Balancing Imagination and Reality in Modern Sci-Fi

Written by Vivian Wang
Illustrated by Fiona Tung
From aliens and robots to time travel, science fiction has been a powerful force in encouraging scientific imagination and even inspiring real-world innovations. With the help of sci-fi, we have certainly come a long way in navigating human life with ever-growing technologies. At the same time, we as audiences have also raised the bar for the quality of science fiction itself!

We often turn to movies and TV to escape from reality, but that doesn’t always work out when we look at contemporary sci-fi! Most film and TV productions now hire science consultants to help the creators find a balance of factual, believable science and entertainment value. As technology continues to become more prominent in our daily life, many sci-fi productions have shifted to focus on the social and ethical implications of both current and potential innovations.

The British dystopian sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror (2011–) has gained critical acclaim for its cautionary tales set in future or alternative present societies. True to its title, the series reflects some of the darkest elements of humanity that are highlighted by our relationships with technology. One particularly satirical episode, “Nosedive,” takes place in a world where people rate their social interactions from one to five stars. The protagonist, Lacie, becomes obsessed with her ratings, and the episode follows her chilling downfall. While “Nosedive” portrays an extreme example of modern anxiety surrounding technology, anyone who has ever paid attention to their Uber rating or follower count on social media can see a bit of themselves in Lacie’s story.

If sci-fi plays with the role of technology within societies like our current one, then the experiences of people of different socioeconomic statuses and cultures should be portrayed as well. As with many forms of media, film and TV comes with its own issues in representation. Even today, the writers and casts of mainstream sci-fi productions are predominantly white and led by men. A study by Women’s Media Center and BBC America on gender representation in sci-fi and superhero films (released between 2009 and 2018) showed that women make up just 14% of leading roles and 12% of directors, producers, writers, and editors. And when efforts to improve inclusion are made by some of the most popular franchises, backlash is almost bound to happen. Take Star Wars for example. 2017’s The Last Jedi starred Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico – the first woman of color to play a lead character in the (now 40-year-old!) film series. While this should’ve been an achievement to celebrate, Tran was quickly faced with months of racist and sexist harassment from Star Wars fans, resulting in her deleting all of her Instagram posts. In her essay for The New York Times, she wrote, “Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories.”

Because much of sci-fi is set in future worlds, it is especially dangerous for audiences – who may already be marginalized due to their social identities – to feel excluded from these mainstream narratives. As a genre, science fiction offers exciting opportunities for the human imagination to come alive. It is equally important, however, to remind ourselves that sci-fi films and TV still exist in the context of the world we live in, where science and technology affects all of us in unique ways. Hopefully, by continuing to push for diverse perspectives and representation in sci-fi media, more of us will see ourselves reflected by our ever-adapting “black mirrors.”