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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 23
How the Future Passed Science Fiction By

Things to Come The future used to be a destination. It used to be The Future. And like a Zeno paradox, the closer we got to it, the more unattainable The Future seemed... until we realized that the destination had been demolished, the hundred-story skyscrapers of Fritz Lang's Metropolis and the pristine courtyards of William Cameron Menzies's Things to Come are now a never-ending string of strip malls selling cheap cell phones and tax advice.

Cinematically, The Future had a glorious history. A Clockwork Orange blows the viewers' rassoodocks with the white suits and black bowlers worn by Alex and his droogs, the trashing of modern architecture à la Bladerunner, milk bars, nadsat fluency, and Ludivico techniques... all part of the furniture decorating Kubrick's perverse cautionary tale. Norman Jewison's Rollerball also uses costuming (James Caan's killer leisure suits and matching sombreros) and set design (white walls and Spartan aesthetic, like an IKEA designer on downers) to orient viewers up the collective calendar, though unlike A Clockwork Orange it benefits from a nod to future history to explain how corporate takeover of the nation state allows such a silly titular sport to become the planet's key pastime. "A few years from now..." provides one of the few clues to Mad Max's A Clockwork Orange setting -- the leather uniforms worn by Australia's police force also hint at The Future -- but The Road Warrior requires a very brief prologue to explain why gasoline is gold. Even L.Q. Jones's A Boy and His Dog, seemingly needing no setup, takes pains to explain its chronology, doing so in its first line.

Rollerball (Apocalypse movies aren't playing quite the same game. While ostensibly taking place in The Future, these movies in fact view worlds in which time has effectively stopped. The Future, in movies such as Testament, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, The Book of Eli, and The Road, is an End Time... and another topic for another column.)

And then the territory changed. Though not, interestingly, from anything science fiction did, but in spite of its preoccupation with The Future.

I knew I was studying the wrong road maps one evening as part of AT&T's "You Will" campaign bisected an episode of some colorless sitcom or other in 1994. These scenarios directed by David Fincher took thirty-second glimpses into the next twenty years, a time of software agents, videoconferencing, electronic toll collection, wi-fi computing, and smartphones. Though I wouldn't be familiar AT&T's You Will with Adbusters's reaction to AT&T's marketing futurism at the time (which showed the negative sides of the impending digital revolution), these upbeat, seemingly utopian visions fueled my imagination and sense of wonder with the same holy fire that cyberpunk and Omni lit in the 80s... and made the best sf of the period (which included Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars and Connie Willis's Doomsday Book) seem quaint. How much revolutionary promise did drinking deeply from the timestream back to the fourteenth century hold when compared to the prospect of a device accessing a digital library? How visionary did recoloring the Red Planet to green (and later blue) actually look in the face of a wristphone or tablet computing?

An even better question: how could science fiction, "the literature of The Future," be so enamored of the view beyond the heavens that it missed the foundation transforming beneath its feet? How could it have missed The Future?

Some didn't. William Gibson's Virtual Light and Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather explored the territory of the first decades of the twenty-first century along with the "You Will" campaign. At the same time, the television series Max Headroom, which Bravo was running in syndication every Friday night, filled in Gibson's and Sterling's gaps and added a layer of futuristic detritus to AT&T's vision. Far too often, however, the genre wore its cosmic blinders on its sleeve, even while it remained incredibly readable. A computer that fit in your jacket pocket served only as a stepping stone to the "Zones of Thought" in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. They were a rest stop to The Future, not The Future itself.

Minority Report If science fiction books and stories only toed the waters of this covert future, science fiction movies of the period tended to avoid the ocean altogether, focusing instead on the pulp dreams of alien invasions (Independence Day; The Arrival) and time travel fantasies (Timeline). When they approached The Future at all, it served as little more than window dressing for adventure (The Fifth Element; Soldier) or, worse, Demolition Man advertisers (Taco Bell's product placement in Demolition Man). Even when a movie nodded towards honest extrapolation, the characters behaved like those in videogames rather than actual people (Minority Report). The Future became an obstacle course.

That now seems to have changed. Though one still glimpses The Future in trailers for upcoming science fiction blockbusters like Prometheus, more often than not the best (or the most engaging) science fiction movies simply eschew The Future while leaving a core science fiction idea intact. With genre boundaries now so porous, what we call science fiction looks far more like the world we live in than ever before. Max Headroom wisecracked his way through two seasons set "fifteen minutes into the future," sure, yet I get the feeling his binary head would explode in a mass of ones and zeroes if he tried to make sense of the world of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol or Inception.

In his essay "SF for MFAs," Chris N. Brown writes that the only science fiction that really works now is "sf without the future." This appears to be most evident in the most compelling science fiction movies of the past few years. Something like Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer still resides on the borderlands of the future -- Max Headroom would feel right at home -- but Gareth Edwards's Monsters, despite taking place in the near future, despite the presence of a Forbidden Zone populated by aliens, has none of the near-future sheen one expects from modern sf cinema. It doesn't need it.

A Dangerous Method Indeed, science fiction movies today don't even need to take place in the present. Taking place at the turn of the twentieth century, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method takes time out of its kinky telling of Carl Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Jung's (Michael Fassbinder) relationship with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) for Jung and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) to debate the various points of contention in their respective approaches to unlocking the human mind, with the shamanistic Jung desiring to branch out into the study of metaphysics and the paranormal and the measured Freud cautioning him not to pursue avenues that could damage their very young science... a debate that continues today. Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows bears only an tangential relation to science fiction (and on occasion to its subject matter), it fits by placing Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) into the realm of Bondian supervillain when he attempts to ignite a war throughout Europe, for which he will provide not only arms but also medicine. Like Chinatown's Noah Cross, Moriarty has his eye on The Future.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol The villain of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol believes his eye is focused on The Future, though his plan to destroy the world through nuclear annihilation in order to save it makes him look far more primitive than the forward-looking Moriarty. The IMF team, however, lives on the cutting edge of The Future, armed with an array of surveillance tech (Simon Pegg's Benjy can hack into a Russian prison's server to facilitate Ethan Hunt's (Tom Cruise) escape), retinal scanners and DNA swabs to confirm identity (Cruise declines at the movie's beginning), contact lens cameras, and virtual reality camouflage, to say nothing of smartphones and laptops. The action might be set in the present, but at times Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol resembles a kind of thriller William Gibson might write…if he weren't already so with Spook Country and Zero History, both of which look far more like the world AT&T posited in the early 1990s.

Is it any wonder, then, that The Future, for all of its epic sweep and grandeur, looks more and more quaint?

Copyright © 2012 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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