Dec 29 2013 12:00pm

Have We Lost The Future?

In July of 2012, I was on a Readercon panel titled “Have We Lost the Future?” 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.


This post originally appeared on on July 18, 2012

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.

Walker White
1. Walker
Traditional space-faring SF is just so epic. In my opinion, the strength of epic settings is that it can support really good stories with weaker writing. To get back on track, and be relevant to today, SF must be more personal and intimate. Those types of stories are less forgiving of weak writing.
Bradley Schenck
2. Bradley-W-Schenck
I think you can make a case that "futures we can’t get to" are fantasy, rather than science fiction, and that means they're good for something else.

I like both: give me a Jack McDevitt future, or a Connie Willis one, and I'm pretty interested in things that may happen; but give me a good used future as an antidote to dystopias and the wreckage that follows whatever apocalypse we're worried about this week. Because what our used futures excelled at was optimism and hope. And I'd like a little more of that than we usually find in (at least) near-future SF.
3. Kesper
I'd add Alastair Reynolds' "Blue Remembered Earth" to the list alongside "Leviathan Wakes", fwiw.
Jake Stevens
4. psychothumbs
I think another important change is the idea of the singularity. While in the past it was possible to imagine a future in which human beings were traveling around the universe in big awesome spaceships, at this point if you're trying to write a story set in a realistic future it's tough to have humans still in a position of importance, and thus tough to tell stories that make sense to a human audience.
Alan Brown
5. AlanBrown
A lot of it has to do with simple physics. It is a lot harder to do some of the things in the older stories than it was portrayed. At least without shortcuts like anti-gravity and jetless propulsion. That being said, we are making some interesting progress in getting to orbit, doing it in ways not pictured in the old days, and finally doing it in ways that are economically viable. And, as a certain author famously said, once you are in orbit, you are halfway to anywhere in the solar system.
And then, once we get out there, we have to deal with issues of radiation that are far more vexing than had been anticipated. It may be that the answers to those issues will be solved not by physics, but by medicine and biology.
The good news is that we can also do things, like calculations, in ways that would completely boggle the minds of those who went before us. I remember taking engineering classes with sliderules, and when you look at what we did with that technology, think of what we can do with what is available today.
Brian R
6. Mayhem
I wonder if some of that calculation accuracy works against us though - previously a lot of the danger factors were handwaved away as "well, its part of the job and I hope this works". The whole ethos of early test programs involved using highly skilled and well trained people who had a pretty high chance of losing their lives. Today, the safety and insurance conscious industry simply won't allow that kind of risk - while the individual might waive away their risks, the shareholders of a company can't afford the poor publicity of deaths, or the chance that a pilot's family might sue for negligence etc.
"how could you allow that man to go up in a machine that wasn't 100% certified as safe"

I definitely think that the tradeoff between risk and reward has started to slip too far the other way, and this has cost the US its lead in space related activities. I could easily see countries like China who have a ... different view on the value of human life ... achieving the next great leap.

On the other hand, the amount of people willing to take a one way trip to Mars, simply to be the ones to do it ... well. I hope they are allowed to be taken up on their offer, I suspect what we would learn would well balance out costs of the attempt, both human and economic.

And that ethos shows up quite well in films like Europa Report as well, so the whole exploring the solar system SF isn't quite dead, just the cheap and easy jetting between the planets SF.
John C. Bunnell
7. JohnCBunnell
There's at least some current material that assumes the consensus future as you describe it. The most notable example I can think of is David Weber's Honor Harrington cycle, which explicitly presumes a version of the consensus future but is mostly set a long way past it. OTOH, some of the more recent material in the series casts farther and farther back into its history toward the "diaspora" moment, and addresses elements of humanity's migration outward from Earth.

And in a different but decidedly interesting vein, I'd cite Diane Duane's "Young Wizards" novels as a sharp nod toward that consensus future. Obviously, these are fantasy -- but the magic system is remarkably well-structured, and the more recent volumes in the series are doing two fascinating things. They incorporate an interstellar setting that's clearly (like Weber's) built on the presumption that the consensus future you describe will occur, and they actually take their protagonists to the Moon and Mars in ways that nod both backward and forward to the consensus future you describe. The content may be framed as fantasy, but the future they're selling is SFnal.
8. EC Spurlock
@#2 Bradley W Schenk, I was discussing with a writer friend the other day the preponderance of dystopian fiction in the YA genre, which she found disturbing. I pointed out that this is the future teens today see for themselves: worldwide conflicts that can't help but escalate into doomsday, pollution and waste of resources that must eventually reach critical mass, adults who continue turning a blind eye to these problems in order to perpetuate their own profit and elitism. Ironically, despite the pervasiveness of the Internet in their lives, they have less of a concept of establishing worldwide unity than we had in the 60's. They have been trained to see only the obstacles, and not their own potential to overcome them by banding together and finding viable solutions. The media and the government's emphasis on divisiveness, the prevasive sense of us-vs-them, makes the attempt at establishing a worldwide or even nationwide rapport unthinkable.

I also had a conversation with a friend back in the year 2000 when she half-jokingly asked, "It's the 21st century; where are my robot servants?" I pointed out that they are here: they are microwaves, dishwashers, roombas, washers and dryers with a multitude of fabric-specific settings, self-cleaning ovens, self-defrosting freezers, self-parking cars with radar sensors to avoid collisions. We just don't recognize them because they don't look like we expected them to. I think that is part of the difficulty of writing hard SF today: we recognize our own limitations in envisioning a far-flung future, since reality has so far outstripped imagination in only our own lifetimes.
Emmet O'Brien
9. EmmetAOBrien
psychothumbs@4: the Singularity is a matter of faith, not something for which there's enough evidence that a plausible future has to bother explaining away.
10. vjj
I think a lot of what it has to do with is that the developments in Physics have been extremely disappointing. There are a lot of things/concepts in science fiction stories that are simply physically impossible and will ALWAYS be impossible. Because of the Internet, a huge chunk of the science fiction buying public knows that.

Unless and until we solve the hard cosmic radiation problem, THERE WILL BE NO SIGNIFICANT MANNED SPACE TRAVEL. Unless and until space travel becomes incredibly cheaper THERE WILL BE NO SIGNIFICANT MANNED SPACE TRAVEL. Another problem is how far away everything is from everything else: unless travelers are placed into a medically induced coma, I don't think anyone wants to spend 18 months to two years in a small box just to get to the featureless deserts of Mars.

And finally, it looks like the standard model of physics is correct. One the surface, this doesn't look like a big problem. But it is a big problem. It means that there doesn't appear to be any way to create faster than light travel technologies. It means that all the technologies you see now are basically all the human race will ever see.

For long time fans of science fiction, these are just catastrophic disappoints. Part of the thrill of reading science fiction was the possibility that it may come true --- some day. But now that we know most of the great technologies of science fiction are just as if not more fantastical than magic in fantasy fiction, well, it completely throws the shine off of science fiction.
James Nicoll
11. JamesDavisNicoll
KSR's 2312, which I rightly loathe, is very much filled with olden timey future stuff because to a fair extent it's him reusing props he's been using since his early career in the long long ago. Use a time cannon to fire it back to 1976, and I think it would fit in fine with stuff published back then despite being more 1980s in tone.
James Nicoll
12. JamesDavisNicoll
@9, you probably don't believe in the Textile Singularity either but I can show mathematically from the growth of the textile industry in the 19th century all organic matter on Earth was converted to cloth by 1930. THE POWER OF MATH COMPELLS YOU!
13. Bytowner
I suspect - like many others here - that we'll build some of that consensus future. As you say, it won't be exactly as originally imagined because of any number of "in the meantime, reality happened in these ways" circumstances. It may be slower going than we hoped, too, but so long as it gets well-built and well-used, that'll be fine too.
15. Jason Whyte
Space travel and artificial intelligence haven't come true in quite the way we expected, because they both turned out to be much harder than we thought. But by the same token, some of the worst dystopian ideas haven't come true, because we've turned out to be more sensible as a species than we thought. And some of the most amazing ideas that I grew up with are reality today - the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (or at least the technology to implement it) and Cyberspace.

I think there's also a point that the nature of the writing has changed. A lot of "near future" fiction was of the "what would it be like if..." variety (some of which has been lost to us through science's unequivocal "but you can't"s), whereas the best of modern SF tends either to use a science fictional background to frame and explore bigger themes or to ask the same questions about different avenues of science - Charles Stross and Neal Stephenson write a lot of stuff that's largely grounded in plausible science but look at how it would change a mainly Earth-bound society constrained.

We've not
16. Alright Then
Moonbase or internet? Why not both? One technological development can lead to another, with links we often don't expect. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to the creation of ARPA (later DARPA), which developed the progenitor (ARPANET) to the global internet we have now.

Sure, it can take decades before there's a return in our investment, but the results are evident.
Ursula L
17. Ursula
As far as safety issues go, with space exploration and otherwise, part of the difference is that we can now do things with machines that previously required a person on the spot.

We're doing things just as interesting on Mars as we did on the Moon, without putting people at risk. In many ways, we're doing better exploration with machines than we could manage with people.

With people you couldn't keep exploring past the expected end of a mission, as happened with the Mars rovers. They just kept going for as long as they could. You'd have to quit on schedule to try to get people back alive.

You can't turn people off and on, so you'd have a huge amount of the resources on a mission devoted to keeping people going en-route, while a robotic mission can simply leave instruments turned off until needed - and the space saved can be used for more and different equipment.

Mars rovers and remote observation don't make for dramatic fiction. But they make for much better exploration than we'd be doing if we insisted on sending people along for the ride.


At least in the US, futuristic space exploration stories took the pattern of the US's frontier experience and projected it into space. "Wagon train to the stars."

It's worth noting that Westerns are no longer as popular as they used to be.

And the history behind the Western genre is understood in a radically different way than how it was portrayed in-genre or adapted for futuristic science ficiton. Manafest Destany is not seen as an unambiguous good. When you do get stories set as Westerns, they're far more critical of what happened, and tend to deconstruct rather than celebrate. "We'll do in space what we did in the US westward expansion" isn't a framework that works when you're not taking the goodness of the US westward expansion as a given.
18. rdb
Why not "Saturn's Children" and "Neptune's Brood" for a plausible consensus future?
19. AndrewV
We haven't lost the future, we just focus on different things now. You mentioned women and minorities being more heavily involved in fiction, and I know more and more authors are expending creative energy to ensure a diverse cast. We've also become a little more focused on what is wrong today or how everything can go wrong rather than what we can look forward to in the future. If authors are taking their focus away from dreaming about the good points of the future, it makes sense that we will see fiction reflecting their state of mind.

As an aside, if you see there is a desire for a certain type of fiction you could always write some...
20. Skeptic
Everything isn't always the result of some profound philosophical shift.

Someone's book about x becomes a runaway bestseller, suddenly hundreds of books come out about x. Cultural trends are often the result of unplanned market events. it's clearer in Hollywood because there are less movies that books coming out in a given year.

One blockbuster is about disaster on Mars, suddenly there are a dozen features about disaster on Mars. No deep sociological trend, no reflection of cultural angst or despair or anything, just other creators (&, even more so, their publishers/studios) wanting to emulate that particular success - which is rarely the result of the subject matter, more commonly the quality of the execution.

Just one skeptic's suggestion for thought.
steve davidson
21. crotchetyoldfan
Moonbase, without a doubt.

We did hit a fork in the road between moonbase and internet, and we chose to turn inwards - building fictional futures on the web we can enjoy from the safety of our couches - rather than risk real adventure.

I think it a case of the literature and society working in synergy - negative feedback - with society not interested in stories that reminded them of the future(s) it has given up on.

I strongly suspect that right now, Chinese science fiction is as adventure-oriented and optimistically oriented towards the future as western SF once was. That future of humans in space, exploring and colonizing the solar system and eventually reaching the stars is not dead nor impossible just because our society has largely abandoned it. I think its another example of a western-centric view: since we've given up on the dream, we assume that it is undesirable if not impossible for everyone else on the planet. And the more everyone else goes there, the more jealous and ashamed we become of having abandoned it, the more dystopic and implausible our own sf literature will become.

So yes, I'll take the moonbase over the internet any old day. Load my ereader (yech! - but willing to compromise to make the weight penalty) up with everything from Jo and stick me in that tin can for 18 months of exposure to hard radiation - I'm not coming back and don't plan on having kids. Besides, once I get to the Moon or Mars, I won't have time for the silly internet. I'll be too busy bouncing over the landscape, searchng for Tweel behind every rock and for a sentinal on the top of every lunar mount.
Mordicai Knode
22. mordicai
The thing that concerns me isn't the kind of future-- I'm a big fan of Arthur C. Clarke's response to when people were like "it is 2001, we don't have HAL & we never went to Jupiter" & he'd say something along the lines of well, now we have robot camera eyes that we've flung to the edges of the solar system, we've sent Voyager out to be OUR monolith with the golden record strapped to 'em, so don't tell me it isn't the future-- but the actual fuel & mineral requirements. You know, if we burn up all fossil fuels on frivolous uses & waste all the molybdenum on iphone 7.1, 7.2, 7.2S, etc, then...well, we shorten our window of getting orbital access. (Hey, a space elevator could make that moot, & we could always try riding nukes, but that still has the same issues.)
23. Dale Amon
Reading through the comments I see a problem. Not one of you has taken on board that the future which is rapidly unfolding in front of us is more Heinlein than anything else. NewSpace is moving outwards at an accelerating pace. SpaceX, Blue Origin, Bigelow, Sierra Nevada, Orbital Sciences, Masten, Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company, Scaled Composites and Stratolaunch; the company I work for, XCOR; Deep Space Industries, MarsOne, Planetary Resources and many others. If SF writers don't get unstuck from their 1960's style whinging about how awful the Frontier image was and how bad capitalism is, they are simply going to be steam-rollered (not a steam punk one) by a new generation and a reality that would warm the cockles of those positivist writers hearts. The solar system will be opened, energy and matter resources will be used for space based civilization and colonists will be leaving for the Moon and Mars in the next 10-20 years. NASA and the state space programs are irrelevant. We got tired of waiting on socialist space programs decades ago... but exponential growth looks dead slow at the start. It's just when you hit the knee that things really start happening from the viewpoint of outsiders. I make my living creating that dream and those young folk you speak of are getting caught up in our new and capitalist way. The Great Explosion is not far off. I am going. Are you?
24. DougL
For me, I gave up caring about the future when I realised, space tourism, like for real, will not happen in my lifetime, so screw it.
25. Cybersnark
One of the most iconic of those uplifting futures is (pre-Abrams) Star Trek, and people tend to forget that it requires the Eugenics Wars, the Sanctuary Districts, and World War III (and the Romulan War, but that's getting ahead of ourselves).

A study of history has suggested two things to me: First, that humans can't find the will to change the world until they absolutely have to, and second, that when faced with an insurmountable tragedy, people will rise to the occasion. Genius is best driven by desperation, not caution.

I still have confidence that that FTL-driven interstellar future is possible, but not until we've faced complete extinction a few more times. Things need to get far worse before they can get better.
Theresa Wymer
26. Tekalynn
46 year old self, in 2013, asking 12 year old self in 1979:
"Self, moonbase or Internet ?"

12 year old self:
"*EEEE!* Where is this International Net? Stuff to read that NEVER RUNS OUT?! I have to wait until I'm twenty? Nooo, that's so old!"
27. RandolphF
Well, radiation in interplanetary space make human space travel a very dicey proposition, so that's a big difficulty. Who wants astronauts dying of cancer, after all? This is sort-of like a science fiction future…but it's a low-key version of Cordwainer Smith's. There are other CS aspects to our time. It's not too difficult to see a lot of Cordwainer Smith's world realized in the far future. (A future which looks rather like anime, come to think of it.)

There are not, so far as we can tell, many possible near futures any more.
There has been a collapse of the wave function.
Instead, there are only a few near future and these are all dominated by, first, CLIMATE CHANGE and other environmental problems, second, regional superpower politics, and, third, feminism and multiculturalism.
If we make it, it will probably be either a hippie feminist green future or a really oppressive global empire. Either might go to space, but it's going to be in a different way than we thought. Perhaps fantasy is more about the future than we previously thought.
James Nicoll
28. JamesDavisNicoll
If we make it, it will probably be either a hippie feminist green future or a really oppressive global empire.

So basically, Canada's NDP or its ReformaTory Party (currently burning libraries to prevent unconstrained research)?

I will let Doug Muir take the other side of this discussion: although there are a handful of regions with high birthrates left, there's no reason to think that in the long run they will be any more immune to the processes Warren Thompson described, in which case the world of the future may well be a lot emptier (and on average, older) without necessarily experiencing any sort of plot-friendly grand disaster.
James Nicoll
29. JamesDavisNicoll
The main problem SPACE! faces is finding something we want and can use that we cannot get cheaper on Earth, which is surprisingly large and rich in the materials we crave. So far the main import has been information.
John C. Bunnell
30. JohnCBunnell
@#23: Not quite true, though it's partly my fault for failing to mention it on the first pass. Diane Duane's "Young Wizards" milieu does, in fact, owe a good deal of at least one of its futures to Robert A. Heinlein, by way of the YW short story "Uptown Local", which is a fairly explicit homage to Heinlein himself.

It's also worth observing that a lot of what we see of interstellar affairs in the Duane series comes by way of the Crossings, a very large shopping-and-transportation nexus which is quite clearly driven by commerce. (And one of the supporting characters says a couple of times in the later books that she's planning a career as an intergalactic personal shopper.)
31. Oleo
I think it will take a mix of a dystopic future and great technological advancements for humanity to end up colonizing space on a permanent basis. When I think of humans leaving Earth to colonize other worlds, I think of explorers and colonists in history, particularly the Polynesian seafarers who island hopped all the way across the Pacific. What are the things that have motivated people to take life or death risks and endure difficult journeys in the past? More specifically, what has motivated people to embark on such journeys with their families in tow? A Polynesian historian once told me that his ancestors would move on because of population growth, conflict, persecution and need for additional resources. His phrase was, "There isn't room on this island for both of our families. So start rowing." I imagine a progression that starts with technology being developed for exploration, economic exploitation comes next and then things get bad enough at home that people start to see those far off and dangerous places as somewhere they might take their family to live and be left alone. To add one more piece to the island theme, the volcano scenario could also be in play. Instead of people taking the risk to flee the dystopia you might have a wonderful future punctuated by one big moment of "we better get out of here quick."

Oh, and I'm for moonbase future.
32. Bytowner
But we're already using the internet to build the infrastructure to build the moonbase.

Incrementally, yes, but the process continues.
Ian Osmond
33. IanOsmond
Crotchetyoldfan: If you're interested in adventure, there is plenty of stuff you can do now while you're waiting. Right this second, I've got a cousin trapped in the Antarctic ice; she's been doing oceanic research more or less since she could walk. There's fascinating stuff going on in the deep ocean, and even the ocean floor. We have, today, cool stuff for you to explore NOW while you're waiting for the Moon and Mars stuff -- indeed, the stuff that my cousin is doing is stuff that humans are better suited for than robots, while the robots are better at the Moon and Mars stuff.

So, if you want to bounce over the landscape searching for awesome stuff, we've got a lot of stuff for you to do right here, and a lot of people doing the awesome stuff -- the stuff that people are finding here is as cool as the stuff you're hoping to find extraterrestrially. Certainly, we should be exploring all those places, too, but, seriously, if you want to be exploring cool stuff, I can point you to my aunt and uncle's research boat; they pay for their research by running tours out of Australia, so if you're interested, and you EITHER have money to finance their stuff, OR the technical, scientific, and engineering skills to do the research parts, I'd be glad to hook you up.
34. Randy McDonald

"I strongly suspect that right now, Chinese science fiction is as adventure-oriented and optimistically oriented towards the future as western SF once was."

Why? Do high rates of catch-up economic growth necessarily translate into classic SF markets?

"nce I get to the Moon or Mars, I won't have time for the silly internet. I'll be too busy bouncing over the landscape, searchng for Tweel behind every rock and for a sentinal on the top of every lunar mount."

While I can't speak for the presence of sentinel or other alien artifacts, I think we can safely conclude that Mars is a dead world with no life.

There's one huge reason classic SF doesn't work any more: the universe it describes doesn't exist.


"NASA and the state space programs are irrelevant. We got tired of waiting on socialist space programs decades ago..."

1. NASA and other space programs aren't irrelevant, not least since they have charted and are continuing to chart the nearby universe. How can these worlds possibly be colonized, or exploited, withhout knowing what's going on with them?

2. Define "socialism".


"First, that humans can't find the will to change the world until they absolutely have to, and second, that when faced with an insurmountable tragedy, people will rise to the occasion. Genius is best driven by desperation, not caution."

How do you reach that conclusion? What historical episodes come to your mind?
35. Richard Gadsden
Something like Steve Jackson Games' Transhuman Space is starting to edge in as a consensus-ish future. Lots of computers, AI-but-not-really, big advances in biology.

For all those talking about radiation: have you seen the work on cancer and genetics that's going on? Want to bet we don't have that licked in four or five decades? Sure, it's not guaranteed, but it's a reasonable future, and doesn't SF tend to take an optimistic reasonable future?

I've not seen a good Chinese Mars, though.
Birgit F
36. birgit
Just because physics says intergalactic empires are more difficult than past SF thought doesn't mean there is no more SF. Today people explore other planets by looking at pictures robots took on Mars on the internet. SF simply focuses more on things that can be done staying on earth like computers and genetic engineering.
37. stalepie
"the future ain't what it used to be" -- Yogi berra

I think the light pollution (city lights, suburbia) have kept several generations now from experiencing the night sky like they used to. May add to our lack of wonder a bit in these regards.
38. drs
Wasn't the other 'consensus future' dying in US/Soviet nuclear fire?

"Instead, there are only a few near future and these are all dominated
by, first, CLIMATE CHANGE and other environmental problems, second, regional superpower politics, and, third, feminism and multiculturalism."

Notably absent is economic issues like persistently high unemployment (a callback to Golden Age SF) and economic inequality, within countries or between them... conversely, the ongoing development of the 'developing world'.

"psychothumbs@4: the Singularity is a matter of faith, not something for which there's enough evidence that a plausible future has to bother explaining away."

The Kurzweil Singualirty may be a matter of faith. The Vingean Singularity boils down being able to understand, manipulate, and improve intelligence, via multiple possible means. Call it the Cognitive Revolution if you will, but I'd put "thoroughly understand the human brain" as likely coming before "self-sufficient Mars colony."

Related to the space of Singularity ideas is biological longevity. Would you pick moonbase by 2060 or indefinite lifespan by 2060?

It's not a big consensus but there seems to be a space of stories exploring long-lived, space-adapted and FTL-free futures. Learning the World, House of Suns, Neptune's Brood (with robots for humans)...

But shorter term, the cozy Earths of Clarke's Imperial Earth or the Deep Range seem more likely.
39. tam2
Maybe you have to go to Germany for current sf and Frank Schatzing's Limit, although it's off-puttingly huge.

Or maybe Jo Walton could write some.
40. drs
This is totally unoriginal but I think worth repeating anyway: the 'future' largely reflects the concerns and trends of the present.

Mid-century US: people kept going faster and faster in new modes of transport; people were using more energy; a generation became twice as rich as their parents; deadly plagues were cured with simple antibiotics or vaccines; houses filled with ever-new labor-saving appliances; radical new physics were only a few decades old. The SF future was easily "more of the same": faster, further, more powerful, more devices. Downside: nuclear armageddon.

Modern US: we're not going faster, we're not using more energy, we're not richer than our parents -- arguably, poorer -- we're not getting new classes of (non-IT) devices, and the diseases we're concerned with are those of aging, such that curing them is hard and either of marginal benefit or (if all were handled) tantamount to curing aging itself. Physics has wacky ideas but hasn't given anything concretely new since quantum mechanics. OTOH IT keeps exploding and automation improving, though real AI looks still a long way off. Obvious modern consensus future: physical stagnation with ever better computers, with downsides of climate change, new viruses, anti-biotic resistant bacteria, or IT extremes of the Singularity or Skynet or mass unemployment.

Even if it were true that developing world SF is more optimistic, as they're on a trajectory more like the 1950s US, that doesn't mean they've captured a spark we've lost, that just means they're on that part of the sigmoid curve. Once they've caught up to us on the plateau, their SF would die or turn to Singularities and dystopias too...

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