As the saying goes, the future isn’t what it used to be.
Science Fiction imagines a future like an architect imagines a new city. The architect uses the existing features — the environment, roads and utilities, and designs a new creation upon them. Buildings and transportation are delineated in the design to guide the engineers and builders who will make the vision practical.
The architect’s vision of the completed project informs the actions that make the vision real. Ideas precede action. So too it has Science Fiction inspired engineers and builders to create the envisioned future.
Optimism was a feature of major science fiction forecasts. Nineteenth century authors such as Jules Verne and Edward Bellamy depicted futures where technologies were harnessed to improve humanity’s material condition. Society could be organized to raise up the poor and reduce violence. Many twentieth century science fiction depicted similarly optimistic visions. H.G.Wells’ Things To Come depicted on screen humanity growing beyond internecene war and reaching for the stars. World War II pit two great factions whose visions of the future could not be more dissimilar: The Fascist movements used technology as weapons to annihilate undesirable outsiders. Their Western opposition ultimately thought of technology as a way to bring people closer and collectively achieve a better world. While post-war science fiction was darkened by the wartime experience, the future nonetheless was still often a shining city on a hill just a short distance yonder. German V-2s that rained death on London evolved into rockets that could carry people into space. Both the small and big screen showed humanity conquering space and often their human foibles as well.
Star Trek’s USS Enterprise had a multiracial crew composed mostly of Earthers who were part a United Federation of Planets seeking knowledge and other civilizations. Human frailties of bigotry and greed existed but were overcome. Lethal violence was a last — and deplored — resort. Star Trek depicted a humanist challenge we could accept: Build a better society, a new and better life for ourselves and others. It is no wonder that the series inspired numerous engineers and scientists and that its core optimism is preserved and cherished through fan-supported productions.
There have always been pessimistic visions of the future as well, warnings about technology and social engineering. Now, however, they have driven out nearly all optimistic visions leaving us only with apocalyptic despair and self-destruction. The decline in optimistic futures seem to have coincided in America with the Watergate scandal of the Richard Nixon Administration (1968-1974) and the inglorious end to the Vietnam war (1955-1975). Environmental threats, mistrust of government, and fear of emerging technology were often a major component in these features.
The Twenty-first century’s science fiction stories rarely not show us future worthy of effort, or lovely to contemplate. That future often is filled with shambling zombies, or shattered lands where savage tribes brutalize each other for scraps. In space humanity is often hunted and on the verge of extinction. Even the children’s movie WALL-E (2008) depicted an Earth as an abandoned trashheap. In these visions there is no shining city that beckons us to greater feats, but terrors to avoid. There is no peaceful future in the stars but instead struggle, death and terror.
This dark attitude has even poisoned our politics, with candidates depicting opponents as harbingers of doom rather than individuals with alternative ideas. An entire subculture has arisen of individuals who fear — or hope — for civilization’s collapse. They surround themselves with firearms, bury gold, and prepare to fend off their neighbors. Had they been more optimistic they might have invested for the future rather than in AR-15s and ammunition.
The future is not what it used to be, and that is to our great detriment. Where is the inspiring vision, the architect’s dream, for us to build towards? Where are the characters that can inspire us, the technology that we seek, the society we envision?
Ideas precede action, and the ideas shown to us these last decades have been blood-clotted dead ends. We must reject them.
A bright future is possible. A universe of wonders awaits. Who will be the architect that shows us what can be, if we only build it?
Who but us?
Pick up your drafting pencil. It’s time for all of us to design a beautiful vision to strive for.