Have We Lost The Future?

This isn’t a proper writeup of the Readercon panel of this name that I was on this weekend, it’s more a series of reflections of things around it. The description of the panel was:

Where science fiction once looked to the future as the setting for speculation, nowadays the focus seems to be on alternate pasts, fantasy worlds, or consciously “retro” futures. We’re no longer showing the way to what things might be like. We discuss whether this is connected to the general fear of decline and decay in the English-language world—or has science fiction simply run out of ideas?

Jim Cambias, the moderator and proposer, had stats from recent Hugo nominee lists compared to older ones that did show a decline in actual future-based SF. I think this combines with futures we can’t get to from here — steampunk, John Barnes’s The Sky So Big and Black, Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel, Stirling’s Lords of Creation series, etc. — to reflect an actual problem in current SF.

But of course, it’s more interesting than that.

It’s possible to exaggerate how optimistic and positive and future-looking SF was in the past. In fact, when you look at them, often the worlds were really pretty horrible. I’ve written about the dystopic Earths of Heinlein’s juveniles, overcrowded, guild-ridden, short of food, in a perpetual nuclear deadlock… but of course the point was to leave. The message was to get into the new frontier of space, where a man could stretch his legs and there was a looseness about things.

Steven Popkes suggested that it was the technical difficulty of space travel in reality and the emptiness of the solar system combined with the excellence of computer graphics that had led to a withdrawal from a space future. (This may be true for movies, but how much of a budget for CGI did Poul Anderson need?) Paul Park thought on the other hand we’d lost the will to the future. There was some hand-wringing about U.S. decline.

I think there used to be a science fiction consensus future in which we’d expand slowly out from Earth and colonize the moon and Mars and the Belt, which would be full of independent-minded asteroid miners, and outward to the stars, at first slower and then faster than light, meeting aliens and ending with galactic empires. The Cold War, naturally, would still be going on in the twenty-sixth century, and if not there would be some Cold War analog dividing humanity into big ideological blocs. Lots of the SF written between 1930 and 1989 fit into this rough future outline. It didn’t belong to anyone. Everyone could set things within this rough future and make their own specific corner of it shine. Details differed, but this was The Future we were headed for, this was almost destiny. Leviathan Wakes is set in this future, but I can’t think of anything else written this century that is.

I remember reading Bruce Sterling’s short story “We See Things Differently” in 1991 in a Dozois’s Best SF, and having the same feeling I had when the Berlin Wall came down. This wasn’t the future I expected to be living in. We were off track for that SF consensus future. And we sent robots out to explore the solar system for us, and there weren’t any Martians, and it seemed as if maybe space wasn’t the U.S. frontier with a different atmosphere.

When I’m writing here about older SF, I often laugh at their hilarious huge clunky computers and add “But where is my moonbase?”

During the panel I mentioned Arthur C. Clarke’s examplary little boy who would read SF and say “When I grow up, I’m going to the moon.” I was that little boy, I said, and of course everyone laughed. There are ways in which this future, the one we’re living in, is a whole lot better than what we imagined. It has women in it, and it has women who are not just trophies and are not manipulating their way around because they have no power. This future has women with agency. It has men and women who aren’t white and who aren’t sitting at the back of the bus or busy passing. It has gay people out of the closet, it has transgender people, and all over the place, not only in the worlds of Samuel Delany. Beyond that, unimaginably shaping the future we couldn’t imagine getting, it has the internet.

So this is my question. If, when you were twelve, somebody had given you a straight choice for 2012, which would you have chosen, moonbase or internet? (Let’s assume they could have explained fully what the internet was and how it would affect your life.) Moonbase, or internet? It really isn’t easy.

Because the future’s still there. The moon’s there and people have walked on it, the stars are there and extra-solar planets, and I still believe we’ll get there. We won’t get there the way we imagined, but the future is never the way you can imagine. After the panel, I was talking to a group of four fifteen year friends who had been in the back of the room and asked interesting questions. They were local, they had come to the con on their own after one of them had come last year. They didn’t think that we’d lost the future, far from it. They thought it was just that we had too limited an idea of what the future could be.

We make our own futures — it doesn’t have to be a binary choice, we have the internet and we can keep working towards a moonbase too.

As for SF — I don’t think it has run out of ideas. I do think it’s a betrayal of the future to write things set in futures we can’t get to. And I always want more books with spaceships and aliens. But I recently read M.J. Locke’s Up Against It, which is set in space in our future and is wonderful and just the sort of thing to give me faith that there’s a lot of juice in the genre yet. And there’s plenty of future coming for it to work out.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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