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A friend of mine was discussing Blade Runner with me, and during the course of the conversation, she noted, in (I think) mock alarm, that there was now less than a decade separating us from the events of that flick. If we are really going to have replicants, offworld colonies, and Los Angeles getting more rain than the Pacific Northwest, then we had better get cracking! I responded by saying that before any of that could happen, Jupiter was supposed to turn into a red dwarf this very year -- as promised to us in 2010 -- and yet to date it gave no sign of actually being infested with implosion-facilitating monoliths. No matter how you slice it, whether you're hoping for replicants or red dwarfs, if you're a sci fan reality is really letting you down.
This shouldn't be too surprising. Reality has been proving scifi wrong for decades now -- or, if you prefer, it's been science fiction movies (and their makers) who have been letting down reality: Always promising wonders right around the corner, and yet when the date for those wonders comes to pass, we're still just us, still without the proverbial flying cars or robot butlers. How can movies get the future so wrong for so long?
Well, the answer is that this question assumes something not necessarily in evidence; that is, that science fiction filmmakers are in fact trying to get the future right -- that is, trying to accurately extrapolate from current, existing knowledge, a future in which their stories could come about. It's a nice theory, but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny. In fact, the formula many scifi movies use for their "futures" is another one entirely, and it goes like this:
Actual present + notable concern in the present carried to an extreme + cool techy stuff largely indistinguishable from magic = "The Future"
Now, let's apply this formula to some notable science fiction flicks...
Blade Runner (1982: Actual present (then-current brands, Harrison Ford's anodyne-yet-everyman cop), notable concern (Los Angeles/Earth in an environmental worse-case-scenario), cool techy magic (Replicants, offworld colonies, flying cop cars).
2010 (1984): Actual present (a 2010 that looked very much like 1984, down US/USSR rivalry), notable concern (those cold war worries), cool techy magic (thinking computers, monoliths)
Robocop (1987): Actual present (80s hair, style, and attitudes), notable concern (Detroit as a stand in for urban decay), cool techy magic (Half human, half robot cop).
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992): Actual present (takes place in a 1996 which looked like 1991), notable concern (nuclear annihilation), cool techy magic (time travel, shape-shifting android assassins)
The Matrix (1999): Actual present ("our world" represented as 1999, the year the movie was made), notable concern (humanity done in by its own technology), cool techy magic (The Matrix itself)
And of course, the formula is still in practice today: Avatar features characters with very "early 21st century" attitudes and manners grappling with environmental destruction and asymmetrical warfare while using avatars, light-speed travel and human hibernation.
This formula works for a really simple reason, which is that while scifi movies are putatively about "the future," in fact they're actually about the present -- and specifically, about entertaining today's movie audiences. The fact is that most people go to the movies to be entertained, and a smart way to do that -- especially if you're going to throw some wild concepts at viewers, as science fiction does -- is to give them some familiar ground, usually in the form of characters who aren't too unlike them, and who are grappling with a concern that's current to their timeframe. Actual, logical scientific extrapolation isn't really the order of the day.
And even if it were, there's still no guarantee the filmmakers would get it right. Because here's the other thing: Everybody gets the future wrong. It's not just Hollywood or science fiction writers. When it comes to the future, no one knows anything. At the close of the 19th century, British physicist Lord Kelvin declared heavier-than-air flight an impossibility (despite the existence of, you know, birds) and that radio was just a fad. In the '70s, the president of Digital Equipment Corp. voiced doubts that anyone would ever need a personal computer. In 1995, scientist Cliff Stoll wrote in his book Silicon Snake Oil that the Internet wouldn't really take off, in part because it could never replace newspapers or shopping malls.
Considering that I'm writing this on a home computer connected to the Internet by way of a radio signal, we can see the value of prediction, even as practiced by smart people who one would think would have better chance of getting it right. Hollywood, at least, has the excuse that most of the time, it's not actually trying to get the future "right" -- it's just trying to give you a good time at the movies.
Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man's War and Zoe's Tale. He's also a creative consultant for the television series Stargate: Universe. His column appears every Thursday.