We are truly living in a remarkable time. At no point in human history has technology evolved so quickly in a single generation. Understandably, that creates existential anxiety about the future. How will humans adapt to a future that seems so Alien? Will you be left behind in A Brave New World?
As long as we’ve had technology, we’ve been fantasising about what happens next – this happened literally through Science Fiction, or sci-fi.
The inevitable birth of science fiction
As a genre, sci-fi dates back centuries. The first sci-fi novel was Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1616), but the first work of fiction recognised as “sci-fi” was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Since then, the genre’s exploded with thousands of sci-fi stories in print, film, and increasingly on your Netflix list.
It’s an interesting commentary that in a genre bounded only by our imaginations, sci-fi stories, from Space Westerns to horror, tend to cluster around the overarching theme of a Utopian/Dystopian future.
Broadly, utopian sci-fi isn’t the lack of imperfection in a world. It’s the promise of a seemingly perfect world, which technology has put within reach. Conversely, a dystopian sci-fi world is one where technology exists, but it’s failed to deliver on the promise of perfection.
Utopian Star Trek
The granddaddy of utopian sci-fi has to be Star Trek. Originally aired for only 3 seasons (1966-69), it spun off into 9 different series, 13 movies, and countless pop-culture references.
Star Trek hit primetime TV screens at the precise moment the US and USSR were racing to be first to the Moon. The reason for its enduring popularity ever since, is that while the show introduced “strange new worlds” and futuristic technology, it was really a human-interest story with alien races standing in as metaphors (eg. the war-like Klingons were a metaphor for the existential, Soviet space threat).
Star Trek envisioned a world order where mankind has supposedly evolved beyond seeing gender or race. We leveraged our technology to all our mutual benefit under a united Starfleet. The show envisioned a future where we could speed across the galaxy, create any food we want out of thin air, and cure almost any disease.
Sci-fi gives us countless examples of what happens when technology doesn’t deliver on its promise of perfection, creating a dystopian world that’s hi-tech, yet low-life.
The Matrix (1999) introduced us to its complex world where Thomas Anderson is a computer programmer by day, and a hacker called “Neo” by night. His life as he knows it changes when he’s contacted by hackers who reveal that his entire world is a VR construct where humans “live” in The Matrix run by sentient AI that keeps sedated humans alive to harvest bio-energy. Fighting against AI “agents” who try to kill them, Neo eventually destroys the Matrix and frees humanity.
Revolutionary cinematography and imagery aside, what makes The Matrix unique is it was a product of its time. The internet had only just taken off, with dial-up modems forming an integral plot point in the film’s low-life world. Also, it’s the first time a movie has made viewers question their own existence, leading to the rise of its own religion dubbed Matrixism.
Set in the resource-scarce 24th century, The Expanse sees humanity split into 3 factions: Earthers, Maritans, and Belters. Earthers consider themselves the leaders of the human race, Martians have become a militant off-shoot in a perpetual cold war with Earth over space resources, while the impoverished interstellar miners called Belters are caught in between.
The Expanse is widely regarded for its political intrigue and seemingly realistic portrayal of life as we move into space. Even with the advancement of tech, humans are still hamstrung by the most basic needs: clean air and water.
Also set in the 24th century, Altered Carbon explores the idea of eternal life: technology has given humans the ability to live forever via memory stacks and replaceable bodies. For the wealthy, it means accumulating lifetimes of wealth in their floating palaces in the sky, while for the poor it means a choice between eternal drudgery or dying to escape from it.
Both are as much a commentary on human nature as it is on the (possible) futility of colonising space.
What does the future hold?
Even as sci-fi writers try to picture a future world enhanced by technological advancements, there’s a hesitancy to paint it as pure utopia – it’s often shattered by the realisation that it’s either only available to the privileged (eg. Gattaca, Hunger Games, etc) or a construct of technology or AI (eg. The Matrix). It seems that no matter how advanced society is, we still can’t escape our human nature, and we can’t really have the good without the bad.