Science fiction has become obsessed with the idea of humanity abandoning Earth. It is not just movies like Interstellar, which was a smash hit this year. Audiences identify with the theme of resignation in the genre.

Similar themes have been present in television shows for over a decade, such as in Firefly, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, and from the looks of this poster, the new Scyfy channel series Ascension. It’s worth considering why they’ve become so widespread.

Abandoning Earth has been a regular theme in science fiction since the late 1970s, with TV shows like the original Battlestar Galactica leading the way. This was paralleled by a string of feature films such as Alien and Blade Runner, in which space was an introduction to new horrors.

Pessimism of this scale represented an intense shift away from the optimistic dramas of just a decade earlier, which featured everything from the post-racialism of Star Trek to the high-minded evolutionary prophecies of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The result has been a genre that is far more dystopian in its outlook.

These are perfectly natural reactions to troubled times, in which pressing civilizational concerns like social inequality and racism, and, more recently, climate change, continue to go unaddressed. Consider that the tagline of this vintage Soviet-looking Ascension advert, which I photographed in a New York subway car recently, is “Be part of mankind’s last hope.”

Say what? Pretty depressing, if you think about it. The implication is that every attempt at structural reform has failed, and that now, a trio of astronauts is going to make a last-ditch effort to save mankind in space. The fantasy is that we can’t save ourselves through politics. It can only happen through a religious-style miracle.

How Christian. So much for “mankind’s last hope.” Why does emancipation have to be tied to faith? Can’t it be something rational, like progressive politics and effective legislation? Posters like these inspire us to hedge our bets on luck, rather than asking difficult questions about failing governments and political powerlessness.

It’s a strange message to get from a genre of thinking that has inspired us to do better. But when politics are as bleak as they are, today, in the United States, the only thing art can do is serve as a mirror. We should be frightened by the reflection.

 

Ascension photograph courtesy of ScyFy Network. All rights reserved. Cosmonaut reproduction by Gary LoBlue.