Science Fiction Has Never Been This Important

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Who am I thinking of?

Imagine a world where an angry young man plots to rule a nation by fear.

This young man has killed some of his own relations.

He is the latest descendant of a family that has sought to create the ultimate weapon.

(He has The Force.)

Kylo Ren, Darth Vader’s grandson, will be continuing his mission of destruction in The Last Jedi this December. But where the original planetary threat of the Death Star in 1977 was complemented by a breakthrough in nuclear peace with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, we will watch the Empire’s latest exercise in galactic domination in the light of renewed nuclear brinkmanship.

Star Wars has never been so relevant — and it’s just the tip of the iceberg for futuristic fiction delving into very present-day issues.

Brave New ’84 in 2017

While The Last Jedi will be a box office smash — and analyzed in a million ways — regardless of world context, the fact is that “bleak” is so hot right now.

Continuing the winter of our discontented blockbusters, it’s fair to assume that Blade Runner 2049 is going to put the concept of human through the wringer. In fact, I’ll eat my electric sheep if the film doesn’t ask what it means to be human when synthetic beings display the same emotions, urge to survive and self-sacrifice that humans pride themselves on.

From these movies to TV’s Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle bringing in the numbers for Hulu and Amazon respectively, dystopias are big entertainment and big business.

Doomed Youth Grown Up

The new wave of misery really started with the breakout success of The Hunger Games and it’s little surprise that the surge of Young Adult dystopian fiction aligns with the 10 years since the fallout from the financial crash has shown the kids that the grownups don’t know best after all.

For the more mature viewer — and yesterday’s teens becoming grown-ups themselves — the latest dystopias speak to all aspects of our lives: overpopulation and scarcity (Ready Player One), catastrophic climate change (Geostorm), privacy in the online world (The Circle) and everything in between (Black Mirror’s forthcoming fourth season).

For adults feeling the world start to bite a bit, feeling less secure financially, feeling less safe, these fictions let us indulge our fearful fantasies. Just as we enjoy how horror plays with death and our fear of pain and mortality, science fiction lets us explore our fears of the dark sides of society from the safety of a plush chair. More importantly, we can solve them.

Machine Fairy Tales

We may not be The Last Jedi (pretty sure that’s going to be Luke, until he passes on the lightsaber), but we’ll cheer as the Empire falls and think a little more about our own world. We’ll feel reassured when Google shuts down its own AI rather than developing sentience for its own sake — and we might even cancel a few orders for robot butlers.

Just as the classic fairy tales taught us about trust, safety and truth, these new adult parables arm us with the questions to ask and the dangers to observe in a rapidly changing world. When Elon Musk tells us that AI is the biggest threat to world peace, these fictions give us the building blocks to imagine why and respond accordingly.

The Future is Now

It’s not just the politics or ethics of these stories that blurs the line with real life. With the fictional future feeling so much like the present, it also looks like it too, with movie tech in our shops and space-age fashion hitting our streets.

From Star Wars shoes that look as much at home in downtown LA as they would in a distant galaxy, to the hot gossip about Blade Runner being torn between Ryan Gosling’s jacket and Harrison Ford’s T-shirt, it is clear that audiences want to dress the part — heroes ready to rise to the challenges of our personal dystopias.

Where once the future promised us gleaming white surfaces and colorful jumpsuits, we now know that tomorrow will be like today, just a little different. If we learn the right lessons and make the right guesses, we can make it better. We might even finally get jetpacks.