Sci-Fi let us all down
And I’m glad it did
On a hot summer day in 1990, I saw the box at the back of a garage sale. The old man who owned the hundreds of books in it had died that spring. He was a pure, devoted geek with active subscriptions to the incredible science fiction digests of the 1940's and 50’s. I pulled out dusty copies of Fantastic Tales and Out of This World Adventures.
At 10 cents a book, I bought as many as my chore allowance and arms could handle. I poured through the stories of new planets, where we should have been by now, 40 years after the first man in space and 30 years since we landed on the moon.
Strange species and time-space warps created impossible things.
I remember one horrific story in particular from a more recent journal. It hid many philosophical challenges. A group of explorers find an insane replication of an All-American family, seemingly stuck in the past. House, yard, dog, and white picket fence were all contained in a block of space-time where things could occasionally go in, but nothing could come out from the translucent barrier. The researchers could see the family; Like oblivious zoo animals, the family could not see them.
The researchers set up a simple machine that tossed orange-dyed ice cubes into the space. Most would bounce off the wall between the two worlds, except for a few seconds every day, where the field would drop and ice would pass through to melt on the grass. The children played with the ice cubes at first, and then lost interest.
Suddenly, from a combination of heatstroke and wild curiosity, a scientist ran and fell through the barrier. The family saw him land through their dining room window. They had been waiting for something like this.
Dinner plans had changed.
Their eyes split open. Their teeth grew and mouths unhinged. They went mad, ravenous, scrambling out onto the yard and tearing the flesh from the screaming scientist, eating it raw, the blood spraying and staining the housewife’s yellow dress and the red, white, and blue outfits of the kids. The boy played tug of war with the dog over a human arm.
What the hell?!
I was hooked.
At the age of seven, I read a short story called The Running Man by Stephen King. In the opening scenes, the soon-to-be-running man passes a small, grassy park guarded by rent-a-cops. As rich children played in the only living plantlife for miles, the man lights a cigarette on his way to interview for a perverse, real-world gladiator game show. He smoked on top of our future pollution’s “4 packs a day” smog in the typical nihilism of a Stephen King anti-hero.
I read stories like this on rainy days — and it rained constantly near Lake Erie. I Huck-Finned my way through a childhood where the declining east side of my city whispered at what a post-apocalypse might look like.
My older brother snuck in a viewing of BladeRunner for me when my parents were out. I was transfixed and convinced. The constant acid rain of Los Angeles in just a few years — I saw a much lamer version just out the window.
2015 seemed too soon for all this darkness and the glowing neon piercing through it. Too much dystopia needed to happen too quickly.
The Soviets were gone now. Red Dawn was impossible. Who could wage the great war that would kill all the animals, making my stray mutt of a dog into a priceless, bio-engineered commodity? (You were still priceless, Boxcar Willy…to my mom at least)
I watched for melting glaciers. I waited for Waterworld.
I had learned to swim young, loved the water. I was prepared to survive. In the mirror, I folded forward my ears, looking for any signs of mini-gills developing behind them— an evolution to let me breathe underwater. Geography class showed where, to what mountain peaks we could all flee.
The water came in too slow though. There was no urgency. Coastal cities moved their mansions further back from beach. Life went on in denial, until the levees broke.
The aliens never invaded.
There was no great war against another species of equal or greater intelligence — so we kept dividing up our own species and building walls.
We continued to declare and celebrate our “independence days” until some of us became aliens.
Through the disaster movies of the 90s and the alternate realities of the 2000s, sci-fi let us all down. I’m not talking about shitty movies. For every Armageddon and Dante’s Peak there were brain melters like Primer (scariest film ever made on a micro-budget), 12 Monkeys, and Donnie Darko.
The global disasters never came. We never had to suffer, lose ourselves, or die — at least not like that.
This is what sci-fi can do. We see what could happen, what we could become. We imagine and fear and enter the unknown as an experiment, simulating and predicting the what ifs to better understand our nows.
I’m glad sci-fi let me down.
The boy who prepared to experience apocalypse never did. He certainly did not understand what the reality of the aftermath would actually mean. He was naively hoping for the excitement of the chaos.
For most of us, our conscience catches up with our curiosity as are taught or discover our ethics and morality. We realize the fragile state of humanity and ourselves.
This is the duality of a child’s innocence. Child soldiers make for ruthless killers — they have no context, no history, no understanding for the impact of their actions. A child’s unrestrained curiosity makes for profound discovery and challenging of assumptions (“But, Why?”).
Humans are a communal species. Children are inherently kind. There is an awesome balance to be found in retaining our curiosity and kindness through the confusing and traumatic lessons of life. There is a responsibility for sci-fi creators to show how to respond with compassion in their stories of superheroes and survival.
Science Fiction still lets me wonder. I see the designs and the technology in books and movies become reality. The inspiration AND the cautionary tales are every where. They make for easy reference or starting points for challenging our philosophy and ethics as we build new realities.
“Whoa — this military robot is a little too Cyberdyne Systems.”
New Mexico after a drought reminds me of Mad Max. Where’s the tap water for all the new people coming from?
Sci-fi lets us explore and predict and play in the future without the Game Over.
The tradeoffs and risks become clearer when we imagine them first. We discover new issues and warning signs. We explore new potentials and adjust our intentions to build sustainable worlds rather than react to disasters. We’re already running full digital simulations using complete digital twins of physical environments.
We can experiment without burning the lab down.
Sci-fi can create the future as long as the geeks and weirdos keep dreaming. Next time you see the next Octavia Butler or Stephen King look-alike hunched over a notepad or a laptop with strange stickers on the hood — give them a smile. They may be writing your destiny.