Science Fiction’s New Future

Back in the 1950s and 1960s classic science fiction promised a future of space travel, with Star Trek epitomizing our hopes. That future has been revised constantly for us Baby Boomers so what does contemporary science fiction promise the youth of today? Will it be The Windup Girl, The Hunger Games or Ready Player One? Is the Final Frontier off the table? The fact that the United States continues to ignore global warming does not bode well for science fictional speculation. Since we refused to solve our problems we must live with the results.

In Ready Player One people are happy to live in a virtual reality that lets them escape the bleak actual reality.  The United States at mid-21st century is still in today’s recession.  In The Hunger Games, the 22nd century U.S. has collapsed and a new government has formed that’s nothing like what we have today.  In The Windup Girl corporations are even more powerful and the negative effects of technology even more pervasive.  If you combined the speculation in The Windup Girl with Ready Player One they have probably foreseen a future closer to what will happen than what Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov imagined.

There’s little reason to picture the super-science futures of modern space opera happening at all, and at least not any time soon.  By soon, I mean before the year 3000.  And what about what Robert J. Sawyer imagined for us in his WWW Trilogy?  How close is IBM’s Watson to Webmind?

I grew up believing the future would be what Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov showed us.  How do teens see the future today?  A generation ago kids imprinted on Star Wars, but is their faith still firm in that galactic empire fantasy?  Not if they are paying attention to reality.  Ignoring global warming offers plenty of addictive delusions, but really, what science fiction do today’s teens read to see their future in 50 years?  That would be a great topic for a SF Signal Mind Meld.  Is it dark or bright?

Fifty years ago I was ten and all excited about the Mercury program, waiting for Gemini and Apollo.  My early teen years were filled with science fiction books and The Jetsons, Lost in Space and Star Trek on TV.  The future was so bright we had to wear mirrored shades.  As a high school kid I was absolutely positive I’d be watching men and women walking on Mars by 1980 – instead I got MTV and an Atari 400.

Do today’s kids see the future through rose colored glasses?  Do they realize the 1% has already stolen their future by refusing to allow America to work on the problem of global warming, guaranteeing a life like The Windup Girl?  The effects of global warming won’t end our world, but it will but the kibosh on Star Trek and Star Wars space age dreams.

JWH – 1/15/12

13 thoughts on “Science Fiction’s New Future”

  1. The neat thing about science fiction, for me, has always been that these futures were possible. Not probable, not even plausible, necessarily, but possible.

    Superman is not possible, not even close. Fantasy can be entertaining, but you can’t imagine that it would ever come true. But you can do that with science fiction. There’s always the possibility that the good and/or the bad may come true,… someday.

    Well, that’s generalizing, of course. Still, it was the thing which always made science fiction so intriguing for me. But I didn’t expect it to come true, not any particular SF vision. I always knew that science fiction was still… fiction.

    And just as you’d expect, the future holds some remarkable things that weren’t common in classic science fiction. At the same time, we haven’t seen other features that were common. Well, when that feature is global thermonuclear war, I think that’s a good thing.

    Besides, most of the science fiction I’ve read has been set in the distant future, so we wouldn’t expect to see it yet. Personally, I’m not upset that we don’t have flying cars, let alone that 1984 didn’t match George Orwell’s vision. But I do miss the “can do” sort of optimism of much of the classic science fiction (not 1984, obviously).

    Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we think we can’t do something, we won’t even try. Still, I suspect that I’m just thinking like men my age have always thought, that things are different these days, worse than when I was a kid and everything was perfect. 🙂

    And since I’m a gamer, I must say that a virtual reality world sounds pretty good to me! Not as a replacement for the real one, of course. I have too much respect for the truth, for reality, to want that. But it would be lots of fun as entertainment!

    1. That’s true Bill, but for me as a kid back in the 1960s I wanted the science fiction speculation about manned exploration to come true. I wanted science fiction to be the prophet for the final frontier. There was lots of pessimistic SF back then, but I didn’t focus on it.

      Most people know that science fiction is just fiction. Science fiction is not meant to predict the future, but I do believe a lot of readers want to believe it can warn us about dangerous futures or inspire us by offering visions we want to bring about in the real world.

      Some readers have always love science fiction admiring it for speculation about the future. But I think 99% of science fiction has always been just fun stories, both now and in the past. The three novels I mention above have been among the most popular SF books in the last three years and none of them are pure escapism. I think serious science fiction fans want science fiction authors to put speculation about the future in their books. It’s never about predicting the future, but all about thinking about the future.

  2. And Kornbluth pointed out all the problems and negative effects of space travel — I HIGHLY suggest his collection The Explorers — early 50s (a few earlier ones) — he points out all the negative social ramifications on families, etc. Highly negative accounts of space travel from the early 50s is shocking….

    1. That Kornbluth book sounds fascinating, I’ll track it down, or the stories in it. I found them listed at ISFDB. And I think I might already have some. I use to have His Share of the Glory, but I’m not sure if I still do. Thanks Joachim.

  3. I am a believer in Karma. Not a mystical process where some deity or other manages accounts and send punishments or rewards, but rather it is accomplished through self-fulfillment. People who abuse their fellow man have no respect for the thoughts of others and will eventually fail to prosper by ignoring their advice and warnings. If no one will take you into their confidence because of your ugly behavior, you tend to eventually lose. Its certainly not perfect, many escape unscathed by their actions, but many do not. Ghadaffy was too arrogant to realize his previous tactics would no longer cause his people to cower in fear, so he got a bayonet up the wazoo just before being killed by a mob. Now that was karma at its best.

    As a species, based on our actions what do we deserve? What future will we build for ourselves, ignoring the warnings? Ignoring science, ignoring basic facts. Ignoring the humanity of our fellow men?

    90% of the clothes sold in the US are made under either sweatshop or near-slavery conditions. You can find videos of Bangladeshi girls online taking about their abuse and low pay (less than 4 dollars a week). How they live in shacks made of corrugated tin and other refuse. How they live without electricity, water, kitchens or toilets. How they usually have to work 7 days a week. Most days of work last over 12 hours. How almost no one in America cares that their clothes are produced this way. Nope, we trot down to walmart and other stores and greedily buy the cheap clothes no matter how horrible or stunted the lives of the people making them are.

    We complain about the recession and job-loss, but we fail to understand the causes of these things. We ignore humans our government tortures around the world, but wonder why Washington doesn’t serve our needs. We ignore the causes of our own slow immiseration just as we ignore the enslavement of others . Just as we ignore the slow death of species after species. The slow rise in global temperature.

    The IWWW has brought a few of these bangladeshi girls on a speaking tour to help publicize their plight, but for every person who goes to one of those meetings, millions more are enthralled to the lies of the Kardashians. Or go to so-called Christian Churches where lies, hatred and politics are the liturgy.

    As a species we will get exactly what we deserve. Thomas Jefferson said “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

    Asimov and most other science fiction authors of the 40s, 50s and 60s assumed the advantages that came from technology would be be shared. They were dead wrong about that.

    1. Greg, so much of 60s science fiction gets very close to your position — think about the genre of overpopulation popularized in that decade (and the 50s)– the world going to Hell…

      Have you read Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968)?

      1. No I haven’t read that, I’ll have to check it out. Anything with Zanzibar in the title sounds interesting. But you are right, after the golden age of science fiction, in some quarters at least, there was a lot of dystopian tales that prove to be more prescient every day. Perhaps my problem is I read too much of it.

  4. This piece has some wonderful questions that lead me in a couple directions:

    First, it seems in general that SF has long dealt in darker futures. From “Brave New World” through Dick’s drug-induced journeys all the way to corporation dominance in Windup Girl, SF tackles hard questions about where our current paths might lead us. Star Trek I think is more of the outlier than the exemplar; and while uplifting, it is less useful from a political standpoint. (DS9 aside.) What I mean is that a utopian federation of planets standing against the unknown of the universe was always a longshot–even in the 1960s. To be sure, the political will to traverse the galaxy has reduced, but that could change swiftly in a matter of decades.

    Second, sometimes I ask myself what would come AFTER the corporate dominance dystopia? History didn’t come to an end when the Nazis were defeated or the Soviet Union dissolved–but large, paradigmatic shifts do happen. Corporations rise to dominance, and at some point in the future they will fall away, either through revolution or collapse. What replaces them? That’s an idea I haven’t tackled directly yet (my current work addresses it to a degree), but one I find fascinating. Older SF seemed more willing to forecast current conditions far into the future, while today’s writers seem more interested in analyzing contemporary problems within the framework of future technology.

    I think both are worthy pursuits of the form, but to me the latter is clearly favored today.

    1. A post-corporate world would be interesting to contemplate, but it’s very hard to imagine. Since the world is moving towards greater organization, corporations and governments are the biggest social structures now, so its hard to picture something bigger. It appears religious organizations have already been eclipsed. I suppose the Internet could be bigger than any corporation. Could a non-profit organization ever get big enough to compete with governments and corporations? Fascinating idea to think about.

      1. Well I think the more probable outcome, rather than one massive competitor, is the corporate system eroding–in the face of numerous competitors. Perhaps including all of the organizations you listed, plus the form I’m interested in exploring: cooperatives. Anyhow, if you can imagine many numerous competitors, nonprofits and religious orgs and government and cooperatives, maybe there’s a future where they erode the power of corporations and destroy the notion of centralized wealth.

        It is a fascinating idea to think about–and that’s what SF allows us to do without reservation! I knew there was a reason I picked it.

    2. If the world got better through people working together and sharing the benefits of science and technology, it might spawn a new “Super Science” era of positive science fiction. Since most of the 20th century was a litany of ugliness and genocide achieved though technological change backed up by pseudo-scientific philosophy it makes sense that science fiction became more and more dystopian as time went on. The worst thing about modern corporate dominance is the seeming inevitability of it, spawning tales like Blade Runner, where there seems to be nothing that can be done about “the system” no matter how bad it is, even the main character’s “happy ending” escape is acknowledged to doomed from its beginning. Rick just decides to enjoy it as best he can as long as it lasts. Which is what most people do these days.

      Corporations can dominate only as long as they are the only functioning large-scale organizations. Atomized people have no hope against them. Many people seem to be starting to understand that, so I have hope for a genuine happy ending, but there will be a lot of ugliness before then.

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