June 23, 2024


Science It Works

Has science fiction become too serious?

Sci-fi has become the only way to talk about today’s problems, and that means it has lost its ability to help us imagine better futures, according to works at the online European Media Arts Festival

19 May 2021

New Scientist Default Image

Planet City, an impossible utopia housing all of Earth’s population

Algae Canals from ‘Planet City

European Media Art Festival, Osnabrück 2021

Exhibition runs until 30 May

Talks programme on YouTube

FOR 40 years, the European Media Art Festival (EMAF) in Osnabrück, Germany, has offered a glimpse of the best short films heading to cinemas and festivals – and recently online – in the coming year. It has been a reliable cultural barometer, too, revealing some of our deepest social anxieties and preoccupations.

But this year saw science fiction swallow the festival whole, as though the genre was becoming not just a valid way to talk about the present, but the only way.

This was the explicit message of audiovisual presentation Planet City and the Return of Global Wilderness by architect Liam Young, much of whose work is speculative. Part of his presentation was an early retrospective of a career spent exploring global infrastructures, what he calls “an unevenly distributed megastructure that hides in plain sight… slowly stitched together from stolen lands by planetary logistics”.

Forming a powerful contrast with his past travels (through container shipping, the garment supply chain, lithium mining and other real-world adventures), Young’s presentation features a utopian future in which humanity sagely withdraws “into one hyper-dense metropolis housing the entire population of the Earth”.

It is the impossibility of this utopia that is Young’s point. Sci-fi used to be full of such possibilities, but he argues that these days it has become our favourite way of explaining to ourselves, over and over, the disasters engulfing us and our planet. The once hopeful genre ceded ground to dystopia, leaving us “stranded in the long now… waiting for the end of the end of the world”.

We have confronted the apocalypse before, of course. Marian Mayland’s film essay Michael Ironside and I weaves between three imaginary rooms, assembled from stills and short clips from iconic sci-fi films and a TV series: WarGames, Real Genius and seaQuest DSV.

The rooms are uninhabited, cluttered, uncanny and cut together to create an imaginary habitation connected to the outside world via shafts and closet doors.

The WarGames bedroom of 1983 is in a suburban family house, while the Real Genius room is a 1985 California campus dorm and the bowels of seaQuest DSV‘s room is a futuristic nuclear submarine imagined in 1993. All fold into each other to create a poignant, fictional childhood, capturing the effects of cold war thinking on sci-fi-loving adolescents.

Mayland’s film, which won a German film critics’ award at the festival, is exactly the sort of experimental work that EMAF has championed over the years.

Zachary Epcar’s more obviously satirical The Canyon sees the calm pace of life in a sunny waterside housing estate turn increasingly strange, as the blissed-out, eavesdropped lines of the inhabitants (“Sometimes I come to in the glassware aisle, and I don’t know how I got there”) give way to the meaningless electronic gabble and vibration of phones and keyfobs.

If this all sounds rather grim, even hopeless, I don’t think the selection or even the works individually are to blame. I agree with Young that the problem lies in science fiction: it has ceased to be a playground and has become instead a deadly serious way of explaining our world. And that is fine – it’s sci-fi growing up.

But what the artists and film-makers of EMAF have yet to find is some other way – less technocratic, perhaps, and more political and spiritual – of imagining a better future.