A look at the big themes in our science fiction—in TV shows, movies, books, video games, and comics—this year.
We told a lot of stories about the future in 2015. More than usual, maybe. Big budget blockbusters, hefty, idea-rich novels, and epic, dystopian video games—there was complex, stirring speculative fiction dripping from every media faucet we've got. And, as per usual, it spoke volumes about our anxieties and aspirations right now.
I've already taken a look at the top sci-fi films of the year, and below, I discuss those films with fiction co-editor Claire Evans, as well as what we saw in the wild, excellent stories we published this year on Terraform.
So here's a look at the whole picture—what the year's powerful speculative fiction said about the present.
We're Desperate for Good Science
Not to start things off too meta, but one of the major, overarching themes in science fiction this year was the importance of the scientific endeavor itself. In a year in which a GOP-led Congress made further efforts to defund integral scientific institutions, in which the persistence of climate and evolution denial can feel dispiriting, in which science itself feels threatened, these films provided some crucial context to an ongoing sociopolitical disaster that's all too real.
The Martian, a major Hollywood hit about making our way to Mars, Hard to Be a God, a black-and-white Russian indie about a world without science, and Seveneves, Neal Stephenson's major epic novel, in which humanity rallies its biggest brains to save itself by building a series of orbital habitats after a planet-destroying catastrophe, each trumpeted the importance of good science. Tomorrowland is practically a straight-up manifesto for reviving the early moonshot days of NASA.
We're Feeling the Heat of Climate Change
In what is all but certain to be the hottest year ever recorded, the multiplexes ignored climate change—not a single major film put the planet's biggest ecological crisis in its sights. But other media came through. In fact, "the biggest entertainment event of the year" (at least until Star Wars) imagines a future wracked by global warming—and forces the audience to play through it. The new Call of Duty game has players battling extreme weather as much as the terrorists.
Meanwhile, Paolo Bacigalupi's novel The Water Knife was a grimy, near-future noir about the intense, drought-struck, climate changed West. And Gold Fame Citrus, another realist work of cli-fi also honed in on the epic drought scenario, focusing on the soon-to-be ruined Los Angeles. All of which could help us make sense of the continued effort to combat the phenomenon, which culminated in a crucial international conference in Paris this year.
We're Worried About Income Inequality and Ready for Reform
Earthlings are worried enough about income inequality that Hillary Clinton's only viable challenger is a self-described socialist, in a country that typically equates that descriptor with Stalin. Fittingly, a number of speculative works imagined the coming iniquity crisis this year. The most potent were on TV. Mr. Robot won a big audience by reviving and evolving the hacker stereotype, marrying Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street, and placing wealth inequality and corporate malfeasance center stage. Its hacker insurrectionists devise a brilliant hack that will both dismantle the world's largest (and literally most evil) corporation and eliminate debt—clearly reminiscent of recent protest movements and the oppressive burden of debt worldwide.
Meanwhile, SyFy network's The Expanse foregrounds the plight of the blue-collar asteroid miners that keep the solar system running. The transhumanist cautionary tale of a film, Self/Less contends that the rich will soon harvest the most personal resources of the poor—their bodies.
We're Still Bracing for the End
Due to both of the above, perhaps, we're still pretty certain the world's going to end. The Walking Dead continued to be bigger than ever (despite being more boring than ever), while Mad Max: Fury Road offered an exhilarating take on the post-apocalypse format. Fallout 4 was one of the biggest games of the year.
The Fox comedy The Last Man on Earth continued to mine the end of the world for both comedy and pathos, at times as darkly somber as it was funny. There was even a science fiction-tinted concept album about mass human extinction inspired by Elizabeth Kolbert's the Sixth Extinction, Locrian's Infinite Dissolution. Vince Staples compared our obsession with apocalyptic fictions to the way that upper-class white America is prone to engage the racial violence sweeping the nation—as if it too were fiction—in a biting music video.
Plagues, nuclear holocaust, climate change—2015 was a year of continuing to imagine the End.
We're Thinking Seriously About Leaving Earth
It follows, then, that we're starting to think more and more about leaving Earth again. The concept of Generation Ships made a roaring comeback. Not one, but two of our best science fiction authors working today embraced the generation ship as a storytelling vessel: Kim Stanley Robinson, and the aforementioned Neal Stephenson. Their books, Aurora and Seveneves, respectively, each focused on an "ark" full of humans surviving through space for various reasons.
In the case of Aurora, which is a gripping, fascinating account of a generations-spanning deep-space trip to the nearest habitable planet, the message is clear: Earth may be our only habitable home, so let's not fuck it up. Seveneves, which starts with a standard sci-fi premise—what if the moon blew up?—and spirals into a fascinating post-Earth history, begins with a similar and sorely theme: When humanity's in dire straits, it fully possesses the capacity and ingenuity to solve big, civilization-threatening problems.
I'll also mention Ascension here—a SyFy miniseries that technically debuted in very late 2014—as it's all about a generation ship, too. In a year that saw the success of SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Mars-bound hopefuls like Mars One and Elon Musk, we're beginning to picture off-world travel as a concept rooted not just in science fiction, but plausibility. These works give us good reason to think long and hard about where we're going.
We're Taking a Harder Look at Gender Inequality
There was a welcome surge of major Hollywood sci-fi films with powerful female leads this year—Mad Max: Fury Road featured the now-immortal Furiosa, the last Hunger Games was played with the formidable Katniss Everdeen, and Tomorrowland's Casey is a brilliant girl with an indefatigable love of NASA and science itself. Rey, the ass-kicking new heroine of the third wave of Star Wars, is the most exciting thing about the new film. It's a trend worth cheering; it reflects some creeping progress to correct the depressing gender imbalance in a stubborn industry (at least on screen) and the culture-wide effects of a potent reassertion of feminism.
Films like Advantageous explored the ways women are disadvantaged even in forward-leaning societies, and Predestination examined gender identity in the context of a sci-fi time-traveling caper. One of the most compellingly acclaimed characters in any genre this year was the transgender Nomi in the Watchowski's Sense8. In other words, despite embarrassments like the SadPuppies fiasco, the sci-fi field is broadening in some refreshingly exciting ways, and like the greater political and social progress those evolutions mirror, it's long overdue.
We're Terrified of Accelerating Technology
Breaking: We're still afraid of technology. And how it might be advanced and abused beyond our control. In a year in which Donald Trump's plan to shut down "parts of the internet" was met with as many cheers and jeers, and Clinton wants a Manhattan project to fight encryption, populist techno-anxiety had plenty of sci-fi foils. One of the most-discussed films of the year was Ex Machina, about killer AI and the flawed humans who might build it. In the much-buzzed about comic Descender, humans have become so alarmed at technological progress that they've destroyed any and all "intelligent" machinery. And the animated short World of Tomorrow artfully condenses our complex fears of a technologized future into a 16-minute short.
There's so much more, too. My personal favorite ongoing comic, Saga, continues to be the best extended metaphor for holding a family together amid a storm of turbulent modernity. The second season of the Leftovers, which dissects modern religiosity and widespread loss, was widely acclaimed. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and Terminator: Genisys all evidenced the lasting power of the enterprise of speculation, even as they lapsed into well-worn familiarities.
It's commonly said that science fiction is much better at examining the present than predicting the future—count this year as further evidence backing that up.