Director of the Utopia Festival for Science Fiction and Future Story-telling. As the Promethean Consultancy, program curator, PMO, artistic consultant and producer, writer and speaker on topics of technology and society, science fiction and the future.
Why is science fiction important now, more than ever? For the same reason it has been important, forever.
If you’re an avid reader or watcher of good science fiction, you know this well. If you’ve enjoyed, laughed, cried, gasped, been inspired, at awe, made speechless by good science fiction, you know this well.
No, it’s not the fabulous dystopian-cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic fashion (and it is fabulous!), or the escapist wonderland it offers (and it is wonderful), and it’s absolutely not because this has all been predicted by science fiction (science fiction is not prophesy and does not predict a thing). It’s because we’re just a bit more well-prepared, emotionally well-equipped, we have another weapon in our arsenal, another tool in our belt, to handle the absurdities and insanity roaming through the empty boulevards of our cities, the busy streets of our minds, and down the cul-de-sacs of our souls.
Science fiction handles extreme situations in its everyday, the types of which we’re encountering now, in our own day-to-day. Science fiction creatives wake up every morning and instead of coffee, pour themselves a cup of finely roasted madness. By venturing into the unknown and bringing us along, science fiction stress tests human society and the human mind. How do we – as individuals and groups, as nations and planets and species – act under extreme conditions. First contact, alien invasion, rise of the machines and yes, even world-wide pandemics.
Science fiction uses extreme conditions to discuss taboo topics. When venturing into the unknown, science fiction also handles the unspeakable, the hidden taboos lying just underneath the surface, beneath the woodwork, presenting itself in plain sight, in broad daylight, when conditions actually become extreme.
What should we notice right now? What should we be attentive to? Science fiction will have important insight.
Science fiction imagines the future, and there’s no time like now to imagine the future. We have an almost uncontrollable urge to drown ourselves in the immediate or the apocalyptic – an obsessive-compulsive insatiable feeding frenzy through our (news) feed, or an escape to end-of-days gags and the romanticizing (not to say fetishizing) of the apocalypse. Actively working to countermand these urges, these impulses, putting these pressures and fears at bay, is a Herculean act, yet necessary by us mere mortals. Not by everybody all the time, but take some time to make some time, and do this. By thinking, talking and imagining the future, we give ourselves, our loved ones and our surroundings, even if not completely or wholly, even if for only a minute, the glimmer of hope.
A year or two from now we’ll be living in a different world. What do we need to notice now? How should we talk, what should we write, what should we be doing now, so that tomorrow will be different from yesterday? Science fiction on all its forms and facets is important always, and doubly so now. Now is the time to speculate, to imagine, to dream. The time for science fiction.
Need help to get you going?
For politics of power, go no further then V for Vendetta, the 2005 Wachowski siblings film, adapted from one of the best graphic novels of all time by Alan Moore bearing the same name (V for Vendetta, 1982). England under a brutal dictatorship, a surveillance state ala George Orwell’s 1984, in the film’s plot given power by the people, through the emergency conditions of a global pandemic. For more on how power corrupts, go also to Watchmen (graphic novel, 1986), many view it as the pinnacle of Alan Moore’s work (possibly tied with From Hell, 1989), telling the alternative history of a power-hungry and vigilante American nation and society, starting in the late 30’s and ending in the mid 80’s, during the days of Nixon’s 5th presidency. Breaking down power and super-power, from psychology to geo-politics, Moore’s work is exquisite in its complex, detailed and nuanced plot, telling the story of the masked vigilantes actually roaming the streets of America, as superhero comics come-to-life, only with no actual super-powers. Don’t worry, there’s still some super-power-plays. The Zack Snyder 2009 adaptation is definitely worth your while as well.
For psychological aspects of loss and grief turn to The Leftovers (2014-2017), the 3-season supernatural mystery TV series is somewhat prophetic in nature. Created by Damon Lindelof (of Lost fame, or infamy, depending…) and Tom Perrotta (and based on Perrotta’s novel of the same name), The Leftovers begins three years after the “Sudden Departure”, a global event that resulted in 2% of the world’s population disappearing. We follow the main characters in their struggle to adjust to life after “the Departure”.
For loneliness and emptiness, a vibrant city turned dead-silent, you have the 2007 film I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence), starring Will Smith. The day-to-day struggle with quarantine conditions, the desperation and loss-of-self, the struggle for hope. and vampires?
For fear of the other two recommendations, The Korean masterpiece The Wailing (2016, director Na Hong-Jin), premiering at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer), take different approaches to similar subject matter. What is otherness, how do we separate it from that which is us. Can we? What happens when we try?
For class struggle fueled as always by scarcity of resources and technology (made available to few, needed by all, when has that ever happened?) that will be presenting itself soon hopefully, worldwide, try High-Rise (2015, Ben Whitley, based on the J.G.Ballard novel), Snowpiercer (2013, by the 2020 Academy Award Winner for best director, Bong Joon-Ho – his first foray into the English language, based on a French graphic novel of the same name) and Elysium (2013, Neil Blomkamp). No further explanations needed.
We would rather you don’t but If you really must, these are your pandemic films: Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbegh), post the 2009 H1N1 “Swine Flu” outbreak, Participant Media took on Soderbergh and consulted with top researchers to present the most scientifically accurate projection of a worldwide pandemic. The top-tier actors giving great performances, telling a solid story, are somewhat shadowed by the gravity of scientific accuracy. Outbreak (1995, Wolfgang Peterson) is the nineties version of that, starring nineties top-tier actors, not as scientifically rigorous, and with much more action scenes then there should be in a pandemic scenario, sprinkled with some 90’s conspiracy theories and a mix of WWII and Vietnam sensibilities for the US military. Great fun. Perfect Sense (2011, David Mackenzie) is your choice for a poetic, philosophical, melancholic Saturday afternoon. A love story between an epidemiologist (what are the odds) and a top chef through a global pandemic that causes people to lose their sensory perception, one sense at a time. Well executed and depressing AF.
Truthfully, what’s needed now is a deep dive into human society. Why do we do what we do. Aniara is a great way to launch yourself into that. The 1956 Swedish (yes) cantos by Nobel laureate (yes) Harry Martinson has been adapted to opera, radio, translated into numerous languages, and recently adapted to film by Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja. Kågerman and Lilja had taken very few liberties, among them switching the existential threat from nuclear wars and their reverberations to climate catastrophe, but the essence remains the same. What happens when a standard cruise (space)ship making its 3-week planned trip from Earth to Mars, with its passengers and tourists and crew of chefs and swimming pool lifeguards, massage therapists and security guards, are sent by accident to oblivion, never to go home again. How does society sustain itself? Does it? And how is that different from spaceship Earth?
Tomorrow must be different then yesterday. We need, we must, make sure of that. This is the time to read Ursula K. Le Guin. Let us be reminded by her words, accepting the 2014 American National Book Awards:
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
It was hard to envision the end of capitalism just not long ago. It was the butt of many not-so-funny jokes. A crisis is a time for action. “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” – A quote by none other than Milton Freedman is making the rounds these days, courtesy of Naomi Klein.
Many lingering problems today are a result of assuming a final and decisive victory of one paradigm over another. This rarely if ever happens. Life is nuance and context. That’s why this is the time for Ursula K. Le Guin. If you want to start with something, start with The Dispossessed (1974). Enjoy.
Live Long, and Prosper.