How the Year 2015 Is Depicted in Science Fiction
From Asimov to Zemeckis.
Graffiti artwork of a time-traveling Delorean. Image: Ms. Sara Kelly
"We're descending toward Hill Valley, California, at 4:29 PM, on Wednesday, October 21st, 2015," Doc Brown announces in the opening scenes of Back to the Future II.
"2015? You mean we're in the future?" exclaims Marty, apparently having forgotten that madcap time-distorting adventures are hardly out of character for the Doc.
What follows is one of the most influential depictions of the future ever conceived, in which flying cars, automated clothes, hydrated pizzas, and hoverboards are all entrenched staples. Since the arrival of the new year, a lot of people have expressed excitement that we have finally reached this benchmark age in science fiction. And it's well-deserved press, because Back to the Future II is not only the most famous depiction of 2015, it's also among the most widely known portrayals of the 21st century full stop.
It's not, however, the only time that authors, filmmakers, or game developers have set their narratives in 2015. In fact, this year is a pretty popular choice of setting in fiction. Plenty will be written about Back to the Future II, and indeed, there is already backlash about the troves of articles on the topic (and I kind of agree: let's actually wait until October 21 to blow our collective wad on this milestone).
ROBOTS, ALIENS, AND OTHER SIMULACRUMS BECOME STAND-INS FOR OWN FEARS AND HOPES
But on a broader note, it's interesting to parse through other stories set in 2015 and note whether there is any overarching pattern to them. Spoiler alert: there is, and it's the use of robots, aliens, clones, and other same-but-different beings as sounding boards for human behavior.
Exhibit A: Isaac Asimov's short story "Runaround," which was first published in March 1942 in Astounding Science Fiction, and is implied to be set in 2015 (the actual phrasing is ten years after 2005). It's about two astronauts stationed on Mercury, who have a multi-hour freakout when their robot Speedy malfunctions.
Most significantly, "Runaround" marks the first time Asimov laid out his influential Three Laws of Robotics. Here's the relevant passage:
Powell's radio voice was tense in Donovan's car: "Now, look, let's start with the three fundamental Rules of Robotics—the three rules that are built most deeply into a robot's positronic brain." In the darkness, his gloved fingers ticked off each point.
"We have: One, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."
"Two," continued Powell, "a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law."
"And three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws."
The upshot is that Speedy was ordered to collect highly dangerous selenium to power the Mercurian base. But because he was expensive to build, his programmers upped his sense of self-preservation—in other words, the Third Law. This put the Second and Third Laws into conflict, and poor Speedy had a nervous breakdown, complete with nonsense robot ramblings.
In this story, robots are portrayed as helpers to humans, with such ingrained devotion that their brains simply break when they cannot compete tasks. But the speculative robots of the year 2015 aren't always so eager to please.
Exhibit B: The 1995 Terminator game Future Shock, which was also set this year, in the fallout of the Skynet's takeover after Judgment Day. It had a fairly good plot for a PC shooter, built around Skynet sending useful information back in time—essentially hacking itself with the spacetime continuum. But like all Terminator stories, the upshot was that artificial intelligence will inevitably backfire, ending with the subjugation of humans to robots.
So where Asimov speculated about AI not living up to human intelligence in "Runaround," Terminator is all about the perils of it exceeding human intelligence, and being damn malevolent about it to boot.
It's now 2015, and robots are still usually in one of those two camps in science fiction: adorable friendlies like Speedy or Wall-E, or malicious foes like those controlled by Skynet or cylons. Incidentally, the same is true when you use 2015 as an aperture to compare alien stories like the cheesy 1980s cartoon Defenders of the Earth, or doppelganger stories like Fringe or The 6th Day (all of which are set this year). Heck, even Back to the Future II throws in some simulacrum madness by having two Marty McFlys running around 1955.
All of these 2015 stories involve humans confronting an intelligence that resembles us, but is also so fundamentally different that conflicts are bound to occur. There are different degrees of severity with these scenarios: for example, only the lives of the astronauts are at risk in "Runaround" whereas the entire universe would explode if the two McFlys crossed paths at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
we only have one sample of human-level intelligence
But if there is one overarching theme to 2015 as a setting, it's that "human-ish" beings—be they robots, aliens, or a time-distorting teenagers—are destined to threaten the lives of "real humans," even if they are protagonists.
Of course, this theme is so prevalent in science fiction that you'd get a healthy dose of it no matter what year you choose to spotlight. But it's still a reminder that when writers work with non-human intelligence, they are usually just projecting our ingrained tribal prejudices onto the characters.
Robots, aliens, and other simulacrums become stand-ins for own fears and hopes of what humanity itself might become. In terms of inspiration, for example, Skynet owes a lot more to totalitarian regimes in human history than it does to any computer system created in real life. Similarly, Asimov's Speedy behaves more or less the same way that many humans would when confronted with something that doesn't logically hold together.
At the end of the day, we only have one sample of human-level intelligence—ourselves—so we're kind of tied to dissecting it over and over again in fiction.
But that may genuinely change in the coming decades if we do make contact with other forms of intelligence. That's not necessarily a pipedream. After all, research into artificial intelligence is barreling along at breakneck speed, and astronomers are honing in on new ways to detect promising alien worlds. Perhaps science fiction in set in the year 2115 will benefit from the perspective of a genuinely non-human intelligence.
And if not, I for one would be up with a 22nd century Back to the Future reboot. Calling it now.