Taking a quick look around at some recent harder-hitting science fiction debuts in movies and television, you’ll probably notice some bleak themes involving the future of humanity. There’s currently a rise in novels and entertainment peddling dystopian futures. Things like climate change coupled with the rise of artificial intelligence, losing control of not only our privacy and our bodies, but also our minds. The towering green plant cities of the future are often disparaged with the dark and climate affected Earth, overpopulated and thick with crimes of the future. Often these futures are both idyllic and dystopian, as a reflection of our own modern binary entanglements. As historian Paul Boyer said, “for all its exotic trappings, science fiction is best understood as a commentary on contemporary issues.” But how exactly is science fiction defined and what is it telling us about our current society?

Altered Carbon
Altered Carbon

First and foremost, science fiction is about scientific possibility that explores the unknown. It consists of a story that, in the words of sci-fi literature critic Eric Rabkin, “both warns against and applauds the advance of science and technology [while] it consistently considers the problems and possibilities posed by meeting the new, the unexpected, the alien. Science fiction draws its considerable entertainment value from deep mythic or social wells…. science fiction is a phenomenon that arises wherever modern science and technology make people aware of new problems or cause them to view old problems in new ways.”

It’s no surprise then, the most fertile ground to plant the seeds of dystopian futures is in current science fiction, whose blend of actual truths and observations about our world comes together with imaginative and futuristic forecasts. The genre of sci-fi has a special way of being able to mirror our current anxieties back at us through the filter of entertainment, and unlike some other film genres, it also has the ability to shape the perceptions of our actual future. And with the new medium of streaming television, these programs have the ability to reach greater audiences than ever before. But why is there so much dystopian themed sci-fi and what could this be telling us about our fears towards tomorrow?

The Science Fiction of Yore

Sci-fi hasn’t always been about the kinds of things we see appearing now. The science fiction of yesterday dealt with quite different public anxieties in the generations after the World Wars, as humanity was recovering from the fears and effects of nuclear fallout and annihilation. By taking a look at science fiction films from the past and the subjects they contain, it always reveals more than just movies with high entertainment value.

Through imaginative narratives and special effects, hundreds (by one estimate, five hundred film features and shorts were produced between 1948 and 1962) of science fiction films presented indirect expressions of anxiety about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust or a Communist invasion of America. These fears were expressed in various guises, such as aliens using mind control, monstrous mutants unleashed by radioactive fallout, radiation’s terrible effects on human life, and scientists obsessed with dangerous experiments. Four major themes can be seen in the science fiction films of the fifties: (1) Extraterrestrial travel, (2) Alien invasion and infiltration, (3) Mutants, metamorphosis, and resurrection of extinct species, and (4) Near annihilation or the end of the Earth. Each of these themes related, at least indirectly, to the world events of the 1950’s and reflected the fear and anxiety of the atomic age and the Cold War. The themes were Hollywood’s version of a nation coming to grips with its postwar knowledge that humanity could destroy itself as well as the paranoia that had resulted from the red scare, in which Communists appeared to be infiltrating and subverting normal American life and values. Victorious in World War II, Americans now feared failure in the face of atomic and nuclear energy in the hands of the enemy. Science fiction films tended to merge the fear of a Communist takeover with the fear of annihilation, particularly in the form of invasion from outside forces.

In many of the Sci-Fi films of the past, the threat was usually overcome as a form of reassurance to its audiences, but has that sentiment changed in today’s versions? Some have even said that dystopia is in currently in fashion.

Here is a short list of recent programs and films depicting “not-so-distant dystopias”, many of which are based on books and previous adaptations:

Annihilation
Altered Carbon
Blade Runner 2049
Black Mirror
Otherlife
The Handmaid’s Tale
3%

Passengers
The 100
Z for Zachariah
Westworld
The Lobster
Okya
Arrival

Ready Player One
The Hunger Games
Children of Men
Ex-Machina
Lost in Space

This by no means is a comprehensive list, but many readers will find themselves familiar with some of the titles as they are on our collective radar.

So what kind of broader themes and plot lines keep reappearing in the Sci-Fi of now?

  • The idea that artificial or alien intelligence is more advanced, uncontrollable and dangerous than that of humans, rendering our slow-moving brains and mortal bodies obsolete in an increasingly mechanical, virtual or complex world.
  • Wealth and greed overshadowing existential meaning and free-thinking in a monetized, immaterial, corporate, or app/subscription based world. Freedom is only available to those who have the capital or knowledge to participate outside of the oppressive system.
  • Robot revenge
  • Personal freedoms being taken away due to a greater cause. Privacy or the right to ownership over our bodies and minds is exchanged in return for some other lesser value, with political and societal oppression of the weak.
  • The quest for meaning and authenticity in a world that doesn’t know, care or separate the difference between real and false, whether that’s by brain/biological alteration (like implanted or altered memories or experiences) societal desires, virtuality, simulation, or fake news and information.
  • Digital immortality and uploading
  • Planetary ruin due to various causes, like world wars, resource scarcity, or technologically driven dystopia accompanied by climate change usually including, or due to reasons above.

Did any of that sound familiar?

Where does that leave us?

It’s these kind of “newer” dystopian motifs that are emerging into the mainstream, reflecting our trepidations and thoughts about the promise of a better tomorrow. Because somewhere, in the back of our minds, we know that technological promise can be eclipsed by its many consequences. In order to build new technologies, we need precious resources and cheap labor, both which come at a price to people and the planet. The ticket to effectively participating in a connected world lies in communication technology, but in order to do so in today’s online landscape we must use different tools than we did in the past. Most of the personal devices we operate (and stream these programs from) are produced at someone else’s expense. On an intimate level we know that our data never gets deleted and the internet never forgets. We give away our information and privacy to have access to the things we want, even if those things are not material. And we are so engaged with technology in nearly every aspect of our lives that it is not difficult to imagine a future where humanity eventually takes a backseat, due to our physical and mental limitations. In turn, we make avatars and alter-egos of ourselves as a powerful form of escape from the physical world. In an information economy, we are not yet prepared for a world in which robots and algorithms can do our jobs better than we can. But, that day is quickly arriving. There is frequent news about dramatic developments in AI, computer science and security.

So what price are we willing to pay to stay connected in a growing world? And how can our communication improve as the world becomes more complex? The universe of science fiction is there to imagine it for us, in the hopes that we defeat the many problems before they arrive. The key, is that we are paying attention.

Westworld
Westworld