Rage against the dying of our future

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Chike DelunaAuthor Chike Deluna has some good observations in his blog post, Has modern Sci Fi strayed too far from its roots? In it, he points out that science fiction in movies and television have undergone a major shift in recent years, from scientific discovery and social introspection to militaristic obsession.  And I have to agree with him.

Chike states that sci-fi is not optimistic about our future any more, citing a common theme in which stories are dominated by military themes, and are more about physical conflict than emotional struggle.  The recent movies, for instance, which buck this trend—such as Solaris, Moon, Gattaca, Robot and Frank and Cloud Atlas—are far outnumbered by movies featuring video-game-like over-the-top battles.

enterprise crash and burnChike also cites some recent productions, most notably (to my mind) the de-imaginings of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, which have drained every last bit of scientific curiosity and social commentary from a venerable franchise and replaced them with cartoon violence splashed with distracting lens flare, characters reduced to Dawson’s Creek rejects, and stories that would make Ed Wood blush.  The first Abrams Star Trek movie had its perfectly defining moments when the terrorist Nero yells, “Fire everything!” at the Enterprise… and not long afterward, when the defeated Nero refuses to surrender to Kirk, Kirk orders the Enterprise to fire everything right back.  The once-proud, self-aware and ground-breaking Star Trek has been reduced to petulant children playing space battles… the only thing missing is the pew-pew sounds when they fire their phasers.  (This is why I’ve said in a previous post, if Star Trek has been reduced to this, it’s time to officially retire the franchise.)

And Trek is only the point of the phalanx of movies and shows that assume that space is full of evil aliens, and we’ll be too busy fighting for every scrap of planetoid to do other things, like, I dunno… learn something.

edge of tomorrowBut can we only blame the movie and TV makers?  After all, the public is going to these movies and watching these shows.  Further, they’re buying up books about space conflicts (Star Wars isn’t the only franchise of its type out there), zombie apocalypses, vampire vs werewolf wars and post-apocalyptic nightmare existences.  We’re lapping up violent sci-fi content as fast as they can make it, even as we lambast them for the crazy effects, the Cruises and Foxes that are so pathetically overused and unconvincing, the stories that would read badly out of a comic book; and as long as it’s profitable for Hollywood and the networks, they have no incentive to change.  This trend has clear support from both sides of the street.

Does this mean the public has officially given up on the future?  On The Daily Show, host John Stewart suggests that we have nothing to look forward to but the violent destruction of our world and our way of life; that constant assault by gun nuts, terrorists, greedy politicians, secretive governments, hackers, soul-crushing corporations, environmental destruction and climate disaster have put us all in a permanent malaise, and we’re just waiting for the last plutonium-soled shoe to drop.  We’ve decided that the bread is all rotten, we’ll all starve anyway, so we might as well enjoy the circuses while we can.

Our uncertainty and listlessness about the future is clearly reflected in our sci-fi media, served up with circus-like enthusiasm and encouraging us to learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.  (And if you got that reference, Thank God for you.)

To be sure, we’ve had pessimistic periods before.  This may or may not be the worst of them… but it does demand that we consider the question: What will it take to bring optimism for the future back?

Maybe what we need is to show the world that these issues can be dealt with; that they won’t ruin our lives, but merely change them; and that those changes will be of varying levels of significance, but we can handle them all, and move on.  We need to demonstrate that the world isn’t like a first-person shooter; that the answer to everything isn’t a gun or a price tag; that there’s still great value in talk and cooperation.

Bernal SphereSarcology features a world heavy in automation, with ubiquitous drones in the sky, self-driving cars and the emergence of humanoid robots among us.  Chasing the Light features a world after Peak Oil, where citizens must find new ways to power their worlds.  The Verdant series feature humans living in satellites above Earth, a daring plan to lighten the load on Earth and develop a better way of life.  As The Mirror Cracks features a virtual world that allows people from all countries and walks of life to improve their lives and fortunes, even while having a bit of fun.

In all of these novels, people deal with the problems of their time, and carry on with their lives… which aren’t so bad.  They demonstrate how versatile, flexible and resilient humans are, and how civilization can survive its present problems.

We need more stories like that: The kind of stories that the original Star Trek espoused—the idea that life may be tough, but it has promise, and we shall overcome.  Authors need to write more stories like that, the media needs to recognize and talk about more stories like that, and the public needs to demand more stories like that.

The way Dylan Thomas put it:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Today, we need to rage against the abandonment of our future to despair and helplessness.  For all our sakes, we need to believe in the future again.

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4 thoughts on “Rage against the dying of our future

  1. Amen. The new Star Trek movies have infuriated me, and I’m deeply concerned about what Abrams will do to Star Wars. I have no problem with stories that include armed conflict, but too many mainstream Sci-Fi franchises now glorify violence and war.

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    • Star Wars, as the name suggests, is already all about over-the-top fighting and pointless conflict… so Abrams ultimately can’t do much damage there, other than muddying the difference between its stereotypically “good” and “bad” sides.

      Even the original Star Trek had armed conflict; but more often, they pulled the last punch, they stopped before the killing blow, and they extended the olive branch as soon as it was feasible. One of Kirk’s most mortifying moments was when he let that attitude slip, and had to be restrained himself from committing war (Wolf in the Fold). This was what made Star Trek significant: It showed humanity at its best, even in the worst of times… something modern movies and shows have clearly lost sight of.

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      • I would argue that Star Wars also had a fundamental message of non-violence. Think of the climactic moment in Return of the Jedi. Luke defeats the Emperor by throwing his lightsaber away and saying, “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” I very much doubt that’s the way Abrams would have ended the original trilogy.

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  2. Well… to be fair, Luke threw away his lightsaber to avoid patricide. Then the Emperor attacked Luke, and his father interceded to protect his son… Vader defeated the Emperor by killing him. Then they escaped the Death Star before the rebels could blow it, and all those imperial soldiers manning it, to kingdom come.

    It was a theme that carried through to episodes I-III as well, with the exception of the very last effort to hide Obi-Wan and the Skywalker siblings… but even that was clearly to avoid their being killed by the empire (and to provide an excuse for episodes IV-VI). And replacing an admittedly flawed robot army with human clones (that can be killed)? Shows a serious disregard for human life.

    To me, it still amounts to a violent overall theme, specifically, “kill or be killed.” We saw no surrenders or prisoners of war, no peace conferences. The rebels didn’t just beat the imperial forces, they killed them before they themselves were killed.

    Most of the Star Trek movies had the same inherent flaw. Villains and antagonists weren’t captured or diffused, as they generally were in the various series; in the movies, they died. Khan. Kruge. “God.” Chang. The Duras sisters. Soren. The Borg Queen. Ru’afo. Shinzon. Nero. Admiral Marcus. Truly an incredible list of characters… all gone.

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