Science fiction used to be almost synonymous with "competence porn," stories about smart people who solve challenges by knowing what they're doing. But lately when it comes to movies and TV, it seems like Americans love competence porn, and they love science fiction... they just don't love them together. What happened?
Consider: Science fiction TV shows and movies used to feature heroic scientist characters pretty often. We had heroic inventors, scientific explorers, and sympathetic scientist supporting characters who would explain to the main hero what was going on. Heroes included Reed Richards, but also second leads like Hans Zarkov.
No scientists, please
But at some point, including scientists as heroes became a bit of a taboo in science fiction, with the notable exception of Walter Bishop in Fringe. (And in the U.K., Doctor Who is a holdout.) We're only allowed to explore new science or strange ideas if our hero is an "everyman" who has no clue what's going on.
Case in point: when ABC turned Robert J. Sawyer's novel Flashforward into a TV series, the heroes were changed from a team of physicists to a group of FBI agents.
Nothing exposes the shift from competence porn to "heroes out of their depth" as sharply as a comparison of Ridley Scott's Prometheus to the original Alien. In Alien, Ripley doesn't survive because she's a nice person — she survives because she's the one person who is good at her job and keeps reminding the others about things like quarantine and safety procedures. In Prometheus, absolutely nobody is good at his or her job — just watch this training video.
Also, the original Star Trek mostly shows the Enterprise crew being pretty competent, but now we're only allowed to have science explorer heroes if the focus is on the captain being unqualified for his rank.
But meanwhile, "competence porn" is our most popular entertainment, in the movies as well as television. Medical shows (like House) and forensic/detective shows (like CSI or Bones) celebrate the hero who has godlike powers of reconstructing the past and figuring out exactly what's happened. There are detectives who can tell whether you're lying at a glance, or who can reconstruct a complicated crime scene by looking at a few twigs, Sherlock-style.
And as we wrote a while back, every police procedural and spy show (or movie) has to have the stock "nerd" character, the slightly loopy guy or gal who can hack into any computer or zoom-and-enhance any video. There is an army of incredibly brilliant, nigh-omnipotent nerds on television.
And one of the most popular procedurals right now is the surprisingly awesome Person of Interest, in which the Nero Wolfe character is a supersmart former hacker named Finch who built an artificial intelligence that can predict crimes and terror attacks before they happen.
But the moment you're dealing with A) futuristic technology, B) actual weird science, C) aliens, D) space, E) anything that can't be passed off as an extension of current tech, scientists vanish from the picture. Those nerds who can solve anything are suddenly nowhere to be seen. The competence porn is replaced... incompetence snuff porn?
When did this happen?
Sometime in the past decade or so, there was a definite shift in the zeitgeist. A kind of mini-Singularity, maybe, when many Americans started to feel as though science and technology were growing in sophistication beyond our ability to master them.
We completed the Human Genome Project in 2003, mapping the human genome for the first time — and now a decade later, people are having their individual genomes sequenced for just $5,000 a pop. In the past couple decades, laparoscopic techniques and robotic surgical tools have revolutionized surgery, allowing incredibly complex procedures with a much higher success rate. You've got the Internet in your pocket.
Image via Wall Street Journal
So my theory is, people love to fantasize about having mastery of the world we currently live in. Where once they fantasized about being the heroic explorer who visited other planets or built the next generation of insane technology, now they just want to be able to make their desktop PCs work properly. They want to understand what the heck is going on outside their windows.
One piece of evidence: the number of people working in tech support seems to be going up sharply, even beyond the fact that we're recovering from a recession. The "professional and business services" sector, which includes tech support as well as "network computing and communications support," employed 19.7 million Americans in 2008, and is expected to add an extra 1.4 million workers by 2018, according to Georgetown University — making it the second fastest growing sector. And 35 percent of companies planned to hire new tech support workers in 2013. People are spending all their time calling tech support, basically.
At the same time, lots of formerly secure white-collar and blue collar jobs are being destroyed by advances in robotics and in computer systems generally.
So people feel out of their depth, and attracted to any hero who seems to have a handle on this crazy world we live in — but we feel threatened by actual scientists, or anyone who seems likely to bring in the next wave of change before we're ready for it.
This shift coincides with the decline in space opera on television, and the rise of apocalypses and "disaster porn," which are at least partly a wish-fulfillment fantasy about life becoming simpler and less confusing again. We have "competence porn" in the present day, but when we imagine the near future, we reach for "disaster porn."
What will it take to reunite competence porn and science fiction? Maybe once the people who didn't grow up with the internet in their pocket age out of the all-important 18-49 demographic, there'll be another shift in people's tastes. Maybe the next wave of technological change will make people feel more in control again. Maybe we'll all become cyborgs and our brain implants will make us crave stories about competent people in the future. We can hope, anyway!