Where Are Our Bright Science-Fiction Futures?

These days, science fiction often seems to mean future dystopias. Have we forgotten how to imagine happier futures for ourselves?

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Columbia Pictures

Whatever happened to science fiction that was, you know, fun?

I asked myself that question while watching trailers for this summer’s crop of sci-fi blockbusters. On the one hand, there’s the charmingly titled Oblivion, in which Tom Cruise returns to an earth ruined by ecological disaster and discover new ways in which man’s inhumanity toward man has impacted the development of society. On the other hand, there’s After Earth (pictured), in which Will Smith and his son return to an earth ruined by ecological disaster and fight for their very survival while confronting their inability to relate as a family.

Both films are filled with the eye-popping special effects that make for box-office smashes these days, and the presence of such big names as Cruise and Smith won’t hurt things, either. And yet there’s something particularly hopeless about the tone of both films; unless either (or both) has a climactic deus ex machina, it’s likely they’ll end with the earth essentially destroyed, no matter how happy the ending is otherwise. “Congratulations!” the message would appear to be, “The day has been saved, but we still killed out planet — call it a semiwin?”

There was a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and what is these days referred to as a “can-do” attitude. There appeared to be no problem that couldn’t be dealt with either by the one-two punch of positive thinking and, well, punching— or by intellect and inspiration: new inventions were dreamed up that automated everyday tasks and made the impossible not only possible but also commonplace.

The zenith of such optimistic science fiction was perhaps the original Star Trek, which presented a vision of humanity that had transcended societal ills like racism and bigotry, resorting to violence only when the situation called for it. (Which, admittedly, seemed to happen on a weekly basis.) Such strong belief in the ability of humanity to overcome its worst impulses continued all the way through the 1980s revival, Star Trek: The Next Generation, with an almost off-puttingly perfect crew demonstrating how boring life could be without outside stimulus.

Of course, Star Trek returned to life with 2009’s J.J. Abrams reboot, and there’s a new installment this year. Surely Star Trek Into Darkness offers an antidote to dystopian science fiction?

Or maybe not.

The redirecting of Trek into a commentary about the nature of terrorism and revenge is an interesting choice, and one that seems at odds with traditional Star Trek values. That’s perhaps intentional; producers have spoken about making this movie for those who don’t like Star Trek, and it’s clearly been judged that this is the best way to reach new audiences. After all, while the idea of a humanity that’s evolved past its basest tendencies may seem far-fetched, the idea of wanting vengeance after a terrorist attack is, in this world, all too easy to understand.

That’s the edge that downbeat science fiction has over the more hopeful alternative. It’s easier to imagine a world where things go wrong, rather than right, and to believe in a future where we manage to screw it all up.

Such pessimism and fascination with future dystopias really took hold of mainstream sci-fi in the 1970s and ’80s, as pop culture found itself struggling with general disillusionment as a whole. Certainly, at the time, there was much to be disillusioned about; the optimism and hope of the late ’60s fell apart as the hippie dream of a new Age of Aquarius came face to face with a reality filled with an unpopular war, civil rights riots and all-new reasons to feel suspicious of and disappointed in those in authority, so it’s hardly any surprise that the future became a darker, less inviting place.

The problem is, science fiction seems to have become stuck in a rut of hopelessness. It’s difficult to remember the last mainstream science-fiction project that didn’t include at heavy dollop of cynicism and surrender at its core, and that strikes me as a failure of the genre as a whole. Science fiction is all about imagining the new and unimaginable, surely. If we can’t imagine a world that isn’t a mess because of what we’ve done, shouldn’t we try harder?

29 comments
AidanVonWalsh
AidanVonWalsh

Pacific Rim: humanity responds to an external threat through international cooperation and technological development, and wins. Yes, there may be a dash of cynicism in the portrayal of governments seeking to take down the Jaeger program in favor of a visible but ineffective solution, but ultimately the message is affirming of humanity in a very Trek-like manner.

victort
victort

Both films are filled with the eye-popping special effects I had seen it.

mshavzin
mshavzin

Yeah, that would be a fascinating story. Look how the totally happy future  people in their propeller packs solved the problem of what kind of fun they wanted to have that afternoon! 

You need drama for a good story, dimwit. 

But I sort of agree; We are going pretty quickly toward unspeakable overpopulation. Don't see it turning out that well for everyone.

sweetdigs
sweetdigs

Hard to have a bright sci-fi future in America when NASA is severely underfunded and we spend all of our money on entitlement programs to take care of people who contribute nothing to the country.


You think the Star Trek world involves a bunch of people living off the government dole while sitting around contributing nothing?  Yeah, me neither.

TrojanTopher
TrojanTopher

In his recent post “Where Are Our Bright Science-Fiction Futures?” Graeme McMillan reflects on the dire portraits of the future portended by summer science fiction blockbusters. Here McMillian gestures toward—but does not ultimately articulate—a very specific cultural history that is infused with a sense of nostalgia for the American past.

“There was a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and what is these days referred to as a “can-do” attitude.”

McMillan goes on to write that “such pessimism and fascination with future dystopias really took hold of mainstream sci-fi in the 1970s and ’80s, as pop culture found itself struggling with general disillusionment as a whole.” And McMillan is not wrong here but he is also not grasping the entirety of the situation

To be sure, the fallout the followed the idealistic futures set forth by 60s counterculture—again we must be careful to limit the scope of our discussion to America here even as we recognize that this reading only captures the broadest strokes of the genre—may have had something to do with the rise in “pessimism” but I would also contend that the time period that McMillan refers to was also one that had civil unrest pushed to the forefront of its consciousness. More than a response to hippie culture was a country that was struggling to redefine itself in the midst of an ongoing series of projects that aimed to secure rights for previously disenfranchised groups. McMillan’s nod toward disillusionment is important to bear in mind (as is a growing sense of cynicism in America), but the way in which that affective stance impacts science fiction is much more complex than McMillan suggests.

McMillan needs to, for example, consider the resurgence of fairy tales and folklore in American visual entertainment that has taken on an increasingly “dark” tone; from Batman to Snow White we see a rejection of the unfettered good. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror are all cousins and we see the explorations of our alternate futures playing out across all three genres.

In light of this it only makes sense that the utopic post-need vision of Star Trek would find no footing; American culture was actively railing against hegemonic visions of the present and so those who were in the business of speculating about possible futures began to consider the implications of this process, particularly with respect to race and gender.

Near the end of his piece McMillan opines:

That’s the edge that downbeat science fiction has over the more hopeful alternative. It’s easier to imagine a world where things go wrong, rather than right, and to believe in a future where we manage to screw it all up.

Here, McMillian demonstrates a fundamental failure to interrogate what science/speculative fiction does for us in the first place before proceeding to consider how its function is related to its tone. I would stridently argue that this binary about hopeful/pessimistic thinking is misguided for a number of reasons.

First, it is evident that McMillan is conflating the utopic/dystopic dimension with hopeful/pessimistic. While we might generally make a case that the concept of utopia feels more hopeful on the surface this is not necessarily the case; instead, I would argue that utopia feels morecomforting, which is not necessarily the same thing as hopeful. To illustrate the point, we need only consider the recent trend in YA dystopic fiction which, on its surface, contains an explicit element of critique but is often somewhat hopeful about the ability of its protagonists to overcome adversity. Earlier in his piece McMillan refers to this type of scenario as a “semiwin” but I would argue that it is, for many authors and readers, a complete win, albeit one that focuses generally on humans and individualism.

The other point that McMillan likely understands but did not address is that writing about situations in which everything “goes right” is not actually all that interesting. In his invocation of the science fiction of the early 20th century McMillan fails to recognize the way in which that particular strain of science fiction was the result of a very specific inheritor of the notion of scientific progress (and the future) that dates back to the Enlightenment but was largely spurred on by the 1893 World’s Fair. Additionally, although it is somewhat of a cliché, we must consider the way in which the aftermath of the atomic bomb (and the resulting fear of the Cold War) shattered our understanding that technology and science would lead to a bright new world.

Moreover, the fiction that McMillan cites was rather exclusive to white middle class amateur males (often youth) and the “hope” represented in those fictions was largely possible because of a shared vision of the future in this community. Returning to a discussion of the 70s and 80s we see that such an idyllic scenario is really no longer possible as we understand that utopias are inherently flawed for they can only ever represent a singular idea of perfection. Put another way, one person’s utopia is another person’s subjugation.

I would also argue that it is, in fact, easier to imagine a future where everything is right because all one has to do to engage in this project is to “fix” the things that are issues in the current day and age. This is easy.  The difficult task is to not only craft a compelling alternate future but to consider how we get there and this is where the “pessimistic” fiction’s inherent critique is often helpful. Fiction that is, on its surface, labeled as “pessimistic” (which is really a simplified reading when you get down to it) actually has the harder task of locating the root cause of an issue and trying to understand how the issue is perpetuated or propagated. Although it might seem paradoxical, “pessimistic” is actually hopeful because it argues that things can change and therefore there is a way out.

Alternatively, we might consider how the language of the apocalypse is linked to that of nature. On one axis we have the adoption of the apocalyptic in reference to climate change and, on a related dimension, we are beginning to see changes in the post-apocalyptic worlds that suggest the resurgence of nature as opposed to the decimation of it. McMillan laments that we should “try harder” if we can’t imagine a world that we have not ruined but I would counter this to suggest that many Americans are intimately aware, on some level, that humans have irrevocably damaged the world and so our visions of the future continue to carry this burden.

Science Fiction as a genre is much more robust than McMillan gives it credit for and, ultimately, I would suggest that he try harder to really understand how the genre is continually articulating multiple visions of the future that are complex and potentially contradictory. The simplification of these stories that takes place for a movie might strip them down into palatable themes and McMillan needs to speak to the ways in which his evidence is born out of an industry whose values most likely have an effect on the types of fictions that make it onto the screen.

albertotrevin
albertotrevin

Editor, there are plenty of good science fiction books out there, quit picking the "hot sellers" from Amazon or Barnes and Noble... I can name 2 right off the bat, any of the Halo Forerunner saga books or Military Industrial Apocalypse (M.I.A), to name a few.

DuckBeach
DuckBeach

I think that if there's any kind of "bright future" to be had, it's going to be the folks in China, India, Africa and South America who lead us to it.    North America - specifically the U.S. -- doesn't seem to be in the "bright future" business anymore.

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

Bright Futures are a thing of the past.

Only Politicians and the Media keep trying to put forward "Happy Days are Here Again".

They aren't, "The Road" is the future (what there is left of it) and all the hype in the World isn't going to make the people believe otherwise.

The Politicians, The Media and The Corporations have already spent all the capital they had on deluding the people, nobody believes them any more.

I doubt they believe themselves.

Happy Easter!

ThomasE.Reed
ThomasE.Reed

Science fiction, especially mass-media SF, follows the predominant mood of the public. Do you know anyone who has optimism about anything? (Aside from the people heavily into cocaine, that is.) All popular culture reflects the values of the people - sometimes in funhouse mirror form, but sometimes unvarnished.

Do you think the <i>Twilight</i> films show any optimism about humanity? The heroine is a wimp who set feminism back fifty years. In the end she becomes a vamp herself, because humans are weak and powerless. (And this book series was done by a Mormon, remember.) The optimistic science fiction books "on the shelves," to which P.H. Campbell referred in his post, are only in used paperback book stores. The new science fiction books are either right-wing military fantasies (let's refight Vietnam and win this time, against evil aliens instead of evil Asians!) or dystopias that make <i>Blade Runner</i> look like a Mel Brooks farce.

You want bright futures, optimism, smiling people? Go watch Bollywood films. Those people have our jobs, our tech, and our future. Americans have nothing left.


FrankFC
FrankFC

We are entering an era that is bringing changes bigger than anything humans have experienced in all their existence so far - bigger even than the Industrial Revolution. These days because so much is happening and confusion is common place, like animals we watch for danger signs. Hence all our current dystopian sci fi. But humans are a hardy little bunch of apes. We have been walking upright for around six million years. We don't go down easily. And we won't in the future either. 

We will clean the air, have lots more better food to eat and diseases will mostly go. Trouble is, that will provide a clearer field to do the one thing we cannot control and which will be our biggest future challenge. Population growth. Dear old planet Earth will become a crowded nut house in 100-200 years, but that's when the hardy little ape will find a way out - again. Population growth will force him to find a way to set up shop on millions of other suitable planets, much like the Americans did when they went west over the Rocky's, and the English when they set up shop on a far away great southern land and called it Australia. The lessons are all their before us in our history.



BillGrayson
BillGrayson

The problem is, there seems to be many more paths toward ecological disaster than towards a bright happy future.  What seems more believable in the next century?  Global climate intesification, ocean acidification, superbugs and pandemics, effects of endocrine disrupters, or billions of people demanding solar power and a decrease in the use of toxic chemicals.

umbrarchist
umbrarchist

Maybe the problem is not science fiction.  The media is more interested in filling up air time than resolving things so they create a mind set of vague confusion. Can't think to ask simple questions like the distributions of steel and concrete in buildings supposedly destroyed by skyscrapers.  Can't figure out planned obsolescence in cars 43 years after the Moon landing.  How can science be optimistic when confusion must be maintained?

csmithshaw
csmithshaw

During WW2 D Day was planned using card index systems Telephone conversations typists carbon paper and so on 

when we looked to the future today 2013 /They thought we would be living in cities under the sea /using personal 

helicopters to travel to work/a city on the moon /mining asteroids /have domestic robots looking like Humans /

What has happened is that the above did not come about but what they missed looking forward was the development of the PC 

before 1000/s of Clerks in Banks wrote up ledgers to keep track of accounts now millions of transactions happen every second 

although a lot of IT systems do not do what they are designed to do because of the inability to manage the design of large systems 

P.H.Campbell
P.H.Campbell

As a writer of science fiction myself, and an avid reader of the same, I can see that a lot of people here seem to have missed the point the article was making.  Yes, there is a lot of good, optimistic science fiction out there.  But it's on the bookshelves.  The article was talking about the media - movies and television.  Those where most people get their science fiction.

There's a LOT of good, optimistic Sci-fi out there.  But the thing about science fiction is that it tends to run in cycles.  Man-in-the-moon (space) stories, time travel, and man's inhumanity toward man (in whatever form) have been the staples of science fiction for generations.  All good fiction relates to the human experience, but it's often expressed differently for different generations.  In the 30's, it was rockets and robots.  In the 40's it was mostly robots and warfare of some kind. In the 50's it was flying saucers and robots.  In the 60's it was still flying saucers, but they added nacelles and something called "warp drive" and the robots mostly took the decade off.  In the 70's it was hairy Wookies and, of course,  robots.  The 80's became more future-centric and was very optimistic, even if some of the stories weren't.  The robots became androids which made the costuming easier on the actor.

Each decade reflected the prevailing social attitudes.  The 30's were kind of wild, with a sense of foreboding, and very much escapist.  Considering the Depression, that's not hard to understand.  The 40's had warfare and good versus evil.  The 50's were very law and order.  The 60's were very progressive and open.  The 70's had a better sense of maturity in their progression and the 80's was just plain fun.  It kind of went down-hill from there, though, and so have social attitudes.

The books, comics, graphic novels and other printed media have always maintained a certain sense of optimism in general, though.  It's what we see in movies and on television that is more reflective of the social sense because, after all, most popular science fiction shows HAVE to reflect the social mood in order to be popular among a general viewing public.  Writers and artists can cater to a more select, and discerning, audience without pissing off the advertisers or studios.

So yes, there is a sense of doom and gloom in the silver-screen science fiction of today;  A hopelessness  in what may come.  But in print, there's more optimism.  Ultimately, mankind as we know it WILL be destroyed one way or another.  The less optimistic will huddle together waiting for the inevitable end and watch as their hope burns to ashes with the Earth.  The more optimistic look outward at the vast possibilities of the future, put the heat of the burning Earth to their backs, start walking toward that better place and never look back.

tracester
tracester

It's obvious science fiction follows the tone on time it's created in. We have widespread agreement amongst the scientific community that we are warming the planet past the tipping point. The moneyed corporations and the governments they support stand in the way of addressing the problem. The bad guys are winning. Science fiction is just doing what it has always done: predict the future.

Grei1477
Grei1477

Science fiction is designed to look at all the possible futures; not just the bright and shiny ones. If it has real sociological value, and I believe it does, Science Fiction can provide insight into the possible consequences of our current activities and trends. "Frankenstein" made us look at the dangers of playing God in science's name while both "The Matrix" and the "Terminator" movies forced us to examine possible issues created by a society fascinated by the idea of technology and in many ways willing to give that technology power due to it being convenient to do so. Bright and shiny stories have their place in giving us hope for betterment; dirty and edgy stories provide insight to what futures we may want to avoid. 

DavidRoden
DavidRoden

Iain M Bank's famous Culture novels are set in a star spanning socialist commonwealth in which work is viewed as a hopelessly primitive form of economic rationing and religion an eccentric curiosity. You can't get much more optimistic. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_series

auntihooha
auntihooha

Of course sci fi depicts dystopian future worlds- we are poisoning the planet that we rely on. Some 150-200 species go extinct every day (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/17/un-environment-programme-_n_684562.html). Dictators run the world, using 'elected' politicians to do their bidding. We know what we need to do to prevent the complete and total destruction of our life support system, only we are not doing it. I live in Seattle, which is supposedly a 'green' city, but every new building that springs up (everywhere you look) is not green in the least. I cannot see Mt Rainier for all the smudge hiding it half the time because of all the car exhaust. I am thankful that I'm over 50 and have no kids- I may get to live the rest of my life with air to breath and water to drink...I hope.

camilla.noble2
camilla.noble2

You are sadly right. The truth is that if we had more positive ideas for the future that would help us as a society to make it a reality because what you think is what you become. Who knows what positive vision might inspire people down the line. Its sad that the film makers only focus on what they think makes money.

TrueBurns
TrueBurns

I actually read an article on io9 a few months ago that cast these films in a different light: that, in the wake of our recent cultural obsession with the apocalypse, scifi like this is optimistic in that it shows man surviving (and even thriving) in the wake of mass destruction, thus showing that the End of the World need not be the end of the world. 

deptstoremook
deptstoremook

No.  The old style of science fiction, what William Gibson called "raygun gothic," is all about imagining a world with boundless American Empire, racial purity, and the miraculous absence of social problems.  I know Time magazine likes to imagine all is well and good, but dystopian science fiction is more realistic and more important than the pie in the sky dreams of 1950s-era sci-fi.

LeifHansen
LeifHansen

@TrojanTopher  Brilliant and detailed response, thank you for reminding me of the much more complex situation. 

mshavzin
mshavzin

@GaryRMcCray  Instead of blaming the media, corporations and politicians like they are some separate species, blame yourself. All people are equally to blame. At least the ones you are singling out are TRYING to do something. What are you doing? 

mshavzin
mshavzin

@BillGrayson If we discontinue toxic chemicals we won't be able to keep pests out of our homes, kid. Solar energy is not a solution. Not to mention that as the cloud layer lessens we will have to protect our selves from the sun or get cancer by the time we are twenty. Its going to be difficult to have solar energy if we need to avoid the sun ourselves. Wind energy is an ecological nightmare. I have seen what it does to the top soil. Either there will be less human population, or we will be destroyed. So yeah....dystopia here we come.

mshavzin
mshavzin

@umbrarchist Well you are definitely bringing about vague confusion. Your comment is both vague and confusing. First of all there isn't a big group of "the media". Its a name for lots of different groups, who all basically just want to give the public what they want. The media isn't making cars or skyscrapers. And why things erode isn't a very difficult question.

JoshSoffer
JoshSoffer

@deptstoremook The author mentioned the original Star Trek series as an example of sci-fi optimism. It had a multi-racial crew, dealt with issues of racism, authoritarianism and  ecological concerns, and still managed to find a message of hope in the world. I think the secret was that it was willing to dig a bit deeper into the human condition. If you only scratch the surface, all you see are the problems, If you conceptualize more penetratingly,  you may find, if not solutions, then at least a way of re-envisioning the problems as less intractible.