When Science Fiction Stopped Caring About the Future

The Star Wars reboot looks like another example of how the genre's most popular works have given up on imagining new worlds.

Daniel Munoz/Reuters

Most people think of science-fiction as being about the future; it's a genre that explores possibilities, from Dr. Frankenstein's invention of artificial life to Ursula K. Le Guin's world populated by humans who have all evolved into single-gendered hermaphrodites. What might happen if? What could happen when? Sci-fi thinks about new technologies, new societies, and new ways of being, good or bad.

And then science-fiction fans turn to the new Star Wars trailer, and find, not the future, but a reshuffling of 30-year-old detritus. There are the storm troopers, there's the Millennium Falcon, there's Tatooine, there's one of those cute droids we're always looking for. There's nary a pretense that we're actually supposed to be imagining a different world. Instead, the pleasure is in reshuffling the old, worn-out bits. Nostalgia is so paramount that even minor tweaks become the grounds for think pieces and extended canon questioning. Are there black stormtroopers? What's up with the new crossguard lightsaber? Explain why these new toys are not exactly the same as the old toys, and be quick about it!

Admittedly, Star Wars never billed itself as a forward-looking endeavor. It's not even supposed to be set in the future, but rather "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." The cobbled-together, backwards-looking aesthetic of the franchise is part of its charm (as I've written before.) Still, if you watch the Star Wars trailer and then immediately afterwards watch Ursula K. Le Guin's speech at the National Book Awards, where she won a medal for Distinguished Contribution to Letters, you're likely to get ideological whiplash.

Over here is Le Guin, taking a stand for science fiction on the grounds that "we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope." And over here is Star Wars, showing you more pictures of the Millennium Falcon. So much for Le Guin’s call to elevate creators who know "the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art."

It's not just Star Wars either. Science fiction is everywhere in popular culture, and it seems like it's managed to be everywhere in the present by largely jettisoning the future. The massive, major franchises are all decades-old; the triumphal rhythmic successes of Star Wars and Star Trek and Dr. Who vie with sporadic reboots of Robocop or Planet of the Apes. Even newer stories, like The Hunger Games or Divergence feel less like fresh visions than like re-toolings of stagnant dystopias. Poor George Orwell wants his panopticon back.

It's no accident that the most ubiquitous, overwhelming sci-fi sub-genre around is the one that has the least to do with the future: superheroes. Much of the superhero genre, in fact, is devoted to the fantasy that we don't need to wait for technological marvels, but can experience them right here, right now. More, we can do so, magically, without the comfy old familiar world we know changing that much at all.

Tony Stark invents new magical energy sources three times before breakfast, but he uses them mostly to punch Thunder-Gods in the head, rather than, say, to completely transform the world's technology and economy. Aliens land on earth, and rather than conquering England with H. G. Wells or forming an utterly new human race through tentacle-sex gene splicing a la Octavia Butler, they perform minor acts of altruism while taking their shirts off to reveal the pecs of Henry Cavill. Superheroes are sci-fi wonders without consequences, the future resolutely flattened by today.

Iron Man and Superman and most of the other superheroes with film deals are even older than Star Wars; compared to Batman, Han Solo is a fresh-faced whippersnapper who has not yet been turned into a commodity. Still, whatever the exact age of the antihero, the takeaway is the same: progress presented in timeless vacuum. American capitalism is dedicated to the cult of growth, expansion, and the new boss ever bigger, better, and cooler than the old. It's an ideology of eternal improvement, and pop sci-fi fits that presumption neatly. Technology advances and humans mutate into X-Men without ever prompting a consideration of " alternatives to how we live now." The future, outside of time, brings empowerment but no change.

Some fans argue that Star Wars is not sci-fi but fantasy, complete with force-wielding wizards. I don't think that's quite right, though. Fantasy has its own tropes and its own timelessness, but a changeless dream of the past is different than a changeless dream of the future. Harry Potter is nostalgic for a world of quills and noblesse oblige, where magic takes the place of modern technology and the folks with the power are clearly separated from the folks without. Star Wars is nostalgic too, but, like with superheroes, that nostalgia is directed not toward the past, but toward an ongoing future of awesome gadgets and self-actualized New Age ninjas.

Tomorrow isn't a potential where things might be better, or even different; it's just a place to rearrange the robots on a Titanic that never sinks. Progress has conquered the present so thoroughly it doesn't even need to push forward anymore. In pop sci-fi, we're all always already picking up the shiny new old lightsaber; there is no other future, and no other dream.