The Recurring Themes in Fictional Visions of the Future

Imaginations of the future in popular culture has been prevalent ever since the publication of Astounding Stories of Super Science in the 1930’s, a magazine featuring stories which predicted the future through the lens of science fiction. Of course, predictions of the future through science fiction predates this. The film Metropolis by Fritz Lang (1927)

is often cited as the pioneer of science fictionalised film imaginations of the future. Metropolis imagines a society powered by a large machine, run by the poor workers who live underground, for the benefit of the rich who live in luxury.

The workers in Metropolis

I began to consider the meaning of narratives which envision the future after recently reading George Orwell’s canonical Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and watching both Ridley Scott’s modern classic, Blade Runner (1982), and the recent Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I am also a fan of the television series Black Mirror (2014-present), a series which often looks at the future of the technological Western world, and I am a huge fan of science fiction, including the subgroup of film, television and books (which I will refer to as texts) which envision the future. In this article, I aim to analyse the similarities and differences between the past’s representation of future dystopia’s, and contemporary visions. What do they all have in common — other than bleak and frightful ideas about what the future could hold — and where do they depart? Are there common themes that run throughout a span of roughly sixty years? And, what do contemporary visions of the future say about our present?

Whilst a full blog post each on Nineteen Eighty-Four and Blade Runner would be the only way to do justice to such rich texts, I will be skimming the surface of some of the themes exemplified in these texts, and will be looking to other texts that envision the future to find running themes that are shared between futuristic texts.

The first theme that is explored is the theme of the body. This can take the form of exploring cyborgs or human clones, such as in Blade Runner where replicants (humanoid robots) are designed as human slaves, until they rebel. Cyborgs and clones can also be found in the cyberpunk texts of William Gibson, The Terminator films (1984-present), or even in the popular television series Westworld (2016-present). Robots and AI’s have been the topic of fascination in a wide range of film texts, and are sometimes concerned with the idea of what is a human and what is human nature, and some present humanity’s greatest fear of being replaced by a better species. This fear is represented through the “perfect” robot body.

This is the super strong immortal robot, for example, The Terminator, who is able withstand bullets and generally defeat anyone. On the other hand, female robot and cyborg bodies are represented as beautiful and sexualised ever since Metropolis, a theme which has been carried on ever since.

The female robot in Metropolis

In recent years, there is a shift towards giving female robots more agency, for example, in Ghost in the Shell (2017), the female cyborg, Major, is more a warrior than a sexualised robot. Yet, sexualisation of her body is still an inescapable part of the film.

Major in Ghost in the Shell

Whilst she still is a powerful, perfect cyborg, beauty is still a requirement when it comes to Hollywood imaginings of the perfect body. But, if we turn to Westworld or the film Ex Machina (2015), we find female robot’s whose powerful minds are the main focus of the narrative.

Ava in Ex Machina

Additionally, both texts directly attack the sexualisation of robot bodies and reveal that such fantasies projected on these bodies are a way for man to indulge in his misogynistic need to dominate female bodies.

Dolores in Westworld

Thus, one way that the past representations of futuristic robot bodies has changed, is that there seems to be a move away from fascination with the body, towards a concentration on the mind. Female bodies are moving away from passivity and, though often beautiful, are also presented as warriors. Male robots, if we look to Westworld in comparison with The Terminator, whilst strength and immortality are still themes of interest, consciousness and human nature now are the main concerns when we think of future robot bodies.

It is not just through the cyborg or the robot that the body is under scrutiny in science fiction texts. Nineteen Eighty-Four envisions a future where the body is surveilled, sex is monitored, people are forced by their telescreens to perform daily exercises, and the body is subjected to severe torture if they are found guilty of thought crime. Pain in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a major theme, especially in the end section of the novel, and the subjection of the body is key to the control of the mind. In the futuristic dystopia Children of Men (2007), bodies have become infertile, and infertility is linked to climate change, warfare and the end of humanity. In Logan’s Run (1976), bodies are allowed endless pleasure until they age to 30, and then are ritualistically killed. In Mad Max Fury Road (2015), an apocalyptic wasteland scarce of fuel and water, the leaders of the world control women’s bodies.

The wives in Mad Max Fury Road

Some of the younger women become the wives of the leaders of the cult, whilst other women are subjected to becoming human milk machines, as they are wired to machines designed to extract milk from them.

Mad Max and the human milking machines

Thus, subjection and control of bodies in futuristic texts is a common and widespread theme. Issues of aging, infertility, power and control over bodies is imagined in texts ranging from the 1940’s to the present day. These fears could be linked to the robot and the cyborg, that humanity is not perfect and one day we may be replaced by a better species. They also may be subtler fears, such as Children of Men and Mad Max Fury Road, which both project fears about bio-warfare, terrorism and climate change. Additionally, all the texts cited in this paragraph imagine a future under control of strict totalitarian rule — Children of Men imagines a United Kingdom run as an oppressive police state, Mad Max Fury Road is run by a cult, Logan’s Run is also run by an oppressive cult who kills anyone over 30, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a famous example of an imagined totalitarian government — which controls are regulates people’s bodies. This leads me on to my next theme.

The theme of surveillance is one of the most obvious and striking themes in Nineteen Eighty-Four, characterised by the prevailing telescreens which constantly monitor the people of Oceania. This is one of the most well-known and terrifying examples of surveillance in the history of fiction, due to its sheer inescapable omnipresence that seems to pick up on the smallest of facial expressions or an utterance in sleep. This kind of imagined futuristic surveillance continues in science fiction today. Consider the film Minority Report (2002), based on the Philip K. Dick short story ‘Minority Report’ (1956), which is set in the future where police are able to arrest and convict criminals before they commit the crime by use of psychic surveillance. This is another example of invasive surveillance which not only watches people, but watches and analyses their very psychology. Often, futuristic dystopia’s which feature invasive surveillance or societal oppression are run by totalitarian governments, as I mentioned in my last paragraph. The governments often use surveillance or other oppressive techniques to control the population, and such fear that this invokes is down to the fact that these techniques strip humanity away of basic rights or attempts to alter human nature at its most primal instincts. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the oppressive surveillance of thought and action is aiming towards the goal of a society of humans who do not feel primal instincts such as sex, free will, or conscious thought. The psychic surveillance in Minority Report strips humans away of free will, and subjects their thoughts to constant surveillance and analysing. The film Equilibrium (2002), presents us with a future society where humans are given daily drugs which block human emotions. The totalitarian government this is implemented by has banned emotion and creative expression to prevent future war or conflict. A similar plotline can be found in the film THX 1138 (1971), which also features a future society where a totalitarian government forces human kind to take daily drugs to stop free will and emotion. Both of these texts seem to have taken inspiration from the canonical novel, Brave New World (1931) by Aldous Huxley. This novel features a future society which is constantly drugged by soma, a soothing drug, which, rather than stopping emotion, makes them feel happy. The world is presented like a utopia rather than a dystopia, but the novel reveals the multiple ways that this society is oppressively controlled. The society has created a class system where individuals’ destinies are assigned when they are children, psychological manipulation is implemented by the government, natural birth is banned and, though the society is content and pain-free, this comes at the cost of free will and freedom of emotion. Thus, whilst some texts opt for oppressive surveillance technologies, some texts look at other ways that society can be controlled, such as emotion altering drugs and controlling governments. Some texts look to the past for inspiration for future dystopic societies, such as V for Vendetta (2005), based on the 1988–1989 comic by the same name, which presents a white supremacist government. This government implements the arrest and execution of homosexuals, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, atheists and other “undesirables”, and uses a Nazi style concentration camp.

V for Vendetta comic strip of the concentration camps

This government is a fascist police state which uses non-science fictional techniques of propaganda and surveillance to control the masses in this futuristic world. The V for Vendetta comic used the British 1980’s Thatcherite government as inspiration for its dystopia, but additional influences are Nazi Germany and the British catholic, Guy Fawkes, who is infamous for the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1604 when he and a group of catholic conspirators attempted to blow up The House of Lords to reinstate a catholic monarchy. Thus, V for Vendetta uses the past as a way to imagine the future.

So, what do these themes of surveillance, oppression and totalitarianism in future societies tell us? Whilst these imagined methods of surveillance and mind-altering drugs are imagined and far beyond what our real societies are capable of, the premise of these imagined methods can be traced back to what our real-world society does. We experience surveillance, especially in the context of post-9/11 America, oppressively. If we think of The Patriot Act, the Edward Snowden exposé, and the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, to name but a few, we find that such expressions in fictional narratives which critique or fear surveillance is not unfounded. Whilst democratic countries like the US or the UK do not live under totalitarian rule, that narratives from these places imagine future dystopia’s to be run by such governments ask the question: why? Is it merely just the fear of losing democracy? Or, is it more of a critique of hierarchical societies that democratic societies are comprised of? The idea of power in the few who run the many is totalitarian, yet that is how our societies are run. Yet, the alternative of communism has proved disastrous, and has often led communist nations to be run by dictators. Nineteen Eighty-Four contains a powerful critique of the history of Western civilisation, where it is described as cyclical. The novel contains a passage from “The Book”, the illegal book written against Big Brother. The Book describes how in human history, civilisation has always taken a hierarchical system with the rich and powerful few at the top, the middle tier of reasonable wealth and some power, and the poorer masses at the bottom. Whilst revolutions have shifted the people at the top and the middle, the general system has always stayed the same. That very few, or none, of the films that I have listed so far in this article have an ending where the system is overthrown, reflects this. Whilst the texts may contain small victories, the general system is never defeated. However, these texts communicate that it is best to be aware of the system, and try to improve the system so that it is better for the masses.

The mind-altering drugs theme still has still not been answered. What this fear may be confronting, through their critiques of subliminal messaging, mind control and mass-produced emotion control, is the next theme I will investigate: capitalism. This theme may seem a little less obvious, but it is a theme in texts concerned with the future, especially if we consider the setting of these texts. In Blade Runner, the world presented to us is one giant city of advertisements and products.

The cityscape in Blade Runner

One cannot turn one’s head without being bombarded with products and adverts, and even within the plot, the idea of knock-off animals to buy or “pleasure bots” for prostitution services is prevalent. In earlier texts, the idea of drugs, which is essentially a product, which is used to calm or alter the masses can be seen as a capitalist pursuit. At the very heart of capitalism is the idea that you can buy and consume products to make life better and to make you happier, which is very similar to the drug soma, or the drugs from Equilibrium and THX 1138 which are designed to make the masses submit. We may also consider the film They Live (1988), a science fiction film about mind controlling aliens. The idea of the film is that the protagonist finds a pair of sunglasses which reveals the world to show how it truly is, which provides a striking political satire about capitalism.

The sunglasses revealing the true messages of capitalism in They Live

The sunglasses reveal that the media and the government bombard the public with subliminal messages about product consumption, free will, submission to authority and being productive humans in capitalist society. This is a direct attack on contemporary capitalist systems, and demands that the viewer learns to see the hidden messages that the media conveys. Another film we may consider is the famous philosophical science fiction film, The Truman Show (1998) where Truman’s whole life is a reality TV show. The Truman Show contains themes of capitalism and media consumption, whilst also asking questions about postmodern reality. Capitalism on-screen, however, becomes more of a theme in more recent science fiction than older ones. Whilst we see examples of industrialisation in Metropolis, themes of capitalism and robot slave labour in Westworld (1973) and Futureworld (1976), capitalism is not such a strong theme in science fiction until the 1980’s. The 1990’s saw some the critiques of capitalism such as The Truman Show and The Matrix (1999), the modern classic which questions the nature of reality in a world of virtuality and capitalism. Very recent texts, such as Blade Runner 2049, the Black Mirror series, films about social media, and films about unethical businesses like the television series of Westworld, the film Avatar (2009) and Moon (2009), all critique capitalism in different ways. Whilst some films look to the impact of new technologies on society and the way high capitalism will alter human nature in the future, other’s look to how businesses may use future technology unethically. Thus, the theme of capitalism is one way that older visions of the future and contemporary visions of the future differ, as newer visions look to how capitalism and new technology will progress to possibly worsen society.

Another theme I would like to touch upon here is the theme of the environment. Such films which contain the theme of the environment are: Mad Max Fury Road, which presents us with a wasteland scarce of natural resources; Moon, which is premised on the use of fuel from another planet in order to save the Earth’s resources; WALL-E (2008) which is an animated film where humans have moved off the Earth due to environmental damage; Interstellar (2014) which is premised on severe climate change and in the end humans eventually move planet; Silent Running (1972) which is an extremely early example of an environmental science fiction film about saving the Earth’s plants and creatures; Blade Runner 2049 shows the damage which has happened to the Earth due to pollution; and both 2012 (2009) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) are apocalyptic films premised on severe climate change. Environmental disaster films, or climate dystopia’s as I will call them, argue that humanity needs the Earth more than it needs us. It tries to warn us of the dangers of climate change, and warns us to protect the planet, a message needed now more than ever before as in the real world we can see the effects of plastic pollution, greenhouse gases, planet overpopulation, deforestation, the dangers of over-farming and overfishing, the continual extinction of entire species or loss of biodiversity, urbanisation, the rising temperatures around the globe, melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels, oceanic dead zones, amongst other environmental threats. What these narratives aim to achieve is, by visually displaying severe and terrifying disaster, the audience will feel the necessary panic that humanity should feel, and to encourage us to do all we can to protect the planet.

At this point in the article, I will now focus on the differences between older visions and newer visions of the future. The main theme, which can also encompass the other themes I’ve already mentioned, is technology. The advancement of technology is not a new fear. We can trace back to the 19th century, during the Western world’s mass-industrialisation, as the beginning of this fear. The 19th century in the West was the time of the creation of cities and factories, mass producing goods for the first time, the advancement of science, the creation of the railways and a cultural shift towards Romanticism and away from the Age of Enlightenment. Thus, science was progressing and life was moving towards industrialisation and modernity whilst the minds of the Romantics were idealising the past — in part, this idealisation of the past was due to industrialisation and modernity. One Romantic writer was none other than Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of the influential canonical novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1818). The figure of Frankenstein’s monster embodies the fear of science and progress, and defying the laws of nature. Yet, Frankenstein also embodies the inevitability of history’s moving forward, and is a cautionary tale about being careful with knowledge and applying it responsibly. Thus, fear of science and progress are not new fears, but the way that fear takes its shape is changing. Older visions of future technology, specifically artificial intelligence, such as: Metropolis, The Invisible Boy (1957), The Master of the World (1934), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Westworld, Demon Seed (1977), Blade Runner, and The Terminator (1984), all imagine very evil AI’s who are out to kill humans or all of humankind. We then move into the 1990’s and 2000’s, where some of the “evil robot” narratives still persist, yet some have different attitudes towards future AI. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) presents robots to be kind and the humans to control them cruelly. Moon additionally shows the clones to be the victims of unethical practice, which, when discovered by the humans on Earth, is met with outrage. The Machine (2013) presents us with cyborg machines with a better sense of morality than the humans who created them, and Automata (2014), presents a struggle between robots and humans as the robots progress beyond human understanding. Ex Machina, one of the most ground-breaking of AI films in recent history, presents the creator of the robots to be a misogynistic and immoral man, whilst the AI, Ava, is able to achieve sentience and break free into the world as an independent female. Her (2013), shows the complete opposite of AI’s and humans pitting against each other, rather, it is a love story between an AI and a human. Blade Runner 2049 also presents the replicants as more feeling than the cold humans who disregard the old model replicants as mere problems to be retired, whilst K, a replicant programmed to kill targeted replicants, has a philosophical crisis about the meaning of his life.

What we see here is a move away from the fear that all robots will turn against us, to the idea that AI’s will only force humans to consider what it means to be human more closely. It also shifts away from the idea that robots will kill us all, towards considering the creation of consciousness and how we treat such a consciousness. If we consider near future texts, such as almost all the Black Mirror episodes, it shows how emotionally close we are to technology now, and how it will shape our world as never imagined before. Increasingly, science fiction texts look to define consciousness through AI. We might also consider such a film as Her, where the operating system, Samantha, whilst a machine, becomes capable of love. A similar character can be found in Blade Runner 2049. K’s hologram girlfriend, Joi, is a similar character to Samantha as both are essentially app’s that come to life and are capable of love. Here, two AI’s are not presented as a threat but become the object of deep love. What is represented in this move away from the old notion of “robots will kill us”, towards robots having consciousness and feelings, articulates just how close the modern man is with his technology. Technology is embedded in our everyday, in fact, it is embedded in our every waking minute. We are not only addicted to our app’s, but in love with them.

If we put this into the context of social media, we see both the emotional and the physical necessity that contemporary man has for technology. Social media is the subject of almost all the Black Mirror stories. The episode ‘Nosedive’ has gained particular attention to how it has proposed the ways that social media might escalate to affect even more aspects of the modern man’s life. ‘Nosedive’ predicts that social media will result in a new hierarchical societal order, with those who have “better ratings” being the upper tier of society, whilst those with lower ratings being the poorer masses.

The eye implants, and two characters from Nosedive

In some ways this is beginning, as statistics have proved that there is a growing gap between low-income households who do not have access to the internet, much less, are able to afford iPhones or smartphones, and high-income households who are able to access the internet almost all the time and can afford the necessary devices needed to access the internet. This becomes a problem as contemporary life becomes increasingly digital, to be able to apply for jobs (as one example) or access the wide range of knowledge online, one needs electronic devices and access to the internet. Thus, we are already creating a digital hierarchy.

The emotional need, represented through the technological love stories as mentioned previously, but also the physical need, represented through such texts as ‘Nosedive’, where the characters cannot live without social media, also relates to a theme that only new visions of the future can capture: high capitalism. By high capitalism, I mean the new ways capitalism works within the contemporary technological West. Capitalism traditionally focused on buying products to make one happy and to make one’s life easier. This is still true of high capitalism, but now, the focus is more on the self than the product, or, as Jean Baudrillard claim’s, you become the product. Frederic Jameson also makes a similar case, where he defines late capitalism (high capitalism, both meaning the same thing), as the expansion of capitalism into previously before uncommodified areas of life. This concept becomes less confusing if we relate this to social media, which are platforms where essentially you sell yourself. Through Facebook (for example, but this applies to most social media), companies buy your digital footprint to collect data about you, thus, customising what is sold to you. It also dictates your online experience, what you see, what results come up when you “Google” something. The answers to your Google questions will not be the same as someone else’s, especially if they are from a different geographical location, earn a different income, hold different beliefs in relation to politics, religion, etc. And this digital footprint that you create to be used by others is created for free, and often without realising how your online experience is narrowly shaped to suit your beliefs. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we have seen how this digital footprint has been used to shape election outcomes across the world, and change the political reality as no one would have been able to foresee. Thus, capitalism has expanded into even political reality. It has expanded into how we shape our identity, the point of social media which premises itself on being a mini virtual world where you describe yourself, shape yourself, interact with friends, and share your life. You become the product. And this is what texts like Black Mirror try to capture. The narratives are set in the near future, and we can find episodes where technology influences political reality, such as the episode ‘The Waldo Moment’, in which a fictional and digital character wins a political election, eventually ending in a dystopia ruled by Waldo.

Waldo in a TV debate

‘Nosedive’ additionally explores reality being ruled by social media ratings, creating a new world order. These dystopia’s can be seen as high capitalism at its most extreme, as essentially, each feature products which rule human life.

The world of Nosedive

This postmodern reality of high capitalism leads me to conclude with my final point: reality. A theme explored by futuristic science fiction is the nature of reality, more so in contemporary texts than in older texts. The modern classic philosophical film, The Matrix, was proposed to attempt to visually display Baudrillard’s definition of hyperreality. Hyperreality is a simulated reality, which is so real we cannot tell it is simulated. In fact, simulation has replaced real reality. Hyperreality is comprised of a world of images, of adverts, television, media, celebrity, and high capitalism. The Matrix uses the idea of a real beneath the simulation, which some scholars argue is missing the entire point of Baudrillard’s hyperreality, as he explicitly states a return to the real is not possible, the hyperreality is all that is left in this postmodern world. However, that the film attempts to communicate to the viewer that our reality is infused with the simulated digital world of media and images, is still worthy of commendation. The Truman Show is cited as another achievement in the question of reality. The Truman Show also presents the world as a hyperreal world of television and media, a world that isn’t real. The recent television series Westworld, additionally questions reality and unreality. The “hosts”, the robots, want to achieve sentience and consciousness, and reclaim a reality. They want to escape their world of fiction. But the real world, the outside, may not be more real than the park that they are stuck in, as humans constantly escape to the park to experience something real that postmodern banality cannot give them. And Black Mirror constantly questions the nature of reality through exposing how deeply hyperreal our world is, how embedded in technology every aspect of our lives is. As our world moves deeper towards technological postmodernism, our stories and fictions represent this. Many critics and members of the public alike have noted how near future texts struggle to stay ahead of the present, as narratives from Black Mirror, or films like Her, appear to merely be waiting around the corner. The stories they tell can inform us the most about our present time.

To conclude, what science fictional narratives tell us about what the future may hold can tell us about the contemporary world we live in now in deep and meaningful ways. Science fiction, as a genre, has been used to shape the world in several ways. In the second episode of the Netflix series Explained (2018), scientists discuss how science fiction narratives have inspired and shaped real-world technology. Therefore, science fiction can both shape the world, literally, and reflect the world’s fears, and hopes, back to ourselves. These narratives are powerful representational tools, and as long as we listen to what these narratives are warning us, dystopic visions of the future can remain imaginary.

Recent graduate in BA (hons) English Literature and Film. I love books, films and TV that make me think.

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