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The Five Marks of Clintonian Science Fiction

Illustration for article titled The Five Marks of Clintonian Science Fiction

When the movie Independence Day aired in theaters in summer 1996, audiences always cheered when aliens blew up the White House. Finally a journalist asked the White House Press Secretary about this strange audience response, and he replied that people were cheering because "they knew that the president had gotten to safety." The 1990s Clinton Era was a strangely science fictional time, an era when the President insisted that Camp David receive the SciFi Channel and White House press conferences dealt with Will Smith movies. With the possibility that another Clinton will be in the White House this year, it's time to go back through the mists of time to contemplate the five biggest themes in Clintonian scifi, or scifi created during the first Clinton's regime. We've laid it all out for you.


Virus Freakouts
The US was just coming out of the 1980s AIDS horrors, and a big theme of Clinton's first term was the need for universal health care. Science fiction of the era responded with countless tales of viral decimation and health care run amok. In 12 Monkeys, a Terry Gilliam film, a guy who has become unstuck in time is trying to stop a deadly virus from wiping out most of homo sapiens. In Greg Bear's novel Slant, everyone has gotten high-tech brain implants to prevent them from falling prey to crippling depression and other health problems — a virus destroys the implants and people go nuts. And in Gattaca, the health care system goes wild, producing a completely genetically-engineered human race where disease is bred into non-existence. Except our hero is a wild type, born without any genetic engineering. Can he fight the medico-industrial state?

Illustration for article titled The Five Marks of Clintonian Science Fiction

The Liberal Happy Place
Clinton's theme song was Fleetwood Mac's groovy "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," and his presidency ushered in an era of unprecedented economic growth during peacetime (well, if you forget about a little bombing in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia). Several popular works of science fiction celebrated the idea happy liberal tomorrows, such as Contact, based on Carl Sagan's novel about first contact between humans and nice, glowy aliens who just want to help us. Liberal icon Jody Foster stars as the atheist astronaut who meets the friendly alien. Star Wars I was also notably warm and fuzzy, focusing on the out-in-the-country boyhood of Annakin. And in bookstores Ursula LeGuin's Four Ways to Forgiveness focused on characters who have left war behind and are adapting to peacetime.

Illustration for article titled The Five Marks of Clintonian Science Fiction

Dude, It's the Interwebs!
The World Wide Web was still young (people still called it "the information superhighway"!), and the Clinton White House was the first to have a Web site. Plus, as libertarian cyber-journalist Declan McCullagh never stopped reminding us, Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet. Two of the greatest SF books of the era, Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, managed to present us with plausible and brilliant visions of a future where the internet is thousands of years old — and in the second book, humans are given brain tweaks to turn them into human extensions of the Web (essentially, for you nerds, they become the top layer on the OSI model). In cinema, however, movies about cyber-serial killers such as Virtuosity, and cyber-what-the-hells in Lawnmower Man, did not get it right. It wasn't until Clinton was nearly out of office that The Matrix came along and finally gave us the internet-influenced science fiction we deserved.

Conservative Paranoia
All that crazy liberal "atheists bond with aliens" crap got the neoconservatives completely freaked out, and a counter-trend of Contract with America-influenced science fiction came into being. Though Clinton loved the X-Files, it was actually the perfect right-wing paranoia show, all about how a soft-hearted girly man is trying to bring down the government by discovering its secrets, cavorting with Native Americans, and loving the alien. Books from the Left Behind series, about the Christian apocalypse, gave evangelical scifi fans their fix. As for Independence Day, I'm guessing the cheers weren't about being glad the real-life president was safe.

Illustration for article titled The Five Marks of Clintonian Science Fiction

Keeping the Aliens in Line
Clinton may have kept the U.S. (mostly) at peace, but the strongly conservative Congress was making other plans. Those plans eventually bore fruit during the Bush Administration, but you could still see them reflected in scifi fantasies of the Clintonian variety. Stargate was the ultimate "let's shut our borders to the Middle East" movie, with a portal that opens to a world ruled by space Egyptians who would love to destroy our precious Western way of life. Men in Black outlined a new border policy with alien life — keep them monitored and tagged, and if they get out of line bring in the big guns. And although Armageddon wasn't about aliens, its muscular men with their big nukes and giant drills fighting a nasty asteroid certainly presaged the Bush Era to come. Plus, in Armageddon, all the nasty liberal cities in the world like Paris are destroyed.

Illustration for article titled The Five Marks of Clintonian Science Fiction

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Annalee Newitz

@wishnevsky: I thought about including Mars Attacks! Sort of like a liberal satire of conservative paranoia. I think Starship Troopers was in a similar vein, directly making fun of stuff like Armageddon.