Doing work on myself leads me to thinking about others. Why did I pick telling science fiction stories as a means of making myself better? Why is scifi my ‘gateway to good?’ I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about those questions. Along the way, I’ve come to some conclusions and it’s time to talk about one of them: kids need ‘thoughtful scifi’ right now.
What does that mean? As I mentioned earlier, I saw Tenet as ‘James Bond Meets Primer.’ Not only were the action sequences astounding, the movie and story were a legitimate head-bender. After a dearth of cerebral science fiction, Nolan’s thoughtful scifi felt like a breath of fresh air. All well and good, right? It hit me this weekend, re-watching Disney’s classic ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,’ and ‘The Black Hole.’ Where’s the thoughtful scifi for kids in 2021?
Why do kids need thoughtful scifi? Remember when you were younger, growing up on movies like 2001, the Andromeda Strain, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind? We were blessed with that catalog of formative scifi stories, movies that asked big questions in a format that even children could understand.
Those kinds of stories benefitted us in other ways. We used thoughtful scifi as a window on the world we were entering: the issues, problems, and potential solutions. Are we doing that for kids in 2021?
What Went Wrong
My answer, frankly, is no. Go Google for ‘2021 scifi movies;’ I’ll wait. Notice how many of those movies are Marvel / DC / Superhero movies? Good, thanks for doing that. This is what I wanted to talk with you about. Science fiction has traditionally been a mechanism for processing, discussing, and solving human issues. What questions are we asking and answering, what problems are we recognizing and addressing, if the answer is always ‘mega rich, ultra-smart billionaire or alien from another galaxy will come save us!’?
The big issue is right there, staring us all in the face. Kids and young people are facing mental health crises in crazy numbers, living in our late-stage capitalist dystopia. What are we doing to help them?
In times past, science fiction was both a window, and a lifeline to otherwise hopeless kids. In the 60s and 70s, Star Trek let kids of every background dream of a world beyond their hateful ‘now’ where the future just *is.* What kind of future are we helping kids dream of when we reduce science fiction to ‘magic punching people?’
My argument is: we’re not. We’re robbing ourselves of the future dreamers, doers and makers of the 21st century. Even if it’s not on purpose, it’s still a disservice. Currently-popular scifi isn’t thoughtful scifi. It’s big, it’s fun, but it isn’t thoughtful. We’re withholding opportunities from young people to think about problems they want to grow up and solve.
Solving Problems at the Right Level
You and I both know that thoughtful scifi still exists. Google it, there are a million stories out there that make you think, make you ponder. That’s great. But the problem is: Most of it isn’t for kids. You couldn’t show ‘Moon’ to an 8-year-old, and let’s be honest: 2001 is an acquired taste. If we wouldn’t expect a kid to go from dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets to a twelve-course meal in one move, why are we doing that to them with our scifi?
Big Questions Need Big Dreamers
First and foremost: the core value of science fiction isn’t to be corrupting, it’s supposed to be thought-provoking. That’s been my core value for Mesh, and I think this comes from the formative scifi I watched as a kid.
My beta readers know: Mesh needs to have big ideas, and big explosions. This story needs to be fun, fast, and cool – at the same time, I want kids to read it and start thinking: How would I handle it if I went to a boarding school where you get to build robots and blow stuff up? What would I invent if I had millions of dollars to spend on making the world a better place? What would I do if I found out my science project would destroy the world?
You get the idea. The main thing I can do, and I think we can do as a scifi community if we’re being honest, is to start planting those seeds for the younger people needing some kind of hope, some kind of window, on the future they’re walking into. There’s another side benefit for doing so:
Accessibility Makes Accountability
Thoughtful scifi has a way of focusing the facts. Almost a hundred years ago, Superman helped defeat the KKK by telling the story of racism in a kid-focused way. Not only did it hurt, it destroyed the Klan for a generation. One Klan member related: “I never felt so ridiculous in all my life. Suppose my own kid finds my Klan robe?’” Superman made a point that eighty years’ worth of education, law enforcement, and humanity never could.
It goes further: In the 60s and 70s of the last century, Twilight Zone discussed human issues and questions in a kid-accessible way, too. What were the results of these stories, and others like them? Not only did the kids know, they knew the adults knew, too. Adults can argue and rant in public all they want, there’s no defense from those eyes looking at you. If you can use that strategy to recruit people for war, could you use it for peace? For progress? My answer is: absolutely.
So yes, kids need thoughtful scifi now. We’ve been solving this problem at the wrong level for a while now, but we can start solving it at the right level. Big questions need big dreamers. Accessibility makes accountability.
My goal is to make ‘thoughtful scifi’ for young people. This is how I ‘plant trees knowing I’ll never sit in the shade.’ When I find those who want to do the same, and the world is a better place, I’ll know my job is done.