No Sci-Fi for Old Men
Okay, first I need to make the qualifier here: I’m old.
I’m over the hill. A decade past the summit, in fact. I look at today’s up-and-coming actors and singers, and I see teeny-boppers and mouseketeers. I’m old enough to have actually used “teeny-boppers” and “mouseketeers” in casual sentences. I grew up watching the original Bugs Bunny, the original Tom and Jerry, the original Ultraman and the original Space Ghost. I watched a lot of television shows in black and white, on black and white only TVs. The reboots that so many of you watch or dismiss because you never saw the first movies? I grew up on those first movies.
So I want it clearly understood where I’m coming from. Specifically, a laminated plywood desk that once had a Selectric typewriter sitting on it. Which replaced the solid oak desk that once had a Royal typewriter sitting on it. That old.
In all that time, I’ve enjoyed science fiction. I started reading it at the age of 8, cutting my teeth on the shorts of Ray Bradbury and the pulps of Doc Savage. I found science fiction on television, in comic books and in cartoons, and I sucked it in like a canister vacuum cleaner (pretty sure I mentioned I’m old).
During those years, science fiction has changed… and I’m not just talking about upgrading from bullet-shaped rockets to X-Wing fighters. Science fiction has evolved and re-evolved over the years, starting from precautionary tales about the advancement of technology on society, to tales of excitement about the toys of technology in our eager hands, to expectations of discovery that technology would give us, to speculations about whether technology would introduce us to other worlds, other lives and incomprehensible futures, to warnings of the disruption to our lifestyles and our planet that technology would bring us.
But whatever themes were prevalent at any time, the one thing that science fiction has always done, better than any other genre, has been to show us how the advancement of science and technology would change our world, our individuals, our societies and our collective future. Within that scope, science fiction has covered a vast field of content; and I’ve savored that content, the variety of stories that SF has entertained.
Which is why I’ve been increasingly concerned about science fiction lately. That field of content is rapidly getting winnowed down and simplified. Especially in popular media, where entertainment conglomerates are buying up competitors and refocusing content for the express purpose of maximum profit, science fiction has seen its prospects narrow.
Movie studios are increasingly passing on headier and more intelligent SF projects, and instead greenlighting simpler themes that, when big budgets are applied, tend to rake in the biggest profits. And as they’re discovering that star power and high concepts don’t bring in the lucrative crowds that space battles and gore-dripping aliens do, they are less likely to go with more intellectual fare.
And that will truly be a tragedy for all of us. Those of you who haven’t been around as long as I have may not realize it, but a great deal of our present society has been shaped by the lessons taught by science fiction, which used to provide warnings of the dangers of certain aspects of life and progress before anyone else saw them coming. To be fair, some of those warnings were unrealistic, even panicky; but when real-world events coincided with the warnings of science fiction, it prompted people to take them much more seriously.
A great example is the movie The China Syndrome: The story, about a cover-up at a nuclear plant almost causing a devastating meltdown, couldn’t have come at a better time: Less than two weeks after the movie premiered, the number 3 reactor at Three Mile Island malfunctioned, and suddenly the public understood how vital it was to enact rigorous changes to nuclear power plant operations to keep us safe. The future of nuclear plant construction and control in the U.S. was forever changed by that one movie.
Other movies, going all the way back to the first silent films, showed us the dangers inherent in uncontrolled medical experimentation, automation, warfare, pollution, surveillance, education and expansion. Later television picked up the mantle, and programs like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek reinforced those lessons. And they have become such a major part of our modern lexicon that their concerns still echo in political and social discourse; even people who don’t read or watch science fiction know the significance of phrases like Big Brother and Skynet.
In contrast, today’s Americans have to watch programs like Mythbusters, which use crowd-favorite elements like models and explosions to show us what is and is not true or possible with science and technology. We pretend actors with prosthetic makeup are stand-ins for strange cultures, which we imagine are really just like us (in general, dangerous as hell). We convince ourselves all problems can be solved with a judicious use of centuries-old technologies, which would have been replaced with modern tools by now if the old-tech manufacturers weren’t bribing governments and media to hide or bad-mouth those modern tools and preserve their profit margins.
And we do this because we aren’t getting the science fiction that used to warn us about our foibles and short-sightedness… we’re getting the science fiction that teaches us how to parry and thrust with a light-saber. All the movies and television shows want to give us are space battles and alien monsters. But we need more.
We’re losing the voice of intelligent science fiction; a voice we can’t afford to shut out, especially today, when we still struggle with the problems that plagued the twentieth century, plus the new problems that our parents had barely conceived of a century ago. We need intelligent and cautionary tales about the pervasiveness of digital communication and data collection, medical manipulation, exploration into and off the Earth, environmental pressure and damage, climate change and biodiversity, energy creation and conservation, and the evolution of our nations, races and social systems around all these problems.
Fortunately, we still have books… and those books often feature the more intelligent science fiction concepts. Unfortunately, the book outlets are also being inundated with the blockbuster-derived content, shoved up front on the bookstore shelves and featured in ads… and as literary reading is still on its decades-long decline, and science fiction holds a single-digit market share among American readers according to research done by the Romance Writers of America, fewer of those books are being read, whatever the content.
Whatever the medium, we need science fiction that will make us think and act… not just awe and cheer. We need smart and persuasive stories that will help us steer this world in the right direction, for our own sakes. We don’t need more Star Wars… we need more Ex Machina. We don’t need more Avengers, we need more The Martian. We need more Children of Men. We need more Soylent Green. We need more Brave New World.
We need the science fiction old men like me grew up on. We need to demand that science fiction from our creators and entertainers, and to watch them whenever they show up, to make sure we’ll get more. And at the rate the world is changing… we need it fast. Before we’re all too old to do a damned thing about it.
Steven Lyle Jordan is a former illustrator and longtime advocate of science, technology, environmentalism and social development. He has authored over a dozen science fiction novels and related content, including the Kestral Voyages series, the Verdant novels and others. His commentary and science fiction can be found via StevenLyleJordan.blog.