Thursday, 1 December 2011

Science fiction and the future

The Guardian has a good post up entitled "Can science fiction lead us away from economic collapse?", the premise being that science fiction is a good judge of whats to come, and thus, perhaps, a map to get past whats happening now, what a friend of mine today described as the "econopocalypse". Here's an extract:
It's a truism that science fiction, however distinct its vision of the future, is always just as much a reflection of its present. The golden age of SF writers, including Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke, predicted near futures of a colonised solar system and an era of engineering marvels from robotics to space elevators. But, viewed through a historical lens, their futures say far more about the cold war politics of 1950s America than the post-industrial world of 2011. If science fiction provides a record of the hopes and fears of each generation for the future ahead, what do contemporary SFwriters say about today?

Seed, by debut novelist Rob Ziegler, extrapolates a future rooted in the economic and environmental concerns of the early 21st century. In common with novels such as Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, it explores one of the main preoccupations of science fiction in recent years, the collapse of western-style capitalism. Hardwired into Ziegler's post-apocalyptic vision of a US ravaged by famine and warfare, is an exploration of the extreme material scarcity that the collapse will create for generations to come.
But of course there's a flaw to the article's premise, science fiction doesn't predict the future or try to, it imprints the hopes and fears of the present onto the theories of tomorrow.

So I took to thinking about the science fiction of 2011 and what it might say to us right now about the hopes and fears we have today, in the context of my interests and here are some themes I've noticed in my reading:

We're going to have a lot less wars: This sounds good, but it comes with a caveat, although we'll have less wars there will be just as much conflict. The Windup Girl is a good example of this. The world might be peaceful, but states and corporations continue to work using proxies and agents to wage quiet conflicts with each other, stealing information, killing operatives and generally messing things up. The potential for violence, and the complexity of its implementation are explored in books like Ender's Game.

Robots are going to be a big deal: Albeit not in the way Isaac Asimov thought when he was coming up with the three laws of robotics. For all that its a terrible movie Real Steel gives us a good idea of where the world might be going, robots for entertainment, heavy lifting, and presumably warfare, controlled by human operatives. The idea of independent robotic creatures is receding as a concept, and in my opinion is less evident in modern science fiction than it has been historically. Where it does exist it does so in the form of a singularity type event, as in Robopocalypse, with a rogue AI taking control of most modern technology and going to town on squishy human beings. Its worth noting two things about this theory, first, its a very old idea, second, this is a zombie concept with metal rather than rotting flesh.

We're still all pretty worried about our future dystopia: The fact that Brave New World and 1984 never seem to leave the bestseller lists speaks to the fact that the concept of a new world order has remained part of our consciousness. Even Fahrenheit 451 has been released on Kindle due to the demands of the purchasing public, over the author's original objections.

Population collapse is just around the corner: Whether its zombie books like Zone One, or The End Specialist we are clearly concerned about the population, but not just from the overpopulation sense, but rather the collapse and "reset" of that population. We all recognise increasingly that the world is getting older and at some point, we're going to start running out of people.

We're also running out of future: Science fiction of the 1950's dealt with the future 50 or more years into the future. Increasingly modern science fiction deals with a decade from now. In part this is the result of the rapid pace of technology outstripping even an imaginative writer's ability to keep up. But this runs deeper, it means that disaster is closer than even, a paradigm shift or singularity which will shake the foundations of civilisation as we know it.

This is just a very quick overview of some thoughts I've had while musing on this topic late in the evening. There's a lot more ground to cover here. Science fiction is by far and away the most important medium of fiction in my opinion. No where else is the idea of humanity and its meaning explored in greater detail in nuance than this type of writing. Of course it is in regular fiction or fantasy, but neither of those genres seek to explore the context of humanity in a world which is rapidly changing and evolving.

One only has to watch an episode of Fringe to get the sense that whilst our technology leaps ahead, our morality is still in its infancy. While we step closer to reinventing our species our leaders argue about abortion and birth control, while corporations reach for space we bicker about meaningless trivia.

Science fiction is the hopes and fears of today and tomorrow, explored through the lens of where we see ourselves tomorrow. We should all read more of it.
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