The 8 Most Common Sci-Fi Visions of the Future (And Why They'll Never Happen)

The future promises to be so wonderous and terrifying that it will exceed even the furthest reaches of the human imagination. Though this is not saying much, as the human imagination has really only been able to think up eight possible futures:


An Oppressive Totalitarian State

Defining Features:
Forcibly proscribed social roles and classes; a creepy, overbearing "beloved leader" and equally creepy propaganda posters on every wall; an ultra-brutal police force; the repression of all written communication and creativity; a huge underclass of drone-like proles paralyzed with paranoid anxiety; a moratorium on rainbows, strawberry ice cream and butterfly kisses. Basically, it's the Cold War-era Soviet Union.

George Orwell's 1984 laid the macabre groundwork for the Totalitarian State future vision, and while the actual year 1984 didn't pan out quite as he thought it would, you have to admit that Michael Jackson's hair catching on fire was pretty terrifying. Orwell also gets credit for creating newspeak, thereby giving nerds everywhere a new way to express their distaste for this week's double-plus, ungood episode of Heroes.

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World helped cement the Totalitarian State in the public's imagination. He added genetic modification and sanctioned drug use to the mix, at least one of which is a clear improvement over the present. Sylvester Stallone's 1995 brilliant masterwork Judge Dredd should also be mentioned, if only because it took the novel stance of making a member of the ultra-brutal police force its hero, while simultaneously stripping out the ironic undertones of the British comic on which it was based. Way to go, America!

See Also:
V for Vendetta, Brazil, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid's Tale, The Giver, Gattaca, Soylent Green.

Why It Will Never Happen:
Governments have been evolved and advanced to achieve stunning levels of incompetence that Orwell could hardly have imagined. Sure, we did wind up with wall monitors in our homes, but they display mostly porn and advertisements.

Besides, the entire reason the Orwellian future genre survives is because it scares the crap out of people. It's what gets the ACLU and Libertarians out of bed in the morning. Sure, the president would probably like to make himself Lord Protectorate and live in a giant crystal tower, but these days he would have to ask permission of several multinational corporations first.

A Retro-Futuristic Utopia

Defining Features:
A complete obliteration of all littering and public nudity; food-mo-trons, laser showers and other assorted impossibly useful machines; miracle trains that require only one rail; happily hetero- and socio-normative nuclear family units; an all-powerful but inexplicably benevolent government; spandex clothing with no pockets whatsoever; robots that do all the work now performed by illegal immigrants; a dearth of illegal immigrants; a statistically perfect assortment of pure-bred ethnicities to distract from how staggeringly white everyone has become; flying cars.

With its robot maid, its four-hour workdays and its unseen, but surely starving surface-world population, The Jetsons perfectly sums up the naïve, unbridled optimism we once showed for technology. It's hard to out optimism, a future vision that has us all living on mile-long poles, flying to disco dance clubs, taking field trips to the moon, and siring sons who routinely invent devices Stephen Hawking would lunge out of his chair to get his hands on. If only Mr. Spacely wasn't such a flaming asshole.

See Also:
Disneyland's House of the Future, Metropolis, Back to the Future II, Star Trek: The Next Generation (when they go to Earth), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Demolition Man.

Why It Will Never Happen:
Utopian writers always seem to be working with a completely different species of humanity than exists now. Bug-free technology? Streets free of filth? It's less like a possible future and more like an alternate universe, a place where somehow 100 percent of both the politicians and citizens actually give a shit (a 97 percent increase over the rate).

Sure, we'd like a flying car. Until, that is, we imagine our drunken uncle, passed out behind the stick, hurtling toward some high-tension power lines at 300 miles an hour.

A Sprawling Urban Hell-Slum

Defining Features:
A crime rate so high that if you're not currently being robbed, it's only because you're robbing someone else; a beseiged police force desperate to keep the scum under control; rampant drug use to escape the harsh reality of living in a genre stereotype; corrupt businessmen feeding off the suffering of the poor; living spaces that make New York studio apartments look like the Louvre; subtle signs of globalization's aftermath (i.e., lots of Asian food and possibly gigantic advertisements featuring Asian women).

At the center of this particular vision of the future is the gruff, tough, futuristic-cigarette-equivalent-smoking badass. We're talking Kurt Russel, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery and Clive Owen. With movies like Blade Runner and Children of Men, the optimism of earlier eras had been replaced with a gruff cynicism and a genetic predisposition to cleft chins, a world where electric razor technology has devolved to the point that every shave leaves one-eigth inch of stubble behind.

See Also:
Twelve Monkeys, A Clockwork Orange, The Fifth Element, Robocop, Escape From New York, Total Recall, Outland, Snow Crash, Land of the Dead, Shadowrun.

Why it Will Never Happen:
The Gillette Fusion, through its innovative five-blade technology and aloe strip, guarantees a close, smooth, sexy shave every time. Gillette: the best a man can get! (Gillette executives: Please make all checks payable to Michael "The Danger Zone" Swaim).

An Invasion by Hostile Aliens

Defining Features:
Aliens that look like reptiles or insects; aliens that look exactly like humans, but turn out to be reptiles or insects in disguise; slime, goo and/or sludge; an unstoppable powerful extraterrestrial force whose scientific knowledge and military strength surpasses ours thousands of times over; the human race succeeding through sheer pluck, moxie, or dumb luck; the aliens either having a single glaring weakness, soft spot or incredibly imbecilic understanding of their own fundamental biology; an important lesson about the resilience of the human spirit.

H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds first brought violent alien invasion into the minds and nightmares of children around the world, along with the guarantee that any such aliens would have some incredibly stupid weakness. Despite crashing down on Earth with super-robo octopi that shot heat lasers and just generally wrecked all our shit, the poor bastards were eventually done in by the common cold.

Wells set the stage for future lame alien weaknesses like water in Signs and the screaming vacuum of space in Alien.

See Also:
Battlefield Earth, V, The Arrival, Ender's Game.

Why it Will Never Happen:
Because so far the only aliens technologically advanced enough to visit Earth seem primarily interested in abducting hicks and probing anuses. These poor creatures cross the vast emptiness of space only to crash their saucers in New Mexico and have no technology to avoid detection by farm folk with disposable cameras. The chances for a successful full-scale invasion do not appear to be strong.

An Invasion by Friendly Aliens

Defining Features:
Aliens that look either exactly like humans or like adorable humanoid stuffed animals; mankind foolishly squandering what could have been the key to curing all disease and suffering; enormous arrays of multicolored lights; someone achieving weightlessness while looking wondrously awed; someone touching an alien for the first time while looking wondrously awed; long shots of people looking up at the night sky; an important lesson about the mistrusting and primitive nature of the human spirit.

Alien invaders don't always want to kill us, but when they don't, we usually prove why they should. It all started with the 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, when an alien named Klaatu and his robot friend Gort came to Earth to save us all from ourselves. They were shot within 10 seconds of landing, imprisoned, escaped, got turned in by a filthy human for the reward, then got shot again ... to death.

But, it's even worse than that: Klaatu wasn't any ordinary interplanetary goodwill ambassador. If you put the pieces of the puzzle together-a mysterious visitor from the heavens, suffering for our transgressions, gets turned in by someone he trusts and is ultimately sacrificed-it becomes fairly clear that we killed Jesus. Again! Way to go, humanity. Real classy.

In humanity's defense, we did treat the Close Encounters of the Third Kind aliens a little better. Though if that film had run another 30 minutes, maybe we'd have seen CIA interrogators hooking electrodes to the aliens' genitals and demanding to know what their ships use for fuel and how we can get our hands on it.

See Also:
Contact, Stranger in a Strange Land, 2001: A Space Odyssey (or at least the third hour, with, you know, the aliens).

Why it Will Never Happen:
It's an irrefutable scientific fact that a species cannot evolve to dominate its planet unless it is made up of merciless killing machines. Any civilization with access to the resources necessary to reach us, has, by definition, gained that access by slaughtering its biological competitors. If they turn up here tomorrow, it's only because they've found out, say, that our ground-up spleens are an afrodisiac for their women.

A Full-Scale Robotic Uprising

Defining Features:
Robots who have gained consciousness and are therefore instantly intent on killing all humans; some uncertainty as to who is a robot and who is a human; casual death threats made in calm, emotionless robo-inflection; claims that humanity is either "imperfect" or "a scourge that must be cleansed;" those wicked glowing laser eyes; hands that are also guns; hacking into mainframes; the powering down of a core, destruction of a power cell or other euphemism for the removal of batteries.

Long ago, a gentle man named Isaac Asimov penned some of the first and most well-conceived stories about human-like robots. Endowed with restraint and tact, they were absolutely forbidden from harming humans, or even allowing a human to come to harm. They were the ultimate tools and friends to mankind. Of Mr. Asimov's works, two films have been made: one of them saw Robin Williams prancing around in a rubber suit for 200 years while reenacting Pinocchio, the other saw Will Smith rocking his converse against an army of kill-o-bots.

And while I, Robot is slightly more entertaining than Bicentennial Man insofar as it is roughly four hours shorter, both are an affront to the grandmaster of robotics and both make us wonder if indeed some script-writing robot could have done better.

See Also:
2001: A Space Odyssey (the second hour, with HAL), Battlestar Galactica, The Terminator, Screamers, The Matrix

Why it Will Never Happen:
There's almost a kind of hopeless optimism hidden here. Besides the whole uprising thing, it still implies that mankind was able to, with hardware and software, create a race of beings that are actually way better than humanity. Think about that the next time Windows Vista stops and asks you if it has permission to run a program you just freaking told it to run 4 seconds ago.

A Post-Nuclear Wasteland

Defining Features:
Long stretches of trackless desert; a dearth of liquids, usually gas or water, that are contested by violence; slick references to the time period in which the movie/book came out, so as to assure the audience that this could happen to them; inexcusably clean and unscarred people fighting hideously mutated radioactive nightmares; Christian symbolism; inexplicably plentiful and working weapons; Kevin Costner; societies ruled by the guy who can bench the most.

Before the 1900s, "post-apocalypse" generally referred to the time when God's chosen would ascend to heaven to play pickup basketball and toss back Courvoisier. But ever since a fateful summer in 1980, post-apocalypse has meant Mel Gibson tearing through the outback pursued by homicidal and vaguely homoerotic biker gangs.

For 20 years, Mad Max held the record for the highest profit-to-cost ratio of any film, a testament to the fact that there doesn't have to be a lot of expensive stuff in a movie as long as someone is beating the crap out of someone else, preferably while moving at high speeds. Therefore an entire generation's vision of the future has been shaped by Hollywood's discovery that filming in deserts and abandoned factories is a great way to keep production costs down.

See Also:
The Stand, The Omega Man, Tank Girl, Planet of the Apes, A Boy and His Dog, The Road, the Fallout series of games.

Why it Will Never Happen:
We make no guarantees about the "nuclear war" part of the scenario. But the pale, paranoid sorts who stockpile food, batteries and gasoline in their basement are the same people who women swear they wouldn't have sex with if they were the last men on the face of the earth. Extinction would soon follow.

A Spacefaring Intergalactic Megasociety

Defining Features:
An intergalactic "Order," "Federation," "Empire," "House" or "Alliance;" stars whizzing past through a giant glass viewplate while passengers look prosaically on; an appropriately vague method of propulsion such as a crystal, dark matter or hyperdrive; references to spaceships like "aft" or "prow," so as to draw a parallel to nautical exploration; references to "the frontier" or "unsettled lands," so as to draw a parallel to U.S. western expansion; a single language spoken by all sentient beings in the known universe.

When and if man ever breaches the womb of our solar system and is born in earnest as an interstellar being, only one thing will be certain: It will be exactly like sailing. That, or the old West. Ever since Kirk set course by the stars and made way for the final frontier, the space opera's core concepts have been those of the sea: long voyages, a tight-knit crew and the unspoken threat of scurvy.

Universes like those in Dune and Farscape detailed the thousands of races, worlds and cultures all fighting for their existence in the bustling frontier-town of the Milky Way. It's enough to make a merchandiser wet his pants and an Internet message board light up with pointless yet thorough discussion.

See Also:
Star Trek (when they're flying around), Serenity/Firefly, Stargate: SG-1, Futurama, Dune, Babylon 5

Why It Will Never Happen:
It turns out the universe is mostly frigid, empty space and some rocks. If there are other intelligent life forms out there, they're far more likely to look like quivering mile-wide clumps of algae than British actors with rubber prosthetics glued to their foreheads.

It doesn't help that the only organization claiming to speak for all humans here on Earth can't get a Harrier jet to Prague, let alone a rocket to Proxima Centauri. Plus, it's scientifically impossible for there to ever be a real human being with the grace, good looks and balls of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard.

Michael Swaim writes and performs for the web-based sketch troupe, Those Aren't Muskets!.

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