What do we think about when we think about the future? I don't mean the future as in tomorrow or next week, or even next year. I mean, what do we think about when we imagine the future as science fiction writers might imagine it – the future in 50, 100 or 500 years’ time. Although based on everything that happened last year, 2020 seems like the far future.
When we think about the future, we mostly think that it will be awful; at least, that is what our science fiction is saying. You can tell a lot about a society from the science fiction it produces, as it shows how we think about the future. Judging by some of our recent output, we seem to think that civilization will collapse and we will be living in a wasteland like Mad Max: Fury Road or an extremely hostile urban environment like the Girl With All The Gifts.
Visions of destruction are more common than utopias. The works of authors such as Iain M. Banks or Hannu Rajaniemi show there is a lot of scope for telling stories in utopias. We seem to have stopped believing in utopias, probably around the time Iain M. Banks died in 2013. Our visions of the future are more Battlestar Galactica than Star Trek.
There is a lot of uncertainty about the future right now, and a lot of fear. That is understandable. With rogue states testing nuclear missiles, horrendous wars and the rise of aggressive nationalism, the world and the future looks pretty scary. This is reflected in our popular culture.
However, this is not the only time in our history that we have been frightened of the future. In the 1960s there was a lot of fear about the immediate future – in 1963, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, many believed the human race could end in a nuclear firestorm at any moment. As well as this, Western society was deeply divided along racial and political lines and violence was common.
There was also a sense of optimism about the future. It was around this time that Star Trek first appeared on TV. Star Trek had a radical vision of a future without racial tensions, where Americans, Russians, Japanese, aliens and even Scots could go boldly forth together.
Around the same time, Dune was published, and although it did not strike the same optimistic tone as Star Trek, it did show that the future will be vibrant, strange and filled with a terrifying beauty beyond anything we could imagine. Crucially it said that we would survive the Butlerian Jihad and reach the stars.
So if we were frightened in the past, then why are we so grim now? The vision of a future in The Expanse, riven with conflict, seems more likely to come true than the harmony of Star Trek or the discordant beauty of Dune. The key difference is that in the 1960s we were wealthy. The economy was growing and people were getting wealthier, new products and technologies were appearing in ordinary peoples’ homes. The future was arriving through home television sets and commercial flights, and people could imagine this continuing until we all lived on the moon, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The reason why we fear the future now is not because we have tangible external threats from North Korea or ISIS, or even homegrown extremists, but because we have an internal crisis in our society that appears unresolvable and is more fundamental than a war or terrorism. A crisis with capitalism itself.
“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” Fredric Jameson said and he was not wrong. We know that capitalism has been in crisis since the 2008 crash. The economies of the West are sluggish and weak. Wages have stagnated for nearly a decade and the cost of living is rising. A house that is not objectively awful is out of reach for most people. We are working hard and earning less. No one feels wealthy or confident about the future.
The main problem is that we don't have an alternative for capitalism, or even for this kind of ‘anything goes’ capitalism – or at least, not one that commands widespread support. Look at the collapse of moderate, social democratic, left-wing parties across the West if you think otherwise. If we cannot imagine a solution to the problems in our society then we cannot imagine a future for our society.
If the futures we imagine are not post-apocalyptic wastelands, then they are oppressive dictatorships likes The Hunger Games or 1984, which is suddenly popular again. This is because we can believe that the capitalism will end in fascism. It has happened before. However, imagining that capitalism will end in fascism is one step closer to accepting that our future is fascism.
We need to start imagining solutions to our problems or will we sleepwalk into tyranny or the complete collapse of society. Science fiction is one place where we can imagine a world where we have outgrown capitalism, or at least a world where we have fixed the problems that are killing our ability to imagine a future that is not filled with suffering.
Science fiction plays an important role in society by showing us how we think about the future. Right now, it is showing us that we think that there is no future. We need a science fiction that imagines a better future - not necessary a utopia, but a way through this crisis.
Sci-fi can provide hope to the hopeless that there will be a better future, which is desperately needed right now. We may be frightened of the future, but it does not have to be this way. Sci-fi can show us something else if it tackles the problems that we find ourselves facing. It can show us that the stars are within our reach. All we have to do is reach out and touch them.