Why optimistic science fiction is dead

Illustration for article titled Why optimistic science fiction is dead

Greetings from the post-apocalypse, folks! I apologize if my responses are short this week, but I'm writing them on the run. A bunch of mohawked Australian assholes on motorcycles have suddenly shown up, and they want to play Road Warrior while I'm on a goddamned horse. I want to know how the hell they got here. Did Australia move in the unknown apocalypse? Is there a land bridge now? If so, can I get my hands on a koala? They look adorable.

Hope Against Nope


I was watching Blade Runner with a friend who had never seen it (I have seen it nine or ten times now) who thoroughly enjoyed it. I made a comment after the movie was done that this movie was very influential because "this was the first movie to really speculate that the future flat out sucks" and he responded "you mean like all sci-fi movies today?". I was at first taken aback, but after some thought, I realized that yes, about 8 sci-fi movies out of 10 nowadays are pessimistic in their speculation of the future. In the past two years we had, what, 3-4 movies that take place after the earth is destroyed? along with Elysium, Looper, the Hunger Games series, Dredd, even the latest Star Trek is missing the optimism of the old tv shows and movies. Pretty much the only way one can get somewhat-happy science fiction is with comic book movies or (shudder) the Bayformers movies, but those are more concerned about telling a good yarn than any serious sci-fi speculation. Is having an optimistic view of the future considered naive nowadays? Why can't someone make a science fiction movie with the optimistic wonder of Gene Roddenberry anymore?


There are two reasons, as far as I can tell, and the first is that it's much, much easier to write about problematic futures, because it's a natural source of conflict. Stories need conflict, and having optimistic futures where humanity got their shit together narrows the possibilities of what your protagonist has to struggle against. For the original Star Trek series, that means most of their conflicts had to come against outside sources like aliens; but if your scifi doesn't include aliens, then what's going to be your hero's problem he needs to overcome? Besides, everyone loves a story of a guy or gal fighting against a corrupt, unjust, or just plain evil social order. It's an easy story, and one audiences instantly understand. Only authors generally have the freedom to experiment with these less-than-awful futures, but even then, not many do — Iain Banks' culture series is one, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series is another — but they're still few and far between.

This, by the way, is probably reason #2 why I dislike the new Trek movies so much (#1 being the Khan debacle, of course). The original Trek series — and the movies — and to an extent the series following it — were optimistic, that showed us a better future, that gave us hope that humanity might not fuck it all up. And then the new Trek movies completely ditch all that for the same old shit we've seen in everything else — violence, disaster porn, and war. I'm not such a Trek fan that this is such a betrayal of Gene Roddenberry's vision that it keeps me up at night, but I do miss what made Star Trek so unique and charming.

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Strange Days

Not A Mindless One:

Dear Mr. Postman,

Despite the popularity of the Harry Potter movies, I worry that the live action adaptation of Dr. Strange might be Marvel's first theatrical turkey.

The Doc doesn't have a currently ongoing comic book. Given the type of non-flashy costumes currently being used in superhero movies, Dr. Strange's flashy red cloak may look absurd. Is computer animation advanced enough to render such visually weird realms as the Dark Dimension? Also, how do you get the average movie-going audience interested in a guy who can be an emotionally distant dick at times?

Can you, from your post-apocalypse perspective, offer reasons to not panic?

I can. First of all, if Marvel can nail the weird, magic/science/vaguely Norse/Kirby-esque realm of Marvel's version of Asgard — which they did — I see no reason to doubt why they couldn't do the same with the Dark Dimension and the other crazy places Dr. Strange hangs out in. Yes, they're hard to visualize, but I'd say translating the very, very specific Marvel Asgard into something comprehensible and cool for mass audiences is the tougher task.


As for getting the audience interested in an emotionally distant dick, you do remember the Iron Man movies, right? People were just fine with the over-privileged, obnoxious dick that was Tony Stark, thanks to Robert Downey Jr.'s performance, I imagine whoever they get to play Strange will be pretty goddamned charming — although I also doubt that movie Dr/ Strange will be as emotionally distant as his comic counterpart can be.

I see no reason to panic about the Dr. Strange movie. Especially when everyone should probably be panicking about Guardians of the Galaxy instead… but that's a question for another day.


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Almost Inhuman

Andy H-D:

I'm glad I'm not a writer for Almost Human. Every week, they're adding new abilities to the android characters and showing us more amazing things that the police and the criminals can do with 2048 technology. It's going to become impossible to create a problem that can't easily be solved. If you write Superman comic books, fans are willing to overlook some changes in a superhuman character's abilities over a 75-year history. We won't allow that for a television show that will last a tenth of that if it's lucky, and will have only a handful of showrunners. If you show Dorian effortlessly flipping a car in episode 5, you better not show him struggling to lift a motorcycle in episode 41. Will they resort to "the system is down" or "I'm malfunctioning" to keep the show interesting?


They're absolutely going to use the "system/police robots/Dorian is down!" on multiple occasions, and 2) I sincerely doubt anyone at the show is worried about continuity, of Dorian or the show's tech. As long as they keep forgetting what they've used, they'll always be able to have problems that can only be solved in the episode's last five minutes.

Again, I find this less a problem than the fact that the primary "hero" of the show is an amoral sociopath who murders unarmed people and who is willing to endanger countless civilians in order to destroy expensive police robots he is mildly irritated with.


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Devil in the Details

Ken P.:

Hey Postman!

Like many kids from the 80's there were certain toys and games I wasn't allowed to play with because Satan. I think I would have really enjoyed D&D but never got the chance. Now that I'm old enough to dabble in the forbidden art, anyone with which I would have partaken an epic quest with, has grown up and like gotten jobs and lives and stuff. Anyway, I'll bring it up next time in therapy. But doesn't it seem like the Satan finders have given up on children's toys and entertainment lately? I vaguely remember a time when Pokemon and Harry Potter were considered Satanic, but then I watch Wreck It Ralph where Ralf thanks Satan, or Adventure Time where Peppermint Butler holds a seance inviting a demon to posses Cinnamon Bun, I could go on. What happened? Have these people just lightened up? Have they given up on the lost cause and turned this generation over to the dark lord? Or are they too busy finding Satan in toys like Lego to see that Saturday morning cartoons have basically just become animated Megadeth videos? Why is nobody cashing in on this obvious source of fear mongering? You think maybe they're laying low for the Doctor Strange premiere?


First of all, I SAID NOT TO PANIC ABOUT THE DR. STRANGE MOVIE, GODDAMMIT. Second, while I'd love to talk about the rise of common sense, or the decline of religion over the past few decades, or how semi-reasonable people stopped giving attention to these lunatics, so while they are just as furious that Satan is head of programming at Cartoon Network and Lego's Ninjago cartoon is a really esoteric attempt claim their child's soul, we just don't hear about them as much. And maybe it's a combination of all of the above.

But I'd also like to think that at least a few of those people who claimed Dungeons & Dragons, He-Man, comic books, videogames, and everything was turning kids into Satanists, at some point noticed that no one was actually turning into Satanists. The kids who watched He-Man as kids grew up, and utterly failed to worship the Prince of Lies, or sacrifice goats, or anything else we were supposed to be doing having unwittingly given our allegiance to the Lord of Darkness. And then those people who were so worried sat down and shut the hell up.


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Super(power) Bowl

Joseph L.:

Dear Postman/Rob,

I believe you've said before that while you like the DC superheroes, you grew up on Marvel, hence they've always been your favorite. Forgive me if I have that wrong. FWIW, the DC superheroes have always been my favorites (although I love Marvel), so feel free to rag on me. ;)

Regardless, I trust you to look at this with an objective eye. If the classic Justice League team (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, etc.) were to throwdown with the classic Avengers team (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Incredible Hulk, etc.), who do you think would win? Personally, I think it'd be surprisingly close.


An actual, honest-to-Satan throwdown without any kind of editorial mandate from the comics publishers that the two sides be portrayed as equal? Although you are correct that I grew up Marvel, I have to give it to the Justice League. Let's compare real quick:

Justice League

Superman: Super super strength, flight, heat vision, cold breath, etc.

Wonder Woman: Super-strength, flight, magic lasso, ability to deflect bullets,

Batman: No powers but can still accomplish pretty much anything thanks to his wealth and intellect.


Green Lantern. Super strength, flight, ability to manifest pretty much anything.

The Flash: Runs at the speed of light, which allows him to accomplish pretty much anything.


Aquaman: Even out of the water, super-strong.

Cyborg: Can do anything computer or electronic related.


Hulk: Strong as Superman but with no other powers.

Iron Man: Suit that can fly and has various conventional weapons.

Thor: Super-strength, flight, magic hammer, ability to summon lightning.

Captain America: Batman with a shield, but no money.

Hawkeye: Insanely good shooter of arrows.

Black Widow. Excellent martial artist with guns.

Spider-Man: Super strength, webshooters, spider-sense.

Wolverine: Excellent fighter with claws and regeneration.

Even adding in comic book Avengers Spider-Man and Wolverine to the team, the Avengers are seriously underpowered here, and even if Superman matches up with Hulk (although Superman's ability to fly more or less negates Hulk's strength), Wonder Woman takes on Thor, and Captain America squares off against Batman, the rest of the Avengers cannot seriously take on the Flash and Green Lantern.


I don't mean this as any kind of insult. Most of DC's characters were created in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, where the style was to make superheroes as super as possible. The stories weren't about characters as much as they were about the adventures they went on. Marvel changed all that when they debuted in the '60s, focusing on characters, and giving them more specific powers, along with flaws and weaknesses in order to keep things interesting. It's what made Marvel so popular. Of course, the fact that DC's comic pantheon is more or less full of gods is what makes DC unique, because they often focus on the super part of superhuman, and that can be plenty exciting all on its own.

Neither style is better than the other, but power-wise, I'd say the DC folks have it.


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Doctor Appointment

Peter R.:

Dear Mr. Future/Alternate Timeline(?) Postman,

I have two questions, both about Doctor Who:

First, do you think all future actors playing the Doctor will follow an unofficial term limit of 6 seasons so as to have Tom Baker always been the longest Doctor (at 7)? I understand that most actors these days don't want to play the Doctor that long anyways, but if they did, I wonder if they would be pressured by the fans to retire after 6 seasons much as United States Presidents were unofficially term limited before the 22nd Amendment and most respectable actors have stated they want to do less Bond movies than Connery? (And yes, I did just compare Roger Moore to FDR and I stand by it!)

Second, do you have high hopes for the new season? Ol'Moff's is so busy doing other things these days maybe he will be a bit more hands-off this season? Also, a grumpier more sardonic Doctor might be a good change of pace. The writing crew seems solid right? Or am I just artificially buoying setting myself up to be upset by more whiz-bang, action set piece, wave the screwdriver and gloat bouts of disappointment?

Thanks so much and safe travels across the wastes.

Seeing as how much the fans have bitched and complained about pretty much every aspect of Doctor Who so far — myself among them — and how absolutely nothing has changed so far, I can pretty much guarantee that the fans will have no impact on when new Doctors come or go. As far as I know, all the modern Doctors have left because they wanted to explore other work, which I expect will continue to be the case. Maybe there'll be a person or two who feels super-strongly about Tom Baker remaining the most prolific Doctor, but if so, he'll leave on his own recognizance, not because the fans said anything.


Also, it's worth noting that Baker may have only been the Doctor for seven years, but he was in 172 episodes. At the current rate of seven episodes a year, Capaldi could play the role for 24 years and Baker would still be more prolific.

Which is why I'm not super-optimistic about the new Who season. Moffat has plenty of other things on his plate, but he only makes seven Who episodes a year — he has more than enough time to be in charge. Obviously, Capaldi will bring some fresh blood to the show, and that's always good, but my problem with Doctor Who was never Matt Smith, it was the stories being told with him. I understand Moffat is a Doctor Who fan, but it seems like he's writing the show for fans, and pretty much for fans only. Which is ironic, because I think fans like me are getting less interested. Sure, it's nice to have Easter eggs and winks to the fans, but not at the expense of good stories. I don't need 18 episodes exploring River Song's origins, I don't need Trenzalore, I don't need the Time War explored in every single aspect, I just need some good, fun stories. Until Moffat gets that, I think Who is going to have the same problems.


Do you have questions about anything scifi, fantasy, superhero, or nerd-related? Email the postman@io9.com! No question too difficult, no question too dumb! Obviously!


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The future sucked plenty in '70s SF movies. You had futures with deforestation (Silent Running), mandatory euthanasia (Logan's Run), overpopulation (Soylent Green), rising crime and anarchy (Mad Max), and oligarchic corporations (Rollerball). You had humans transformed into mindless workers (THX-1138), hedonists (Sleeper), mutants (Omega Man), or far-future slaves (Planet of the Apes), or sport (Zardoz), or food (Soylent Green, again). And on top of that, you had the stuff that would carry over into the next few decades — robot uprisings (Westworld), unfriendly space creatures (Alien), and zombies (Dawn of the Dead). The bright, shiny future of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a total anomaly by comparison. And even the "upbeat" Star Wars could be considered dystopian, since the heroes were fighting a despotic Empire. The notion that movies about bright and optimistic futures used to be commonplace is a myth. By the mid-'80s, and for most of the '90s, the major studios had more or less stopped making movies set in the future or in space altogether. (The big exception was the Trek movies, but they were cheap to make and had a built-in audience, so easy money.)

I think the big problem with the Abrams movies is that they're not really Star Trek, just generic Hollywood action movies with a Star Trek desktop theme. This is a problem with just about any updating of a "classic" property — look at Lone Ranger. If you're spending $200M on an "event" movie, they're all going to be running the same software underneath.