What do science fiction and speculative fiction (SF/SF) have to tell us about the future?
I’ve been pondering that question a lot lately, when I’m not distracted by (a) reading a lot of that kind of fiction and (b) the chaotic (pandemic, war, weather/climate change/etc.) state of the world.
I think the question is worth asking because I’ve come to the conclusion that the “futures” in these books are often primarily dressed-up reflections of our past and present. They are the result of thoughtful, creative authors speculating on where we might/could end up if things keep on going the way they’ve been going lately.
When friends find out that I read SF/SF, they often comment on its tendency to exploring dystopian themes. They’re thinking of Octavia Butler’s and NK Jemisin’s worlds, and entertainment like The Matrix, Upload, The Man in the High Castle, Dune, Minority Report, Station Eleven, Battlestar Galactica and I, Robot. Or even the corporate-controlled galaxy of the Murderbot stories.
When these stories really work, like the novels of Neal Stephenson or the Blade Runner movies, they stick with us. They are well crafted, engrossing stories, and few amongst them describe worlds there you or I would want to live. They can all be read as cautionary tales that suggest we might want to find a way to curve the timeline in a better direction than its current path.
Of course there are optimists too, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, or his Mars Trilogy. Both portray existential struggles but better angels prevail in the end. And Star Trek, where the Federation seems to have it all figured out (sort of, some of the time at least). These worlds are warnings also, but they come with pretty explicit suggestions about things we might want to consider to nudge a happier future into existence.
Optimistic or pessimistic, none of these stories is about a wholly unimaginable future. If they were, I bet we wouldn’t find them relatable or engaging. They are in fact full of almost familiar versions of things that surround us: robots, sexual politics, space travel, wireless communication, the class system…