Science fiction has a history of pivoting to cast its forward-looking gaze at a future—often, an apocalyptic one—that where technology is notably absent. A recent case is the J.J. Abrams produced (and by now cancelled) show „Revolution“ starring Billy Burke and Elizabeth Mitchell. But why would a genre founded on exploring and often celebrating technology cast it aside?
Apocalyptic fiction has been around since the 1805 French publication „Le dernier homme (The Last Man)“ by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville (followed 20 years later by Mary Shelley’s work of the same name). Fear of atomic weaponry, world wars, and killer robots, among other things, has long spawned a spate of post-technologic apocalyptic fiction, and that trend has boomed alongside technology. From Karel Capek’s 1920 play „R.U.R.“ (Rossum’s Universal Robots) to the „Terminator“, „Battlestar Galactica“ and „Real Humans“, sci-fi suggests the apocalypse might take the form of a robotic overthrow. In „Revolution“ instead, the end of the world is the loss of technology.
Especially in a time shaped by technological leaps it seems almost contradictory that science fiction would opt for a more primeval environment. In post-technologic fiction such as „Revolution“, Walter Miller’s „A Canticle for Leibowitz“, and the new AMC show „Galantine“, the future more closely resembles the past. The primitive societies in these works seem as outlandish to us now as the futuristic ones must have seemed back in the early days of science fiction. Post-technologic fiction raises some important questions about the relationship between humanity and technology, which may be precisely why it’s cropping up so readily in contemporary science fiction.
An apocalyptic scenario always focuses on the nature of humanity—what do we do when our species is threatened? What uniquely human characteristics will prevent the complete obliteration of the race? Humans almost always go down fighting, but these works raise the question of what exactly we’re fighting for, and whether technology marks the beginning or the end of civilization. Or, perhaps, both.
Technology’s void seems like the perfect context to reaffirm humanity’s uniqueness. In post-technologic works, humanity fights for knowledge and freedom—struggles that have always defined us as a race. But instead of simply reaffirming humanity, these stories force us to realize how much we’ve come to define ourselves in relation to technology; after all, it’s one of the elements that distinguish us from animals and from our ancestors.
In a 1958 interview, „Brave New World“ author Aldous Huxley said, „we mustn’t be caught by surprise by our own advancing technology.“ Perhaps that’s exactly what’s happened, as underscored by apocalyptic, post-technologic stories. We’ve been caught by surprise not just by technology’s capabilities, but by our dependence on it. Technology controls us in ways we’re aware of, but also in ways we may not think about. The most pertinent question raised by „Revolution“, and by the looks of it, „Galyntine“, is what happens to humanity if it’s stripped of technology.
„Revolution“’s answer is particularly bleak—all hell breaks loose. While some people display compassion and resilience, most people give in to base survival instincts. „You can’t trust anyone,“ Maggie, the protagonist’s mother, warns in the pilot. „They can’t all be monsters,“ Charlie responds, unconvincingly. Humanity’s en-masse reversion to its primitive state raises the idea that technology, not humanity, prevents us from becoming savages. Does technology control us to the extent that without it, we would be plunged into a „Lord of the Flies“ scenario?
Such questions hinge on the meaning of progress and how it may differ from evolution. We tend to define progress in scientific terms: curing diseases, sending rovers to other planets, developing robots, etc. But if we limit our definition of progress to technology, we’re overlooking some pretty crucial elements, such as happiness, freedom, and kindness. While technology might threaten our humanity, such as in „Battlestar Galactica“ where „skin job“ cylons are indistinguishable from humans, „Revolution“ suggests that we lose our humanity when we lose technology. The suggestion creates a catch-22—if technology brings about the apocalypse in some works and the sudden absence of technology brings about the apocalypse in others, is it possible to maintain a healthy technologic society?
Post-technologic science fiction’s return to the landscape of the past combats the notion that our racial identity is, or should be, about the future, about technology. In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, writer Francis Fukuyama argued that the new era upon us was effectively the „end of history.“ The exponential growth of technology could easily support the same notion—that we’re in an era so unlike any that has come before that history is totally irrelevant. „History is bunk,“ asserts „Brave New World“’s Mustapha Mond and quotes Henry Ford. Not so fast, says post-technologic science fiction.
An apocalypse is in some ways a return to a blank slate, an opportunity for a do-over. In „Revolution“, memories of how the world used to be prompt an almost universal desire to turn the power back on. But not everyone in post-technologic fiction wants to get back to where they were before. In „A Canticle for Leibowitz“, monks carefully guard technology to prevent the mistakes of the past and to facilitate a course-corrected future when, perhaps, humans and technology can coexist.
When the apocalypse occurs in sci-fi, humanity can always rise from the ashes. The question is whether it should bring technology with it.