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backtothefuture

Words Lucy Jolin Illustrations John Martz

BACK TO THE FUTURE

In the 21st century, geeks rule. No wonder then, that science fiction, in all its many genres, is thriving.

Sci-fi. One small word, a vast and ever-changing world. It warps into other fields, like popular young adult fiction in the Hunger Games trilogy. It transmogrifies into sub-genres such as cli-fi – futuristic fiction about the consequences of climate change. It switches into hyperdrive to go mainstream – see the multi-billion-dollar Star Wars and Transformers franchises, just for starters – and it’s suddenly very respectable when it’s taken up by literary legends like Margaret Atwood. But why is sci-fi so enduringly popular?

Jon Turney, science writer and former head of the Department of Science and Technology Studies, says it’s simple. “Who wants to read another bourgeois novel about the adulteries of north London when you could be reading about a new technology with new possibilities in another part of the galaxy?” But perhaps, he adds, it is also something to do with that very adaptability. Sci-fi, says Turney, is probably more diverse than any other genre. “It partakes of all the other genres,” he points out. “It’s a commentary on the present, and often on trends within the present. It leaps from medium to medium – books, comics, films, computer games, they’re all different.”

You could certainly never accuse the genre of being dull. In the imagination of the sci-fi enthusiast there are robots that do our dirty work, vast space stations and alien races. There are galactic empires and giant civilisations built around worlds of gas, water or fire. There are utopias where our only concern is which gender we decide to be this millennium, and there are post-apocalyptic dystopias where our destiny is decided by our genetic code at birth. There are body scanners that pick up any injury or illness with a single swoop and there are computers that know better than we do. And there are new worlds here on earth – virtual reality, where we can be anyone or anything, and cyberspace, the uncharted regions inside the computers on our desks and in our smartphones.

Sci-fi as we know it today is generally agreed to have been born out of the Age of Reason, and there’s a convincing argument for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein being the first true sci-fi novel. But the idea of writing about the future goes even further back. Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, described an ideal, imaginary community where “they have but few laws, and such is their constitution that they need not many.” Opinion is divided as to whether More intended his Utopia to be a genuine outline of a better way to live, or a satire, but as Dr Matthew Beaumont, Senior Lecturer in English, points out, like much sci-fi, it does indeed explore More’s own society.

“We have to gain enough distance on the present in order to see it as we experience it – which is as a sort of jumble with no clear sense of direction, rather than part of some overarching story or grand narrative,” he says. “So sci-fi is a device which we use to understand and interrogate the present and, often, to satirise and socially critique it.

Towards the end of the 19th century, when Jules Verne and HG Wells began writing, the bourgeoisie became increasingly conscious that its own future was not secure. I think that cracked things open and meant that the future became a blank space, a space in which more discontinuous narratives might be inscribed.”

In other words, sci-fi isn’t really about the future: it’s about our own present – and perhaps that’s part of its appeal. Dr Carole Reeves, Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies, points to HG Wells’ short story The World Set Free, published in 1914, which explores the consequence of atom bombs being dropped from planes, as emblematic of the way in which the genre explores and anticipates present or near-future events. But while there was quite a strong literary genre of sci-fi before the 1950s, it wasn’t until then that the sci-fi film as a genre began. “Films such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and Bodysnatchers, for example, mark a turning point for sci-fi generally,” says Reeves. “Before the 1950s the idea of science was quite positive. But Hiroshima changed all that. People became more sceptical and cynical about what scientists were capable of, and it reminded the world of the power of science. So sci-fi became much more an interrogation of what science was being used for, and that’s when it exploded. A lot of sci-fi in the cinema became – and is – about what we are doing with the world.”

So although on the surface much sci-fi might seem all about the exotic and the strange, it’s unconsciously familiar to us – not just in the issues it deals with but also in its many worlds.

“Star Wars, for example, gave us desert planets, frozen planets, jungle planets – bits of the Earth put onto other planets, basically,” says geographer Dr James Kneale. “Though there are other places, like the depths of space, which are unimaginable to us. We can see views out of shuttle windows, but we can’t imagine what it’s like to be in a freezing cold vacuum that extends that far.

“What’s interesting about science fiction is that some of the places are really thought experiments. Could we survive there? What would it be like? And those, I think, are more interesting.”

There’s another kind of space, too, that we spend more time in than ever: cyberspace, the inner life of computers. It represents, says Kneale, a kind of retreat. “There has been a collapse of the idea that we’re all going to be exploring distant galaxies 100 years from now. There’s a pessimism about technology that wasn’t there before. We haven’t been back to the moon again, let alone gone any further except with robots. There is a lot of argument about what this means. On the whole, people tend to think that we are exploring ourselves – exploring our time, now. We don’t have anything else to base our imagination on.”

The geekery of futuristic technology, naturally, is appealing. But few of us watch Star Trek on repeat because we’re fascinated by the possibility of warp speed. Imagining the technological future can be a risky business, after all, because nothing dates faster than gadgetry. For every Arthur C. Clarke, pointing out in 1963 that in the future, all that will really matter is communication, there’s a Back to the Future 2 where we’re all on flying hoverboards but still using fax machines. (Though if the story’s great, it can be argued, it doesn’t really matter: who cares that Blade Runner’s future contains dashboard-mounted videophones but no mobiles?).

In fact, as Reeves points out, a lot of sci-fi is simply a damn good story, with the people always taking a back seat to the technology.

“And people like a good story,” she says. “Look at films like Independence Day – it’s about a community beating what they think they can’t fight. There’s always got to be that human element. The audience don’t have to come out of a cinema believing what they’ve seen.”

The shiny robots and imagined gadgets are fun, but it’s the human element, that ability to imagine ourselves in these imagined worlds which are yet so close to our own, that keeps us dreaming about the future. After all, says Turney, “there’s a thing which people in science studies talk about called the technological imaginary.

“One of the things being discussed in a semi-realistic way is geo-engineering; the idea of ‘terraforming’ (making a planet more ‘Earth-like’ and hospitable to Earth-like forms) is a staple of sci-fi, as we used to think that there aren’t that many hospitable planets around. Now it seems there might be if we can get to them, but that’s another story.”

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Portico Issue 1. 2014/15
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