When it comes to science fiction, some stories are more fiction than others. Imagining the future gone totally awry or beautifully right is a great way to get at the hopes and fears of today. So be careful if you laugh at how silly these sci-fi futures can seem, because who knows? One of them could be your future.
No. 1 - Star Trek
Depending on which series or movie or incarnation you're watching, the Star Trek universe exists sometime in the 23rd or 24th century. Human society has evolved in a mostly utopian way, unified by the wonders of spaceflight and interstellar travel. There is world peace … though not universal peace. Hostile humanoid aliens and strange otherworldly dangers await our crew of humans, Vulcans and androids as they fly through the galaxies at warp speed, faster than the speed of light, led by their fearless captain—take your pick, Kirk or Picard.
VERDICT: Well, we do have some time to go before we get to the 23rd century, but we really should pick up the pace if we want to get going on this light speed thing. According to the Star Trek plan, we as humans are supposed to design the warp engine sometime in the middle of this century. I mean, it could happen … but please, let's hope we never end up dressing in Star Trek uniforms. Those things are hideous.
No. 2 - Blade Runner (2019)
So, it's 2019 and we've genetically engineered a race of superhuman "replicants" to do the jobs no American wants to do—everything from fighting in interstellar wars to serving as prostitutes. They've become particularly useful on our "off-world" colonies. Problem is, they've become somewhat rebellious and since they're, you know, superhuman, they're tough to track down and take out. Enter our hero, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the ultimate "Bladerunner," or replicant hunter. In a gritty, dystopian downtown Los Angeles, he tracks down a couple of rogue replicants (Rutger Hauer and Darryl Hannah) and falls in love with another.
VERDICT: Let's see ... off-world colonies? Not likely in the next 10 years. Replicants? Well, we've already cloned sheep and cows; it can't be that long till we get to acrobatic "pleasure models" like Darryl Hannah, right? Now, as for that gritty Los Angeles, filled with electronic billboards and a cast of sketchy street-dwellers? Bravo.
No. 3 - 1984
A totalitarian regime controls every aspect of its citizens' lives in the state of Oceania (formerly the United Kingdom and much of Europe). Big Brother is watching, from posters and cameras. The Thought Police stand poised to arrest anyone who might dare to challenge authority. Doublespeak corrupts and confuses: The Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Truth rewrites history, and the Ministry of Love promotes hate and betrayal. In short, it's an awful, oppressive, repressive place—and in London, poor Winston Smith is questioning the regime and falling in love with a woman (neither of which bodes well for his survival).
VERDICT: OK, 1984 didn't happen. Or, wait, did it? Sure, we don't live in a place as messed up as Orwell's novel, but security cameras watch our every move, government press secretaries spin doublespeak news and Big Brother is watching (oh, wait, that's just a reality show). Unless you're a conspiracy theorist, Orwell's 1984 is unlikely to happen anytime soon ... or at least, not in most countries.
No. 4 - Fahrenheit 451
In the not-so-distant future, firemen don't put out fires, they start them. Their target? Books and the people who read them. Books have been banned and, along with them, free thought. The drugged-up, brain-dead populace sits around watching TV all day. Overdoses are so common that special technicians are around to respond to the calls and firemen hunt book-readers with a mechanical hound. Fireman Guy Montag winds up drawn to the forbidden fruit, hoarding (and reading) books. Soon enough, he's the one being hunted.
VERDICT: While banning books isn't a thing of the past, it's certainly fallen out of fashion. So while Kindles may replace paperbacks, it's unlikely there'll be bonfires to accompany that transition. It's a good thing, too. Without books, we might end up like the pill-popping, TV-addicted zombies in Fahrenheit 451. Oh, wait.
No. 5 - 2001
Space travel is here. Pan Am space planes ferry people to space stations in elegant luxury. The moon has been colonized. Astronauts are preparing to travel to Jupiter onboard a high-tech computer-controlled spaceship. There's only one problem: The computer is somewhat homicidal. Well, no future's perfect, and as astronaut Dave Bowman deactivates the murderous HAL 9000 and investigates evidence of alien intelligence, he's transported through a strange, trippy portal, only to emerge as a "star child," orbiting the Earth as a fetus.
VERDICT: OK, 2001 came and went with no moon colonies, discoveries of extraterrestrial life, elegant waltzes between docking spaceships, sexy stewardesses on space planes owned by now-defunct airlines, and no star children (well, as far as we know). As for the homicidal computer? Who hasn't thought their BlackBerry was out to get them at one time or another?
No. 6 - Gattaca
Picture a world in the not-too-distant future where a rigid genetics-based caste system controls your destiny and where parents buy genetic perfection for their children. Those who have been engineered are "valid"; those who haven't, and who suffer from even relatively harmless ailments like near-sightedness, are "invalid." Now, if you really want to be an astronaut, set to journey to Saturn's moon, you'll need an impeccable genetic profile, which is why the genetically imperfect Ethan Hawke must steal the genetic perfection of crippled Jude Law.
VERDICT: It's a little scary to think how close we might be to being able to tweak our own DNA to weed out imperfections. Even scarier is how our own genetic information (and the knowledge of our genetic faults or predispositions) could be used against us. With the newest wave of genetic analysis, this might be a worst-case scenario for our future. As for the rocket ships to Saturn? Don't hold your breath.
No. 7 - Soylent Green (2022)
Set just a little over a decade from now, in 2022, overpopulation and environmental destruction have put food in short supply. The poor and homeless crowd in dilapidated buildings. Their only savior? The Soylent Corporation, whose Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow and Soylent Green processed food products are the only food most people ever get to eat.
There's only one problem, as Charlton Heston discovers: Soylent Green is people!
VERDICT: Overpopulation, global climate change, pollution. They're all real problems that we're facing today. We also have a penchant for greedy, opportunistic multinational corporations, but it seems unlikely any of them will go so far as to cross the line into the "selling humans as food" territory in the next couple of decades.
No. 8 - Logan's Run (2116)
Birth control is one thing, but what about death control? Sometime in the 23rd century, humanity is living life in a domed city where overpopulation has become such a problem that, upon reaching the age of 30, you report in for your own scheduled termination. Needless to say, more than a few folks are tempted to make a run for it ... and a few others, called sandmen, have the difficult task of chasing them down.
VERDICT: Yes, youth is king ... but it seems a stretch to get to the point where we're killing everyone over 30. Besides, with all the Botox floating around these days, who knows how old anyone is anymore? I guess we'll have to wait 100 years and see.
No. 9 - The Time Machine (802,701)
H.G. Wells' classic novel and the movies that followed all concern the journeys of a 19th-century time traveler who winds up some 800,000 years in the future. There, he finds humanity has evolved into two races: the gentle, peaceful Eloi, who live simple lives of leisure, and the subterranean-dwelling Morlocks, who are pale and apelike. It turns out that the Morlocks feed on the Eloi, keeping them as livestock. It's class warfare played out to the extreme.
VERDICT: Look, it's pretty hard to predict what the world may be like in 800,000 years, right? Let's just hope none of our progeny ever end up either as simple-minded cattle like the Eloi or as predatory bottom-dwellers like the Morlocks.
No. 10 - Planet of the Apes
When Charlton Heston's spaceship crash-lands on a planet some 2,000 years in the future, he's reasonably certain he's in a galaxy far, far away. Nope, it's Earth (as we learn in the final seconds). Apes have evolved, and humans devolved, so that we are the wild animals and apes the so-called civilized species. Heston tries hard to convince the apes that he's an intelligent beast and is fortunate enough to convince a few.
VERDICT: Two thousand years is a long time. Anything could happen. And look, we're not always so kind to apes, so who's to think they'd be anything but rotten to us? Think about that the next time you laugh at a chimp.