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.