The History of Science Fiction — Part IV
21st century Sci-fi: The Expanse, Avatar, The Last of Us, & More.
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In Solidarity — Joe
While the 1990s had an optimism that was carried into the science fiction of the time, the good nature didn’t last. As the War on Terror dragged on, Americans grew more and more pessimistic. And so did their entertainment.
In recent years, stories involving spaceships and time travel rarely end well. In the 21st century, optimistic science fiction — and optimism itself — is scarce. According to Gallup, only 42% of Americans think it is “very likely” or “somewhat” likely that the younger generations would have better lives than their parents, compared to the 71% who believed this at the start of the new millennium. One doesn’t need a master’s degree in sociology to understand why this number plummeted. In 2023, the cost of living is skyrocketing, good-paying jobs are infrequent, and any attempt to unionize is met with a corporate crackdown on par with a thrashing from the RoboCop.
In 1950, the (White) working class lived the American promise: a healthy standard of living in exchange for a fair amount of work. In 1980, many still bought into this premise, though they noticed the rotten heart of American capitalism and imperialism. In 2023, Americans hold no such illusions. Young people can’t even afford to live without roommates, never mind starting a family. Something as simple as purchasing a house, once a common occurrence for newlywed twenty-somethings, is now considered a luxury. Bosses demand more, both physically and mentally, and there isn’t a workplace protection in sight. To pour salt on the wound, millennials and Gen Z are often derided by the generations that bought a house on a year’s salary for being “soft” and “complaining too much.”
Naturally, modern art reflects modern frustrations. In the sci-fi of today, gone are the depictions of utopia. While the genre used to have a healthy mix between stories of prosperity and dystopia, modern science fiction has almost exclusively featured the latter.
For example, The Expanse (2011), a nine-novel series exploring humanity’s colonization of the solar system, has received widespread praise. Many critics describe it as “Game of Thrones in space.” And while the technology of The Expanse is far beyond what humanity has achieved to this day, its plot is depressingly familiar to reality.
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