Sunday, May 19, 2013

Unknown future - unseen sci-fi?

I’ve read sci-fi in bursts, never in any cohesive manner and not much in recent years. In my teens, whatever sci-fi book happened to catch my fancy when I visited the library was picked up and read. I don’t think half of it made an impact; I most certainly can’t remember most of it. If I recall correctly, the theme was interstellar travel and faraway planets, inspired by Star Wars, no doubt. Of those, Dune is the only one that has remained with me and that one mainly because my husband likes it so much.

The Tripods, on the other hand, made a lasting impression. Only a few books that I read depicted the earth in some distant future date, the idea so novel for me that I read the series a couple of times. I found it very scary and for a long time I feared alien invasion – though the TV series V may have had something to do with that too. I didn’t want to end up as a slave to some machine or a lizard. However, as I grew up, I lost the certainty that the earth would be invaded by extra-terrestrial beings and so that kind of sci-fi lost its power too.

As an adult, though, the sci-fi that has stayed with me the longest is the kind that depicts a dystopian future for our planet. William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Philip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? both picture an overcrowded planet destroyed by a war or pollution, where natural resources are almost gone, the flora and fauna are extinct and most of the population live in slums. Big corporations dominate the world and democracy is non-existent. Dystopias did – and still do – seem like a plausible end for our present way of life.

At the time the books were written, Dick’s in 1968 and Gibson’s in 1984, the height of Cold War, a devastating war between two superpowers seemed likely. Cold War is long over and with it the threat of nuclear destruction, but the themes of over-population and overusing the earth’s resources haven’t gone away. And while 1992 didn’t see our planet populated by lifelike androids and the cyber space like Gibson imagined hasn’t truly actualised yet either, both books retain the sense of plausible in their predictions for the future.

The world has changed more since Neuromancer was published than it did between the publications of Dick’s and Gibson’s books. I read an article recently by John Gray titled What’s going to happen in the next hundred years? In it, he takes a look at the past century and concludes that after all the turmoil of the past hundred years, the world has returned to the state it was in at the end of the 19th century. With that he means that there isn’t a leading power that would control the planet, which makes things unpredictable. According to him, it makes a war inescapable. 

Gray’s notion would make the kind of future Dick and Gibson describe even more likely. However, I’d like to think it opens up the future, makes it unknown. The next hundred years don’t have to follow the lines of the past century; it could be different. And that offers possibilities for imagining a new kind of future in sci-fi too. The best sci-fi authors have always been able to depict unknown futures that seem possible, but they tend to be narrow in their scope. For all their brilliance in predicting the course of humanity, Dick and Gibson failed to take into account quite a lot of human issues.

Science fiction set in near future earth could tackle different themes than destruction or technological advance: women and sexual minorities, for example. Both groups are better off than they were a century ago – or at the time Dick and Gibson wrote their books. Surely we could imagine a future where things would be even better or worse, in case of dystopias. Asia won’t necessarily be the leader of the world like Gibson depicts, but what would be the alternative? “The shift to unconventional energy may still be a game-changer, as the effect is to make the position of oil-producing countries increasingly untenable,” as Gray notes. Would that speak for a future where the planet hasn’t been destroyed?

The idea that we have returned to the beginning, cleaned our slate, is intriguing. It isn’t entirely true, of course, but for utopian writing, or dystopian, it offers endless possibilities. I, for one, would like to read those books. How about you?

Here’s the original trailer for Blade Runner, the movie based on Dick’s book.