Remember When The Future Was Going To Be Awesome?

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This is a reprint of an article I ran on the previous version of Radio Free Tomorrow about two years ago. I'm reviving it in honor of Project Hieroglyph, which brings SF authors and scientists together to write science fiction stories with an optimistic bent!

I've been thinking about the state of science fiction, these days; science fiction on television in particular, but also, the popular franchises and concepts in SF in general. Thinking in particular on the fact that it's all so damned bleak and hopeless and pessimistic!

What we need now, frankly, is Star Trek. And not just another movie -- although I'm looking forward to the new movie with absurd glee [reprint note: in retrospect? That glee was badly misplaced...]. We need another series. We need a space-opera television series whose premise is simply this: The Future Is Going To Be Awesome!

Don't get me wrong: I loved Battlestar Galactica (2003). I love the fact that, when we use SF to hold up the mirror to the modern day, we no longer have to find ways to sugar coat or tone down controversial messages to get them past censors. Oh, it's not perfect, but we've come so very far from the days when it was a struggle just to get a black female officer on the bridge of a starship!

Trouble is, "naturalistic" has come to mean, by implication, pessimistic. Realism has come to mean, "the future has to suck." Stories about the future, right now--TV, movie, and print--are almost all about dystopias, or about surviving apocalypses. Many of them are bloody brilliant, mind you, and very believable. But they're about the fear of a terrible future, and not about the hope of an awesome one!

For all its faults--and it had many--the one thing the Star Trek series and movies had going for them, consistently, was that basic notion of an awesome future. Even Deep Space Nine, the darkest of the Trek series, the one most focused on war and interpersonal conflict and the consequences of actions, was still ultimately about a fight to keep the future awesome, and to make it safe for others to enjoy that awesomeness.

And brother, do we ever need that.

It's true, certainly, that some of the hope Star Trek offers us is likely to be false hope. More and more we realize, for example, that space travel is expensive, difficult, and dangerous. That space is a medium utterly inimical to human life and that the technology to make it less so has not yet been forthcoming. In short, that the likelihood of anyone currently alive ever setting foot on another planet in our own solar system is small, and that no one currently alive will ever orbit another star entirely.

Not everything Star Trek postulated, however, was a false hope. While there is still much work to be done, for example, we have made unbelievable strides in equality of race, gender, and sexual orientation (an area 60s, 80s and 90s Trek didn't dare touch!) that seemed like pure fantasy in 1966. Most of us carry around communication devices that make Starfleet-issue communicators look like toys. Spock's "library computer" has become our every-day Internet, and you don't have to be a hyperintelligent Vulcan to use it.

While it would be overstating the case to say that none of these things would have happened without the influence of Star Trek, or something like it, it would also be wrong to say that Star Trek had no effect. Many of the people who brought us these innovations admit plainly that Star Trek inspired them at some level.

My fear is that there is nothing currently available on television or in print that's similarly capturing the imagination of people today and driving them to imagine how to make new, amazing, awesome things happen.

Does this call for a new Star Trek, or Trek-like series, mean that I want us to abandon all the progress that's been made toward telling better, more complex, more realistic stories on television? Oh, hell no. The New Star Trek I would see made if I could, would owe a great deal to DS9, Babylon 5, BSG, and modern Doctor Who in terms of long-form story-telling, for one thing. There would be no reset buttons. Actions would have consequences.

But behind it all would remain one simple concept: the future is awesome. The future of the future should be awesome. What Roddenberry used to call the "human adventure" should be, as much as possible, about making the future more awesome than the present, even when the present is also pretty awesome, and about making sure as many people as possible can enjoy that awesomeness.

Most importantly, it needs to be about the people who help make the future awesome. Because awesome futures don't just happen. No one is just going to hand us an awesome future out of thin air.

Awesome futures are made by people who believe in them.