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Totally Radical: A Microhistory of 1980s Science Fiction

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In the 1980s, science fiction ruled over everything. Most of the biggest movies and books of the decade were scifi, and cyberpunk became the era's pop aesthetic. Here's how the 1980s changed the genre forever.


Image above is from the 80s film Liquid Sky.


When people look back on science fiction aesthetics from the 1980s, they see the neon glow of Blade Runner's Tokyo-ized citiscape, filled with people whose streetwear makes them look like plastic robots. Ridley Scott's vision of the future in that film greatly resembled the world that William Gibson created in the hit novel Neuromancer, about a world where Japanese culture ruled and hackers could "jack into cyberspace" via brain implants. "Jacking in" brought Gibson's characters into a world much like the "grid" in Tron - another cyberpunk classic - where their identities merged with software.

Cyberpunk futures were Asian-dominated, corporate-controlled, and full of entities who blurred the line between biology and information. It's no surprise, then, that the 1980s were also the era when Japanese science fiction blew up and captured the world's attention. Classic movies like the biotech apocalypse flick Akira, and "real robot" anime series Gundam, were released in the 1980s. In addition, Japan's greatest anime filmmaker Miyazaki Hayao released a gorgeous, mind-blowing science fiction movie in 1984 called Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, about a girl trying to save a future Earth from biotech creatures created by scientists.


The Blockbuster

The 1980s wasn't all about Tokyo-tinged punk and anti-corporate cyber criminals. It was also the era of E.T., Star Wars, Predator, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the mega-selling novels of Stephen King. The first "blockbuster" movies were undoubtedly the 1970s flicks Jaws and Star Wars, special effects actioners whose opening weekends became the stuff of legend. But in the 80s, blockbuster masterminds like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas fine-tuned the art of the blockbuster to the point where their movies dominated the decade's top ten grossers. And in the book world, it was hard to beat multi-million-copy bestseller King, whose success also rewrote the rules for literary fame.

Blockbusters are primarily known for their box office appeal, but they are usually expensive and effects-heavy, too. And in the 1980s, that generally meant science fiction and fantasy. Indeed, the 80s roster of blockbusters has echoed down the decades since - in both the 1990s and the 2000s, the top grossing films are dominated by genre pictures. The 90s gave us mega-hits like Independence Day, Men In Black, Armageddon, and Star Wars, Episode I. And this past decade's top films included Avatar, as well as Spider-Man, the Lord of the Rings movies and Harry Potter.

Though science fiction and fantasy movies had been popular before the 1980s, they had never been cash cows like the blockbusters are. In the 1980s, blockbuster movies proved that science fiction was not only mainstream - it was the biggest game in town.

Cold War Rebooted

What makes millions of people suddenly decide that they want to spend money sitting in dark theaters dreaming of outer space, the future, and fantasy worlds? Some would argue that there has to be something going on in reality that's making people hungry for escapism. In the 1980s, that "something" was the deep freeze of a renewed Cold War between the USA and the USSR. One of the decade's most significant early films, WarGames, tackles the Cold War head-on, bringing together cyberpunk themes of hacking with the looming possibility of a computer-controlled nuclear apocalypse.

President Ronald Reagan often tied his renewed commitment to the Cold War to his embrace of "traditional values" from the 1950s (another era of Cold War zeal). Science fiction stories like Back to the Future explored the secret ties between the 50s and the 80s too, whirling the two decades together into a neon-colored, rock-and-roll mishmash. And the cult favorite dystopia Red Dawn - about a high school football team in middle America that fends off a Soviet invasion - couldn't possibly have been more overt with its "America Number One" political message.

Some of the past century's most celebrated SF writers, like Greg Bear and Vernor Vinge, got their start writing Cold War SF during the 1980s. Bear's Eon series begins with a strong emphasis on Cold War politics, with the US and USSR fighting over an alien artifact that shows up near Earth; and Vinge's anti-nuke Across Realtime saga is about what happens when activists get their hands on a new technology that stops nuclear weapons development in its tracks.


Aliens in the Ghetto

Blockbusters brought American Cold War politics to movie theaters all over the world. But the 1980s also saw a new wave of subversive science fiction created by pop culture upstarts influenced by music and progressive politics. Two incredible movies from the early 80s - John Sayles' Brother From Another Planet and Lizzie Borden's Born In Flames - use science fiction to explore the lives of people with no social power. In Brother, a black alien (Joe Morton) fleeing from a life of slavery on another planet lands in Harlem and tries to fit into human culture while remaining hidden from alien police sent to round him up. And in the dystopian world of Born in Flames, we are witness to a revolution led by women and people of color in the ghettos who broadcast their anti-government messages via pirate radio stations and punk music.

The 1980s saw the publication of many of Octavia Butler's most important novels - both her Patternmaster series and the Xenogenesis series (now called Lilith's Brood). Like Born In Flames, the Patternmaster novels deal with an uprising in the ghettos. In Mind of My Mind, it turns out that homeless people in Los Angeles are often crazy because they have untapped psychic powers that they can't control. Until a young black woman - a patternmaster - is able to help channel their powers into something greater. Eventually they control the minds of all the richest and most powerful people in Los Angeles, which leads to a complete transformation of the social order - and later, of the species itself.

We get a different view of ghetto life in 80s cult classic Liquid Sky, about a queer new wave dance club that becomes the target of tiny aliens seeking orgasmic energy. The gender-bendy 80s gave rise today's openly gay/lesbian/bi/trans communities, and we witness those communites' gritty origins in this weird movie about a young woman/man (of course, she plays both roles) whose lovers are being killed by aliens who want to eat orgasming brains. Since our hero hates all her/his lovers anyway, she/he goes on a trippy quest to find the aliens and thank these saviors in person.

Grossouts and Modern Vampires

If cyberpunk was the 80s most memorable futuristic style, then the grossout is certainly its most memorable contribution to horror. Filmmakers like David Cronenberg made us barf - and think deep thoughts about embodiment, media mind control, and science - with movies like Videodrome, Scanners, and The Fly. Grossout satirist Stuart Gordon gave us the ultimate B-movie classic with Re-Animator, which also introduced the world to beloved SF actor Jeffrey Combs, who plays that film's mad doctor with a resurrection serum (what could go wrong?).

Admittedly, some people were just plain confused when Videodrome's Deborah Harry turned into a television set that ate James Woods' head and forced him to grow a giant stomach vagina for inserting videocassettes. Less postmodern horror lovers could always lap up the blood by watching the many iterations of Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th that flooded theaters with gore.


The 1980s were also a time of modern vampires. Anne Rice's vampire novels, notably The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned, burned up the bestseller lists and left people hungry for stories about sympathetic vampire characters with modern problems. Dracula was left in the dust when The Lost Boys gave us punk kid vampires, and Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark offered us a fun, gory tale of white trash vamps left over from the Civil War, who snack on good ole boys while living in a trailer with blacked-out windows.

And before he gave us the ultimate Cold War action flick in Top Gun, Tony Scott directed The Hunger, a sultry glimpse of vampires who've become the subject of scientific scrutiny - though they still manage to do all the vampy stuff that was important in the 80s, like going to see Bauhaus at a club and having lesbian sex. Starring David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, and Susan Sarandon, The Hunger was like True Blood way before its time.


So when you see a grossout splatterfest with throat-chomping in it, or soak up the special effects in the latest hacker tale or alien invasion flick, you need to ask yourself one question. Did this story get its inspiration from the 1980s? Chances are, it did.

This io9 flashback originally appeared back in 2010.