People tend to have a fascination with tradition… nostalgia… the things from their childhood. They reminisce about old movies or books, they collect old toys, they maintain that this from the past is better than that in the present… all of that. Makes sense, really: These are among our first memories, and we tend to cherish them.
I’ve made note of this in numerous posts in the past: The continued popular attachment to Star Trek, created in the 1960s; the rejection of more modern superhero archetypes in favor of those created in the 1960s or earlier; the popularity of movies like Star Wars and its essentially Flash Gordon sensibilities, etc. The trope also makes itself known by the many reboots that we seem to suffer at the hands of Hollywood and television every season. Nostalgia sells television and movies; and as long as it does, we can expect Hollywood and the TV networks to keep giving it to us.
But this effect seems to make less sense in science fiction, in which nostalgia seems to be at odds with a genre that tends to be about the present-day or, more often, the future. SF literature provides a lot more 21st century worldview than movies and TV. So why do we see it so often?
And what do we need to do to change that?
I have nothing against nostalgia; but as we spend so much time looking at yesterday, we’re neglecting to see today’s picture, impacted by the things we’ve discovered more recently. Scientists and laymen had an idea of how the universe worked in the 20th century, and our SF of the 20th century was built around that; but we’ve learned so much more since then, and we’re barely applying those lessons to our 21st century SF.
Star Trek is a great example of a series and worldview that seemed to make great sense in the mid-1960s, when it was created by Gene Roddenberry, a World War II veteran who grew up in a world of allies and axis powers, a Cold War, numerous new worlds (islands) and aliens (natives) to discover and guide towards the American Way, and the suggestion that enough positive thoughts could hold off the worst of the bad guys and accomplish anything. Quite a bit of Roddenberry’s TV shows and ideas were takeoffs on the Buck Rogers theme of the early 20th century: A man catapulted into the future, where he must join with the people of the day to save his new world.
Compare that to Firefly, and its more 21st century worldview: That we won’t spread throughout the galaxy, but we’ll find a nice, comfortable star system to occupy when we wear out this planet; that we’ve found no aliens, but that’s okay, because there are a lot of races among us, and a lot of us are still like aliens to each other; that there are haves and have-nots, with blue collar workers of every persuasion in the middle; that we’re smart enough to terraform planets and fly between them, but we still have a lot to learn about human behavior.
Among the TV shows with a 21st century worldview and approach to SF, there are shows like Firefly, Person of Interest, Orphan Black, Humans, Black Mirror and a few others… compared to those 20th century shows like the many Star Trek iterations, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, Stargate and Doctor Who. (I’m still trying to quantify The Expanse… because, despite its excellent treatment of science and the realities of space travel, it still features hordes of people laboring on asteroids, planets at war with each other, and a stray alien life form with nigh-magical powers over physics taking over a planet. A great show, to be sure, but still with many 20th century sensibilities.) There are precious few recent SF movies that have a 21st century worldview… Ex Machina comes to mind, and maybe Arrival (which still comes down to untrusting soldiers blowing the most historic moment in human history all to hell); most of the rest are 20th century sci-fi feel-good flicks.
One thing you notice about the 20th century shows is that they are very free about moving about the galaxy at will, as people thought all we had to do to travel galaxy-wide was to throw big- and powerful-enough engines at the problem, so we could visit the multitudes of Earth-type planets out there, hang with all the friendly aliens and sling energy weapons at the unfriendly ones until they say Uncle. Today we know that it takes more power than we’ll ever be able to muster to travel faster than light throughout the galaxy, the number of actually Earth-type planets are probably a lot less numerous than we hoped, and the likelihood of finding aliens we can hang with, or shoot at, is infinitesimally small.
So, okay, maybe knowledge has taken some of the old-fashioned fun out of science fiction… but not all of it, not by a long shot. Cowboy BeBop is a great anime series with a 21st century worldview, about a group of bounty hunters that work within the Solar System (because that’s as far as we’ve gotten) and eke out a living however they can. Firefly largely echoed that 21st century worldview with freight haulers (and part-time thieves and bounty hunters). And though we can’t travel the galaxy freely, we are living in an era where we can travel the planet freely and communicate with other races naturally or with computer help. Technologies like AI, cloning and robotics exist alongside hacking, digital spying, drones, nanotechnology and cyborg body parts.
Anyone who can’t find a way to make a fun story out of those elements, just isn’t trying. And the good news is, those 21st century themes and elements also make for good intelligent SF, not just lighthearted sci-fi.
And it’s well past time we put those elements to work. We’re seventeen years into the 21st century; we should be crafting the modern SF that will make us look forward, as opposed to holding our imaginations back in the 20th century.
I emphasize this, as we are about to be gifted with another Star Trek series based on a 20th century worldview (and were recently presented with The Orville, a parody of that same worldview), and it seems there’s no end to the Flash Gordon-y Star Wars movies; while, in the past year, two of the greatest series with a 21st century worldview (Orphan Black and Person of Interest) have ended their acclaimed runs, and we have precious few 21st-century-oriented SF shows to look forward to.
And we need to be looking forward. We need to stop daydreaming about humongous space battles and evil aliens, and find ways to deal with our humongous environmental problems and evil corporations. We need to stop viewing people from other nations as if they were people from other planets, and we need to stop thinking that every problem can be solved with a big enough arsenal. We desperately need to be looking towards our future and seeking ways to fix it; not depending on aliens with magic drug and smog vacuums to fix things for us. Science fiction needs to do its proper job, giving us a glimpse into our future by showing us our present, and the things we can try to mitigate our problems in the future. The longer we dwell on the nostalgic SF of our 20th century… the more we’ll miss out on the world of the 21st century.