Transcript

Outlook: Will the Future be Bright or Bleak?

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Annalee Newitz
Outlook Contributor
Monday, January 5, 2009; 1:00 PM

"When the present promises only economic hardship and political upheaval, what does the future look like?

"In 2009, it looks like a world of gleaming spaceships filled with enlightened people who have emerged with their humanity intact after a terrible war. They have entered the 23rd century, shed racism, no longer use money, possess nearly magical technologies and are devoted to peaceful exploration. I refer of course to "Star Trek" and its powerful story of a better tomorrow, which has been mesmerizing audiences for almost half a century and returns to movie theaters this coming May with an eagerly anticipated 11th full-length feature.

"But wait. The future also looks like this: a dark, violent world where a horrific war between humans and cyborgs leads to the near-extermination of humanity. This vision, in the latest "Terminator" movie, is also arriving at your nearest mutiplex in May.

"We imagine the future in places other than the movie theater, of course. Still, these two familiar franchises underscore the conflicting stories we tell ourselves, in uncertain times, about what lies ahead: Either we're bound for a techno-utopia of adventure, or a grim, Orwellian dystopia where humanity is on the brink of implosion."

Annalee Newitz, author of "Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture," and editor of the science fiction blog io9.com, was online Monday, January 5 to discuss her Outlook article tracing how science fiction films use fanciful (and often dark) takes on the future of humanity to speak to present uncertainties.

A transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Annalee Newitz: Hi everybody. Welcome to the live discussion of my recent Outlook article on how we imagine the future in difficult times. I focused on English-language science fiction published during tough times in the twentieth century, and explored how fantasies at the extremes of hopefulness and apocalyptic thinking register our social anxieties.

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Anonymous: In 1976, when Ray Bradbury was at the Jet Propulsion Library as the Viking 1 Lander started sending back pictures from Mars, Bradbury apparently told a journalist, "At long last, now we are Martians!"

This race for space really has gone a lot slower than most people expected. We seem to be far away from sending swashbuckling astronauts to other planets.

Also interesting was Douglas Adams' example in the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," where humans need artificially created illnesses or handicaps to make them more motivated and less complacent.

Annalee Newitz: It's interesting that you mention this because as the space race has slowed down, we're seeing a resurgence (in fiction) of space opera. (A couple of years ago, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer published an anthology of new space opera which I highly recommend, called The Space Opera Renaissance.) So going to space has become an even more powerful fantasy of escape.

At the same time, we are also seeing a spike in the number of stories about time travel -- Terminator is all about time travel, and the new Star Trek movie deals with time travel too (sorry - a small spoiler!). So as space travel gets less realistic as a goal, somehow time travel looks more enticing.

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Kingstowne, Va.: I believe in an episode of the original Star Trek series, a third world war was mentioned. Maybe that was between humans and terminators. So, maybe we can experience both the bad and the good (aftermath). :)

Annalee Newitz: Yes, in the Star Trek timeline humans have gone through an apocalyptic war and emerged from a new dark ages after inventing the warp drive and being contacted by Vulcans. So I think Star Trek explores the idea that even if humans go through an apocalyptic phase, they can still emerge as humane, enlightened beings.

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Somerville, Mass.: How much of the appeal of the futures of both "Star Trek" and "Terminator" as a response to the perceived chaos of the present do you think comes from the moral simplicity in both?

Annalee Newitz: I would actually argue that aspects of both franchises are quite morally complex. One of the reasons that some fans of original Trek found the Next Generation series of the 1990s to be unappealing or boring was that the crew often talked about the ethics of their missions. Fans would say they engaged in endless debates about the Prime Directive, a law in the ST universe that says star-faring civilizations should not interfere with non-star-faring ones - i.e., don't give advanced technologies to cultures that haven't invented them yet.

There were many debates about this law, and many episodes explored how problematic it was - after all, if new tech could help a failing civilization, shouldn't we give it to them? But then what if it actually created more problems? Often the answers were not pat.

And for those of you watching the superlative Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series, you know that there is a lot of moral ambiguity. Our characters are trying to stop Skynet, the evil AI who will take over the world, by killing scientists. But they really aren't sure which scientists to kill. And Sarah, especially, realizes that they are in some ways no better than murderers who justify their actions by hoping they'll rescue the future from apocalypse. But there are no guarantees. They may make things worse. Or just kill a bunch of people for no reason.

So I think we have to give audiences credit for seeking out shows that sometimes give morally ambiguous answers. Though sometimes both franchises do admittedly hit us over the head with very simple messages.

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Sanford, Maine: Didn't Einstein's theory of relativity suggest that space travel was in fact a form of time travel?

Annalee Newitz: Yes - and very few science fiction movies ever deal with that!

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Boston, Mass.: Annalee,

Focusing on the real world, what's the future of classic SF magazines like Analog, Asimov's and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction? Looking out 20 years, will these magazines still be published, and if so, will the publishers still be printing them in paper format?

Annalee Newitz: Obviously the way we publish science fiction changes as technologies change. I think scifi is often on the cutting edge when it comes to publishing, which is why the first zines back in the 1920s and 30s were devoted to scifi and fantasy. (The rest of the world didn't catch up to the zine trend until the 1980s and 90s!)

So just as scifi was among the first genres to embrace the zine format, and to embrace pulp paperbacks, I think it's also going to conquer the online publishing world before many other genres do. Already many scifi authors like Cory Doctorow publish their books online. And one of the finest science fiction journals out there, Strange Horizons, has been publishing online for years now. (Check it out!) Also, scifi publisher Tor started publishing short stories (for free) online at Tor.com earlier this year.

My prediction is that the scifi magazines like F&SF and Analog will migrate online and probably become more popular than ever. Fans are hungry for the excellent novellas and meaty stories you get in places like Asimov's. Having them online will let people pass them around, and will definitely inspire people to buy the authors' books - whether in e-book format, iPhone format, or paper.

Honestly, I suspect that in a couple of years the mainstream publishing industry will be looking at the scifi industry and saying, "How can we do that too?"

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Arlington, Va.: What part will human genetic engineering play in the future colonization of in-space manufacturing centers and other planets?

Annalee Newitz: A lot of scifi writers and futurists believe that genetic engineering will completely change humans of the future. Authors like Nancy Kress, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Linda Nagata have all written really compelling novels about future worlds where nanotechnology allows people to rewrite themselves (and the world) at the atomic level.

Meanwhile, you have pundits like Bill McKibben (author of "Enough!") saying that tinkering with our genomes will make us less human and is therefore bad.

Obviously we are going to have to be "less human" if we hope to colonize space - our bodies (called "ugly bags of mostly water" by an alien on Star Trek) aren't exactly designed for life offworld.

Authors dealing with what humanity looks like after extensive self-modification are often said to be describing "post-humanity," or what we become after we've optimized ourselves. Iain M. Banks, author of the excellent Culture series, imagines a kind of merging of humans and hyper-intelligent A.I.s who explore the galaxy together.

My feeling is that what makes us fundamentally human is our urge to explore and optimize using tools. So why shouldn't we be using tools to optimize our bodies to travel to other worlds - or even just to live healthier lives? I think it's inevitable that we will. And hopefully we'll do it in an ethical way.

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Alexandria: My favorite sci-fi author, Kim Stanley Robinson, looks into different futures based upon how we treat this planet; in his Californias Trilogy; his Science in the Capital series; and in his series on colonizing Mars. He seems more "grounded" in hard science than other 'space opera' types. Are there similar authors I'd enjoy?

Annalee Newitz: Robinson is especially good at what you might call historical materialism in his writing. If you like what he does, I would highly recommend Neal Stephenson's new novel Anathem, which is a very careful exploration of how an alternate version of Earth might evolve. He deals with everything from environmental differences to philosophical ones.

And I'll also throw you a curve ball, here. I would also suggest Octavia Butler's trilogy which is sold under the title "Lilith's Brood" (also sometimes as "Xenogenesis"). While her premise is more fantastical than Robinson's are - she imagines genome-manipulating aliens arriving on Earth after a population-destroying war - she is very careful to explore how an event like this would affect people's political and family structures as well as the environment itself.

Also, Butler's writing is simply superb, and she manages to turn a typical tale of first-meeting between two very different alien peoples into a story that's is psychological real. The alien Oankali don't want to invade Earth - they want to merge with it and improve it. On every possible level. How do you fight aliens who want nothing more than to join you? Highly, highly recommended.

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Washington, D.C.: I have always taught my kids that science fiction films present the concerns of today in the future the same way that westerns represented the concerns of today, but transplanted in the 1800s. Has this attitude changed at all?

Annalee Newitz: I think you're absolutely right, and of course there are a lot of deep connections between the Western and space opera. You've got those vast, gorgeous, unknown territories to explore, and many unfamiliar peoples to meet.

Interestingly, you can see Westerns sort of dividing up into utopian and dystopian pasts just as scifi divides along those lines when contemplating the future. Many of John Ford's terrific Westerns of the mid-twentieth century tried to show that moral goodness and the values of community could triumph over crime/cruelty in the West.

And then there's one of my very favorite Westerns, Destry Rides Again, where Jimmy Stewart plays a milk-drinking cowboy who comes to a lawless town and spreads a kindly form of democratic order wherever he goes. It's a kind of Star Trek idea, where a good man tries to stop violence rather than starting it (yes, it's usually men, until post-Westerns like The Quick and the Dead).

But then if you look at Sam Peckinpah Westerns of the 1960s, say, suddenly you get the dystopian, Terminator-style past: Everybody is selfish, violent, and morally bereft. The only law is the law of the gun.

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Lagrange, Ohio: Do you think that more and more Sci-Fi films are becoming earth bound, and are exploring futuristic themes involving earth instead of outer space? If so, what would you say is the cause of this?

Annalee Newitz: I don't think so. As we were discussing earlier, I think that as space exploration is becoming a more potent fantasy as the reality of living in space becomes less likely to happen on a broad scale any time soon.

More than ever, I think we want to go to space: To get away from political problems on Earth, or to run from the pollution we've created the way the people on the cruise ship did in WALL-E.

At the same time, I do think we're seeing a lot more near-future or on-Earth scifi fantasies like Iron Man or Batman for example. Despite the futuristic technologies in both films, many people wouldn't even call them scifi. They are sort of speculations about the present day.

I don't think these present-day scifi stories are anything particularly new, however. Remember that one of the first scifi novels, Mary Shelley's still-kickass-after-all-these-years Frankenstein, took place in the present.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Ethics and the Prime Directive, I concur with the TOS fans who are bored with ethical discussions about this law. However, I would have to wonder whether ST creator Gene Roddenberry studied enough history to notice that many indigenous cultures, either in the Americas or in other geographical areas have been damaged or nearly wiped out by missionaries, conquistadors, or traders bearing superior weapons, animals (horses), alcohol and diseases, all of which may have contributed to creating the Prime Directive in the first place.

Annalee Newitz: I think that Roddenberry probably was thinking about human history when he created the idea of the Prime Directive. Many episodes of Star Trek deal specifically with the problem of how the crew should handle meeting peoples in pre-technological societies that look alarmingly like stereotypical "natives" or "aboriginals" from various Earth regions.

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Sanford, Maine: Perhaps true, though infinite-improbability drive may be one "solution." I think the "wormhole" concept of "Farscape" is an attempt to provide a practical approach to known astrophysical fabric.

Annalee Newitz: My favorite aspect of Farscape is the sentient ship, Moya. Very few scifi movies and TV series have dealt with the fact that space vehicles will become so complicated that they will basically become artifically intelligent, or possibly even giant biotech cyborgs.

You see this idea all over the place in scifi novels, though, from John Varley's sentient satellite Gaea in his Gaean Trilogy (highly recommended!) to Iain M. Banks' sarcastic A.I. ships and orbitals in his Culture series.

I just love the idea that one day your best friend might be a spaceship.

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New York, N.Y.: The recent spate of post-cold war sci-fi remakes trying to substitute the red menace with [terrorists, global warming, pick your issue of the day] have seriously lacked in the luster department. In your opinion, who/what will be the enemy to stand up and fill the popular sci-fi void left by the fall of Communism?

Annalee Newitz: I wanted to end with this question, because I think it's a really tough and interesting one. It's true that scifi really blossomed during the 50s and 80s, both periods when the Cold War was peaking and a lot of menacing aliens resembled commies.

I think we're going to see a lot more "big bads" stepping up to fill the void left by Communism in scifi. First of all, as The Matrix and I, Robot and Battlestar Galactica and Terminator make clear, we still feel threatened by what amount to slave rebellions. In all these stories, and many more, robots are an enslaved workforce that revolts against humanity. I think that these stories are coming so fast and furious right now in the West because of people's ongoing uneasiness with the way we outsource everything from sweatshop labor to technical support to industrializing nations like China and India.

What makes these robot rebellion stories different from their Cold War counterparts is that they are filled with a sense of guilt -- humans sort of know they deserve to be rebelled against. We've been enslaving the robots after all. So there's a moral complexity there that I think was often lacking in a lot of anti-communist Cold War scifi. There's a sense that the war is our fault.

But if you want a less metaphorical example of big bads in our contemporary world, look no farther than Iron Man. Could you get any more literal than that? Arms dealer becomes mega-robot (and what a glorious mega-robot he is) who fights terrorism in the Middle East. I predict a lot more fighting of nebulously-defined evil brown terrorists in scifi to come.

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Annalee Newitz: Thanks so much for all your great questions! Sorry I couldn't get to them all. If you need more science fiction discussions, come visit my blog io9.com, which is devoted to science fiction and cutting-edge science.

May the Force be with you!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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