It’s not hard to see that the future is getting bleaker. Science fiction and speculative fiction, as responses to present circumstances, are increasingly darkening to match the world as is. Consider the difference between, say, Star Trek – which had the prime directive, the innate and vital goal of exploration and intergalactic diplomacy – and Interstellar, the driving conceit of which is that Earth has run out of food. Across subgenre boundaries, and even languages, we’re bombarded with images straight out of that quintessential British apocalypse novel Day of the Triffids. But Triffids becomes 28 Days Later, and the folksy Englishness is lost in favour of gore, an overarching sense of dread, nihilism, and Americans with guns. Even Neuromancer had a happy ending compared to The Matrix. The imaginations of writers and filmmakers alike are stifling, settled on a future that looks, feels, and smells like Detroit with more gadgets.
This is nicely paralleled in two recent news stories: the Abbott government has set up a new emissions target; and lettuce has been grown in space. Amazing. In the same breath, an almost hilariously conservative effort at ‘tackling’ climate change, and a futuristic vision of off-planet agriculture. (Apparently, the produce tastes like rocket.) It seems, at first glance, like a simple metaphor. When we let our imagination take leaps and bounds, it drags the world into step kicking and screaming. But that imagination is slowly dying. Back to Star Trek for a moment – the recent JJ Abrams remakes, especially the first one, are emblematic of the problem. While the original Kirk and Picard flirted with violence, often a phaser set to stun or a badly choreographed wrestling match, the Abrams’ films revel in it. Star Trek (2009) opens with a Star Wars-style space battle, and continues in the same high octane vein throughout. With Abrams helming the new Force Awakens reboot of Lucas’ saga, it can only be expected that come Boxing Day, Australian audiences will be barraged with more of the same – in IMAX for the die-hards.
The most interesting sci-fi film in recent memory is probably the Keanu Reeves remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Not for the acting, of course, or even the mostly lacklustre visuals, but for the message. It’s one of very few, very bold, speculative titles to go against the grain of contemporary thought.
The original centered on the atom bomb; the 2008 remake is about climate change. Reeves’ Klaatu comes to earth as judge and executioner, punishing the planet for eating itself alive. Sure, it’s fantasy – there’s no intergalactic saviour coming to punish Australia’s federal government for desperately trying to approve mines on prime agricultural land in a bid for more coal. There’s potential here for a version of, say, Robert Heinlein’s novel Have Spacesuit Will Travel, with the climactic judgement of earth before the galactic council a response to mucking up Canada’s dunes, say. Or an adaptation of Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama where an American drone straight up bombs it. Possibly starring an ageing Bruce Willis?
Science fiction holds potential like no other genre for exploring social issues in engaging and innovative ways. Young adult fiction is exemplary in this respect. The complex worlds of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series introduce concepts of tyranny, despotism and the power of the media to a young audience, deliberately, by marrying social concerns to great storytelling. One book in particular does this perfectly: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Although mildly dated now, the vision of two conflicting societies – one ruled by hierarchy and capitalist enterprise, the other an egalitarian anarchist utopia – is the backdrop for an exploration of a vast array of social questions. Compare this vision to Game of Thrones, which seems to want to prove beyond reasonable doubt that humans are essentially damned.
Science fiction can pave a way forward in the imagination of its audience. While we’ve come a long way from killing aliens with the flu, or marvelling over the potential this new internet thing has to offer, there are plenty of pressing questions which can be answered, hopefully, by the imaginative mind. A future for the human race is possible only insofar as such a future can be created. The function, then, of speculative and science fiction, is to examine present-day circumstances and project them; either as warning, as in 28 Days Later, or as an extrapolation of the way modern technology might someday solve problems that currently seem insoluble. A future as bright as Asimov dreamed might now seem impossible in the wake of the disaster of globalised capitalism. But that’s why it’s fiction: to inspire, and perhaps, to hope.