This has been a tough year. Pop culture let us down in many ways, even as our political system and our social institutions revealed a deeper seam of ugliness. But speculative fiction still offers us hope: not just optimism about human ingenuity, but actual reasons to look forward and keep our heads up.
Here are 11 ways that science fiction and fantasy made us believe in the future again in 2015:
1) Space adventure is back
This is probably the biggest reason why science fiction made us excited about the future again—because the human race doesn’t have much of a future unless we go to space. Not too long ago, we were bemoaning the lack of space adventure on our screens, and even the boom in space-opera books had seemed to be dying down. But this year’s biggest movies included not just Star Wars but also The Martian—and Syfy brought back TV space opera in a pretty big way, with Killjoys and The Expanse. And many of our favorite books were about space this year. (More on that in a sec.)
2) Apocalypse fever seems to have broken
Last year’s most buzzed-about books included Station Eleven, California and The Girl With All the Gifts, and the apocalypse was everywhere we looked in pop culture. We were starting to wonder if the world would ever stop ending. But it’s starting to look as though apocalypse-mania is dying down. Does this reflect a sense that we might actually roll up our sleeves and get to work fixing the enormous problems we face in the 21st century, instead of just throwing up our hands? Or just a change of fashions? Hard to say. But pop culture is often a leading indicator, so let’s hope.
3) Superhero TV is really really good
I can still remember when superhero TV consisted of Smallville, The Cape and No Ordinary Family. (Even though I still love The Cape. “No cake for you!!!”) This year, superheroes owned our TV screens, especially if you include Daredevil, Powers and Jessica Jones. Not only that, but a surprising number of these comic-book shows were actually fun. Which we sort of thought was against the law nowadays. This matters, not just because we love superheroes and this was not our favorite year for superhero movies, but also because we desperately crave stories about heroism in which doing the right thing is shown to be a good thing. And I often think that’s the main thing superhero stories have to offer: lessons in heroism.
4) Terrible sequels, reboots and franchise pics mostly fell flat
This year’s biggest box-office flops included some stuff that really did deserve oblivion, including a lot of “reinventions” of classic stories like Peter Pan and Frankenstein that missed the point. But also: Taken 3, Ted 2, Paul Blart Mall Cop 2, Magic Mike XXL, Sinister 2, Insidious Chapter 3, and a ton of others all underperformed compared to their previous installments. Not to mention Heroes Reborn. Not saying that you can never bring back or continue a classic series—but not everything needs to go on forever, or be rebooted endlessly. And audiences seemed to recognize that.
5) Female heroes are no longer even a big deal
There have been approximately 10,000 think pieces unleashed this year about the fact that women are getting to be lead characters in big franchise productions. And that there are more stereotype-busting female characters out there. Katniss, Rey, Furiosa, Susan Cooper, Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, —hell, even Cinderella—this year proved conclusively that there’s nothing edgy or scary about a female action hero, or hero of any sort. Not to mention Rebecca Ferguson stole the new Mission Impossible film, and for all its many flaws Terminator Genisys took great pleasure in flipping the Sarah/Kyle relationship on its head.
6) We’re getting more realistic stories about interplanetary colonization
Not only were a lot of the year’s most interesting books about space, or about geophysics—but there were a lot of smart, well-thought-out looks at what it would mean to try and colonize another world. A lot of people remarked on the fact that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora (about a generation ship full of colonists) seemed to be in probably unintentional dialogue with Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (about an orbital colony after a global catastrophe.) But also, Emma Newman’s Planetfall has a great look at the gritty realities of a new colony on another planet, and how 3-D printing would change that. And as io9 founder Annalee Newitz writes in today’s New York Times, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is a great look at surviving geophysical disasters on another planet. Not only did some great books turn a realistic lens to space colonization, they also helped us realize the importance of protecting the only planet we currently have.
7) The “clever twist” is agency
In general, some of my favorite “third acts” this year featured a twist that came, not from some improbable reveal, but from complicated characters making an unexpected decision. (e.g., the whole finale of Mad Max: Fury Road.) Case in point: Doctor Who scribe Steven Moffat, who used to be the king of the “clever trick up my sleeve” storytellers, managed to startle us with Clara’s choices more than with any rabbit hidden in a hat. And then he did it again with River Song.
8) Some truly ambitious books have been filmed
And in the wake of Game of Thrones, conventional wisdom now increasingly dictates that huge, challenging books belong on television. Which is why we got mostly worthy adaptations of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Man in the High Castle, Wayward Pines, The Magicians, The Expanse and Childhood’s End this year. With Red Mars and several others on the horizon.
9) You can no longer ignore the problem of diversity in SF books
Even as movies and TV struggle with diversity—especially racial diversity, which they’ve barely begun to grapple with—we spent a lot of this year arguing about diversity in science fiction and fantasy books. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign achieved a huge new level of prominence, and a reactionary campaign against “affirmative action” in the Hugo Awards was mostly recognized for what it was. This struggle is just beginning, and we all have a lot of work to do. But at least, it felt like 2015 was the year that all reasonable people accepted that this is an issue we have to deal with. Because if our visions of the future are not inclusive, then the result will be dystopia.
10) Fan culture rules supreme
This was the year that they made a hit movie out of Twilight fanfiction. (No, it wasn’t a good movie, but it still happened.) This was the year that Star Wars fandom drove public discourse and nerdy debates over lightsaber crossguards were aired on national TV. Our huge, insane public debate about spoilers was in part a discussion of the right, and wrong, ways for fans to obsess over narratives in public. Social media helped drive fandom to new levels of influence and prevalence in 2015.
11) Our killer robots were more interesting
One of the big preoccupations of science fiction, in the smartphone era, has been our relationship with technology and just how it could go horribly wrong. This year, one of the biggest movies was about a killer A.I., and for all its flaws, Age of Ultron did create a deadly robot character that we’d never quite seen before. And Ex Machina took all the “sexy robot” tropes that we’ve been forcefed for years and turned them upside down, creating something jarring and fascinating in the process. Not to mention that this was the year of the hilarious hacker drama, from Scorpion to C.S.I.: Cyber to BlackHat, and the proliferation of adorable white-hat hackers was weirdly reassuring after so many evil hackers in pop culture. Plus we got Mr. Robot, which made it all worthwhile.