want to talk to pretty girls and graduate from high school, but Rick is everything sci-fi crammed into one blue-haired (or possibly gray-haired?) grandpa. He understands the rules, and he says “screw them” in the most literal sense. He grabs our hand and, instead of telling us to run, expects us to already be doing so.
Nothing makes sense, but that’s because it’s not meant to make sense. It’s meant to make us laugh. Everything scientific is brought down to the most mundane and sitcom-y level, and it makes those who usually don’t read the genre get interested. Rick dates a hive-mind. Rick goes to his best friend’s wedding; the best friend is also a bird person. Morty has to raise an alien baby and deal with the moody teenage years. Hijinks ensue. It’s funny, but it still holds onto that sci-fi element to make things interesting.
Rick and Morty isn’t making fun of the sci-fi genre to be spiteful. It does it to educate us, both as veteran nerds and doe-eyed beginners.
There’s a lot of information that sci-fi books can’t explain, even in the vast universes they create in their literature. As a result, science gets flubbed and the details are forgotten about in order to make for an interesting, somewhat understandable story. After all, how does one explain how dinosaurs come back without using a bit of fake science? How do we write about devices that will be made hundreds of years from now if we’re stuck in the 21st century without fibbing and being creative?
The truth is: you really can’t. Science fiction authors are magical, of course, but they’re not time-travelers (yet). Rick and Morty understands this dilemma, but rather than just using it to create a serious sci-fi genre piece meant only for those who also understand, it looks to the audience—all of its audience—and says, “Listen, we hate it too, but we’re going to make it funny. Trust us.”
You’re in for a world of laughs if you do. Well, one of many worlds.