If you like this piece, consider becoming a contributor so I can write more ambitious things like this in the future (or the past, or whenever.) Thanks!
Science-fiction is supposed to be about the future. Gleaming space-ships flying to surging new worlds; androids bursting from pods with sexy new lasers; utopias wrestling with dystopia for dominance in a grungy, glittering Thunderdome. Sci-fi tells you what's to come in a century, or two, or twelve. Warp speed, cold fusion, psionic clones and looming alien obelisks: science-fiction is the literature of tomorrow—today!
But if science-fiction is the literature of tomorrow, why is so much science-fiction of today so unremittingly retro? HBO's Westworld imagines a near future in which advanced technology is used to build a wild-west theme park; you go into the future to pretend to be in the past. The Netflix series Stranger Things is set in 1983, it's parallel universe science-gobbledygook framed by compulsive references to the works of the Steves, King and Spielberg. The latest Star Wars film, Rogue One, uses its massive computer effects budget not to imagine amazing tech awesomeness, but to resurrect young Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing. Their iconic faces are queasily tacked onto other actors playing Princess Leia and the Grand Moff Tarkin for the purposes of ill-considered, uncanny-valley, dead-eyed nostalgia.
And of course, along with Star Wars, other old sci-fi properties keep getting rebooted and retooled: Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Man in the High Castle, Jurassic Park, andWestworld itself, which is based on a 1973 film. Science-fiction is so enmeshed in and encrusted with its own past these days that it always seems to end up looking backwards to look forwards. Instead of rocketing into the world to come, sci-fi at the moment ends up sputtering and coughing on the launch-pad of now.
The Time Machine
It's true that the sci-fi of today is obsessed with sci-fi yesterday. But even that obsession isn't new. In fact, the genre's relationship to the future has always been determined by its relationship to the past. Sci-fi is future history, which means it depends for its narratives on an understanding, and a vision, of just plain history history. You can't think about how time will go from here without thinking about how time went up to now.
You can see past and future intertwined already in what is arguably the first work of modern sf, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895). Wells' time traveler journeys into the distant epochs to come. But Darwinian revelations about the antiquity of the earth, relatively new when Wells was writing, rest like a weight beside him on his unsteady bicycle-like time machine.
"I had always anticipated that the people of the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand odd would be incredibly in front of us in knowledge, art, everything," the Time Traveler tells his listeners by the fireside. But instead he finds mankind degenerating into speechless pseudo-monkeys and apes; it's like he's rushing forward into pre-history. Eventually on his journey, humanity disappears altogether, and he encounters giant insect-worms and enormous scuttling semi-dinosaur-like crustaceans. Time is a brute force, squeezing life into one form and another, with homo sapiens an accidental blob, that appears and disappears "like the flapping of a black wing." Past and future in The Time Machine are a single ocean, which gazes with blank indifference at the chronicler on his vanishing island of the present.
The relationship between future and past in Wells' War of the Worlds is equally close, and perhaps even more influential. In this 1897 novel, Martians invade England, laying waste to the countryside with heat rays and poison gas. This is an attack across space; a conquest of one planet by another. But it's also presented as an attack of the future upon the present.
The Martians are more advanced than humans, further along the evolutionary path, so that, the narrator says, "we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us." In fact, Wells explicitly compares the Martian invasion of Earth to British colonial violence. "The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"
In his wonderful 2008 book Colonialism and Science Fiction, John Rieder explains that in Wells' time, Westerners saw less industrialized people as atavistic relics. The indigenous inhabitants of the Americas and Africa were viewed as a window into the past. To travel to Tasmania was literally to travel into pre-history. The past was right there, easily accessible—and for Wells, that meant the future was easily accessible, and easily imaginable, too. The war of the worlds is based on a war across time—a war that was very familiar to a colonial power like Britain.
Wells' invading aliens from the future have generated innumerable copycats in the intervening decades: the Independence Day films are one obvious recent homage/rip-off. Ideas about the past changed over time though…and so visions of future invasion changed too.
The City on the Edge of Forever
Maybe the best example of the new colonial sci-fi is the original Star Trek series, aired from 1966-69. The show followed the progress of the Starship Enterprise, which flew from planet to planet across the galaxy, "seeking out new life and new civilizations" as the famous intro explains.
Sometimes the crew of the Enterprise did encounter new alien races and civilizations, as you'd expect it to do gallivanting out there among the stars. But just as often, James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and his gallant crew found themselves improbably embroiled in adventures out of earth's distant past.
In "Bread and Circuses" for example, the Enterprise stumbles on a planet where a close analogue of the Roman Empire has lasted into the industrial age. In "A Piece of the Action" they find a world ruled by 20s-era gangsters (Kirk gets a chance to try out a Brooklyn accent.) In "Spectre of the Gun" crewmembers journey back to the 1880s for a shoot-out at the OK Corral, and in "The City on the Edge of Forever" they head to the 1930s Depression on the eve of World War II. One past-in-space episode might be a coincidence; four (and more!) starts to look like carelessness.
There are various and variously goofy in-show explanations for why the Enterprise keeps walking into historical reenactments wheresoer it points its phasers. One of the most telling though is what Spock (Leonard Nimoy) refers to as "Hodgkins law of parallel planet development." Basically, according to Hodgkins, every planet goes through the same predictable cultural evolution. Every planet has its own stone age, its own Egypt, its own Rome, its own prohibition, its own atomic age. They just get started at different times in different places.
This idea fits neatly into the ideology of the Cold War. America during the 60s saw the world as divided into Western countries, the Communist opposition, and the Third World of "developing countries", working their way up to join civilization. Wells has seen the present obliterating the past, so he imagined the future obliterating the present. America in the 60s, on the other hand, saw the world dotted with cultures evolving at their own pace to catch up with the U.S. And so, Star Trek looked out and saw a future in which the past, in various stages of development, was spread out across the universe.
In "A Piece of the Action" Kirk even sets up a literal gangster client state to send tribute back to the Federation—said tribute to be used only for the further development of the gangsters, of course. Benign imperialism is intended to bring the poor backwards natives out of the violent past, and into a civilized future—for a reasonable price, of course.
The End of History
When the Cold War ended in 1989, the United States became the sole superpower in a world increasingly connected by exploding telecommunications technology. History didn't end, contra Frances Fukuyama, but narratives linking the past and present no longer seemed to fit. Post British empire, post Cold War, colonialism seems antiquated—a distant and irrelevant history, rather than a way to invade the past next door in the name of genocide or development. When the Internet makes it possible for everyone to talk to everyone from everywhere (at least in theory), it's harder to see history sitting there, just over the colonial horizon. Instead, every place seems like one place—a single airport in which all of humanity disembarks to stride out into the familiar landscape of the same social media platform.
You can see the fusing of sci-fi past and sci-fi present in the 2016 Netflix series Stranger Things. Set in Indiana in 1983, the plot revolves around a secret government project which has discovered a bleak, dark alternate dimension. Characters refer to this alternate dimension as the Upside-Down. Squatting inside it, on the other side of reality, is a humanoid monster with no face who feeds on blood.
As in much sci-fi gone by, the discovery of the monster is a kind of colonial expedition. Scientists send 11-year-old Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a powerful psychic, to seek out this savage prowler in its dank, moist heart of darkness.
But this colonial expedition is doubly distanced. First, it's set back in the 1980s, when the Cold War was still frigid. And second, the new world Eleven finds isn't in space, but in a kind of sideways universe that she accesses through a sensory deprivation tank. To aid her in her journey, she wears a set of electrodes on her head which look a bit like a VR array. The monster, for its part, once aroused, enters our world through various terminal points, creating electrical discharges when it does. The Upside-Down is especially prone to manifest through telephones. (That would be an impressive app.)
The Upside-Down, in short, looks a lot like an imaginary Internet-before-there-was-an-Internet. It's a place that isn't quite a place, a world mapped onto our world, but still weirdly separate from it. The literally digital-effects monster is, figuratively, therefore, the digital as monster. It's the virtual present of the web seeping into yesterday. Stranger Things imagines a faceless, empty now trying to pull itself into reality by feeding on the blood of the past. They didn't have internet back in 1983, but now we can't imagine 1983 without that internet lurking, waiting to grab the unwary.
If the digital present eats away the past bit by byte, it eats away the future too. The present seems to be everywhere, with no place for past or future to carve out their own niche. The result has been a slew of shows and films set in a near future, in which what is to come is barely distinguishable from what we have right now. Her (2013) imagines a, Siri-like personal assistant which attains sentience. The 2016 Black Mirror episode "Nosedive" is about a world in which people constantly rank each other using an app; those with high ranking get preferential treatment for travel, mortgages, and other perks.
These futures look just about exactly like the present, with a few minor tweaks to car designs. Fifty years ago Star Trek imagined transporters with teleportation technology and replicators which made food out of nothing—high tech miracles which still seem as far down the timeline as ever. But sci-fi no longer looks ahead to find them. Instead, movies and television cast their vision forward no further than the next iPhone update.
If science-fiction has abandoned the future, that means that the future, now, is located in the past—a lost nostalgic dream for a starry, unattainable forward-looking destiny. In Westworld, advanced robot technology is used to create a wild west genre theme park. But more than that, the park's chief inventor, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), is haunted by his own past; he builds a robot who looks exactly like his old partner, Arnold, and elaborately arranges the theme park narrative so he himself will recapitulate Arnold's fate.
For that matter, Westworld's narrative structure deliberately flattens time. Past and present scenes are intercut with no warning, so that for viewers cause and effect occur simultaneously, or even in reverse order. The robots run through repetitive loops of behavior; the same farmhouse is burned over and over, the same lovers reunite in the same street, day after day. Some characters also experience dream flashbacks indistinguishable from "reality." What happened, what will happen, and what is happening are all layered on top of one another. The future isn't a place up ahead to rocket towards. It's a confused memory to sink into.
The 2016 Black Mirror episode "San Junipero" is even more explicit about tomorrow as wistful fugue. The story is set in a near future in which people can project their consciousness into a computer simulation which reproduces various decades. Anyone who wants to can live on forever after death in a retro utopia 1987 beach town. In the future which is also the present, "San Junipero" promises that nostalgia for the past will be instantly accessible, Click by click, surf through cyberspace and have 80s rom com downloaded into your psyche.
H.G. Wells' and Star Trek's expansive visions of the future were built in large part on paternalistic ideas about the inferiority or backwardness of colonized peoples. The belief in a vast gap between the West and other folks created dreams of infinite progress and great bounding futures.
To some degree, the near future science-fiction trend is a welcome corrective—a step towards humility. Humans who stomp through the Westworld theme park, raping and shooting women and people of color, are presented in the show as callous and vicious. Westward expansion, which helped lay the groundwork for exploration sci-fi fantasies like Star Trek, was based on ugly, cramped hatreds and provincial prejudice. The future, as Westworld sees, was always a small, mean, circumscribed corner of the present.
Westworld, though, doesn't just criticize old futures, with their violence and condescension. It longs for them, and recapitulates them, just as the robots run through their same old scenarios of rape and death and helpless futility again and again. Critiquing the past slides quickly into mourning the past when the past is the only thing you can imagine. Westworld knows that the theme park is fake, but it's the only place it knows to visit.
Popular science fiction on screen, then, is caught between a past whose tropes no longer seem real and relevant and a tomorrow which, as a result, has become inaccessible except as a black mirror of the present. At some point, perhaps, sci-fi may figure out a new story about the past which allows it to see the future, and the present, by the light of some other sun. For now, though, we're stuck with now, a small box with painted walls that seems like everywhere.