Guest post–Science Fiction and the Post-Cold War

by Nader Elhefnawy

Cold War missle

Photo courtsey of the U.S. Army

While a great deal has been written about Cold War culture, very little has been written about post-Cold War culture as such, science fiction included. Part of it may be the lack of really significant, defining movements or innovations, at least since the cyberpunk of the 1980s. Part of it may simply be the lack of historical distance—but now the end of the Cold War is almost two decades old. Hard as it may be to believe it, the cohort of children born after the fall of the Berlin Wall is now graduating high school, going to college and voting—and to go by my decidedly unscientific polling, has no personal memory of any news event before the Saga of Bill and Monica. Enough time has lapsed, enough work created with the Cold War clearly in our rear-view mirror for us to think about what followed.

Capitalism, Socialism and Utopia
The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the unification of the world in a single market (more or less) at the Cold War’s end were not totally unanticipated by science fiction. C.M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl’s 1953 classic The Space Merchants posited exactly that future. However, unlike in the novel by Kornbluth and Pohl, where the “Consies” were seen to represent a credible political alternative to the mess made by the corporate power run amok in their vision, the end of the Cold War seemed for many observers to mark the end of ideologies, social experiments, and utopian aspirations.

As Francis Fukuyama put it, it was the “end of history,” by which he did not mean that “no more bad stuff will happen,” as some misunderstood it. Rather, it was that no alternative to eighteenth century liberalism’s mix of capitalism and democracy (represented by the U.S. and its Western allies) would present it with the kind of challenge that fascism and socialism did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There would be no more grand social experiments, no more fundamental arguments about class, property and economics (or civil rights for that matter), no more utopias, the world to stay much as it had become by the end of the 1980s.

Yet, epochal as these claims are, one should also not overestimate the impact of the Soviet collapse on the ideological balance in English-language science fiction. (1) Utopianism, and particularly socialist utopianism, had been a long time dying before then. The interest in such ideas which had enjoyed a revival during the Great Depression of the 1930s was quashed in the late 1940s and 1950s—by McCarthyism in the United States, by disillusionment with the Labour government in Britain, by Cold War fears and postmodern suspicion of the “grand narrative” of human history as a record of progress, a view to which the horrors of World War II, and the revelations of the atrocities of Stalin contributed. Neoliberalism, globalization, information technology and the libertarian-conservative mythology associated with all of them had clearly arrived in the 1970s, when the Soviet Union was still very much a going concern, and widely expected to stay indefinitely.

Science fiction was not exempt from this. (Indeed, literary critic M. Keith Booker, in his book Monsters, Mushroom Clouds and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964, argues convincingly that science fiction played its part in creating that climate.) One would be hard-pressed to find a book like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887)—or Robert Heinlein’s posthumously published For Us, The Living—in the post-war climate. Anti-utopias and dystopias like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) were much more commonplace. And there was certainly no shortage of conservative cold warriors working in the genre in this era, perhaps exemplified by Robert Heinlein.

Among those who did not share that outlook, alienation may have come more easily than radicalism, especially in the United States. Those who were politically inclined were rarely professed socialists, or even prone to tackling issues of economics or class, instead concentrating on matters of racial and sexual inequality, war, ecology and the like, and generally doing that in “non-economistic” ways. Those who did avow socialist sympathies (more common in Britain than the U.S.) were not generally admirers of the Soviet Union, much more prone to favor Trotsky or Kropotkin over Lenin, Stalin or Khrushchev. Frustrated as they were by the current climate, the Soviet collapse was not the ideological death blow for them commonly imagined. (2)

A survey of the cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s certainly makes the point. While John Shirley is unabashedly on the political left—and in his famous Eclipse trilogy includes socialists and outright Marxists among the heroes in the New Resistance fighting the takeover of Europe by the fascists of the Second Alliance—the works viewed as most characteristic of that moment were William Gibson’s Sprawl stories, a world where not only politics, but to a considerable degree, polities, have vanished. Corporations unambiguously trump governments in a borderless, almost out-of-control world where principled resistance is virtually nonexistent, and above a certain level, perhaps also inconceivable. Mark Bould, looking at Schismatrix (1985), has described that novel as a work of market fundamentalism in which capitalist economics are “as immutable as the laws of physics,” anticipating the views of Fukuyama and Friedman.(3)

Nonetheless, the political events of the 1980s and 1990s reaffirmed this outlook, and the impact of that affirmation can be seen in post-cyberpunk writing. Patrick Kelly and John Kessel in their introduction to last year’s Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, offer as an important difference between the cyberpunk of the 1980s and the post-cyberpunk of the 1990s and 2000s a sunnier attitude toward business, likely to be partly traceable to the idea that one might as well embrace what, now more than ever, it appeared could not be changed. (4) This is not shared by every author and every story, even in that volume, but it is notable that while there are still loners and renegades surviving on the fringes, more than a few of the protagonists have made some accommodation with the System, like the characters of Sterling’s trio of “Chattanooga” stories. Even the greatest exception to this validation of the free market, Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution novels, reflects the change. As he explains in his introduction to the American edition of the first of those novels, The Star Fraction (1995), they are “haunted by an uncomfortable question,” namely “What if capitalism is unstable, and socialism is impossible?” (5)

Games of State
The fall of the Soviet Union/international Communism, of course, deprived thriller writers of their favorite international villain. In theory, anyone and anything could fill its place. Nonetheless, the Soviets were an especially effective villain because they combined two qualities (in spite of all the exaggerations of Cold War propaganda).

The first was that the Soviet Union was a material superpower, a strategically located continental state, intimidating by virtue of its sheer size (in population, territory and natural resources), and possessed of a large, growing industrial economy that supported its massive and increasingly modern armed forces. At the same time, it was an ideological adversary, which was viewed by hawkish onlookers as intent on converting or conquering the world, and quite capable of using infiltration, sabotage and subversion as a way of achieving that end.

The combination did much to give the spy, “spy-fi” and political thrillers of the period their spice. Direct East-West clashes aside, this image of the Soviets lent even minor battles greater significance, and contributed powerfully even to the atmosphere of stories in which the Soviets were not the villains. In the James Bond films of the period, for instance, 007 rarely shot it out with actual KGB agents or their proxies, but villains like Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Karl Stromberg commonly derived their opportunities from it (whether stealing weapons conceived for the waging of the Cold War, or exploiting East-West tensions)—and its absence was felt in the later films in the series. In 1971′s Diamonds Are Forever, the bad guy used his diamond-based space laser to auction off nuclear supremacy, and global domination, among the superpowers. In 2002′s Die Another Day, which reused the diamond space laser concept, the villain was simply a rogue North Korean who uses it to destroy the mine fields along the southern side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone—the scenario so severely scaled down that it unintentionally comes off as parody. (6)

Highbrow projects like John Le Carre’s 1996 novel The Tailor of Panama (and the 2001 film based on it), or the 2005 movie Syriana, could still produce compelling and intelligent drama by using espionage as a way into the moral murk of contemporary politics. (7) However, where more escapist fare was concerned, nothing could take the Cold War’s place—certainly not the future-war fantasies and think tank projections about Russia, China and the rest. After all, even in the (hypothetical) scenario of a fascist takeover of Russia, the country was a shambles, in no position to return to a competition remotely comparable to the old kind. (8) For all the huffing and puffing, the Strait of Formosa is not the Fulda Gap, and in 2009, China is still an aspiring superpower rather than a full-fledged example of the real thing. (9) The rogue states and organized crime syndicates and terrorists were an even less adequate substitute. (10)

Nor did the War on Terror help as much as might have been imagined, as the tepid response of moviegoers and television watchers to films and shows about these subjects suggests. Instead that end of the genre got by (on-screen) by hanging convoluted intrigues and, more importantly, spectacular set pieces, on a very slender premise (as well as massively publicized “tentpole” releases and the often exceptional box office draw of directors and stars), as in True Lies (1994), the Mission: Impossible films (1996, 2000 and 2006), Swordfish (2001), XXX (2002) and the Jason Bourne trilogy (2002, 2004 and 2007). (11) To a lesser extent this was also the case with the Jack Ryan films (1990, 1992, 1994 and 2002). (12)

Thriller novelists have had somewhat more success mining the climate of fear generated by current events (and the television show 24, which was launched before it, certainly exploited this element), but it may fairly be said that the spy novel has largely survived using that same strategy of piling exciting set pieces and convoluted intrigue on top of a very thin concept, as with the ludicrous Alex Hawke books by Ted Bell.

The change has been even more evident in that “outgrowth” of the spy story, the military techno-thriller, as exemplified by Craig Thomas’s Firefox (1978), Tom Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October (1984), and Dale Brown’s The Flight of the Old Dog (1987) since their appeal rested on the kind of big, flashy weapons that only superpowers can afford to design and build, or generate the threats that justify their construction. Clancy, the biggest-selling author of the 1980s, and still selling very well in the 1990s, was little more than a video game brand name in the 2000s. (13)

Other authors (like Brown) are still writing this sort of fiction, but few would deny that this genre’s most vigorous and influential period is behind it. Indeed, quite a few films during this time would get a certain amount of mileage out of jokes about the US’s lack of really big enemies, like Michael Moore’s Canadian Bacon (1995), the central joke in which was an American war with Canada, an idea which would be repeated in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park: The Movie (1999), while the David Mamet-scripted Wag The Dog (1997) had the U.S. “at war” with Albania. (14)

The Reinvention of the Action Movie
As the Cold War wound down through 1990, the entertainment press, looking back on a year in which the action movies had “underperformed,” while Pretty Woman, Ghost and Home Alone raked in the dollars, declared with its usual short-sightedness that the action movie was dead. (15) Of course, the next year Terminator 2: Judgment Day topped the box office, with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves right behind it, putting an end to that sort of talk, but like the broken clock that’s right twice a day, those talking heads were right: the action movie would not go on as it had in the 1980s.

Just as the spy story lost much of its interest, military and paramilitary action-adventure became less popular in fiction and film. Rambo: First Blood, Part II was the second-highest grossing movie in the U.S. in 1985 (after only Back to the Future), taking in $150 million in the U.S. alone (equal to $300 million today). (16) The next year Top Gun became the top-grosser by doing similar business while the Vietnam war drama Platoon made the number three slot, and Heartbreak Ridge, Iron Eagle and Delta Force all joined it inside the top fifty. Crime-themed shoot ‘em ups about “loose” cannon cops and vigilantes suffered a similar fate (perhaps due to the declining attention given urban decay as the 1990s progressed). (17) That is not to say that these themes do not reappear from time to time, or even make money when they do. However, they tend to be comparatively modest performers (this was even the case with 1995′s Crimson Tide or 2001′s Black Hawk Down), and like many of the actors who made their careers out of them (Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes), they were much more commonly found in straight-to-video B-movies than feature films by the end of the century.

The main exception was when those soldiers were pitted against alien or other similarly exotic menaces, as with the heroes of Independence Day (1996) or The Transformers (2007), which was a sign of the times. With the loss of the Cold War context, as well as the ever-increasing possibilities of computer-based special effects (particularly the prospects for producing convincing CGI creatures, as in 1993′s Jurassic Park or 1996′s Dragonheart), and perhaps, the declining salability of the idea of “enemyness” as described by Tom Englehardt in his book, The End of Victory Culture, action movies became ever more the province of science fiction and fantasy. (18)

With the release of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) and Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, sequels in 2006 and 2007) period fantasy saw unprecedented successes that far eclipsed the revival of the historical epic that followed from Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Gladiator (2000).

The comic book superhero (and supervillain) certainly flourished on screen as never before, 1989′s Batman convincing Hollywood of the idea’s cinematic potential, and even before 2000′s X-Men initiated a rush of superhero films unprecedented in sheer volume, commercial success and quality that might fairly be called a golden age for superhero films, Tim Burton’s big gamble launched a long string of such films. (19) These included Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Dick Tracy (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), The Crow (1992), Timecop (1994), Tank Girl (1995), Judge Dredd (1995), Barb Wire (1996), The Phantom (1996), Men in Black (1997), Spawn (1997), Steel (1997) and Blade (1998), as well as the low-budget productions of Marvel’s The Punisher (1989) and Captain America (1990), Sam Raimi’s original creation Darkman (1990), the underrated parody Mystery Men (1999), and the sequels that followed from the biggest hits (particularly the 1992 and 1995 Batman sequels, Batman Returns and Batman Forever, which dominated their respective summers). Of course, the ante was only upped from there, and last summer alone saw no fewer than five films about them, as well as a sixth hit featuring an original character clearly inspired by them, Peter Berg’s Hancock.(20)

The horror movie saw something of a revival in the 1990s, and while this is not necessarily an action-heavy genre (as the Scream movies which brought back the slasher film were not), horror movie material was often blown up to the proportions of the biggest action films, as in the reimaginings of old Universal studios horror films by Stephen Sommers (like 1999′s The Mummy or 2004′s Van Helsing), or the movies inspired by the Resident Evil video game series (2002, 2004 and 2007). The disaster movie, perhaps partly in response to that twenty year nostalgia cycle some claim to have identified, also made a comeback. Twister (1996) and Titanic apart, the biggest hits often featured a speculative element, as in 1998′s Deep Impact, Godzilla and Armageddon, or 2005′s remake of The War of the Worlds.

A Different (Post)Apocalypse?
With the end of the Cold War, the view that a nuclear exchange between the US and Soviet Union was the single most likely cause of global destruction seemed passé (and of course, so did the preposterous images of Soviet troops occupying the American heartland of films like 1984′s Red Dawn). In actuality the danger of an accidental nuclear war remained considerable, a point that many were quick to overlook.

The fact that they did so may not be very surprising after all. As Henry Slesar mentions in his afterword to his post-apocalyptic story “Ersatz,” published in the landmark 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions,

“Ersatz” is a rejected story [...] returned to me by an editor who simply said, “Don’t like future-war stuff.” He isn’t the only one with that attitude. Several editors [...] prefer that their writers steer clear of the subject. (21)

They particularly disliked nuclear war stories, which, Slesar informs us, they thought of as “trite,” “cliché,” and “overdone,” all just a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis (an attitude hard for us to picture today). If they were so ready to dismiss the prospect back then, then if anything, their readiness to dismiss it after the fall of the Soviet Union seems all too predictable.

A noteworthy exception was James Cameron’s Terminator 2, in which Skynet launches the American arsenal at Russia to induce a response in kind. There was also a residual concern about some confrontation between a politically unstable Russia that still had all those bombs and the West, though this was more frequently used as an excuse to squeeze an extra bit of juice out of those ’80s-style techno-thrillers than anything else, as with the film version of Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears (2002) or Dale Brown novels like Chains of Command (1993). And of course, one could envisage comparable scenarios with other nuclear powers (especially if one did not assume too much sophistication on the part of the audience). Some simply scratched out “Soviet Union” and wrote “China” in its place, as in the 2000 television miniseries remake of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On The Beach (previously filmed by Stanley Kramer in 1959). Rod Lurie’s Deterrence (2000) posited a nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and an Iraq that in 2008 was ruled by Saddam Hussein’s son and somehow in possession of an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Nonetheless, the idea of nuclear war in general lost its earlier centrality in the apocalyptic imagination, opening the door a bit wider to other fears that had never been totally excluded before, but now loomed rather larger with the greater space afforded them. Notably the mid-1990s saw a widespread obsession with the prospect of devastating plagues. Just as the bad science journalism of 1993 had a great many people anticipating the imminent reappearance of dinosaurs Jurassic Park-style, the years after that had them believing the destruction of the human race by Ebola a near-certainty, in part because of the stunning success of Richard Preston’s “non-fiction thriller” The Hot Zone (1994), and the 1995 film Outbreak, which it helped to inspire. There would be later panics, about the West Nile virus and avian flu, for instance (both of which were featured in similarly-themed Sci-Fi Channel movies), but the sensationalism never reached such heights again. Still, the idea of a viral Armageddon remains one on which writers draw at need, as J. Michael Straczynski did in his TV version of the Belgian comic book Jeremiah, which ran for two seasons on Showtime (2002-2004).

Still other stories simply presented the situation without much explanation. The cinematic version of David Brin’s 1982 novel The Postman, for instance, is comparatively vague on the causes of the end of the world. (In any case, the book was as much about the survivalist ethos as the danger of nuclear war, and played as big a role in wrecking American civilization as the bombs did in its scenario.) The same could also be said of the Kevin Costner film that preceded it, 1995′s Waterworld, which only hints at the changes that have resulted in the covering of the globe with water, or Cormac McCarthy’s recent The Road.

However, it may be notable that the biggest successes rooted their premises in other contemporary problems, like environmental collapse—most dramatically in the global warming-themed The Day After Tomorrow (2004)—or more fanciful dangers, like attacks by aliens, or our own machines, as in 1999′s The Matrix, or the ever-popular zombie apocalypse, as in 2002′s 28 Days Later, the Resident Evil trilogy, George Romero’s return to the zombie film with 2004′s Land of the Dead, or in a more comic vein, Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006).

Space Races and Chases
That increased emphasis on science fiction as a source of adrenaline-pumping spectacle in the 1990s was also reflected in a rush of space-themed television and film not seen since the early 1980s. On the small screen, even excluding imports from outside North America, animation, stories about earth-bound aliens, and failures that ran for one season or less, there were commonly five space-themed shows (or more) in production at any given time. (22)

On the whole, the years between 1994 and 2000 saw a striking number of big-budget features centered on space, including the original Stargate (1994), the docudrama Apollo 13 (1995), Independence Day (1996), The Fifth Element (1997), Contact (1997), Event Horizon (1997), RocketMan (1997), Starship Troopers (1997), Lost in Space (1998), Deep Impact (1998), Armaggedon (1998), Soldier (1998), Wing Commander (1999), Supernova (2000), Pitch Black (2000), Mission to Mars (2000), Titan A.E. (2000), Space Cowboys (2000) and Red Planet (2000), as well as new entries in the Alien (1997), Star Trek (1994, 1996 and 1998), and Star Wars (1999) series. And of course, there was 1999′s Galaxy Quest, having a good laugh at all of it. (25)

Naturally, these stories also reflected different ideas about just who would get up to what in space. Where the Soviet Union was an equal partner with the United States in the fight for Earth’s survival in 1979′s Meteor, all the Soviet program had to offer in Armageddon was the use of the broken-down Mir as a refueling station for the all-American crew of heroes on their way to face the killer asteroid (and, due to an equipment failure, the Mir does not survive the operation). Where the United States still has competition, Chinese astronauts have replaced Russian ones to a considerable extent, as in Stephen Baxter’s Titan (1997), or John Varley’s Red Thunder (2003).

And of course, the change is even more pronounced in the far-future stories. In the 1950s, James Blish would picture Soviet victory on Earth translating to Russian becoming the language of the galaxy in his “Okie” novels, from They Shall Have Stars (1956) on. In 1992, however, Maureen F. McHugh has China as the master of Earth and Mars in China Mountain Zhang.(24)

Even where humanity was genuinely united in the effort, Russian personnel tended to be prominently featured on the team. The original Star Trek series included Russian Pavel Chekhov among the bridge crew of the Enterprise, and Babylon 5 (1994-1998) conceived at the Cold War’s tail end, also featured a Russian second-in-command aboard the titular station, Commander Susan Ivanova. Even the Stargate: SG-1 series launched in 1997 gives Russia a special place as the only serious player in the game besides the U.S., if one living off old capital. By contrast, in the 2002 series Firefly, humanity’s future is a blend of American and Chinese culture, any Russian legacy inconspicuous.

What Now?
Ironically, the idea of a Sino-American future which seems so plausible now could be found in the opening chapters of Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 novel Last and First Men—a book often scoffed at as utterly wrong-headed in its guesses about the future by authors and critics including Stanislaw Lem, Brian Aldiss and Gregory Benford. (23)

However, that is unlikely to be the last such upset. Today we find ourselves in another period of deep economic distress in which the assumption of an eternal, global victory of unfettered capitalism looks as shaky as it has in a long time amid multi-trillion dollar corporate welfare packages that make a mockery of free-market pretensions; Keynesian stimulus schemes; talk of “twenty-first century socialism” in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America; and now, anti-government rioting in euro-using Greece. Meanwhile, a newly statist Russia is flexing its military muscle, sending its bombers on long-range patrols and announcing new, ambitious plans for the exploration and development of space.

I certainly do not believe a new Cold War is at hand, but one can say without exaggeration that there have been plenty of moments this year when the present echoed the past in really unexpected ways. Might it be that history is repeating itself once again, as farce instead of tragedy? Or are we on the verge of seeing something really unanticipated? Only time will tell for sure, but when it does, it is likely we will look back and find someone had already shown us the shape of the things that came.

Footnotes
1. One may, however, reasonably wonder whether the idea that we are at the “end of history” has not constrained the imaginations of writers considering the future. In my postscript to the article “The End of Science Fiction” (which I published in The Fix in September), I discussed that possibility.
2. The only American intellectual I can think of who unabashedly defended the Soviet record is Michael Parenti in books like Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism (New York: City Lights, 1997).
3. Mark Bould, “Cyberpunk,” in A Companion to Science Fiction, ed. David Seed (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), p. 222.
4. Of course, the hype about the “New Economy” was also a factor. See my article, “Post-Cyberpunk’s Moment in History: Remembering the 1990s,” The Fix, Jan. 1 2008.
5. Ken MacLeod, “Introduction to the American Edition.” In Star Fraction (New York: Tor, 2001), p. 12.
6. Similarly, the American high-tech weapons programs that would once have surely been meant to take on the Soviets are now (less convincingly) explained as being part of the War on Terror in both the low-budget 2004 movie Blue Demon, and the mega-budget 2005 flop Stealth—the writers of which nonetheless found an excuse to fling their heroes against Russian fighter jets. Meanwhile, the 2008 production of Iron Man substituted Afghanistan for Vietnam. In a more realistic vein—in that the super-weapons in question actually exist—1990′s Firebirds sent the Apache attack helicopter to South America to battle a drug cartel’s air force.
7. Such were rare, however, in comparison with the 1970s, and while this is partly due to the more conservative cast of fiction in the 1980s (before the Cold War’s end), the new circumstances played their part, as the limpness of the remake of Seven Days in May (titled The Enemy Within) demonstrated in 1994. The same goes for the rush of films about presidential scandals in the mid-1990s (like 1997′s Absolute Power and Murder at 1600) which made so little impression (and were for the most part—as a political science professor of mine noted after exposure to the current run of “airport novels” after a long flight—”cheesy” sex stories).
8. The Soviet Union accounted for perhaps six percent of the world’s population and twelve percent of its economic output at its height. By 1999 Russia had perhaps two and a half percent of the world’s population, and less than one and a half percent of the world’s economic output.
9. Indeed, there may also be a greater ambivalence on the part of Americans about viewing China as a villain (as compared with the Soviets, or later, Muslims). Pentagon strategist Paul Barnett has noted that for all the hawkishness of neoconservatives on China, Wall Street business conservatives (certainly no doves) have a strong preference for viewing China as a partner, given business relations.
10. There was some interest in the Cold War’s unfinished business and loose ends, the old Soviet functionaries gone rogue or private, the leftover Soviet weapons, the vendettas from the earlier period (all of which were featured to good effect in the first post-Cold War Bond film, 1995′s Goldeneye), but one could only mine this vein for so long. While still real-world menaces, from a literary standpoint, Russian mobsters and loose Russian nukes have become clichés.
11. Indeed, some writers ostentatiously treated as irrelevant the actual nature of the objects that their heroes pursued, as in 1998′s Ronin (in which the contents of the metal suitcase the characters chased are never revealed), or J.J. Abrams-directed Mission: Impossible III (2006) (which pulls much the same trick), considerably simplifying these problems.
12. It may also be telling that the most successful spy movie parodies, the Austin Powers films (1997, 1999 and 2002), drew directly and heavily on the genre’s most extravagant expressions from the 1960s for its material. Likewise, the concept behind the television series Chuck (2007-) is the placing of a “geek” spin on the tropes of classic, pre-Daniel Craig James Bond films, supplemented by a vigorous exploitation of the nostalgia for early 1980s science fiction, video games and music.
13. Indeed, it may be the case that the military science fiction genre which flourished in this period (during the last couple of decades, it seems that the authors published under the Baen imprint are those most likely to hit the mainstream bestseller lists, at least when not writing for a media franchise like Star Trek or Star Wars) did so partly because the fans of these novels turned to such books for their fun. David Weber, described in the autobiographical blurbs on his book jackets as the “Science Fiction Phenomenon” of the ’90s, was best known for his Honor Harrington novels, conceived as C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower in space two thousand years later, but actually reading more like Tom Clancy in orbit.
14. On the whole, conventional political thrillers in all genres seem to have increasingly given ground to stories about conspiracies involving aliens and transhumanists in the style of The X-Files; or religious-archaeological-Masonic plots, as in the novels of Dan Brown, the more recent books by Matthew Reilly (which come as close to providing the experience of a blockbuster summer film as anything in print), the collaborations of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, or Jon Turtletaub’s National Treasure films.
15. The truth was that even though they did not match the biggest earners of previous years, the action movies appearing that year had performed quite respectably. Die Hard 2 earned $117 million in the U.S. that summer, or $193 million in today’s dollars (and slightly more than that overseas). Total Recall pulled in $119 million ($197 million today) and was an even stronger performer globally, making it Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biggest hit to date. Of course, this was also a reaction to the large budgets of these films (the Die Hard sequel costing a then-record $70 million), but even after adjusting them for inflation, they are not extravagant by today’s standards. All data on box office performance comes from the Box Office Mojo web site.
16. Right behind it was the similarly Cold War-themed Rocky IV, with $127 million (over $250 million today).
17. Cops remained a staple on television, of course, but the accent was less on gritty street crime and more on niches and novelty. Forensics was especially popular in the wake of the success of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-), and of course, the novels of Patricia Cornwell, while the unexpected success of The Silence of the Lambs led to innumerable stories about serial killers and the specialists who hunt them.
18. It may also be that the broad cultural context in which “paramilitary culture” arose was fading. Those interested in the issue should look up the work of William James Gibson, particularly his book Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America (New York: Hill & Wang, 1993). Also worth checking out is Andrew Bacevich’s The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). Both the actual subject matter of the Vietnam War, and its baggage, would be less evident in later films.
19. Of course, 1978′s Superman was a major success, which produced three sequels, but it did not result in a major wave of comic book-inspired films, none of the handful that appeared in the 1980s not being particularly successful.
20. That is not to say that the Cold War had not been a presence in superhero comics, as a look at 1960s-era Marvel comics (like the aforementioned Iron Man) reveals. Nonetheless, the characters and plots they inspired seem better able to stand apart from the Cold War than the other sorts of story from that era discussed above.
21. Henry Slesar, “Afterword.” In Harlan Ellison, Dangerous Visions: The 35th Anniversary Edition (New York: I Books, 2002), p. 402.
22. In the fall of 2000, for instance, there was Star Trek: Voyager, Stargate: SG-1, Farscape, Andromeda and Lexx. Starhunter, which would only hit U.S. airwaves later, also premiered in Canada. See my May 2008 article, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television.”
23. This was in ironic counterpoint to the fortunes of NASA, which were at something of a low point with interest diminished following the end of the Cold War competition, and the emphasis on information technology as the key to the future.
24. Interestingly enough, it has also influenced alternate history, the writers of which have been more inclined to present worlds in which China, rather than the West, ascended to dominance—and in Chris Roberson’s “Celestial Empire” novels, even gone to the stars.
25. Arguably, Stapledon was no further off in his guesses about the near future than any other science fiction writer dealing with a comparable length of time. Additionally, it is clear that even where he was wrong (and Stapledon was always clear about writing a future “mythology” rather than history), he was using the best futurism available at the time (his grossly exaggerated visions of the effects of aerial bombardment, and even Anglo-French warfare, clearly coming out of Basil Liddell Hart’s writing in books like his 1925 Paris, or the Future of War). There were also a number of points on which he showed remarkable prescience, even besides the ascendancy of America and China, not least of them Mussolini’s going on the warpath and ultimate death at the hands of his own people; the devastating Russo-German war that subsequently breaks out; or the movement toward European Union in the aftermath, and the subsequent tensions with the US.


This article originally appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction.

Nader ElhefnawyDr. Nader Elhefnawy has taught English at several institutions, including the University of Miami, where he was a visiting professor for the 2007-08 year. In addition to his Ph.D in Literature, he holds a B.A. in International Relations, and has published widely on both literature and international affairs. His reviews and articles on speculative fiction have appeared in a number of forums, including Foundation, the New York Review of Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons, and in October 2008, he also began publishing a blog, Raritania.

A fiction writer himself, his story “The Transmigration” appeared in Future Fire, and he is currently seeking publishers for his science-fiction novel and anthology Surviving the Spike.

3 Responses

  1. Pingback: SF Signal: SF Tidbits for 8/18/10

  2. Barbara Reader

    Hi. I just found this website and read your wonderful essay. I have been trying to find out what happened to what I like to call’real’ science fiction, that is, fiction about the future of science. Your comments are about the future of politics, but at least it discusses the serious side of this type of fiction. While I loved comic books as a child, their elevation to near-serious status has left me sad. I am also saddened by the lack of what I consider serious writing (or at least successful writing) of the type I grew up with, Clark, Asimov, Bradbury, etc.

  3. Nader Elhefnawy

    Hi Ms. Reader. Thanks for writing.
    I’ve thought quite a bit about that issue as well, and if you’re interested, I put some of those thoughts (which discuss factors from the state of theoretical science to changes in the publishing industry) into another article over at The Fix a couple of years ago, “‘The End of Science Fiction’: A View of the Debate.”

    Part 1 is here
    http://ttapress.com/fix/features/end-of-science-fiction-p1/

    Part 2 here
    http://ttapress.com/fix/features/end-of-science-fiction-p2/

    and the Postscript here
    http://ttapress.com/fix/features/end-of-science-fiction-postscript/