The Future Is Almost Now

In popular culture, science-fiction stories look more like the real world than ever before.

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Last fall, a friend who went to see The Martian in theaters reported back with the following anecdote. Seated nearby was a woman who, during the credits, leaned over and whispered to her companion, “You know, this movie is based on a true story.” It would be easy to feel superior to this misinformed viewer, who seems unaware that humans have yet to set foot on Mars. Yet the mistake seems a little more understandable when you consider how contemporary science fiction has drifted toward plausibility and familiarity. The Martian may be a Ridley Scott film, but unlike the director’s other space odysseys, Alien and Prometheus, or even Blade Runner—movies that all conjure up patently distant times and places—the strangest thing about The Martian may be the sangfroid with which the protagonist Mark Watney receives the news that he’s stuck on the Red Planet.

There are still plenty of films that continue the genre’s tradition of truly fantastical worlds: Mad Max: Fury Road, Snowpiercer, and, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But recently, such exercises in strong futurism seem to have been outnumbered by more modest speculative efforts—narratives imagining a moment that seems to barely anticipate, if not intersect with, the present. Compared to many of the canonical works of science fiction past (Planet of the Apes, Dune, Alien, 2001, Ender’s Game, The Road Warrior), the visions of the future furbished in recent films like Ex Machina, Her, and Gravity, or series like Orphan Black or Black Mirror, feel positively cautious in their predictive scope. It’s as if the genre has been struck by some combination of ambition and restraint: a desire to prognosticate, but not overstep, to achieve maximum prescience with minimum risk. The result is a genre less invested in world creation, per se, than world acceleration.

Many new works of science fiction seem to represent a strain of pre-apocalyptic cinema, characterized by a willingness to dramatize disasters that are less hypothetical than poised to happen. Both Ex Machina and Her, for instance, unfold against backdrops whose production design suggests that viewers are witnessing only a lightly futurized version of 21st-century life. However technically fictional the gadgets on display, the advances the films imagine—an artificially intelligent OS, a Turing-test approved robot—strike audiences as not just possible, but highly probable. As Ex Machina’s partly mad scientist declares, “[t]he arrival of strong AI has been inevitable for decades. The variable was when, not if.” Spike Jonze’s Her similarly takes its paradigm shift—humans falling in love with machines—for granted. Unlike The Terminator and Matrix franchises, these films don’t predict an apocalyptic “rise” of machines so much as a gradual digital takeover, the next phase of a revolution already in progress.

As such, the worlds of newer sci-fi films can look and feel eerily familiar. The opening shots of Interstellar, which feature hardscrabble towns and actual Depression-era footage, initially lead viewers to suspect they’re witnessing, if anything, the recent past. As the critic A.O. Scott noted in The New York Times,[the director Christopher] Nolan ... drops us quietly into what looks like a fairly ordinary reality.” Or as NPR’s Amanda Fiegl put it, “it’s science fiction with an uncomfortable ring of truth.” It’s possible that such realistic settings—also seen in Ex Machina and Her—are meant to serve moralizing ends, reminding audiences that dystopia is nigh.

Yet these films are hardly cautionary tales; if anything, they’re dispassionate about humanity’s demise, which they treat as a mostly foregone conclusion. That said, it’s hard to deny that the proximity of doom doesn’t heighten its impact. In her study of science-fiction film, the scholar Vivian Sobchack suggests that what distinguishes horror from sci-fi is that the latter “produces not the strong terror evoked by something already present and known in each of us, but the more diluted and less immediate fear of what we may yet become.” It’s possible the genre’s contours have shifted—by making the danger a little more “present,” sci-fi can inspire more potent fear.

A case in point may be the British anthology series Black Mirror. Like its spiritual predecessor The Twilight Zone, the show is unsettling precisely because its bizarrerie takes place in what mostly looks like the here-and-now. The premise of its third episode, for instance—that most people possess wearable tech called a “grain” that records their every movement—seems merely like a next-generation amalgam of a FitBit and Google Glass. Similarly, the scenario explored in the second-season premiere—that software could reverse-engineer avatars of the deceased, by trawling their emails and online activity—seems feasible enough to raise any viewer’s paranoia levels.

Like Black Mirror, the Canadian TV series Orphan Black sprinkles real-world signifiers—soccer moms, relationship drama, grouchy cops—into a universe that also happens to revolve around human clones and a vast bio-military conspiracy. Though some of the show does take place within the hi-tech halls of the Dyad Initiative, where white lab-coated employees conduct rapid genomic sequencing, what’s remarkable is how casually characters regard such activities. It’s not every series, after all, that would juxtapose a season-long arc about an anti-clone cult with a subplot involving a character’s stint in rehab. Orphan Black shares Black Mirror’s nonchalance about even the most outlandish of its premises: The sensation is often that of watching stories ripped from next year’s headlines.

Literature, too, has been on a similar trajectory as television and film. Claire Vaye Watkin’s apocalypse-in-progress novel Gold Fame Citrus, for example, envisions the effects of a massive drought on a still-recognizable group of Southwest survivors, while Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven describes a lethal flu pandemic striking a world that is basically ours. To quote the film critic Devon Faraci, on the subject of the original Mad Max, the initial chaos “could be taking place next Tuesday.” But it’s Dave Eggers’s The Circle that may produce the greatest shock of recognition. The novel details the emergence of a global technocracy, which ushers in a totalitarian-ish world of absolute transparency. And of what is the digital Panopticon comprised? Just some old-fangled devices like body cameras, drones, and social media. It’s apocalypse almost now.

In a recent interview with George Saunders, the author Ben Marcus offers support for the idea that American fiction is witnessing an unprecedented breakdown between realism and more “fantastic” modes of literary expression. As he puts it, “[t]he magical and disruptive inventions that used to feature prominently in some stories have now been folded into more typical domestic realism.” His description captures the way works like Black Mirror repeatedly juxtapose the far-out and the familiar. Indeed, the trend Marcus discerns isn’t medium-specific: Other narrative forms are engaged in what he calls “a small love affair with the future.” Margaret Atwood, both a theorist and practitioner of the genre, traces the tendency toward reality-based fantasy back to Jules Verne, who, in contrast to true sci-fi writers like H.G. Wells, inaugurated a tradition of “speculative fiction,” which concerns itself with “things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books.” (Or, in Atwood’s words, “no Martians.”) Wells, in short, is otherworldly; Verne, this-worldly.

What’s interesting is how strongly the Vernian strain seems to be making itself felt today. The possibility that sci-fi could be breaking in favor of the near-future is especially surprising, given that prophetic boldness has often been seen as one of the genre’s signal features. If, as the critic Northrop Frye has argued, the job of science fiction has been “to imagine what life would be like on a plane as far above us as we are above savagery,” what does it mean that so much recent sci-fi has been taking place on a plane that’s relatively proximate to ours?

In other words: Why this rise in near-future stories, and why now? One possibility is that verisimilitude allows for better social commentary, guaranteeing that parallels between the fictional world and the real one don’t go unperceived. For all its complexities, it’s hard not to see Eggers’s novel as a techo-pessimist fable. If sci-fi is a genre that has long provided sturdy cover for social critique, it’s also possible that excessive fantasy can blunt its impact. It’s useful here to consider Ex Machina alongside Blade Runner, an earlier entry in the replicant-gone-rogue genre. Both films, of course, confirm people’s worst fears about the Singularity. But only in the newer film is that event presented as something that might actually, you know, happen. All it takes is a tech-savvy billionaire and an underground bunker—no depopulated urban dystopia required.

Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay, “The Imagination of Disaster,” presents a different possibility. In it, she argues that the science-fiction film should be understood as an “emblem of an inadequate response,” or a byproduct of humanity’s inability to deal with the “unthinkable.” Should the fact that sci-fi seems to now be handling such scenarios more concretely, then, be seen as a sign of progress? Or is this insistence on concrete-ness merely a symptom of what the sci-fi luminary William Gibson sees as the end of speculation—the collapse of imagination into a reality that has already outpaced it? In other words, perhaps the reason writers and filmmakers are less inclined to imagine new “disasters” is that they’re already adapting to so many. As Gibson explained in a 2007 interview, “I have to figure out what it means to try and write about the future at a time when we are all living in the shadow of at least a half a dozen wildly science-fiction scenarios.”

There may be no stronger confirmation of the notion that reality is keeping pace with fantasy than the arrival, last fall, of an auspicious date: October 21, 2015, the day that in Back to the Future II was made to represent “the future.” What in 1989 had seemed impossibly distant had suddenly arrived. Yet what struck many observers was not the dissonance of Robert Zemeckis’s Reagan-era vision, but instead, its surprising resemblance to postmillennial reality. As The New York Times noted in an article chronicling the things the film got right (video conferencing, voice activation), “this strange world is not so far-fetched after all.” And it may be that contemporary audiences find themselves in a position not unlike that of the film’s protagonist, Marty. These days, no matter where people turn, they can’t keep from running into their future selves.