by Mindy Clegg
Welcome to the future, which is now the past. As James Gleick argued (in his thoughtful and entertaining book, Time Travel: A History) the concept of the future is now fodder for historical understanding. As Gleick notes in his book, popular culture provides a key insight into how ideas about the future shaped the past, present, and the actual future.1
Pop culture during the twentieth century has long imagined the near and far future. Such imaginings became a running gag for talk show host Conan O’Brien. Back in the late 1990s, he started a new segment on his show, called “In the Year 2000.” It started first with him and his co-host Andy Richter (and later guests he was interviewing) donning collars and lighting up their faces with flashlights, while the band played futuristic sounding music in the background. Then, a round of predictions based on current events, ridiculous and silly predictions, all set to happen in the far off future of the year 2000. This bit continued well into the new millennium. Only during O’Brien’s all too-short stint hosting the famed Tonight Show did the format change to predict events in the year 3000 (with Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner providing a regular voice over—although once it was Lt. Sulu instead, George Takei).
The joke revolved around the idea that the future was already here, but the year “2000” still sounds pretty futuristic. Plus, it plays on how we viewed the future across the breadth of the twentieth century, as culminating in a utopia of technological progress, inevitably leading to social progress. Think Disney’s Epcot Center or Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful, post-scarcity, racially unified vision of the future in Star Trek. But O’Brien also pointed to a new phenomenon, when dates from popular culture in what was once the future recede into the past. I argue in this essay that the future we imagined in the past both shaped the present and contradicts it. This becomes clearest when we examine how some science fiction films or TV shows imagined a future date in our recent past. I’ll take three examples, the first being the classic anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion (set in 2015). The second is Ridley Scott’s classic adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner (set in 2019). Last will be two events in the Star Trek universe: one set in our recent past (the Eugenics Wars) and one in the near future (the Bell riots).
(This Anime Music Video won the grand prize at Anime Weekend Atlanta this year, an excellent example of remix culture, with scenes from Neon Genesis Evangelion and the music of the Talking Heads)
Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of those anime (animation) simultaneously considered a classic and is viewed as deeply frustrating among fans (primarily due to its incomprehensible original ending). Like many anime, the show was based on a manga (comics) by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. The anime aired in the mid-90s, nearly a decade and a half before its setting of 2015. The plot follows an elite secret military unit in Japan after some unspecified global catastrophic event precipitated from space. All of humanity awaits yet another event that might wipe life as we know it off the face of the earth. The response included the development of giant mecha that an only be controlled by (often moody and rebellious) teenagers. Lauded for its complicated characters and high-minded plot (if not the controversial ending), Neon Genesis raised the bar on what one could do in animation, along with the film Akira. It was popular in Japan and gained a cult following among anime fans in the US during the 1990s. Netflix recently contracted with the production company Gainax for a full release of the series.2
As for predicting the future, it got most of the near future “wrong” although that was hardly the goal. There was no alien invasion starting an apocalyptic event, there were no giant robots piloted by children immersed in a kind of organic-electronic goo to sync them to their units, no unified humanity struggling with an ongoing alien invasion. This was true for many of the anime that fit into the mecha genre. For the uninitiated, mecha anime and manga are stories about robots built usually to fight some kind of intractable foe, often a kind of monster from outer space. Such shows have begun to influence Hollywood. Think the recent film Pacific Rim, where soldiers fight giant monsters in tandem from inside such massive robots.3 In manga, the genre goes at least as far back as 1940, but really gained popularity in the postwar period, with manga and anime such as Tetsujin 28-go. Americans might remember it as Gigantor under its 1964 US release. The 1980s saw several popular mecha series air in both Japan and the US, such as Macross and Voltron.4 Whenever these manga and anime were set (many in the early 21st century), we seem far from the technology explored or predicted, at least on the massive level of a show like Neon Genesis where the mecha are literally the size of buildings. It seems highly unlikely that soldiers today will ever be fighting massive monsters or super-sized aliens from skyscraper-sized mecha (which we should probably be thankful for).
Not all mecha were massive machines, however. In a more recent anime, Code Geass has mecha only marginally larger than the pilot, a bit more realistic tech that might be deployed on some future battleground. This anime is set in an alternative dimension, so gets around the problem of depicting the future rather neatly.5 American films have also depicted near-future technologies that included plausible mecha. The film Aliens shows the hero Ellen Ripley going toe to toe with the terrifying Xenomorph Queen in a Weyland-Caterpillar “powered work-loader.” A few years ago, Panasonic announced a project based on the powered loader, which they named after the movie tech.6 Other kinds of exo-skeletons have hit the market to help with a variety of tasks, such as working on the floor of an factory or aiding those with various mobility handicaps.7 In this case, the specifics of giant human-controlled robots fighting monsters might not exist, but a merging of man and a kind of robotic technology seems to be taking place, both in the work place and the battlefield. Drones (though not filled with a gooey, humany-center) still count as a merging of man and machine for a specific task. It seems likely that we’ll continue to pursue mecha-type technology, as they’ve proven useful for a number of applications. The influence of the mecha genre of anime is probable, even if what exists isn’t precisely what was dreamed about on the screen or in the pages of a manga. I’d argue that predicting the future is not what a show like Neon Genesis was all about, but we can see an influence on the future from such shows or films. No doubt some of the individuals working within this field were influenced by a childhood watching mecha on TV.
The second case of Blade Runner inspired several recent articles worth noting here. One was published on the BBC by their technology reporter Szu Ping Chan, who explored some of the parallels between the setting of the film and our modern reality. The film was set this month, this year, with a recent sequel starring Ryan Gosling and the original star Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard, the replicant hunter, set in 2049 (Blade Runner 2049). Replicants are lifelike androids, with short life spans, developed to take on much of the worst labor. Their increasing sentience has become a key problem. Their sentience has resulted in one replicant, Roy Batty, leading an uprising. Chan points out how much more advanced and lifelike the replicants are compared to our modern robots. Video calling is for more ubiquitous now, although now we do that on our phones instead of from the equivalent of a phone booth or a landline. No flying cars to speak of, but there are some concepts out there in both the US and Japan. Chan notes the environmental aspects of the film, the dark, oppressive skies with little sunlight. Although the smog in LA might not be as bad as it once was, the wildfires currently plaguing the city (among other parts of the state) contribute to poor air quality in the city of Angels.8
(Spoiler alert: The iconic “Tears in Rain” speech given by Batty as he dies. The Dutch actor and activist who portrayed Batty, Rutger Hauer, passed away this year at the age of 75 – it was noted that Hauer passed the same year that Batty died in the film.)
Over a Screen Rants, Craig Elvy notes the passing of the date as well, lamenting how the film will seem dated in the future because of where and how it missed the mark. In addition to the inadequacies of our AI compared to the replicants, we are relatively earth-bound. We most certainly do not have replicants on our neighboring planets, although there are autonomous rovers on Mars.9 He does remark on the current state of surveillance in our modern society, which we “happily” participate in. LA and New York City have similar advertising landscapes to the LA of Blade Runner. Elvy ruminates on whether a more effective means of enjoying the film going forward might be to take it as an alternate history instead of a film about the future.10 He’s correct that the film remains a brilliant example of the cyberpunk genre, and as such is well worth a rewatch, even if this future is now our past.
Adam Rogers’ discussion of Blade Runner appeared recently in Wired. Rather than solely examining the technological landscape presented by the film, Rogers dives a bit deeper into the social and cultural image projected. In 1982, he notes, it was hard to imagine a downtown night life in LA (unless you were a punk hanging out at the Masque in Hollywood, maybe, but we all know punk scenes thrived on a kind of urban nihilism).11 Our social media interactions are reminiscent of the instability of memory explored by the film. The environment of the film and LA now seem in direct contradiction. Deckard contends with a constant downpour, but Rogers points out the problem for many parts of California is a lack of rain which contributes to the plague of wildfires that have caused serious damage across the west coast in recent years. But Rogers’ final point stands as a testament to the LA spirit, where he notes the philosophical differences between Roy Batty and Deckard’s partner Gaff, who advocates for getting out while one can—Rogers highlights a third way, pointing out how the producer of the replicants, JF Sebastian might have the right idea to revel in present pleasures.12 A film like Blade Runner is rarely meant to be read as a simple morality tale with easy answers. Nor was Scott attempting to accurately depict the future. Like much of Phillip K. Dick’s oeuvre, it instead explores issues of the present through the lens of the near future. PKD’s paranoia bleeds through the original story. Written in 1968 from San Francisco, the setting is 1992 and in that city instead of Los Angeles. While many differences between the two exist, the story also explores themes like the meaning of intelligence, learning, and empathy, and whether these traits are uniquely human or if AI created by humans could develop such traits. PKD, known for his drug-fueled paranoia, gave us much to mull over in his body of work—much of which has been translated onto the large and small screen. Blade Runner is likely the most well-known example for film, with the well-regarded Amazon series The Man in the High Castle a close runner-up. In addition to the discussion of the morality of creating sentient life, PKD often delved into topics such as drug use and surveillance by the state in his work, sometimes projecting those topics into the future in order to better tease out the direction our technologies could take us on our current trajectory. Such attention to these issues probably explains why his work still resonates, even as we bypass their dates.13 If it seemed as if writers like PKD were “predicting” the future, the reality is that they merely sought to explore the issues that concerned them in an environment that was both familiar and foreign. The future is a great place to do that. And sometimes, you make correct and educated guesses! More often, people just pick up your ideas and run with them: think of the form factor of the modern phone or tablet which bears a striking resemblance to the PADDS on Star Trek. It seems more likely that Steve Jobs liked the design of the Trekkian future, rather than the writers and designers of the show accurately predicting anything.
Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future gives us a few more opportunities to think on how the future was imagined. In the Star Trek universe, two major events on that timeline bear discussion. The so-called Eugenics wars of the Trek universe took place in the 1990s (a time now in the rearview) and the Bell Riots (set to take place in four years’ time). Fans of the original series and the second film Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, are well acquainted with the Eugenics wars. These were a series of violent, covert wars that played out across the world that lead to the deaths of at least 30 million people. In the 1960s, a secret program to create genetically enhanced humans, Chrysalis, operated in states such as Haiti, Pakistan, and Chad, with headquarters in North Yemen. The project succeeded in creating enhanced humans, known as Augments—they were stronger and smarter than the average human, but also arrogant and unstable. One particular figure, Khan Noonien Singh, spent the 1980s traveling the world involving himself in a variety of conflicts and uprisings of that era that actually did happen, allowing him to put his own people into places of power around the world. He created the “Great Khanate” which he ruled from rural India. Much of the actual conflict was waged in secret, as the Chrysalis project was still unknown, and the nations of the world refused to even admit the Augments existed. After an attempt to end the conflict, the remaining Augments built a ship and went to space in suspended animation.14
Many of the deadly events described in the books and episodes that explore the wars actually happened, although in reality there was no secret cabal of genetically enhanced people behind them. There is little doubt that as we move further away from these events in our own history, we’ll learn more about the background of each of these events in greater detail, as documents will be unclassified by various governments. Of course, the books about the Eugenics Wars were written at the beginning of this century, so author Greg Cox worked to fit in events of the wars into our own timeline. Nonetheless, the introduction of the concept took place in the 1960s, in the midst of the Cold War which had many active conflicts. Social unrest was a major part of the 1960’s experience as well, especially those based on race. While Dr. King led a Gandhian non-violent resistance movement against segregation, those who wished to retain segregation most certainly did not. The deaths of activists were something that Americans got used to seeing during this time. After the death of Dr. King, many American cities erupted into despair and chaos. Around the world, anti-colonial movements were often violently suppressed or collapsed into civil wars. So violence based on the concept of eugenics, which underpinned the interconnected global network of white supremacy built up during the nineteenth century most certainly had a major influence on the ideas of the Eugenics Wars.
(One of the most iconic and most parodied scenes from the The Wrath of Khan, Capt. Kirk expresses his frustration with Khan)
What of the genetic tech, though? Although years from mapping the human genome, Watson and Crick discovered the chemical structure of DNA in 1953. DNA itself was found in 1869 and by the 1940s, it was understood that DNA determined genetic inheritance.15 This knowledge of DNA was not nearly enough for the sorts of genetic manipulation that led to the Augments. For that to occur, we understand today that you at the very least need an intimate knowledge of the human genome, which was not mapped until the early 2000s as part of the Human Genome Project.16 And it was only this year that human beings had their genes manipulated prior to birth, as was the case with twin girls from China. At this point, it’s still not clear if these so called CRISPR twins (named after the technique used to change their DNA, which if you ask me, sounds like the name of hot new EDM DJs) have benefited or been harmed by the actions of Professor He Jiankui, who was working in secret. Rather than celebration, his actions were met largely with shock and concern.17 At this point, we know too little about the consequences of genetic manipulation to deploy it in regular healthcare. The most promising use so far has been better understanding how genetics plays a role in diseases such as cancer. It seems some genetic markers indicate a higher chance of developing particular diseases, such as some kinds of cancer (breast cancer is one example). In many ways, these technologies are still in their infancy, so it’s unlikely that a team of scientists working in secret will be developing supermen like Khan any time soon.
What about the Bell Riots, which in the Star Trek universe took place in 2024 (four years from now)? In the 2020s of Star Trek, the world was still dealing with many of the problems that we have today. There was massive unemployment and homelessness, so the US government set up Sanctuary Districts in 2021. By 2024 these were little more than open air slums meant to concentrate the problems caused by the economy into carefully managed areas of major cities. One such district in San Francisco saw riots in the year 2024, known as the Bell Riots, named after Gabriel Bell, the man who led them. Not long after this the Third World War killed six hundred million people and destroyed many cities around the world. This event was explored in the Deep Space Nine episodes “Past Tense I and II.” Like many other episodes of Star Trek involving time travel, a transporter accident lands three of the crew in the past. Commander Sisko and Dr. Bashir wake up and are assumed by the authorities to be homeless while their colleague Lt. Jadzia Dax is helped by a wealthy internet entrepreneur. Sisko and Bashir receive ration cards, but are attacked by men far more desperate than themselves. Bell himself saves them, but he is killed. Dax and the crew remaining on the ship orbiting earth but still in the future determine that if the riots do not happen, the entire time line will change—no warp capability, no Star Fleet or United Federation of Planets. Sisko leads the riots himself and protects the lives of the hostages taken during the uprising, therefore preserving the time line. The governor of California calls in the National Guard to restore order, which causes the deaths of hundreds in the Sanctuary District. But it was one event that prompted major changes in human societies on their march towards the Roddenberrian future.18
Much of what’s imagined here is not unfamiliar to us. Major American cities had slums during the 1970s and 1980s, that concentrated people based on race and class, much like the Sanctuary Districts. Although the current economy has been relatively positive, the trade war with China has some concerned. Racial and class tensions are on the rise in the current election cycle, too. Bernie Sanders (echoed by Elizabeth Warren) continues to push for a more robust welfare state, including an expansion of the Medicare system to all Americans. Meanwhile, the current administration continues to push for a full dismantling of much of the public infrastructure that already exists (education and health care chief among them). Trump’s immigration policy also aims to basically end most kinds of legal immigration for the working classes or those from particular countries (Muslim majority countries and Latin American countries for example). Although no one has created Sanctuary Districts to deal with homelessness and unemployment (which is not a widespread problem, but underemployment and wage stagnation is), major cities are struggling to deal with homelessness. Political debates rage in many cities with large homeless populations about possible solutions. Gentrification might not be the building of Sanctuary Districts, but it has its own set of problems, such as homelessness caused in part by a lack of affordable housing for the working classes within cities.19 Despite the violence of the event, the Bell riots led to a more positive future in the Star Trek time line. Let’s hope that the problems we face today have a similar conclusion in our actual future.
(One Star Trek fan posted a discussion on Youtube about the parallels between the Bell Riots and homelessness during the Great Depression)
The twentieth century was full of popular culture that imagined our future, near and far. For many of us, growing up during the Cold War (when global destruction seemed imminent) allowed us to imagine both a more hopeful future and to work through current problems that we still might face in the future. These historical artifacts tell us much more about the period that they were developed in than they do about the future itself. The above examples show us the concerns of people in the past as they imagined possible futures, and many of their concerns are also ours. Science fiction shows and films give us a variety of possible outcomes into the future, both positive and negative. But for future historians, they will tell the story of our hopes and fears for our children and grandchildren.
3 This is another example with a fantastical event, the 2013 opening of an intergalactic rif in the Pacific ocean, with the first film being set in 2020.
5 You can find information on Code Geass here.
6 You can see Panasonic’s announcement at this link.
7 You can see other applications of this tech here.
9 NASA keeps a detailed website on the history and current activities of their Mars rovers on their website.
10 See Elvy’s article on Screen Rant.
11 See the excellent oral history of the LA punk scene, Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen, We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001, which discusses the Masque club that was located in Hollywood in the late 1970s.
12 Rogers’ article can be found at Wired.
13 Information on the life and work of Phillip K. Dick can be found here.
14 Originally referenced in the original Star Trek series, when the character of Singh is introduced, other Trek series addressed the conflict or Singh himself such as Enterprise. The details of the wars were also explored in several Trek novels, such as Greg Cox’s Eugenics Wars books, published in the early 2000s. For details see this overview.
15 You can find a discussion on the significance of Watson’s and Crick’s work here.
16 A short history of the Human Genome Project can be found on their website.