How Science Fiction’s Futures Changes For Every Generation

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 23, 2014

If you are old, has the future you imagined in childhood unfolded during your life? If you’re young, what do you hope to see happen in your lifetime?

I grew up in the 1960s with my visions of the future inspired by 1950s science fiction. Flying cars were not what I hoped for, but evidently many people from my generation expected them and are disappointed we aren’t living in a Buck Rogers future. No, what I expected to see as I grew old was the colonization of the Moon and Mars, and the manned exploration of the solar system. I wasn’t optimistic enough to expect Star Trek like interstellar travel in my lifetime, but I assumed it would arrive after I died. It’s so disappointing to spend a lifetime watching humans never leave orbit. What are we waiting for?

I did expect large flat screen televisions, and they did come to pass. Didn’t see the internet coming even though I was majoring in computer programming in 1971, nor did I imagine smartphones. I guess I lacked the imagination, but so did everyone else it seems. I’m also disappointed we don’t have intelligent robots, or sentient AI machines. After space travel, robots were the biggest tech breakthrough that 1950s SF promised.

Although I hoped we’d have visitors from other star systems I never really thought it would actually happen. I did think we’d make SETI contact by now.

Contemporary science fiction often feels obsessed with apocalyptic visions of the future, and we had those too when I was growing up. But kids today seemed enchanted by future teens fighting oppressive dystopian governments. I can dig that, back in the sixties challenging authority was very popular. I guess blows against the empire never go out of vogue.

Which brings me to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, a science fiction anthology of positive science fiction. It was inspired by the essay “Innovation Starvation” by Neal Stephenson, at the World Policy Institute, in which Stephenson proposes, The Hieroglyph Theory,

Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

Hieroglyph

The list of stories can be found here, with links to discussion and research.

The Hieroglyph anthology offers strangely different visions of the future than the ones I grew up with, and sadly, I don’t find these new futurist vistas all that appealing. Many of these futures seem to come out of Wired Magazine. In the introduction we’re told that young people today are all too often embracing a dystopian science fiction view of tomorrow, and that science fiction writers should offer a positive alternative. I think that’s missing the point of those YA stories, which are exciting adventure stories symbolizing growing up, and not visions of tomorrow.

Actually, the opposite of dystopian is utopian, and none of these tales in Hieroglyph are about perfect societies. I think everyone has gotten over the naive notion that the future will bring us peace and happiness. The real question is can the future always offer us more sense of wonder? This might reveal my jadedness, but this anthology doesn’t show me it will.

Although I’m embarrassed to admit this, I’m nostalgic for my old futures. Hieroglyph seems more inspired by 3D printers, the internet, giant towers that climb into space, mining the asteroids, social media possibilities, smartphone apps that make us empathetic, etc. Many of the stories are quite engaging as stories, but they aren’t inspiring like the science fiction I grew up with. Now that will be an unfair criticism if young readers do find a sense of wonder in them.

It might be because I’m 62, and these stories lack a sense of wonder to someone with so little future.  Yet, even if I don’t have much of a future, I’m not sure I’d want to live to see these futures come to be? I’d love to know if kids 12 or 22 reading these tales do find them wondrous?

There are millions of people around the world still hoping to build interplanetary colonies and conquer the final frontier, but there are billions of people on Earth that don’t see that future anymore, or maybe never did. Anyone who has embraced science more than science fiction knows faster-than-light travel is about as realistic as time travel, and that living on the Moon or Mars will be closer to cruel and unusual punishment than finding greener pastures to homestead.

Many of the stories in Hieroglyph did capture the struggle of humans surviving. They are  more grown-up than the fictional adventures I took in my teens. I did love Vandana Singh’s “Entanglement.” It was about technology being used to increase empathy. So does “Elephant Angels” by Brenda Cooper.  “By the Time We Get to Arizona” by Madeline Ashby seems far more savvy about the grit of the future, and the misuse of technology. And Karl Schroeder’s story, “Degrees of Freedom” suggests that there are new frontiers of democracy for us to explore. The stories of billionaires conquering outer space didn’t impress me. And although I loved the character development of Cory Doctorow’s “The Man Who Sold The Moon” a great deal, 3D printing leaves me limp. Bruce Sterling’s story about a man and his horse got me until it became science fiction.

All to often the best science fiction is about being human, and not spacemen, even when the characters live in outer space.

Overall, I’m left with the impression that the women writers in Hieroglyph have thought more about how technology could be good for us than the men. Now that I’m living in my childhood future, I imagine a much different future that might come to be after I ceased to be. It’s not about space adventures but solving our problems, both as individuals and as a species. It’s like an old man I saw in a documentary when he said, “If you’re the problem, and you go somewhere else, you’re still the problem.”

JWH

4 thoughts on “How Science Fiction’s Futures Changes For Every Generation”

  1. “I think everyone has gotten over the naive notion that the future will bring us peace and happiness. ” NOT I. Try my utopian sci-fi “The Spanners Series”‘ Volume I, “This Changes Everything,” for free, and tell me what you think, James! I am holding out for a more Star Trek than Star Wars future. Join me! http://www.sallyember.com/SPANNERS I would love your reaction!

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