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Are You Living in a Science Fiction Movie?

One of the reasons I like getting e-mail from AMC readers is because they ask such interesting questions. For example, this one, from Angela:

“When you’re writing up your columns about science fiction movies, do you ever consider how much modern life is like living in a science fiction movie?”

Heh. Well, yes and no.

It certainly is true that there are things we have in this world that at one time were science fiction in movies. Take any scifi movie — for example Woody Allen’s Sleeper , in which someone from the ’70s wakes up in a (comically) futuristic world and feels out of place. Well, how does Woody Allen feel today about robot pets and genetically engineered produce, both of which are now reality? (Probably pretty good, actually, since he consulted with Isaac Asimov and other science fiction writers about the feasibility of the stuff he put into the film.)

Another example: In any Star Trek film (or TV episode), Kirk’s communicator looks like a modern day cell phone to us — although if you give it any sort of thought at all you realize that generally speaking, it’s the cell phone that’s more advanced. Yes, Kirk can talk to Scotty with his communicator, but can he watch Star Trek IV on it? Or take pictures, or play Peggle, or receive e-mail? What about Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the communicator’s been replaced with a comm badge? Two words for you: Bluetooth speakerphone.

Then of course, there’s the flip side: Ask any Briton (and increasingly, any American) how they feel about the closed circuit television cameras in every public space, or the RFID chips in their passports. If they mutter something about 1984 (which had its own movie version in, yes, 1984), you’ll note that living science fictionally is not all a technotopia.

So, yes, it all seems pretty science fictional when we put it that way. Of course, we don’t think of any of this as scifi, because to us it’s really not: Home computers and cell phones and satellite radio are just things we have, not super-mega-awesome technologies from the future. We don’t spare any time to think of the virtual miracle of the touchscreen computer that we use as our phone (which has more processing power in it than was used to send the astronauts to the moon); rather, we whine and moan when our phone signal drops, when we can’t access our e-mail, or when the picture we just took with the phone is blurry. We get over the miracle of technology pretty quickly.

But there’s another way in which our modern world differs from that of a science fiction movie: Technology is not at the heart of our plots — which is to say, our actual lives — whereas technology is central to the plot of any number of scifi films, and has been from the genre’s very beginning. Indeed, one of the major themes of science fiction (both in movies and in general) has been the morality of technology, and how using it changes us. Start with 1931’s Matrix sequels).

We don’t approach our technology that way — and by and large, technology doesn’t change us that way. With the exception of the folks who spend more time in World of Warcraft than out in the real world, technology is not central to our identity. Take away a hipster’s iPhone and he’s still a hipster, he just doesn’t have an iPhone anymore. He’s hipster, circa 1996. Our technology helps shape our life narratives — I mean, hey, I personally have done very well for myself using this here World Wide Web thingy — but ultimately we’re not who we are because of our technology.

Ask yourself: If all your “science fictional” technology were taken away tomorrow, how much would your identity change? If the answer is “not that much,” then you’re not really living inside a science fiction movie, regardless of how many gadgets you have.

Your thoughts?

scalzi.pngWinner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also the editor of METAtropolis, an audiobook anthology on His column appears every Thursday.

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