I had it on reliable authority that I appeared as a panelist at Escape Velocity, the convention for the Museum of Science Fiction, in 2018. Well, actually… that I appeared as the panel, as no one else wanted to join me on stage to discuss the idea I’d pitched to MOSF, and that they’d agreed to let me present.
I’m being vague here, because… well, the other day I realized that I couldn’t even remember what I had spoken on. At which point, I started to doubt that I’d actually even been there… that it was just a bad dream, you know, show up for a presentation, no one shows up to work with me, and I’m all alone on stage? And as the recovering introvert I am, that’s high-grade nightmare fuel, right there. Was I naked, too? Lost my voice? Laughed off the stage?
Well, I assured myself that it had actually happened… and that the experience hadn’t been a total bomb, as people showed up, they engaged me in the talk, asked great questions, and I even got an approving nod from the guy who was sitting in and presenting after me.
So how could I have actually forgotten what I spoke about? Maybe I really had been at least slightly traumatized by the experience—not to mention the fact that my public presentation apparently moved the needle on my book sales not a micron afterward—and my mind had decided to selectively forget the whole thing and semi-convince me that I’d just imagined it all.
Fortunately, I’m also quite anal. So, after a quick check of my tablet, I found my old notes for the presentation, entitled, Science Fiction for the 21st Century. (Oh, yeah, the tiny voice says in the back of my mind…) In which I argued that science fiction, having its most prolific period in the 20th century, naturally covered topics of concern in the 20th century, like computers and robotics, the ecology, overpopulation, immersive entertainment, space colonization, other life, how we should treat them, and how we hope they’ll treat us.
But as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, we should be looking forward to SF that will concern itself with 21st century topics, which promise to be very different than the issues of the 20th; like, for instance, global warming/climate change, racial/cultural redistribution, mass extinctions, robot/human coexistence, computer-controlled society, CRISPR-based human & animal augmentation, medical experimentation/new animals, Living on other planets/terraforming, leaving Earth behind, changing social patterns (sex, age, family related) and Universal Basic Income.
I was going to try to make the case for my argument—again—but instead, I’m just going to post my original notes here, from which I based my presentation. I only had an hour, so I didn’t actually cover everything in these notes, but I got through a fair amount. Feel free to examine my points and comment or question anything here. Or just nod politely and leave the room when it’s over, as most of my audience did. Y’know, whatever.
Science Fiction for the 21st Century
Science fiction is a really fun genre… we all know that. And lately, we’ve had plenty of fun from Star Trek movies, Star Wars movies, superhero movies, giant robot movies, etc. etc.
But that’s not ALL that science fiction is about. I mean, nothing against fun SF… but I’d argue that it’s not even its best part.
In an article for The Conversation, Gavin Miller recently wrote: “Above all, science fiction uses make believe futures to show our own world in a cleverly distorted way. This allows us to see it afresh – as if our own culture were that of a foreign land – forcing us to ask uncomfortable questions about what we take as natural, right, inevitable.”
Miller gets that science fiction is a genre that can make us think about our future, the direction that our science, technology and civilization is taking us. We can look at it and say, “Well, if this is happening now, or will happen tomorrow, where is it gonna take us next?”
That’s one reason science fiction is also called Speculative Fiction. And it’s the most important part of science fiction, because it can directly impact real life. We can learn lessons from science fiction that can affect how we live our lives, write our laws and guide our development and use of technology.
In the 20th century, most of science fiction, in all media, were about these important concepts. We looked at things like computers and robotics, the ecology, overpopulation, immersive entertainment, space colonization, other life, how we should treat them, and how we hope they’ll treat us. And we used them to shape today’s world.
Today, what I’ll loosely call the 21st century, we’re seeing a shift in balance. Most of the important concepts in SF are being presented in books. Makes sense… books have a lot more room to develop those important concepts, really study them, to give readers a lot to think about.
Today’s TV and movies… not so much. TV shows tend to have to respond to ratings, and audiences clearly prefer lighter content. And movies… they’re only 2-3 hours long! That’s an awful small space to fit heady concepts into.
But it’s important that we see more modern concepts in TV and movies, and incidentally, online sources like YouTube and other web channels… especially because they have become the dominant way for modern audiences to get their science fiction (sorry, books), and we want modern audiences to be exposed to more than just the fun side of SF.
We have had some notable examples of SF in TV and movies that have been both fun and intelligent over the years, proving they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Probably the best example from the 20th century would be Star Trek.
Trek was a fun show, for sure… but it also dealt with issues like diversity and inclusion, racism, overpopulation, warfare, law, politics, cultural differences and Western expansionism. We saw the first multicultural bridge crew… we saw the first interracial kiss on network TV! We also saw technological marvels that were studied by real organizations like NASA. And many say we wouldn’t have the cellphones we use today if it weren’t for Star Trek’s communicators and tricorders.
Other shows stand out, like The Twilight Zone, which also had a lot to teach us about most of the issues Star Trek covered. The Prisoner, which showed us a society where individuals have become numbers, and are constantly watched and controlled by their leaders.
There have been lots of movies, two of which were featured here this weekend, 2001 and Planet of the Apes, and both of which touch mostly on our evolution and incidentally our use of technology. There’s Soylent Green, a cautionary tale of overpopulation and the ruination of our environment. Silent Running, about the last of our planet’s ecosystems being abandoned. ZPG, about an overpopulated world that restricts childbirth. And many more.
Aspects of these shows have become iconic in our society, part of every discussion about where we’re going as a society and a planet.
So, where are the modern TV and movies, set to keep us thinking? Well, there have been some.
Star Trek, of course, has continued on into the 21st century, and has given us more of the same important concepts, as well as more modern issues. For instance, Trek on TV has excelled in showing us the impact of modern warfare, terrorism, the issues faced by refugees, veterans and survivors of warfare.
In a similar vein was the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. It’s central premise was no less than genocide and species survival, with a side of terrorism and religious conflict. And we can’t forget the issue of whether robots had their own humanity.
Person of Interest: About a government system that was watching all of us, violating our privacy, predicting our actions and trying to control us.
And how many Clone Club members are here? Orphan Black wasn’t just about clones; it was about corporate entities doing their own medical experimentation on unknowing subjects for their own profit.
Is anyone looking forward to Humans? More importantly, can you believe we’re still looking at slavery in our modern science fiction? Yes, in the 21st century, racism and slavery are still a thing.
We know the world isn’t perfect. But sometimes it’s hard to see the issues clearly, or imagine solutions that we can pursue. The shows I just mentioned, and a few others, are helping to make those modern issues clear, and to present possible solutions that we can try to apply to our future. They will be the iconic shows that we’ll look back to as we try to shape our lives.
Okay, now I’d like to give you some examples of the things intelligent SF can help us examine. Let’s see how many I can go through…
- Industrial Revolution replacements for human workers
- grew to be icons for replacing humans at everything
- TODAY: AI is the thing, replacing populations of workers in mental labor
- mass data collection, surveillance, prediction, rule-making, autopiloting
- Person of Interest, IBM Watson
- Alien invasions parodying colonialism/feudalism/ totalitarianism
- almost exclusively underdog stories
- caters to our worst fears (Childhood’s End to V; Terminator)
- automated warfare
- TODAY: Terrorism, aid, refugees, cooperation
- drone-based warfare
- pollution: bad air, water
- dying animals, plants
- typical: Soylent Green, Silent Running
- TODAY: Global warming
- extinctions have wide repercussions
- evolving/mutating nature
- planetary collapse of nature
- Star Trek, Forbidden Planet: flying to other planets like ships plying the Pacific
- planets were basically Earthlike, ripe for manifest destiny
- strange aliens standing in for new people and strange cultures, generally seen as below us unless proven otherwise
- alternate dimensions, time travel
- TODAY: seeking planets to ultimately terraform and settle, but not much else
- settlers that follow the explorers (Firefly, The Expanse)
- significantly alien life (Andromeda Strain, Solaris, The Expanse)
- even Star Trek never cured the common cold
- humans and animals largely unchanged in the future
- Brave New World, Gattaca: “test tube” babies, mostly just healthier than standard humans; health-based class wars
- apparently no efforts to help animals’ health
- TODAY: CRISPR, DNA swapping, cloning
- genetic manipulation
- individually-targeted medicines
- newly discovering the power of proteins to alter bodies
- Orphan Black, Annihilation
- race and nationality; American Melting Pot
- social institutions (religion, politics losing favor and effectiveness)
- America’s global stature
- TODAY: Social media
- Racial homogenation
- online friends and communities vs “live” society
- change in communications through personal electronics
- America: Democracy to Oligarchy
- unrestrained corporatocracy
- Widening disparity between nations
- Post-oil energy
- animal rights (Switzerland bans boiling lobsters alive)
- changing ratios of young vs old
- changing living and family arrangements
- Black Mirror
- flying cars
- FTL drives
- factory automation
- TODAY: self-driving cars
- robots/AI as companions
- 3D printing
- digital currency
- quantum properties
- generation ships
- orbital stations
- living on Mars and beyond
- Alien invasion/Wars between tyrannical superpowers and helpless feifdoms/backwaters (War of the Worlds, Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Independence Day)
- Exploring the frontier (Star Trek, Forbidden Planet, Lost in Space)
- Pollution (Soylent Green, Silent Running)
- Rebellious computers/robots (Metropolis, Colossus, Terminator, Blade Runner, Galactica)
- Humanoid Aliens (The Invaders, Star Trek, Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy)
- Monsters (Them, Godzilla, Pacific Rim, Cloverfield)
21st century represent more modern issues that have developed over the latter 20th/early 21st century
- Unfamiliar aliens (2001, Solaris, The Expanse)
- Bad computer operators (Hackers, Enemy of the State, Person of Interest)
- Personal Security (The Prisoner, Enemy of the State)
- Medical experimentation (Orphan Black, Firefly, Seaquest DSV, World War Z)
- Truly sentient robots (Star Trek TNG, Galactica reboot, Blade Runner, Humans, Her)
- Life in the future (Deep Space Nine, Firefly, Cowboy BeBop, the 100, Seaquest DSV, The Expanse)
- Global Warming/climate change
- Alien communication (Contact, Arrival)
Ideas to inspire future thought:
- Global Warming/climate change
- Mass extinctions
- Robot/human coexistence
- Computer-controlled society
- CRISPR-based human & animal augmentation
- Medical experimentation/new animals
- Living in space
- Living on other planets/terraforming
- Leaving Earth behind
- Changing social patterns (sex, age, family related)
- Universal Basic Income