The here and now of a sci-fi future

PHOTO: J.D. Hancock, Flickr CC-BY

As daily news comes to resemble science fiction, I imbibe in more science fiction. No matter how fantastical the genre becomes, or how far it reaches into the future, science fiction reflects the present better than political science. Sci-fi speaks without inhibition about what we want, what we fear, and how we feel about ourselves.

Sci-fi movies from the 1950s often set their scenes in the 21st century. They failed to accurately predict what 2023 would be like, but reveal much about their own times. Square-jawed men captain spaceships while women in tight jumpsuits require rescuing. Resources are limitless; conquest, inevitable; motives, unimpeachable.

Sometimes we complain that the future isn’t what we were promised. But we were promised the past in different clothing. It’s no wonder we’re disappointed with inevitable change.

I wrote last winter about shows like “The Man in the High Castle” and “For All Mankind,” and last summer about “Silo.” Lately, I’ve been watching the alien attack program “Invasion,” a psychological thriller called “Midnight Mass,” and sci-fi epic called “Foundation” based on a series of Isaac Asimov books. These shows paint a grim picture of societies beset with totalitarianism as humans relapse into to myth and superstition. I doubt they speak of a real future, but they do say much about our world today.

The ability of fictional characters to light across galaxies and space-time proves useful to sci-fi writers, even as reality finds space inhospitable to our kind.

“Human bodies really can’t handle space,” writes Sarah Scoles in the Oct. 1 Scientific American. “Spaceflight damages DNA, changes the microbiome, disrupts circadian rhythms, impairs vision, increases the risk of cancer, causes muscle and bone loss, inhibits the immune system, weakens the heart, and shifts fluids toward the head, which may be pathological for the brain over the long term—among other things.”

William Shatner — Capt. James T. Kirk himself — flew into space in real life aboard one of the Blue Origin rockets funded by billionaire Jeff Bezos. The longtime fictional space captain returned to Earth burdened by what he saw.

“I discovered that the beauty isn’t out there, it’s down here, with all of us,” wrote Shatner in an essay for Variety. “Leaving that behind made my connection to our tiny planet even more profound.

“It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered,” continued Shatner. “The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness.”

It is tempting to imagine fleeing our world’s problems for some ideal world beyond the sky. But that is not our purpose on Earth.

Adjusting to the realities of climate change, infectious disease and human migration provokes visceral reactions. Even the mention of the words cause people to froth over the unwanted political and cultural implications.

If such aversion has anything to do with staving off undesirable change, or restoring that impossible affectation known as “the good old days,” then we should ask a simple question. If we desire stability so much; if we want to be conservative with a small “c,” why then would we continue on a path that spews our rapacious consumption and destruction into space?

That’s where this is going. At current rates we will consume our resources faster than we can replace them. And then, over the next millennia, we will become something other than human: monsters from our most haunting works of science fiction hungrily searching the galaxy for plunder.

But most of that plundering will happen right here, with more suffering and less to show for it each time the monsters win.

Modern sci-fi is certainly more dystopian than “Star Trek,” “Lost in Space,” or “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” It’s clear that we feel much less optimistic than we’re letting on in polite conversation. We fear shifting culture and rapidly-changing technology, even if we won’t use the word “fear” in our political rhetoric.

But as dire as it seems, science fiction points the way. Even the most depressingly pessimistic sci-fi stories — from “Children of Men” to “The Road” — end on the gathering of community and the building of society. This is the fundamental nature of our species. It is the way forward, even when it seems there’s no place for such talk in our modern politics.

Again, where political science fails, science fiction can deliver.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Interesting choice for graphic. Robby the robot. It took me a long time to complete seing that film. I first tried to watch it when it first came out at either the State or the Lybba theater. I don’t remeber which. I do remember walking out. I was maybe 8. I finally watched the film all the way threough in the last month. Having enjoyed readfing The Time Machine both the book and thre classic comic about the same time as the walk out and looking back at those events occurring at he same time my only conclusion is that the book was more clear about the condition of humanity on this planet. Forbidden Planet was too metaphorical for my very young brain. But be that as it may while comparing again, Forbiddent Planet had much more to say regarding a species destroying itself. Come on the ID monster. Wow. We all come with one of those according to one acceptd theory. As the autocrats arise what is propleling them ? Id.
    It was interesting to watch your 8th Distrcit Congressman change his vote on the Ohio temporary nominee for House speaker. Now if he would do the same on many more issues. Getting the Id out the way can be helpful to all of us as we move hopefully more communally forward.

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