Two riots have rattled the nation in the last year: one in a previously unheard-of small city in Missouri, and another in a city that has served as a symbol of urban decline on the Eastern Seaboard in both reality and fiction. There have been numerous posts written about the recent crisis, the history of riots in the United States, and the responsibility of scholars during such a situation. Today I am going to take a step back and consider how fiction, and especially science fiction, considers these issues of race, racism, and the urban crisis. Considering how science fiction tackles real-life social issues is an interesting way of examining how Americans view and discuss political, cultural, and intellectual debates.
Since the 1970s, science fiction has reflected a growing awareness of the problem of the “urban crisis” in the United States. Often times these issues of urban collapse are tied to a larger idea of American collapse. Escape from New York (1981) certainly makes that point, with New York City nothing more than an open-air prison due to the nation giving up on solving the city’s social, political, and economic problems. Of course, there’s something to be said about America’s national power and prestige when the President himself ends up in New York due to terrorists hijacking Air Force One. The decay of America’s great Rust Belt cities was reflected in films such as Robocop (1987) and its sequels, where multiple national fears coalesced on the big screen. Consider the themes of the film. Detroit as a city is on, for all intents and purposes, its last legs. Industry has left the city with the exception of Omni Consumer Products, or OCP—and OCP has so much power it can literally purchase the city. Meanwhile, Detroit’s police force is threatening to go on strike, reflecting the effects of austerity and a dwindling tax base on Detroit’s beleaguered government. The War on Drugs is a key plot point in the 1987 classic and is lampooned in Robocop 2 (1990). Finally there is the fear of Japanese competition—something that hovers over a great deal of 1980s and early 1990s fiction, but is especially apparent in Robocop 3.
The Robocop franchise also prefigured some present day debates that were not so easily recognizable in the 1980s. Modern concerns about the militarization of the police in the United States can be seen in how OCP takes weapons meant for foreign battlefields and converts them into weapons against crime domestically—see the disaster known as the ED-209 robot. Also, the fact that OCP runs the Detroit police force reflects a realization that the conservatism of the 1980s meant a change in how Americans thought about government. Thinking about the declension narrative and the collapse of New Deal liberalism, OCP represents an idea of business stepping in and cleaning up the government’s mess—or at the very least, churning out an excellent product-cum-police officer in Robocop.
The science fiction franchise best known for touching on current events, Star Trek, mostly shied away from ideas of the urban crisis. I would not think this surprising; it is easier, in my estimation, to create allegories about the Vietnam War or racism in a space-based science fiction show than it is to tackle the subject of urban riots, redlining, and government incompetence (but it certainly could have been done). However, Deep Space Nine tackled the issue head on in a two-part episode that may be the most openly political two hours of Trek ever produced. “Past Tense” (1995) has two of the main characters, Captain Benjamin Sisko and Doctor Julian Bashir, stranded in their past (but our future) of 2024 San Francisco. The city, as with other American cities in this storyline, include “sanctuary districts,” places reserved for the poor and downtrodden to live. Ostensibly meant to aid the least among them, for most Americans by 2024 it becomes a way to put these people out of sight and out of mind.
The episode is in many ways a referendum on Trek’s 1960s idealism—a reminder that the vibrant liberal ideas of reform and rebuilding society as intellectuals and policymakers saw fit were, by the 1990s, distant (and for many discredited) memories. What happens when characters from the show come face to face with a ghoulish reverse Great Society? Doctor Bashir is stunned, but Captain (at the time merely Commander) Sisko points out that the Bell Riots—named for Gabriel Bell, the man who led the rioters in San Francisco’s sanctuary district—led the United States to make much-needed reforms and, in some sense, led to the egalitarian nature of the United Federation of Planets.
It is interesting to consider that viewpoint: a massive riot in a large American city leading to national reforms. The last two weeks have borne witness to debates about the effectiveness in rioting to achieve political ends. I have no desire to intervene in that debate, which often descends into simplistic interpretations of the “long, hot summers” of the 1960s. But “Past Tense” does remind us that history is filled with moments of violence, terror, and fear that lead to a needed sense of reform. That, of course, does not mean the present crisis will yield any reform whatsoever—after all, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots did not lead to a return of the Great Society. Science fiction since the 1970s has reflected an unease with the future of cities in the United States. That is not a surprise, as science fiction reflects these larger societal debates.
 The character of Judge Dredd in the A.D. 2099 comics of the United Kingdom, first seen in 1977, reflect views of the American urban crisis from across the pond. Dredd is one the law enforcement officers in Mega-City One, the Eastern United States transformed into one massive city-state. Violence and lawlessness is everywhere, and the ideals of American society are subordinate to a desire for law and order.
 Consider that the group is referred to as the “National Liberation Front of America,” and you immediately think back to Vietnam—a common trope for a wide swath of films by the early 1980s.
 Don’t worry, this is the only time I’ll mention that movie in this post.
 In fact one could argue the riots of 1992 loomed large over the 1994 Crime Bill, an example of how politicians across the national spectrum had decidedly different views of society and crime from their predecessors in the mid-1960s.