18 January 2012

Visions of the Future

This isn't going to be an MMO oriented post today, but it is something that has been on my mind since I have been thinking a lot about Star Trek and Star Wars lately.  So what I'd like to talk about for just a little bit, is science-fiction in general and what it has to offer about our future.  I know I'm going to offend some fanbois of both "universes" and probably some general sci-fi fans as well, but hey, what good is a blog if you can't occasionally just run your mouth about something that's on your mind. :)

And here's the first controversial statement.  I really don't think of Star Wars as sci-fi at all.  In my mind, sci-fi speaks specifically to our future somehow.  It talks about future technologies, future societies, future concepts.  But in each case it is directly related to our potential future as a species.  And while yes, humans are the central figures of Star Wars, Lucas himself specifically places the setting of that universe far outside that of Earthbound humanity.  The people in Star Wars are not us in the sense of "Earthlings."  They are from a completely different place and time.  Also, Star Wars uses a lot of storytelling tools and mythos that are more common in "high fantasy" settings.  The Force is akin to magic and the Jedi akin to sorcerers.  Monsters such as kryat dragons, wampa beasts, and rancors appear as adversaries to the heroes.  Overall I think it would be much more accurate to call Star Wars "science-fantasy" rather than science-fiction, and I know I am not the first to describe it in these terms.

What Star Wars really lacks for me in terms of sci-fi is any sort of connection to us.  It is a wonderful story and a very interesting universe.  I enjoy the majority of it immensely (aside from the travesty that is The Phantom Menace.)  But it really doesn't hold any meaning or inspiration for the human future or our potential.  It is just too "detached" from us to hold that kind of a meaning for me.  Again, that does not mean it isn't worthwhile on other merits, but it falls short of what sci-fi is more about for me.  Sci-fi needs to inspire us.  It should point us to (or warn us of) potential advances or disasters that wait for us around the corner.  It should inspire us to make those discoveries (or ward off those disasters) that could be coming.

To Boldly Go...

Which brings us to the single most optimistic view of the future in mainstream sci-fi (at least to my knowledge,) Star Trek.  Where much of sci-fi is darker in terms of its predictions for humanity's future, Star Trek gives us a universe in which almost all of our wildest dreams have been realized.  Hunger, poverty, inequality... many of the problems that plague our world today are no more on the Earth of Star Trek.  And yes, while even casual fans of the series are aware that not everything is quite so rosy in the Federation, Earth itself is portrayed as a place and a society that is beyond the vast majority of these problems.  On top of that, Earth and humanity is at the center of this vast interstellar alliance that acts as a stabilizing force in the galaxy.  Star Trek has always encouraged concepts such as cooperation, tolerance, and peace.  This is part of the reason I find Star Trek: Online to be such a "miscarriage of justice" in terms of the IP itself.

Star Trek not only points us to social and cultural changes in the future, but technological ones as well.  Many of the concepts we saw in the original series of the 1960's have already come into being in some forms today.  Specifically we can see advances in computers and communications technology that were at least partially inspired by concepts introduced in the Star Trek series.  Now does that mean that Star Trek deserves credit for the cell phone and iPad?  Not entirely, but again to me this is part of what sci-fi is all about.  It inspires us.  It shows us what might be possible and encourages us to think, "What if...?"  It stimulates our imagination and points us to a potential that we might not realize otherwise.  And I think Star Trek does this better than any single other segment of the sci-fi genre.

Rage of the Machines

A lot of recent mainstream sci-fi has been more about warnings than inspiration, in my opinion.  You look at something like The Matrix Trilogy or the new Dune novels and you see the "other side" of sci-fi.  Yes these settings introduce us to new technologies and new ideas, but their purpose seems more to be one of warning.  While a setting like Star Trek shows us how technology can do good things like eradicating hunger, these settings show us how it can be our own undoing.  Specifically they warn us about how our "tools" can turn against us when they become aware on their own.  The threat of "artificial intelligence" is a very common theme amongst this darker side of sci-fi.  And interestingly enough, it is an issue that Star Trek almost entirely avoids.  Aside from a stray episode here and there, computers are always our friend in Trek.  Not so for many other sci-fi settings.

But this too is a vital aspect of sci-fi to me.  In some ways, Trek is too good, too utopian.  This is why I don't have a problem with say, the Dominion War in the second half of Deep Space Nine's run.  It is unrealistic to expect everything to go so well all the time.  So this other, darker side of sci-fi has an important role to play as well.  Inspiration must be tempered with caution, lest it become simply blind ambition.  Take the Dune prequels for instance.  They warn us that if we become so complacent and hand over all our cares to machines, that we will lose what makes us human and those machines will in turn rule us.  The message to me?  Technology is an aid, but it cannot run your life.  There are some things that have to remain part of the human experience, no matter how far technology takes us.

I find there is a great lack of inspiration these days.  Perhaps much of that has to do with the state of the economy, many of us being either unemployed or not living the same lifestyle we are used to.  Perhaps it is difficult to "look to the stars" when our main worry is looking to our next meal.  And it is very easy to say that things like space exploration, research, etc. are a waste of money and resources when we have so many problems closer to home.  I would not argue that point.  But I would also say that perhaps it is these times when we need inspiration and imagination the most.  It is when things look bleakest that we need to look to the stars and picture something more, something better. 

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