In 1982, cultural critic Fredric Jameson published “Progress verses Utopia: or, Can We Imagine the Future” which argued against the commonplace belief that science fiction was about the future. Instead, he suggested, the role of science fiction is “not to give us ‘images’ of the future” but “rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present.” Moreover, he suggested, what science fiction frequently demonstrated was “our incapacity to imagine the future,” or rather, a future that was very different from the present, a future of radical alternatives and utopian promise. So how do we see this dialectic between future and present play out in this week’s science fiction television?
Fox’s new cop drama Almost Human opens with a voiceover explaining its premise (all humans cops are now teamed with a MRX android cop) and announces that this is because “evolving technologies can no longer be regulated.” Hence, they can only be policed. Hence, a science fiction police drama. The technologies investigated in each episode are futuristic (this week it is bullets that can target you by the tracking devices we all carry around with us), but they are also obviously clear extensions of existing social practices and the crimes that go with them.
SyFy’s new Helix introduces its key characters not in the Biosystems Arctic research base but rather in the CDC, taking great pains to establish continuity between business-as-usual for the CDC and the world of this series, in which research on a pan-viral vaccine has resulted in a medical catastrophe with hints of posthuman genome manipulation. Such care with establishing plausible premises is reminiscent of publicity surrounding Ron Moore’s acclaimed Battlestar Galactica and claims that it was more political drama than science fiction.
CBS’s Person of Interest has only gradually moved into clear science fiction territory in this, its third season, with the open discussion of The Machine as artificial intelligence, building on previous seasons whose plots seemed closer to the thriller genre. Since the Patriot Act, Wikileaks and more, you don’t have to be a science fiction fan to believe that the government is spying on you all the time, or to accept the fantasies of ubiquitous information via surveillance technology. The network’s short-lived Hostages (2013) had a similar computer system lurking in the background, and its conspiracy to kill the president was in part motivated by the military’s desire to unleash more of this machine’s potential.
And finally ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reorients this super-hero universe away from otherworldly heroes and toward the ordinary agents trained in special ops and high tech that are able to battle threats to national security, natural and supernatural. This week’s “Seeds” featured a visit to the science division of SHIELD’s training academy, which has its roots in the post-WWI Strategic Scientific Reserve, in which science and technology are imagined as key weapons in the fight against evil.
What all of these series seem to have in common is a vision of the power of science and technology in daily life, its ability to change the world we live in, and even ourselves, and a clear sense that the future – as once presented in the ‘images’ of science fiction – is already here. Do these shows defamiliarize and restructure our experience of the present? I suspect they no longer do so in the ways that Jameson had in mind, in which science fiction encouraged us to experience our present as the history of a possible future and thus perhaps to think more critically about what this future might be as we actively make it.
Yet the new temporality of the science-fiction-present seems more likely to familiarize than defamiliarize our experience of technoscientific modernity. Almost Human concedes that new and sinister technologies will inevitably emerge and the best we can do is react to them. Person of Interest and Hostages barely seem science fictional at all, and instead ask us to question the very real fact that information technology monitors and shapes us in often invisible ways.
Partway through watching “Seeds” I had the excited anticipation that now, finally, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was finding its stride, that it had quelled network exec anxieties sufficiently that an authentic Joss Whedon vision – suspicious of centralized authority – was about to emerge. Following revelations that Coulson was revived despite begging SHIELD doctors to let him die, and that at least one of these doctors felt medical ethics were violated in this resurrection, the institutions of SHIELD began to look more like those of its enemies this week. For example, a lecture at the Academy by Agents Fitz and Simmons to the next crop of scientific geniuses – about how important it is to use their intellectual powers for good, since others were using them for bad and putting untested biology and technology in the wrong hands – was interrupted by an attack emerging from within these hallowed halls. Later, when details of Skye’s past emerge (spoiler: she is a 0-8-4, more to follow), Coulson decides to tell her the bloody history of the village destroyed to protect her rather than continue lying to her about her connection to SHIELD. Commenting on the venture capitalist who funded the technology used to attack the Academy, Coulson observes, “Quinn is not the only one who’s been manipulating people. We do it all the time. … We teach it at the Academy.”
Yet the conclusion of the episode was disappointing. Despite these hints that even those with “good” agendas manipulate and mislead, that SHIELD perhaps has no more right to be creating and controlling these technologies than do their antagonists, the episode’s conclusion shies away from these insights and returns to a reiteration of SHIELD as family and their vision of the future of technology as both non-democratic but also just. Praising Skye’s response to his revelations, Coulson insists she showed strength of character by refusing to be devastated by the knowledge that many people died to protect her, and instead to feel embraced by and fully a part of SHIELD, the family that was “always there” even when she thought she had none. John Reece’s recent return to the fold on Person of Interest – after a couple of episodes of cynicism during which he held The Machine did as much harm as good – follows a similar logic.
Jameson’s essay was written from a Marxist perspective, and a lot of social and political thinkers recently have noted the difficulty of imagining a future, any future, in these harsh economic times. No more for us the wondrous visions of World’s Fairs and Disney’s Tomorrowland. Our version of Tomorrowland would be a theme part of ecological crisis, absolute gaps between the rich and the poor along the lines of Elysium (Blomkamp 2013), and drone warfare over dwindling resources.
So, has the future become a thing of the past? Can we dream of a better tomorrow or do we simply imagine better technology to stave off the inevitable collapse of the present, but only for some?
One answer, it seems to me, is NBC’s Revolution. Revolution begins with the end of technology as we know it when the electricity goes out. Yet it quickly turns to the reinvention of technology, but a new and unanticipated kind of technology, the nanobots who are programmed but also have minds of their own. Like the rebels resisting the Patriot’s vision of faux democracy, a privileged elite, and programmed child-soldiers, the nanobots suggest the open possibilities of another future, a world that could be made completely otherwise.
The near-future sensibility of all these programs suggests a widely shared sensibility that America in its current configuration does not offer much of a future for many of its citizens. Whether science fiction can help us imagine better ones – as well as help us see more clearly the dystopian trends of our science-fictional present – remains to be seen.