How 9/11 Changed Science Fiction

In the decade since 9/11, the US government has cracked down on civil liberties at home and invaded nations abroad in the name of national security. And a whole crop of futuristic and fanciful tales have sprung up to satirize and justify "the war on terror." These tales generally deal with one of five crucial post-9/11 themes.

Here's what happened to science fiction after September 11.

How 9/11 Changed Science Fiction

New York Must Be Destroyed

One of the most obvious ways that scifi echoed the events of 9/11 was to destroy New York, over and over again. The collapse of New York, via time traveling shenanigans or giant sea monsters, continues to obsess scifi creators. In the incredibly terrible A Sound of Thunder (2005), a time traveler who steps on a butterfly during the Jurassic Age changes the present and turns New York into a savage jungle. New York is made into a less-savage jungle by an inexplicable disease in I Am Legend (2007). Aliens with giant world-destroying Tripods smash New York and everywhere else in War of the Worlds (2004). And of course we've already talked a lot about how Cloverfield (2008) is basically a direct allegory of 9/11, with a giant monster standing in for scary terrorists who came out of nowhere and bashed the city. And of course the first and only good season of the series Heroes (2006-2007) focused on an evil mutant who was going to destroy New York City in a ball of fire.

How 9/11 Changed Science Fiction

The Surveillance State is Watching You

Although Minority Report (2002) technically came out after 9/11, and certainly took on new overtones thanks to the passage of the USA-Patriot Act, it was probably conceived and mostly filmed before the attacks took place. Still, another Philip K. Dick-inspired movie, A Scanner Darkly (2006) is clearly an homage to the surveillance state that the current Bush Administration built — and that John Poindexter tried to make even more science fictional with his Total Information Awareness program (now called Terrorist Information Awareness). Fear of computer surveillance — or resigned acceptance of it — permeates countless scifi creations of this era, including Vernor Vinge's superlative near-future novel Rainbows End (2006), which focuses in part on a biotech terrorist attack that's being stopped by intelligence experts who work entirely within vast computer networks.

Cory Doctorow dealt with how young hackers deal with the surveillance state in his incredible novel Little Brother (2008); and The Dark Knight (2008) dealt with the dangers of surveillance, even in the name of justice. In this fall's TV series Person of Interest, this theme gets turned on its head when a disgruntled former intelligence agent builds a backdoor into a DHS terrorist-tracking database so that he can spy on the spies, and use their surveillance information to save the innocent.

How 9/11 Changed Science Fiction

The Terrorists Are Everywhere!

Australian Max Barry published Jennifer Government in 2003, a novel where corporations stage fake terrorist attacks to get publicity for their new shoes. But other tales were less satirical. Mark Millar's Civil War comic book series (2006-7) dealt with what happens to the superheroes of the Marvel universe when Congress passes the "superhero registration act" and forces all heroes to be tracked in the name of fighting terror. Hero fights hero in this response to the Bush Administration's efforts to track Muslims and other "undesirables." Battlestar Galactica dug deep into politically incendiary terroritory in 2006 when some of the humans become suicide bombers in order to fight the Cylon in occupied New Caprica. Even Star Trek: Enterprise had a terrorist plot arc with the Xindi in 2003. In books, Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel (2007) dealt with high-tech terrorists in a surveillance state.

Recent TV series reboot V focused intensely on how humans had to become terrorists to fight off an alien menace (this was a departure from the original, where there was a human resistance, but it wasn't talked about in the context of terrorism). Even Harry Potter got in on the action. The final few novels (and films) in the series deal with the Ministry of Magic going authoritarian in a war on anyone who dares support Muggles or speak out against the increasingly intolerant government of the magical realm where Hogwarts exists.

How 9/11 Changed Science Fiction

Department of Homeland Security is Plotting to End the World

One of the conceits of post-nuke apocalypse series Jericho (2006-2008) is that the Department of Homeland security may have been behind the attacks that flattened most major U.S. cities with nukes. 28 Weeks Later (2007) has U.S. security forces ordered into London to "protect" citizens being repatriated after a plague has wiped out most of England. It turns out that one of their orders is just to shoot everybody — innocents and monsters alike — if the situation gets out of control. In The Mist (2007), a secret military experiment unleashes extra-dimensional killer beasts on a small town. And in Serenity (2005), Joss Whedon's film spinoff from the Firefly series, a government obsessed with quelling uprisings in its satellite colonies is hunting one of the main characters, River, an escaped experiment who would have become a mind-reading weapon under government control.

These days you can see similar themes in Fringe, where government-funded experiments have unleashed a terrifying force that's consuming an alternate Earth - especially in New York, where a group that's an alternate version of Homeland Security has its base on Liberty Island at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

How 9/11 Changed Science Fiction

Desert Planets are the Source of All Unrest

Two new Dune miniserieses hit the bigtime on the Syfy Channel right after 9/11: Dune: The Miniseries (2001) and Children of Dune (2003). Both are true to Frank Herbert's novels, which are thinly-veiled allegories of Middle Eastern politics — complete with Jihads and desert planets which produce a chemical that enables rapid transportation. ("The spice must flow" = "The oil must flow".) New Dune novels, written by Frank Herbert's son, came out in 2002, 2003, and 2004 and dealt directly with Butlerian Jihad that created the world of the first novels. Clearly, Jihad was on SF writers' minds. Syfy Channel aired an updated version of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Princess of Mars (2010) which begins with a soldier, wounded in an Middle Eastern conflict, propelled across space to the wars on desert planet Barsoom (Mars). Next year, Disney is about to unleash its own version of the same story with John Carter.

An earlier version of this post appeared on io9 in 2008.