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speculative fiction

How the Best Futures Help Us Survive an Unbearable Present

The best way to remember 2017 will surely be through the stories it told about what might come after

Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant

Image: Warner Bros.

To be alive and online in 2017, and where else were you, was to submit to the consensus that we were living in a hellworld, stormed by resurgent Nazis, climate change-fueled disasters, mass shootings, and regressive and sometimes racist politics. Presided over by a former reality TV star who couldn’t help himself from picking fights with a nuclear-armed dictator on social media. Where bad news and malignant policy, often direct from Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, came cascading down like shrapnel, and where it took all of our wherewithal to simply be aware of its dispersal patterns, to dodge it and maybe parry, on any given day. It sucked. It was draining. Logging off for a day felt as luxurious as escaping to a tropical island resort, and as guilty.

For most of the year, I refreshed feeds and hate-read the Washington Post in my spare time, like everyone else. There was no formal declaration, even to myself, that I wouldn’t be spending as much time reading, watching, being entertained by fictions this year—especially speculative fictions, pointing far out toward seemingly distant futures—it just seemed an intuitive reaction to living in hellworld. Fabrications about the future felt frivolous amidst the most shocking present shocks.

That was wrong, obviously. When the national shitshow eventually seemed to grind into predictability, if not become normalized outright, in the last months of the year, I tried to catch up. And, of course, the year’s speculative fiction proved a powerful foil to a world as urgent and rubbed raw as this one. For every egregious executive order, every calamitous unnatural disaster, there was, looking back, a Get Out, an Exit West, a Handmaid’s Tale—work to help absorb and overcome the disjointed now; to help plot the future. This is what the best speculative fiction does, of course; it contextualizes our present to make the future more navigable, the worst scenarios avoidable. It can soothe and inspire, deconstruct and destruct when necessary.

In a year that saw Trump’s “Muslim ban,” and the (re)mainstreaming of racist thought and hatred towards refugees, the breaking of the Weinstein atrocity, and the long overdue illumination of a national culture of sexual harassment and subjugation, the passage of a tax bill that ushered in a flow of wealth to corporations and the richest rich and away from the working class, and the reign of Trump, and the shell-shocked entrance of countless millennials into politics—I shortly realized I should have been paying more attention to the future, not less.

These are the books, films, TV shows, and games about the future that helped make sense of 2017 and beyond; they’re all worth reading, watching, playing, absorbing. Because the best way to remember 2017 will surely be through the stories it told about what might come after.

Handmaid’s Tale

Image: Hulu

With the defeat of Hillary Clinton at the hands of Donald Trump—a self-described preemptive grabber of women’s genitals and alleged sexual harasser of many women—and a newly empowered Republican-led Congress itching to roll back women’s reproductive rights, Margaret Atwood’s theocratic dystopia seemed more unnervingly prescient than ever. The Hulu show captured the menace of the classic and laser-focused its human drama into something that registered as urgent, tense, and violent. Walking the line between prestige escapist entertainment and plausible near-future parable, the show exploded into such mainstream relevance that the distinctive red robes donned by the Handmaids—fertile women enslaved and forced to copulate with elite (married) men—became shorthand for a real-life creep towards mass sexual oppression. They showed up at Halloween parties and protests, firing off the same message, whether playfully or earnestly, into the cultural strata—there is a future where women are as good as sex slaves, and that future is as real or unreal, near or far-off, as we make it now. And that’s what the best pop culture dystopias can do—shout out a warning, understood collectively, through a signal as simple as a costume.

The Power

Image: Hachette

The crimes of Harvey Weinstein, an open secret in Hollywood, were blown open to everyone else this year. A disturbing history of sexual assault, bullying, harassment, and intimidation of women became the year’s biggest story that wasn’t exclusively Trump-centric, though he was a cancerous pulsing part of it. That Weinstein actually went down was the surprising (and refreshing) thing. Then, so did Louis CK, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose. Bill O’Reilly, Al Franken, so many more. A long-overdue reckoning with the toxic male dominance in media, politics, Hollywood, in power, ensued—if 2017 saw steps taken towards purging the worst actors, what does 2018 and beyond hold for working towards sustainable gender equality? Redistributing power, for one thing.

It’s something as ancient and as dumb as the fact that men have more brute physical power than women that established the sexist, misogynist hierarchies that continue to be perpetuated today. And it’s root physical advantage that Naomi Alderman examines in her speculative page-turner The Power. It’s a stark, exhilarating premise—what if one day, women simply had the power (here, via an electrostatic shock generated by a new organ, a ’skein’) to force men into submission? Would the balance between genders be restored? Would patriarchies topple? Would women begin exploiting men? The book takes on a lot more than that—though it answers ‘yes’ pretty resoundingly to the above—and its power lies in examining how those flows of power begin and are harnessed by the charismatic, the opportunistic, the greedy, and, a bit less frequently, the good. Power distorts, power corrupts, power leavens—and power can change hands, even systemically, very fast. One can hope.

Future Home of the Living God

Image: HarperCollins

In Louise Erdrich’s first stab at speculative fiction, evolution halts, then begins working backwards. And we, our scientists, lawmakers, everyone, are helpless to stop it. It’s a fine metaphor for how about, oh, two-thirds of the nation feels about the Trump Moment, where everything seems to suddenly and inexplicably be getting stupider by the day and more impossible to counter via any reasonable means. Yet in Erdrich’s book it takes place in the background, behind a pregnant woman writing diary entries, mired in the now, securing her personal space, mistrusting her partner, working. Again, yep. It also spotlights the most explicit of our untold futures, the actual growing fetus, and frets, ponders, and loves it and its promise despite any unremitting gloom closing in. There must, at least, be hope for raw new life gestating, because if not, literally what else is there?

Get Out

Image: Universal

Donald Trump announced his candidacy in a speech that referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” Later he said that there were, among a rally of white supremacists, some “very fine people.” He has in the past (probably) said that “laziness is a trait in blacks.” His victory, and his unrepentant coziness with white supremacy, unleashed and made obvious the widespread racism that runs under America’s epidermis. Hate crimes spiked. Nazi influence flourished.

As such, Get Out, probably the year’s most celebrated and culturally resonant film, becomes all the more terrifying when it becomes clear late in the final act that isn’t just a savage satire of racist America now. It’s the future, too. Not content to demean, exploit, and siphon black culture, rich white people will soon be able to harness technology to physically implant their old brains in young black bodies. The entire film is expertly crafted, unsettlingly timely—it dropped just as the delusion that a nation that elected a black president couldn’t be racist was being wiped away by the installment of a president who once refused to rent his properties to black people. But it’s the future-fictional twist that delivers the coup de grace, that physically imparts the gruesome reality into our brains, too.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

Image: Bethesda

The year’s most purely cathartic fiction was an interactive alternate history that existed largely to allow you, the 2017-dweller, to shoot and murder approximately 10,000 Nazis. The world of Wolfenstein 2 is macabre, vibrant, comic, disgusting, ass-out weird—at one point your character travels to Venus to audition for a part in a film in front of an infirm and occasionally urinating Hitler (where you have the opportunity to crush his head under your boot)—and very, very satisfying.

This was a year in which actual Nazis rallied at Charlottesville, killed a peaceful protester, flooded Twitter and Facebook. And we—well, we spent hours debating whether or not it was OK to punch people who openly advocate for ethnic cleansing (it is). We somehow wound up bogged down in setting the terms of debate while real-world Nazism surged and threatened violence. That the newest installment of a 30-year-old video game franchise, which has always been about killing Nazis, was deemed “controversial” this year for advocating the extermination of this this stain on humanity says it all. It would have been enough for the game to offer players the opportunity to gleefully take all that frustration out on Nazi-shaped pixels—that it offered insightful glimpses into what animates and normalizes Nazism made it all the better.

Exit West

Image: Riverhead

Any talk of enduring a hellish year crumples like a paper maché in a moat when the talk turns to refugees. There is no group for whom life resembles actual hell than refugees, who fled Syria, Burma, Yemen, countless other places lit by atrocity, into camps and conditions no less horrendous. Even in the year of Trump, the one time I distinctly recall feeling physically ill reading the news was when I happened on this story about the Rohingya, which, if anything will shatter your faith in humanity, it is men throwing babies onto a fire.

Fortunately, there is proof that we have the means to imagine a future for a world increasingly trafficked by migrants and refugees, and that proof comes from the brain of Mohsin Hamid. It comes in the form of Exit West, the most humane, most beautiful, and most cautiously and imaginatively optimistic novel about the refugee crisis I have ever read. Hell, it was probably the best novel I read all year. Its premise—that doors suddenly begin opening from crisis-prone places to the other sides of the world, giving way to a pulsing network of global travelers and exiles—is the perfect metaphor for how the arrival of refugees is experienced by those not doing the traveling. But its heart is with the travelers. In one of the most generous and hopefully plausible visions of the future set forward in 2017, Hamid boldly envisions that a global generosity will prevail, that state violence against refugees will eventually wither in the face of impracticality and the hard work of building new infrastructure to support the interconnected worlds of the desperate and the protectorate will begin.

Okja

Image: Netflix

The Republicans claimed one significant legislative victory this year—a massive tax cut for corporations at the eventual expense of the middle class. They get more revenue, we get Okja.

There are multitudes in Okja—for my money, the best science fiction film of the year—beyond even the oddly touching girl-and-her-superpig buddy story, or the dark, electric sendup of corporate conniving, or the potently earnest takedown of the industrial meat complex. The skewering of modern faux corporate do-gooding is spot-on—Mirando (certainly not a nod to Monsanto), a company that rose to riches selling napalm to the military rebranding with a “sustainable,” genetically engineered meat-farming venture, is led by a CEO who cheekily notes her predecessor (and father) was “awful” while making changes only to its public relations strategy, not its actual conduct. Mirando sponsors a “contest” that lets rural farmers raise their own specimens—like the titular Okja—softening its public image in the process, and tries to rope them into reality TV shorts and social media posts to humanize its profiteering.

But ultimately, what’s potent about Okja is that it’s creature of our making. Whether engineered in Monsanto labs or evolving in climate-changed environs—in effect guided by human hands—there is a new generation of fauna that will be, like Okja, shaped and grown by us, and made to suffer and be consumed by us.

Blade Runner 2049

Image: Warner Bros.

Sometimes you just need to feel a richly ideated future, soak it in, for the sake of being somewhere else, for the sake of agitating the present. The Blade Runner sequel was engrossing to look at, and, if the theater you saw it in had the volume amped up high enough, to be thundered at in the gut by its formidable sonic architecture. I’m not sure it had much to say beyond ‘do androids dream of electric sheep?’ but I’m glad the film was made, and the sheer fortitude that went into rendering an original visual depiction of a collapsing, replicant-occupied LA, has plenty to forcefully impart about the future. Like, the sex robots and polluted spaces are about to be so big, there will be barely any room for humans here.

Logan

Image: 20th Century Fox

Even in hellworld, the majority of stories about the future that most people see take place in either superhero futures or franchise futures. Set in future-like Gothamist or marvelous places that retain most of the hallmarks of a near-reality, they provide enough futuristic sheen that when a Berlin-sized airborne aircraft carrier appears, or a wealthy playboy leaps into an indestructible robosuit, audiences don’t blink twice. These films employ futurity the way a luxury carmaker might, to incorporate intriguingly designed flourishes or decals onto an otherwise staid and predictable vehicle—polished-metal eye candy—or burrow into an almost meaningless apocalyptic abyss. ( War for the Planet of the Apes has to be one of the weirdest movies ever made on that count; a big budget, stone-faced Apocalypse Now remake about the horrors of war, starring talking CGI gorillas on horseback.)

Logan, though, was an interesting outlier, and not just because Hugh Jackman’s final foray as Wolverine was set in an actual dystopian tomorrow, replete with environmental degradation, a yawning class divide, and a pointed sense of social decay, but because it placed its increasingly less-super heroes in that same context. They’re aging, dying, even, and they’ve mostly failed to do anything for the lay-American of any lasting significance. My favorite scene in any superhero movie this year was the brief one that pictured autonomous trucks sharing the highway lanes with our weathered heroes, two of the most famous icons in the Marvel Universe. The transport that is carrying Wolverine and Professor Xavier will ultimately fail, and both those erstwhile tights-sporting fantastical supermen will be snuffed out, but the automated trucks, we presume, will continue rolling grayly on.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Image: Disney

There is arguably only one franchise left that everyone sees, one last semi-unifying filmic force in These Divided Times. The Last Jedi didn’t inspire any powerful emotions in the Star Wars fanboy in me, one way or the other—I thought it was a fun, tonally on-point, and satisfyingly produced chapter in the space opera that constitutes our greatest shared commercial mythology. But I do love that, as Todd VanDerWerff points out at Vox, it also engenders A Very Millennial changing of the guard, from the crusty old white men who clung to power (in both the Empire and the Rebellion but especially the Empire) to a diverse array of impressive young men and women of every conceivable background. (Except in the villainous New Order, which sees its heirs as more striving and tantrum-throwing white guys—the choice is yours, galactic humanity!) Wrinkly, aged Snoke (whatever that was) is dispatched with, Luke Skywalker burns the Jedi texts while Yoda cheers him on, and the Olds are generally vanquished or phased out. George Lucas botched the execution of the prequels so badly that it hardly comes through, but the Jedi were almost as bad as the Sith—they’re war-mongering and conservative, too, cloaked in ideals of goodness but nearly incapable of doing any actual good. The old schemes and stalemates were a disaster for literally everyone in the universe, so maybe it’s time for another approach.

In fact, most of these 2017 fictions about the future dealt directly with a necessary, all-important generational shift. Okja sees an heir to an agribusiness empire try hopelessly to cloak the ills of capitalism to tailor its product to younger, more informed generations, while the real heroes are young, eccentric activists. The Power has young women teaching older women to learn to grow skeins (and their agency), Get Out implies that old whites are poised to hijack a generation of young black brains, Future God is addressed to an omnipresent fetus that will inherit dystopia, and Logan ages out its superheroes—in the future there is little use for commodities tight-clad ubermen—leaving only a desolate wasteland and a new generation of mutant kids in its wake.

That’s probably the most resonant message beamed back from the futures of 2017—it’s all contingent on that transfer of generational power. Out with the Nazis, the corporate elites siphoning the dregs off the middle class, the racists and the sexists. They need to go, for the sake of just about everything—just look at 2017, one last time, where they held sway. Befitting a science fiction story, if there’s any shining hope for hellworld, it’s in the hands of the mutant kids.

***

Postscript: Seeing as how I got a late start on my annual consuming-of-future-fictions, there were a few big ones, especially books, I missed. Especially: Autonomous , by Annalee Newitz, Borne , by Jeff Vandermeer, and Sourdough , by Robin Sloan. These are next up on my reading list, and by all counts made important contributions to the fabric of future thought this year. Filmwise, I missed Netflix’s ‘Discovery,’ and didn’t find space here to include any musings on the solid, AI-and-memory-focused ‘Marjorie Prime’ or the bloated, badly acted, yet still redeemable space epic ‘Valerian.’ There were also two acclaimed video games about the rise about automata, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and, fittingly, Nier: Automata, that compellingly engaged the subject for the couple of hours I played them. And plenty I missed, too, I’m sure!