A Vanishing Line: Sci-Fi vs. Reality

Above: a scene from Netflix's dystopian anthology series Black Mirror.Science fiction is quickly losing its place as a tool for predicting the future. Cian Montague examines this trend.[br]SCIENCE fiction has long been used as a tool for predicting the future. Star Trek, for instance, was famous for ‘ahead of its time’ creations, with personal computers, tablets and automatic doors featuring in the show long before they hit the mainstream. The predictions made in Back to the Future Part II were put to the test on October 21st of last year. Unfortunately, the real 2015 did not match up all that well, as it turns out functioning hoverboards are still some time off.But is this something that modern sci-fi still attempts to offer? Series like Black Mirror and Mr. Robot seem less interested in predicting the future than in examining the state of our society as it exists today.Mr. Robot, the second season of which concluded this September, reminds its viewers that their lives are ruled by machines and constantly raises issues of identity that stem from our always-online lifestyles. At one point, protagonist Elliot remarks that something is on everybody’s mind before correcting himself: it’s on everybody’s screen. “Might as well be the same thing nowadays,” he observes, expressing one of the central themes of the show.Similarly, anthology series Black Mirror presents a more twisted picture of reality, but it is one that is recognisable nonetheless. In 2011, at the time of the show’s debut, creator Charlie Brooker posited that the series was “about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy”, and this remains the case for the most recent third season: this is dystopian, sometimes nightmarish, but ultimately it doesn’t seem too far from today.“Hated in the Nation” and “Nosedive,” two episodes from the newest Black Mirror season, resonate precisely because of how plausible the scenarios they depict seem: the former primarily looks at the culture of internet-shaming and portrays a terrorist attack involving a killer hashtag and some robot bees. The latter satirises social media culture and presents a society where every personal interaction is rated, forming the basis for an oppressive and explicit social hierarchy.Though these episodes show off some pretty nifty futuristic computers, their concepts hardly strike as unfamiliar. Other episodes in the season look at hacking, online exploitation, and virtual reality gaming, and other contemporary problems. There is certainly some interesting future tech on display, such as memory-altering brain implants and an iCloud-like virtual reality afterlife, but it often takes a back seat to the ever-present theme of screen obsession.
“It’s not that newer sci-fi isn’t ‘good,’ it’s just that the genre is failing to push our antiquated perception of the future forwards, choosing instead to re-tread old ground.”
This is a trend that can be seen in film as well. Ex Machina and Her show their protagonists developing feelings for artificially intelligent beings. In Ex Machina, an android can be uniquely fitted for an individual on the basis of personal information shared online. Interestingly this parallels the Black Mirror episode ‘Be Right Back’, also starring Domhnall Gleeson, but in that case he is in the android role. Her sees its main character fall in love with what is essentially Siri, just with more polish and a dash of self-awareness.Certainly these films feature advanced and futuristic Artificial Intelligence. However, cinema has addressed the problem of distinguishing between humans and AI for years, from The Matrix to Blade Runner to Alien and further back still. Furthermore, with the recent release of HBO’s Westworld and with the Blade Runner sequel set to come out next year, the smart bet is that evil androids are here to stay. It’s not that newer sci-fi isn’t “good,” it’s just that the genre is failing to push our antiquated perception of the future forwards, choosing instead to re-tread old ground.This year’s biggest science fiction release will surely be Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in December, but this too seems unlikely to concern itself with predicting the future; alien encounters and lightsaber duels make for an action-adventure film, with little room for comment on humanity’s future. The Martian, on the other hand, entrenches itself so firmly within reality that its technological advancements only range as far as a decade or two into the future, and as such they are hardly even noticeable.There are of course exceptions, films that do attempt to cast their eye further afield. Rian Johnson’s Looper took on time travel, obviously a well-covered concept, but grounds itself in a unique circular narrative that pits self against self. Inception’s novel dream technology marks one of post-modern sci-fi’s few conceptual triumphs, although it seems unlikely that Christopher Nolan meant this as a concrete suggestion for a technology the future holds in store.Much of today’s science fiction, however, shies away from such bold ideas of the future. Popular media is commonly resorting to distorted versions of “the now” over what attempts to capture what could be. Series like Black Mirror are guilty of the same narcissism that they attempt to warn against.Modern society seems to have an unhealthy fascination with its newfound technological ability, which has stunted the creativity the science fiction genre was once known and treasured for.