Summary: Films, TV, and books show our fears – and dreams of solutions. See how they have evolved over time, and their missing element that prevents us from solving our biggest problems.
“All fantasy should have a solid base in reality.”
— Max Beerbohm’s novel Zuleika Dobson: Or, An Oxford Love Story (1911).
Sailing into a disastrous future.
Scientists gone bad.
Since the early days of science fiction, books, films and TV shows describe science experiments gone awry. Usually experiments conducted by scientists who are some combination of mad, overconfident, evil, criminal, well-meaning, and ambitious. The mad scientist and criminal scientist were a staple of 1930s and 1940s science fiction stories and superhero cartoons – such as Max Fleischers’ classic Superman cartoons (1941-43). Here are two of his best. First, “The Mad Scientist” (the story begins at 2 minutes). He wants revenge against the world.
The classic criminal scientist is seen in “The Mechanical Monsters” (the story starts a 1:28).
These comics reflected people’s fears that the wonderous new tech of the 20th century could be wielded against us by individuals. Those fears took tangible form in Hitler’s Germany. While the world was ruined by the Great Depression, he built automobiles, monster airborne fleets, and fearsome land engines – with which he overran Europe.
Science gone wrong.
In the 1950s, our fears recalibrated as the old ones were dispelled by time. Science was conducted by vast institutions. Mad scientists did not thrive in this world while genius scientists could earn fortunes legitimately. But the danger was now scientists’ hubris resulting in horrific errors. As in Forbidden Planet (1956). An alien race builds the ultimate machine to give them god-like powers. It quickly and inevitably destroys them.
In the Star Trek episode “Miri” (1966), the ambitious Life Prolongation Project on an Earth-like world produces an unfortunate side effect: death at puberty. It spread and utterly destroying their civilization.
A more recent example is the 2011 Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, in which the new viral-based drug ALZ-112 turns apes into a superior form of life.
Corporations gone bad.
A new genre shows corporations using technology to take over the world. A great example is Dave Eggers’ 2013 book The Circle, made into a 2017 film. Imagine if Google plus all the social media corporations merged into one company (presumably under a GOP government). Just as Google’s executives have decided that “don’t be evil” no longer suits their appetite for power, this fictional mega-giant seeks to remake the world.
The missing element from these horrific stories.
“Myth supplies models for human behavior, and gives meaning and value to life.”
— Mircea Eliade in Myth and Reality (1963).
All of these stories deal with legitimate fears as they have evolved over time. Now a new industrial revolution has begun, bringing forth new fears. Who will use this technology and to what ends? These stories help us play with different versions of these futures.
There is another aspect to the modern stories: people fight them alone.
Teamwork and powerful institutions used to populate not just our history books but also our legends. Such as Marvel Comic’s SHIELD, E. E. Smith’s Triplanetary, Robert Heinlein’s Space Patrol, U.N.C.L.E. (as in “The Man From”), and Star Fleet (in the Star Trek stories), and Spectrum (in the Captain Scarlet TV series).
No longer. During the late 1960s and especially the 1970’s we became alienated from our institutions. Organizations that should have led us into the future, like NASA, failed us. We learned that institutions which should protect us, such as the FBI and CIA, were often criminal oppressors. Institutions that we admired, like the military, often displayed gross incompetence. Now organizations most often appear in fiction as irrelevant, inept, or evil.
So they fight their enemies alone, with a partner, or as part of a small group (the ubiquitous Scooby Gangs, unrelated people who inexplicably bond into tight groups). This makes these stories useful entertainment – to our rulers, for whom our collective action is their worst nightmare.
So these stories discuss real threats but their usual narrative prevents us from learning about useful solutions. But if we begin to dream of standing together, then people will write more stories about such futures. These can inspire us, a cycle of positive feedback leading to a better world.
“People need stories, more than bread, itself. They teach us how to live, and why. …Stories show us how to win.”
— The Master Storyteller in HBO’s wonderful Arabian Nights.