Future Tense

The Inspiration Drought

Why our science fiction needs new dreams.

Star Trek
This Star Trek scene from 1968 still illustrates our dominant view of the future.

Photo by CBS via Getty Images

This piece is part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. On Thursday, Oct. 2, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on science fiction and public policy, inspired by the new anthology Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future. For more information on the event and to RSVP, visit the New America website; for more on Hieroglyph, visit the website of ASU’s Project Hieroglyph.

Why are all our narratives about the future 50 years old? We seem to be recycling big ideas as if we live in an inspiration drought. We’ve retooled Star Trek so many times, it’s starting to look like one of those 1957 Chevrolets still cruising the streets of Havana.

One reason is that writing about the near future is hard to do convincingly. Imagining life 10 or 20 years down the road requires placing the same big bets that science fiction always makes (in the future, we will all wear matching leotards!) but provides an incredibly short runway to get from now to then.

Storytellers can play it safe by depending on tropes that we have already been trained to expect: In the future people will use phasers and doors will swish open with a satisfying noise. We make a comfortable nest of assumptions and “rules,” allowing everyone to get on with the tale of young love or the hero’s journey.

But the trouble with stories is that they don’t stay in their fictional boxes: A good science fiction narrative will change your thinking about the world. Isaac Asimov’s robot stories have come to shape the whole idea of the robot in important ways, and that means robotics researchers are grappling with Asimov’s Three Laws.

This was the thinking behind a book I co-edited with Kathryn Cramer, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, which brings writers, scientists, and engineers together to create near-future narratives that are technically possible. (Project Hieroglyph is hosted by the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, and Future Tense is a partnership among Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.) The idea was to look for ideas strange and ambitious enough that they would open a new conversation about the future while staying relatively close to the cutting edge of real innovation. So the most far-fetched thing about Cory Doctorow’s story of Burning Man hackers crowdsourcing money for a lunar 3-D printer robot is not the idea of printing bricks out of moon dust. NASA and the European Space Agency have been putting research dollars into the problem for years. Lee Konstantinou’s tale of dronepunks launching their own flying Internet is not so different from Google’s Project Loon and probably-not-coincidental purchase of Titan Aerospace, or even art performances using the same idea. Untangling science from science fiction can quickly become a robot chicken and Alien egg problem.

Steering the radical collaborations and weird conversations of Hieroglyph toward publication has made me realize something about how we talk about the future now. It’s tremendously important to nourish the feedback loop between popular imagination and technical innovation—but we can’t keep shuffling the same ideas back and forth over the transom. Many of those conversations don’t just share memes but also tools: Hollywood special effects have depended for years on the same kinds of high-end computer modeling that physicists, mathematicians, and other researchers use to solve technical problems. Film design gets cited in patent disputes over product design. And then there’s James Cameron, explorer of real and invented abysses.

But the issue is not sharing tools—it’s the limited pool of metaphors behind those tools. Right now, almost everyone is working from the same conceptual playbook. All of these engineers watched Star Trek (or grokked its core ideas through cultural osmosis), which is a big part of why Google engineers keep talking about building the Star Trek computer—everyone knows what they mean. It’s why the X Prize Foundation wants someone to build a Tricorder.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the X Prize Foundation and Cameron’s submarining; the ambitious, creative way they approach the future is a wonderful thing. But should we be worried that so many of our blueprints for the future are now decades old? Are we giving our scientists and technologists the best possible toolkit of language, metaphor, and wild ideas?

The fact that we are all so steeped in the same shorthand of the future (intelligent robots; warp drive; retinal displays) is a hint that we’ve become complacent about our dreams. The stories we tell about the near future have become homogeneous and standardized. There are a handful of persistent narratives in Hollywood films and genre fiction about what the world will look like, much like the futuristic guns, helmets, and other props that get recycled from set to set. We all know the most popular of these stories: Inequality, social collapse, and chaos have been spilling into pop culture from Mad Max to Elysium. Sure, there are variations: climate change or aliens, Soylent Green or The Matrix. But they share a common aesthetic and cynicism. Then there are the flawed utopias (Logan’s Run, The Truman Show, Minority Report), the Frankenstein stories (Robocop, Her, Alien), and a handful of others. The optimistic visions might even be more consistent, like the sleek Jetsons future with those long-awaited flying cars. The most successful one is Star Trek (leotards!), which by this point has inspired generations of engineers and scientists.

So how do we expand the possibility space? How do we dream up fresh visions of the future that break out of the overplayed myths I’ve described above? Well, I’ll be honest with you: We can’t escape them entirely. Some ideas are just too sticky, too successful—like Asimov’s robots or the U.S.S. Enterprise—to put out of cultural consciousness completely. But instead of rehashing and rebooting old futures with endless sequels, we can try to come up with new ideas that are just as bold, original, and iconic. If we want new futures that grapple with 21st-century problems, from climate change to war and politics in the era of ISIS, Twitterbots, and super PACS, we’re going to need some fresh thinking.