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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Yesterday’s tomorrow: Why nostalgia culture holds us back


Modern science fiction looks to the past instead of the future

Science fiction, by definition, is a genre about the future. It’s about places we haven’t discovered and technologies not yet invented. In all cases, sci-fi looks beyond the real, modern world and tries to think of what might become rather than what is. Yet for all its foresight, modern science fiction seems to be equally — if not more — interested in the past. In fact, science fiction plays a huge role in our nostalgia-obsessed culture that, if anything, holds us back.       

One of the most obvious examples of this is the new Star Wars films. The Force Awakens essentially retells the original ‘70s film, A New Hope, but with new characters. While it still made for a compelling story, it’s clear that J.J. Abrams and company wanted to remind the audience of the thrills of A New Hope — bringing back the original actors, using a familiar storyline and reviving a universe that had not been seen on screen for 10 years. The original Star Wars was a trailblazer in special effects technology that still holds up today and portrayed futuristic technology, even if the film claims to be set a long, long time ago. The Force Awakens returned to this past moment of innovation and tried to recapture its spirit rather than innovate its own.

Another more prevalent example is superhero movies. Though superheroes have evolved to become cultural icons in our present moment, they’re all based off of characters that were created in the past. Superhero films repurpose past characters for the modern world instead of creating something totally new. Classic franchises like Star Trek, Mad Max, Alien and Blade Runner have also found new life in the modern world, reviving what was instead of looking forward to what could be.

Netflix’s hit show Stranger Things is one of the best examples of sci-fi looking back instead of forward. It’s without a doubt a sci-fi show, yet it shamelessly places itself in the 1980s. The costume design, the lighting, the music, even the characters explicitly recall ‘80s sci-fi movies like E.T. through the means of science fiction. The characters interact with futuristic technology and fearsome creatures, but the show is more about evoking the feeling of retro sci-fi than using these elements to say anything about the future. It’s more about nostalgia than futurology and in a way seems to say that yesterday’s future is brighter than today’s.

This is all part of the nostalgia culture that dominates America in 2017. The romanticized glory days of the prosperous post-war period are gone, and the country has been in decline for at least the past couple of decades. America’s role in the world has dramatically changed as well, from being a strong, righteous leader to being seen as an aggressive bully around the world and an embarrassment among first-world countries for its turn toward regressive social policies. The economy is also not what it used to be, particularly in rural parts of the country, and many of the industrial jobs that propelled economic prosperity either no longer exist or have been outsourced to the detriment of the working class.

America arguably hit peak nostalgia when it fell into the trap that was Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again,” based on the idea that there was a past, “great” America to which we could return by electing him.

As America continues to decline, the future for many Americans continues to look more and more bleak. The country’s problems with racism, education and income inequality become clearer and messier by the day and can seem unsolvable.

It’s easier to look back than forward, harder to imagine a bright future with the dark state of the modern world. Success in the future from our point in history will require radical change — something many are uncomfortable with. The institutions, policies and customs that brought prosperity in the past are no longer working as smoothly and require updating as they slowly decay. Nostalgia culture is a way of keeping these institutions alive by yearning for a past when they worked instead of confronting the realities of their decay.

The sooner the world leaves behind nostalgia culture and stops romanticizing the past, the sooner we will be able to deal with the world’s decaying institutions, find solutions and move toward a prosperous future.

Science fiction is as popular as it has ever been, but it needs to take this popularity and use it for innovation. Instead of reviving the settings and cultures of the past, it should take after past sci-fi’s visionary qualities and look forward into our future, wherein lies a better tomorrow if we work for it.


Written by: Noah Pflueger-Peters — napfluegerpeters@ucdavis.edu


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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