We made it, you guys. We're here. This is now officially the future.
October 21, 2015 was the date to which Marty McFly travels in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART 2. Marty lands in a world that has the Cubs winning the World Series, strangely shaped Pepsi bottles ordered via robot, flying cars, hover boards, self lacing shoes, and 3D holographic movies. It's the future of the past.
Science has always looked towards science fiction for inspiration, so it's no surprise that BTTF 2 got some things right. It got a whole lot more wrong, but I digress. Science fiction futures stretch nearly as far back as the written word. Greek writer Lucian of Samosata (AD 125-AD 180) wrote “A True Story,” which includes elements of modern SciFi, including travel to the moon and encounters with aliens on Venus. So it's pretty safe to say the human race has always been fascinated with science and the future, and what incredible things await us.
What creative minds envisioned for the future has always fascinated me, from the distant future of STAR TREK, to the come and gone future of CLASS OF 1999. Although I do love to envision humanity in the 40th century, as in BARBARELLA, I have always been particularly taken by those works that are set in a future that has already come to pass. While certainly anything is possible thousands of years from now, seeing what a writer thinks will happen in their own lifetime, or at least in the next few decades, is more indicative of the excitement and hopes for what technology may accomplish right along side the fears of what an uncertain future will bring. What those writers thought about our future give us a unique insight into the cultural attitudes of our past.
My fascination with the future of the past probably started with old cartoons from the 1930's 40's and 50's. In particular the WORLD OF TOMORROW series by Tex Avery.
While whimsical and silly, these shorts still show a primarily positive attitude about the future. Post war optimism and modern conveniences. In a time when large swaths of the country didn't have running water, power, or telephones, small things like an electric mixer in the kitchen were incredible. Remember that dishwashers didn't become widespread until the 1970's. The technological advances of the time were mechanical devices, mostly electric, that made everyday chores easier and more efficient. So the fictional technologies followed along those same lines. A machine that washes dishes automatically? Then why not a broom that sweeps the floor automatically, or a bathroom where you can push a button and be shaved by a pair of mechanical arms? The streamlined, art deco design inspires this future of efficiency, convenience, and increased leisure time.
There was a darker side to this future, however, and we can see that through a couple of the most seminal dystopian works in science fiction: Brave New World and 1984. Brave New World warns us of the dangers of increased mechanical efficiency, assembly line capitalism and streamlined process. It shows us what could happen if these principals were applied to everything, including mankind. And 1984, as we all know, is the paranoia about where communism and collectivism could lead. An oppressive police state with constant surveillance where even your own children will sell you out to Big Brother.
As we move on from into the 1960's and 70's, we move on to the Space Age, the Cold War, the Love Generation, and the Civil Rights Movement. This period of time is one of tremendous upheaval, coming right on the heels of the optimism and national pride of the post WWII era.
Let's take for example Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I am going to focus on just a few things from this film, as one could spend tens of thousands of words unpacking this incredible work of art. I want to talk more about the design and feel of the future technologies featured in the film rather than its deep philosophical and allegorical elements. By its release in 1968, the Space Age is in full swing, with the US moon landing just over the horizon. Man has actually created the technology for space travel, so we know what an actual space craft looks like. The film also has Hal 9000, an example of artificial intelligence based off of actual computer technology, rather than just a “mechanical man” that we saw in the futures of decades before. Kubrick takes elements of the existing technologies of the day and extrapolates upon them, giving us a visual future rooted in the actual technology of the day. A future that seems attainable.
We can also see the fear of artificial intelligence and technology in WESTWORLD from 1973. Set in 1983, an amusement park that is supposed to recreate the Old West is populated by intelligent robots, and then something goes terribly wrong with their programming, causing revolt and murder. A definite shift from the helpful technological advancements of the Tex Avery shorts.
Another Kubrick film, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, takes place in 1995. The film was released in 1971 (Burgess's novella was released in 1962) and it depicts a future of rampant crime and in particular juvenile delinquency. It shows a future where young men run rampant, high on exotic drugs, beating, raping and murdering normal everyday people. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is representative of an attitude that has always existed, the old “Why these kids today!” But, more directly, we can see the parallels with the Love Generation. There was a very significant shift in the way that young people were thinking and behaving. New drugs were available, drugs with which the older generation was unfamiliar. That coupled with social unrest and upheaval genuinely scared a lot of people, and there was real fear that the future would spiral out of control.
In addition to both the technological and social changes, the political landscape also influenced the futurism of the day. The Cold War escalated through the 1960's, and along with the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis there was a growing fear that nuclear war was imminent. This fear is represented in works like A BOY AND HIS DOG, and MAD MAX, and it continues throughout the 1980's, The growing distrust of the Iron Curtain and the United States’ nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union made nuclear holocaust an incredibly real fear, and therefore a popular motif in the science fiction world.
The fear of youth culture is also prominent in the holocaust fiction of the late 70's and early 80's, with the MAD MAX marauders looking like street punks. There was the added element that the youth were already nihilistic and terrifying, so imagine how they would behave once society had broken down and there was nothing to stop them.
But, futurist fiction in the 1980's wasn't all about apocalypse and horror. We have at least one shining example of an optimistic future, full of wonderful technological advances: BACK TO THE FUTURE PART 2. This film again illustrates the technological and cultural extrapolation that marks futurist science fiction, but it isn't taken to terrifying places. Every day life is still every day life. The design of BTTF 2 is so rooted in the new wave/punk esthetic of the 1980's, yet taken to radical extremes. Everyday objects have all been redesigned, so they are familiar yet so strange. Audiences at the time could identify cars, soda bottles, shoes, jackets, but they are all different enough to let them know this isn't their world. What makes this film so important in this discussion is it manages to give us both an idealized fictional past, and an idealized fictional future. It shows us that the future isn't that scary, we aren't racing towards a burnt out nuclear wasteland or an oppressive, bleak militarized dystopia. Just as the year 1984 came and went and that paranoid fear of the 1950's turned out to be unwarranted, BTTF 2 tells us that the maybe the year 2015 will come and go and all the paranoia about nuclear holocaust and irradiated wastelands will turn out to be unwarranted as well.
Released in 1989, BTTF 2 leads us into the 1990's, where we begin to see our present become the future of the past. For futurist fiction, the 1990's were an incredibly popular setting. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE was 1995. Sky-net blew up the world in 1997, and THE CLASS OF 1999 had robot teachers. The end of the 1990's would be not only a new decade, and a new century, but also a new millennium.
By the time we get into the early 21st century, we start to see futurist fiction that acknowledges the futures that came before it. In particular, a comic by Warren Ellis called Doktor Sleepless addresses that directly. Written in 2007, Doktor Sleepless takes place in the near future, a future that is very conscious of what past predictive technologies should exist by that point. Graffiti that reads “Where's my flying car,” and “Where's my jet pack,” can be seen in the streets. Futurist technologies of the past are extrapolations of the technologies of the day, they aren't always accurate, and they shouldn't be taken as such. Doktor Sleepless addresses the attitude that we are supposed to be living in the future, and we're not because there aren't any hover boards or jet packs.
The future changes, and sure, we don't fly to work in our cars, but we have amazing technological and social advancements just the same. We take for granted that we carry around a glass bar in our pocket that give us access to the entirety of human knowledge. We use it to take pictures of our food. We forget that barely 60 years ago African-Americans had separate schools and drinking fountains. We have a long way to go, sure, but we have come so very far. We live in the future.
What does our future hold? What does the future of the future look like? In HER, the future is dominated by our computers. The little glass bars we carry around in our pockets will be used for almost everything in our lives, including, it seems, our personal relationships. In EX MACHINA, an eccentric genius has created not only a program that can mimic humanity, but also an artificial physical construction capable of doing so. The technologies in HER or in EX MACHINA come from a future that looks less fantastic and more inevitable, elements we saw in Kubrick's 2001.
Now, of course, there are and will continue to be futurist fictions that are bleak and terrifying. SNOWPIERCER is a future where global warming got so bad we tried something so radical to cool the earth we failed spectacularly and completely froze the world. THE WALKING DEAD is a future where a disease got out of control and turned us into zombies. Both are rooted in some of our most prevalent fears today.
We may never see zombies or artificial intelligence that can mimic human behavior, but what technological advancements we can't even conceive now await us in the future? What have we imagined that will actually happen? Will we all be forced to take pills that eliminate all emotion? Will all restaurants be Taco Bell?