Tired of the creaky entertainment machine churning out copy-cat stories of zombies, superheroes, apocalypses and cyborgs? Then you need to conjure new dreads and fantasies in the real world, since that's where all our science fiction cliches come from.
We look at science fiction from the Cold War era with a certain bemusement, with all those allegories about Communist aliens, valiant colonizers and suburban/corporate conformity being challenged. But it's a safe bet that our onslaught of cookie-cutter movies, TV shows and books will look just as quaint, and reflect our out-of-date obsessions just as much, in a decade or two. And (we can hope) a whole new bunch of soon-to-be-dated genre standbys will be bursting out of our screens and pages, in masses and masses of sameness.
Every science fiction cliche reflects the obsessions of the time that created it. The stories that we feel the need to tell over and over are, in a sense, both wish fulfillment and metaphors for our technological progress, as well as the fears that progress have given rise to.
When mainstream science fiction comments more directly on politics and our social anxieties, it often feels jarring and/or preachy. There are exceptions — Battlestar Galactica talked overtly about the War On Terror, with its storylines about torture and suicide bombers, and its enemy who can look just like us. And it paid off, with acclaim and awards. But often, science fiction hits home when it's discussing our fears and excitement about progress and politics from one or two removes.
So how do our current crop of overused story ideas reflect today's preoccupations? Here are some stabs at identifying the roots of our fantasies. As always, feel free to disagree:
As we pointed out a while back, today's biggest superhero narratives are all war stories. For a while there, every big Marvel crossover had to have the word "war" in the title, and the prevalence of crossovers, in itself, is a preference for war stories over minor battles. Superhero stories used to be about crime, and even godlike characters like Superman were called "crime-fighters," making the world safe from urban malcontents.
But now? Look at movies like Iron Man (about a munitions maker who confronts the cost of war), Incredible Hulk (about a military experiment who doesn't want to work for the army), Watchmen (about the heroes who, among other things, won the Vietnam war) and Wolverine (about a super-mutant who fights in every war before joining a secret army squad.) As for The Dark Knight, it was so clearly about terrorism and the lengths to which you must go to suppress it, including that whole "civil liberties versus safety" conundrum, that it became a parable of our times.
So-called "realistic" movies that try to deal with the Iraq War and terrorism, like In The Valley Of Elah or Stop-Loss, tend to vanish without a trace. But spandex-and-superpowers films deal with the same issues, they make billions.
Zombies and vampires
Every time we see another show like Vampire Diaries or yet another first-person zombie romance novel hitting the stands, we have to wonder: what is going on here, and when will it end? And yet, we can't help but wonder if it's just a coincidence that the hordes of the undead are swarming in every story at the exact moment that human lifespans have gotten so much longer that everyone is obsessed with the demographic crisis of the elderly. Old people aren't dying as early, or as cheaply, as they used to — instead they're hanging around, eating up all our resources, in many cases even after dementia has taken away their reasoning powers.
The movie which encapsulates the zombies-as-older-relatives idea most clearly is probably Peter Jackson's Braindead, or Dead Alive, in which the hero's mother gets bitten by a "Sumatran rat-monkey" and turns into a zombie-like monster — who, at one point, hosts a dinner party with a group of respectable society people, even as her body literally falls apart.
And if zombies are about the downside of conquering death and living on and on, vampires are about the weight of history. They may be eternally young and glamorous, and full of glib sexuality, but they're also constantly going on about their past lives in the 19th century and all the huge historical events that they took part in. It's hard not to feel like vampires are the upside of life extension?
(In other words, zombies are your loved ones living to be 100. But vampires are you living to be 100 — hence the added glamour and wish-fulfillment.)
And yet also, vampires represent the weight of history, the baggage we thought we'd let go of, which insists on hanging around. Wasn't history supposed to have ended around 1990?
Cyborgs and robots
This summer, Terminator and Transformers clashed over the "giant robot movie" crown, and this Friday's G.I. Joe is bringing us (minor spoiler, sorry) evil nanomachines and cybernetic "accelerator suits."
It's not hard to see what these fantasies are about — Terminator Salvation director McG summed up the themes pretty concisely in his thousands of interviews about that film: we watch movies like his (or not, as the case may be) because we're uneasy about our creeping dependency on computers and gadgets generally. We fret about at what point we are so integrated with our iphones and our assistive technology, that we stop being human. (And Dollhouse is basically about the fact that we've subsumed our identities as people into Twitter and Facebook, so that our personalities exist as much in the computer world as in our heads.)
On the one hand, it's liberating and awesome to feel as though we have masses of knowledge and memes and ideas within easy reach of our brain tendrils. On the other hand — we're like cyber-inter-junkies! Cut us off from our devices, and our brains start to deflate like bad pastry. Writer Stephen Elliott spent a month without using the Internet, and had a week of bad withdrawal.
And it's hard to watch Transformers without thinking about our dependency on cars, how much like our best friends they are, how heartbreaking it is when they let us down.
In books, space opera has lately been prone to massive, aeon-spanning sagas that take into account the vast distances between star systems and the large amounts of time required to traverse them. (Not to mention the time dilation and cognitive dissonance that happens when you travel at relativistic speeds.) But mass-media space opera tends to assume quick-and-dirty faster-than-light travel, and zipping from Alpha Centauri to Betelgeuse is as easy as a road trip from Albuquerque to Vegas.
As a result, mass-media space-opera becomes a veiled comment on globalization, and the feeling that our world is shrinking.
In the 1990s, we had the endless parade of Star Treks and their ilk, in which every planet you visit looks much the same as the last — with minor variations. And each new alien is only slightly differentiated from the previous dozen. It's not that different from going to Bulgaria and realizing that there's a Starbucks and a McDonalds and Budweiser on draft everywhere you go. The excitement of seeing that things are the same wherever you go ("exploration") is tempered by the guilt that you're ruining all these places just by visiting them ("the Prime Directive.")
Now, we're seeing a newer, even guiltier, run of movies about space and aliens — ones in which humans are clearly the bad guys, and aliens are the victims. The biggest example of this is James Cameron's Avatar, in which the naughty, naughty human race comes to despoil the pristine planet Pandora, so we can build strip malls on it. There's also District 9, coming next week, in which alien refugees come to Earth, and we force them into ghettoes. (And as I mentioned yesterday, a number of the stories in the awesome new anthology Federations also feature humans paving paradise and putting up a parking lot.)
If 1990s space opera was the happy-but-queasy view of globalization, then the new breed is just pure misanthropic "we're crushing the third world" bleakness.
This one is the most transparent of them all — we're terrified it's all going to fall apart, thanks to swine flu and global climate toiletness and so on. And yet there's something liberating about casting off the shackles of history — no more metaphorical vampires! — and we love to fantasize that we'll be among the few who survive after everyone else is sleeping with the mutant fishes.
So what's next?
Want the flood of superheroes, apocalypses and zombies to stop? Then you should root for us to get a whole new brand of progress, and a whole new batch of anxieties to go with them. (It's true, of course, that Hollywood will keep greenlighting the same movie over and over again, no matter what, but only as long as the latest iteration of that movie is making money.)
So here are a few ideas about the next up-and-coming obsessions, and how they could translate into science fictional genres:
- Biotech. We're just scratching the surface of what we can do with gene-splicing, stem cells, cloning and smart drugs. How will these treatments change who we are? What kind of new life forms could we create?
But my hopes are pinned on a new genre of Charlie Kaufman-esque stories about people whose personalities or bodies are being altered by their new medications or new body parts. You can start out with unsettling little differences, and slowly build up to outright strangeness and horror, where people have hands coming out of their foreheads, by the end.
I was chatting the other day with a friend who was writing about new Alzheimer's Disease treatments, and he mentioned that Maureen McHugh's collection Mothers & Other Monsters is chock full of stories about Alzheimer's — including ones where a cure turns you into a totally different person, with a whole new personality.
- Statelessness. The collapse of the modern nation-state may be one of the big stories in the next decade or two. On the one hand, you have multinational corporations getting more and more powerful, and global challenges like climate change will require stronger international responses. On the other hand, if our current econom-ick goes on for a decade, governments may become more impoverished, overstretched and weakened. Result: More countries will start to look like Afghanistan or Somalia, with governments that barely govern.
What kind of science fiction could we get? Pirates! Please, let there be pirates! Preferably space pirates as well as futuristic ocean pirates in the style of Waterworld. And possibly there will be more stories about international hero squads, like G.I. Joe, where the war on evil has a new front line — and it's multilateral. (Maybe "This time, it's multilateral" could become the new action-movie catch phrase?)
And maybe we'll see a new brand of space opera in which the dangerous, no-beings-land of deep space is populated by creatures with shifting allegiances and itchy trigger tentacles.
- Peak oil and the smart house I was going to do these two things separately, but they kept coming together in my mind. Oil forecasters are increasingly pessimistic about our oil supplies, and how much longer we'll be able to use up fuel on Traveling Pants-style roadtrips of self discovery. And meanwhile, everyone keeps saying that by around 2020, our houses will be brilliant. All our appliances will be talking to each other, and they'll all be plugged into our social network, so our friends can tell our refrigerators to make funny-shaped ice chunks. In other words: We'll never leave the house again, and our houses will do everything for us.
What kind of science fiction does this give us? Well, there's the obvious trapped-at-home story, like E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops or the upcoming movie Surrogates. But if you think of science fiction stories as talking about our advances and fears a bit more metaphorically, then maybe we'll get something a bit further afield: like, say, stories about claustrophobia or evil buildings trying to kill us. Or even better, a slew of "Earth is quarantined" stories, where aliens try to keep us from leaving our planet and infecting the rest of the cosmos with our naughtiness.