Why Sci-Fi Is Dominating Pop Culture

Brett Bates
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Take a quick glance at the pop-culture landscape and you’ll see that science fiction dominates. Star Wars and Marvel movies top the year-end box offices. Video games like Mass Effect: Andromeda, Destiny, and Prey suck up hundreds of hours of gamers’ free time. Even on TV, where smaller production budgets have historically hamstrung the genre, shows like Westworld and Stranger Things stir up regular water-cooler conversations.

This isn’t new: Sci-fi’s been a cultural touchstone since even before Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast stirred up widespread panic in 1938. But it’s worth examining what makes major sci-fi franchises resonate so strongly with audiences in 2017. What does sci-fi offer to a pop-culture fan?

Sci-fi Offers Escapism

Westworld man in black

At the most superficial level, science fiction offers an escapism unrivaled by any other genre (except for its close cousin, fantasy). By setting a book/movie/TV show/video game on another world or in the far-flung future, creators allow us to forget about all of the messy issues here on present-day Earth. Instead we can focus on the whizz-bang elements we wish were real. What if we could travel to distant planets with the pull of a hyperdrive lever? What if we could fly like a superhero?

What the strongest sci-fi franchises of today do is expand this escapism across a massive fictional universe that encompasses all kinds of media. So if you’re a Star Wars fan, for example, you never need to leave that universe. Beyond the movies, there are hundreds of TV episodes, books, comics, games, and more to dig into — and that’s not even touching the retconned “legends” universe prior to The Force Awakens. Your favorite characters are always engaging in some new adventure. And when faced with the burdens of everyday life — work, family, news and politics, and more — that’s a comforting thought.

Sci-fi Offers Nostalgia

Tied closely with escapism is the sense of nostalgia sci-fi engenders. It may feel oxymoronic that a genre known for futuristic visions actually makes fans look backward, but in fact it’s doubly true.

First, sci-fi taps into the sense of wonder everyone felt about the world when they were young, when something as simple as an automatic car window can feel like magic. Knowledge is power, sure, but it’s also kind of a bummer for our collective imagination. A torrential flood used to be the result of a wrathful god; now it’s just a product of atmospheric conditions. (Partially caused by humanity’s own exploitation, if you want to throw in an adult-sized dose of guilt for good measure.) Science fiction, with its fantastical worlds and technology, makes us feel like kids again, staring in awe at the car window.

It’s also not surprising that many of these major sci-fi franchises are either decades old (Star Wars, Marvel) or explicitly tie back to old franchises (Stranger Things). Not only does dipping into one of these franchises make you feel like a kid again, it also brings to mind specific memories of enjoying those franchises as a kid. Hearing Darth Vader’s labored, mechanical breathing in Rogue One instantly transported every movie goer back to their first time watching the original trilogy, snug in a warm blanket of nostalgia.

Sci-fi Offers Metaphors for Messy Issues

rogue-one-cast

But it’s a disservice to sci-fi to say it only traffics in escapism and fuzzy feelings. Science fiction often addresses real-world issues — including some of the thorniest, most difficult-to-discuss topics today — hidden just beneath its shiny veneer. Sci-fi can operate as the perfect metaphor to get people thinking about the pressing issues of humanity without viewers necessarily recognizing they’re there. It burrows straight into the subconscious and can be just as influential as any piece of entertainment that addresses the topic head-on — while reaching a much wider audience.

Many people see Star Wars as a simple battle between good and evil, for example. But look closer and you’ll see that the Empire is almost exclusively white and human, while the Rebels are made up of aliens and humans of all different shapes and creeds, and suddenly it starts to click.

Sci-fi is rarely just an exercise in speculation: “How cool would it be if…” More often it’s a lens that allows us to view the current world in a new way. And for people who feel frustrated, isolated, or outright fearful of the world today, seeing these more inclusive messages as subtext in the most popular entertainment on the planet is both comforting and hopeful.

What About Prey?

Prey, the new cerebral sci-fi shooter from Bethesda, taps into all three of these veins. It posits a future where people can harness the power of an alien species to access superhero-esque powers like telekinesis or invisibility (escapism). Its story — about a person who’s lost their memory and must fight against face-hugging aliens — will be familiar to anyone who loved Total Recall or the Alien franchise (nostalgia). But that story hints at deeper underlying issues as well, like what it means to be human or what happens when science is left unchecked by morality (metaphor).

You can see how Prey integrates these qualities for yourself by checking out the game on PS4, Xbox One, or PC.

Brett Bates
Brett Bates is a staff writer at Fandom. He's been in the video game industry for eight years as a writer and as a developer for companies like BioWare, Rumble, EGM, and Bitmob. According to his business card, he's a fan of indie games, crime comics, and boxer dogs.
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