(Note: This article was originally titled “Make Sci-fi Great Again”, which was wrong when I wrote it and is wrong now. I apologize. Nothing about xenophobia is worth imitating, and so I renamed the post. The post is otherwise unchanged.)
When I was growing up, Star Trek The Next Generation was in syndication, Voyager was still new, and when I got home from school I could catch the final twenty minutes of Stargate: SG-1. I watched a lot of sci-fi TV growing up, and there was a good variety of it to watch. There were hopeful what-may-be shows like TNG, modern-day romps like SG-1, and exposés on humanity’s undoing like The X-Files. I wasn’t old enough to watch The X-Files and other darker shows, and as a consequence, sci-fi always had a sort of optimism about it.
This tweet got me thinking about sci-fi and how far we’ve come since the turn of the millennium. When I look around now at sci-fi on TV and on the silver screen, things look a lot less optimistic.
The most recent Star Trek film was about an admiral trying to militarize Star Fleet, The Walking Dead is about the end of human civilization, and the most recent X-Men movie is about going back in time to fix how messed up the future has become. More mainstream films like The Hunger Games show us just how shitty humans might behave to each other, given the right circumstances
It feels, anecdotally, like the stories we tell are no longer hopeful about the future. At all. Even not-set-in-this-world stuff like Battlestar Galactica is about humanity barely surviving while being hunted by machines of our own invention.
Where is the optimism? Where is the kitsch? Where is the fun?
All our stories are about survival. Not exploration. There aren’t stories exploring what kinds of problems humanity might have to solve someday because they all assume we can’t solve our problems today.
That’s kind of sad, isn’t it?
I have a hypothesis. We are so inundated by distractions (YouTube, Twitter, 24-hour news, etc etc etc), that to attract audiences and make a buck, movies and TV shows need to really capture our attention. Tales of existential threat from aliens, from zombies, and from ourselves, are really really compelling.
Stories that threaten our lives are compelling, and are very effective at making money. Stories about exploring the galaxy, about making a better future, about bettering ourselves and our species are… just not as good at making money. I mean sure, you can make it work, but why take the risk?
I believe that the real issue is this: that media, including sci-fi, is both a creation of, and creator of, society. The stories we tell betray our hopes and fears, but right now, all we’re seeing are fears.
Let’s push back. Let’s demand optimism from our stories by being optimistic about our actual future. The world is better, safer than its ever been, but we’re always afraid. Yes, there’s work to be done to fix the world’s problems, but let’s not forget what we’re fighting for: a better tomorrow. Let’s be optimistic, and let’s live the kind of futuristic stories I watched as a kid. Let’s pretend, even for the length of a TV show or film, that tomorrow might be better than today.