The Eternal Past

You might think that looking out of date is not a problem for science fiction, but it happens surprisingly frequently. How we imagine the future (or the past for that matter) says more about the present than what is likely to happen in the future. Our vision of the future is a portrait of our present ambitions and fears. From H G Wells's enthusiasm at the dawn of the machine age, to George Orwell's fears of totalitarianism, and to the atomic optimism of Isaac Asimov, science fiction novels have described the present and then looked out of date within a few years. With this in mind, how do authors or film-makers stop their future becoming dated?

This can be a big problem for films where their entire look can become outdated, sometimes in only a few years (we're still waiting on those hover boards from Back To The Future 2). However, this problem can also affect books when the cultural zeitgeist moves on. Dune’s themes of a consciousness expanding drug, spiritual awakening and revolution captured the mood of the 60s but have since been left behind by contemporary debates.

Some works just end up looking like the past. The computer system, M.O.T.H.E.R, in Alien looks very much like the larger brother of the BBC Micro. In 1979, the design of M.O.T.H.E.R probably looked very cutting edge, but now computers have evolved beyond blocky green text on black backgrounds and chunky multi-coloured keys. The whole system looks as dated as the industrial design of the rest of the Nostromo.

However, this does not reflect poorly on the film – quite the opposite, it enhances its aesthetics because it contributes to the run-down out-of-date feel of the entire ship. This is a part of one of Alien’s themes, that in the future there will be still be bad jobs. The dirt, hard work and danger of the Nostromo is the counterbalance to the shiny, clean Enterprise. The harshness of their working conditions explains why the characters are interested in investigating the strange planet if it brings them more money – or at least prevents them being fired. The computer design says more about information technology in the late 70s/early 80s, but the overall aesthetics of the film contributes to the narrative.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels are filled with gadgets that are atomic powered. From atomic blasters to atomic belts, the novels are a love letter to the optimism of the early 1950s. It was believed that the world would change completely now that atom was split, and it did. However atomic optimism melted away during the Cold War with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, and today we see the belief that atomic power will solve all our energy problems as ridiculous as the idea of fitting a tiny nuclear reactor into a belt.

This said, Foundation is a record of how people felt when it was written. Asimov's vision of the future captures the mood of the time and reminds us of how the past viewed the future, which in turn tells us about the opinions of the past. After the Second World War and the devastation it left behind, by the early 1950s people were ready (and in fact needed) to feel good about the future, and recent technological progress was a something to feel good about. This coincided with the writing of some of the great science fiction books of the time including Author C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night and Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet.

Greg Bear's novel Eon was written in 1985 but is set in 2005. However, in this 2005 the Cold War is still raging, the Soviets have a moon base and Eastern and Western orbital weapons platforms face off against each other. This may seem ridiculous today but it is a telling insight into the fear in the 80s of a never-ending Cold War with expanding weapons and expanding horizons. Another example is 2001 (was made in 1968) which imagined our present to have Strong AIs, moon bases and human-piloted missions to Jupiter. Yet there is no internet, smart phones or social media.

These are the difficulties of predicting what society will be like in a few decades. Predicting hundreds or thousands of years into the future is impossible. Life in the year 4,000 maybe almost completely unrecognisable to people today. My advice to writers is not worry about making inaccurate future descriptions and concentrate on telling a good story.

Some works of science fiction are able to make accurate predictions about the future. One example which comes to mind is the film Minority Report, which accurately predicts a few current or near future technologies including gesture control, tablet computers and non-lethal law enforcement weapons (in this case, a personal water cannon).

Minority Report includes these devices because technology experts were brought in to consult on the film. Even with experts advising on everything from future car design to town planning, it is still only possible to accurately predict what is likely to change in the near future. Our lives today are radically different to the average Victorians’ and it will be nearly impossible for an author to accurately predict what day to day life will be like in 2150.

One way to avoid being a victim of the constantly evolving popular zeitgeist is to consciously evoke the look or themes of the past. Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar opted to go for a retro blocky look to its design. It would have been easy imagine an Apple future - all smooth surfaces, bright colours and thin glass - but instead the ships and robots of Interstellar are boxy, heavy and dark. They look more closely related to the above-mentioned BBC Micro than to our modern ideas of computers.

There are several possible reasons for this choice, one of which could be to imply that in the future smooth and sleek design has gone out of fashion and angular design is popular. This trend can already be seen when comparing the cuboid design of the PS4 and Xbox Obe with the curvey PS3 and Xbox 360. It could also be because Interstellar is set in a future where knowledge of machines and computing has been lost, and thus adopting a retro design visually implies technology is moving backwards.

Whatever the reason for this design, the effect is to give the film's look a feeling of timelessness. In our future, when design ideas have moved on, Interstellar will not look as out of date as it would have if it had been a vision of the future based on current ideas of what technology looks like.

If an author or filmmaker wants to avoid appearing out of date by accurately predicting what the future will be like, then they should set their work in the near future (like Minority Report) as it is only possible to predict the near future. However, the best way to avoid your work dating as Eon has is to adopt the themes or designs of the past as a model for your future. Jonathan L. Bowen, the director of the indie sci-fi film The Phoenix Project, described this as 'the eternal past'. Bowen’s film adopts past technologies and visual styles to avoid it looking out of date in the future.

It is also worth remembering that there is nothing wrong with an author's vision appearing dated if it serves the narrative (like Alien) or makes a statement about the present (like Foundation).

How we view the future is an important record of what values and ideas are important to us now. Our fears and aspirations provide deep insights into who we are. This is something every science fiction author or filmmaker should remember.