Science Fiction: Asking The Questions Of The Day
There are few genres in all of entertainment that are more sculpted by the times they are written in than science fiction. From its earliest beginnings, sci-fi has been about asking questions. What will humans eventually evolve into? At what point will humanity’s drive to invent give birth to a new lifeform? Which accent is most menacing in a time-travelling murder-bot? Which questions sci-fi asks are determined by what is most pressing to those who write it.
This book has become such a classic that it has literally created the term for over-intrusive spying and control of the media. Orwellian, named for the author of this seminal dystopian novel, is how we describe regimes that seek to control their citizens through intense surveillance and manipulation of media and history. Before the smoke from World War II had even cleared, we were confronted with the fact that, shockingly, the German people had largely been the victims of an incredible propaganda campaign designed to transform their fear into a weapon to be used against the rest of Europe.
In 1984, George Orwell gives us the perfect picture of a dystopia. The Party, personified by the potentially fictional Big Brother, watches every citizen through cameras in their homes and on every street corner, using its perpetual war with other superpowers as a reason to snuff out any sign of disobedience, and rewrites its own history and newspapers to ensure it always lands on the winning side of every argument. After two global conflicts in thirty years as well as the increasingly invasive nature of many governments’ approach to spying and surveillance, Orwell asked the question of what the final result of this approach would be. How far does a political party have to go in order to cement its permanent victory?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
This might sound crazy, but we are not currently at a low-point in US-Russian relations. In the fallout of World War II, the top priority for both America and Britain was to stop the spread of communism, resulting in what has been called The Red Scare. The idea that your very neighbours and friends could someday become the very thing they feared was a real concern in the 1950s, when Senator McCarthy was waving around lists of names he claimed were secret communists and an appearance on that list (real or not) could derail just about any career.
So in this 1956 sci-fi movie classic, when Dr. Hill discovers the residents of his town are being replaced by emotionless replicants from beyond the stars, he was expressing the fear that had swept through America after it found itself confronted with an ideology that seemed so foreign and overwhelming that the people began seeing spooks and ghosts around every corner. Interestingly, by calling for the FBI to quarantine the town he was living in, Dr. Hill was mimicking the US policy of containment when it came to fighting communism. This policy would eventually lead the nation into Vietnam, which I’m no expert in but I’m sure turned out swell. The film plays on the fears of the time beautifully, urging viewers to distrust their friends and neighbours as they could be either an alien and/or Russian.
Believe it or not, there was once a time when we were terrified of the rise of the mega-corporations. In the 1980s, when America had come out of the worst recession in recent memory, we started seeing exactly how much sway these organisations could wield. Wall Street was increasingly seen as an evil or, at the very least, incredibly greedy group of individualists. While we today have long since accepted the existence of corporations in our day to day lives, at the time, people were only just learning just how much influence these organisations and the media they largely controlled truly had.
Robocop came out the same year that Gordon Gekko gave us the immortal line “Greed is good” and asked what would happen when money started getting involved in public services. A cyborg, created by Omni Consumer Products out of the body a slain police officer and cutting edge technology, is sent out onto the streets of Detroit to take on crime while struggling to regain some small part of its humanity. At a time when manufacturing jobs were being replaced by robots and we had the beginnings of the 24-hour news cycle as well as the “War on Drugs” putting more and more pressure on the American police system, Robocop served as a voice for those afraid of a rapidly changing world. Beyond all the Jesus metaphors (entire essays can be written just about them), Robocop tells the world just how far the quest for profits will drive corporations. It asks how much human it takes to be a human.
So that’s where science fiction has been and it gives us a little bit of insight into what may be coming next. It’s no secret that, no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, these are uncertain times. What sort of science fiction will come from the seeds of uncertainty planted in 2016? Will the alt-right movement see a return of novels such as Handmaid’s Tale, which was part dystopian fiction and part commentary over the apparent backward progress of the feminist movement in the 1980s? Will a distrust of the media give new rise to George Orwell’s fears of a manipulative, invasive state? Will a post-climate change theme arise in science fiction as uncertainty about our place in the planet’s future increases with each passing year?
If I were to gamble, I’d bet that the fear and distrust being sown by today’s politicians is likely to give us more dystopian, dark literature over the next few years, but I’m open to being wrong on this one. We could certainly use a bit of positivity right now.