Sunday, February 3, 2008

Is Science Fiction Mainstream Entertainment?

It is a commonly excepted notion that science fiction has gone mainstream. One way to gage if an idea has penetrated popular culture is to examine its prevalence in our movies and TV shows. Since science fiction movies are some of the top grossing films of all time and come out with some regularity it would be temping to call it mainstream.

I would call science fiction mainstream if its major subcategories were being well represented in our popular culture – TV shows and movies.

For the purpose of examining this question I think it would be useful to break science fiction into three main categories?

  1. Science Fantasy – Does not seek to examine the affects of technological advances but merely uses a futuristic setting to tell an entertaining story.

  1. Movies that focus on one particular advance in technology in order to gage its impact on society.

  1. The last type is more holistic and attempts to guess how we will live our lives in the future taking into consideration a panoply of scientific advances.

Are all of these different types of science fiction represented in mainstream entertainment?

Let's take a look at some popular science fiction movies and TV shows.

The Movies;

Blade Runner, The Matrix,, The Terminator, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Gattaca, Total Recall, Minority Report, Contact, RoboCop, A.I., The Truman Show, 1984, Transformers.

The TV Shows;

Star Trek, Babylon 5, V, Alien Nation, The Six Million Dollar Man, Max Head Room, The Jetson, The Wild, Wild West, Ghost in the shell.

I think this list is representative of the genre. It would be quite an effort to summarize each of these movies and TV shows in detail so I am going to be presumptuous assume familiarity on the part of the reader. For the uninitiated Google these movies and TV shows for more info.

What immediately strikes me about this list is that the TV shows do a much better job than the movies, showing how regular people might adjust their lives to advanced technologies or novel situations.

The movies on the list tend to focus in on their plot with laser like precisions giving us a myopic view of the future. Presenting it through the eyes of just a few key characters. This is an effective story telling tactic but in science fiction it is over used.

What Science fiction movies gain in focus we the viewers lose in perspective.

This is a missed opportunity, thinking about how our society will deal with culturally disruptive technologies shouldn't be limited to just a small percentage of the population. All of our lives and lively hoods are dependent on technology in increasingly overt ways. The technology we develop to make are lives easer can just as easily be turned again society as a hole. The only way we have so far been able to deal with this is through increased surveillance and reduced privacy and freedom.

A more optimistic view of how we may integrate highly advance tech into our lives is needed. Instead of stumbling forward a more conscious discussion about how we will integrate these advances into our culture needs to take place. Science fiction can be a catalyst for that discussion.

Science Fiction is the only branch of entertainment which examines how people will cope with technological advances that may drastically affect how we live our lives. As technology races ahead at ever accelerating rates, it is important that we all are conscious of the possible consequences. Many scientists were inspired by science fiction as children to pursue their chosen professions and many science fiction dreams have became reality.

Should we conclude that science fiction has gone mainstream? To shape the future we must imagine it. If the only time we see robots in our movies they are blowing things up, that may be what we get. Literally.

What makes for a good Science Fiction movie?