Several years ago, I wrote the following in one of my Watching the Future columns.
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 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.
(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.
We have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which 'now' was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents' have insufficient 'now' to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. ... We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment's scenarios. Pattern recognition.
- Black Panther
- Sorry to Bother You
- The Endless
- A Quiet Place
Others speak well of Solo and Annihilation, but neither impressed me as much as the top two on this list. In addition, three also made my horror top ten, and function better as horror movies. If we consider Black Panther a superhero movie rather than sf, then Sorry to Bother You, a devastating, Swiftian look at Where We Are Now (Pohl and Kornbluth would have approved), becomes the best original science fiction movie of the year. I grant you, it ranks on my Best of 2018 list regardless of genre (as does Black Panther), but it's all the more striking when one considers how little truly good sf hit theaters or streaming services.
It's a shame, especially because I happen to love the genre, and want to see more than the underwhelming material we're given. To that end, I'm going to try something different this year. I have a number of writing projects I want to work on, from short stories to the completion of a horror novel, so it perhaps is foolhardy to add one more.
Starting next week, I am initiating my Looking Back at the Future project.
I want to look at how science fiction cinema portrayed the Future over the last hundred years. I plan on reviewing 50 science fiction films release from between 1902 (when Georges Méliès released Le Voyage dans la Lune) and 2002 (one year before the release of Gibson's novel) with an eye on how our perceptions of the Future changed in cinema, which in turn changed our vision of the Future generally. Additionally, I want to avoid discussing the most obvious movies. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brazil, and Blade Runner (to name three) stand among my favorite movies of all time, but other, better scribes have written of their influence. By contrast, how many people have seen (or even heard of) pictures like Android, or Circuitry Man, or Night of the Comet, or Making Mr. Right, or Until the End of the World, or Screamers? How many have thought of These Are the Damned, or If..., or Abre Los Ojos in science fictional terms?
I'm not sure I have any goal other than examining these visions and how they shaped our perceptions of tomorrow. I have no idea if I will be able (or even want) to determine how, or where, we lost the Future. That may be unknowable.
Mostly, I'd just like to believe in the future again, even if it isn't the Future. I would like a glimpse of who or what those inhabitants of our future might be.
I hope to see you there.
(For those curious about my horror picks for 2018, they include: Hereditary, Mandy, Suspiria, A Quiet Place, The Endless, Halloween, Upgrade, The Ritual, Unsane, and They Remain.)