This week ABC broadcast a two-hour documentary special called Earth 2100 that used art, narrative and interviews to sketch a doomsday scenario for the next 90 years. The problems the show enumerates—climate change, population pressure, and ever-fiercer competition for ever-scarcer resources—are inarguably real, though their consequences and potential solutions remain fiercely debated.
What struck me, however, as I watched Bob Woodruff walk us through the collapse of civilization, was how far our consensus vision of the future has evolved. Since when? Well, take as a baseline the year 1955, when TV viewers were exposed to another art-driven, scientifically-based panorama of the near future: Disney’s Man in Space, broadcast in three parts (Man in Space, Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond) on the Sunday-night program then called Disneyland.
For many viewers, Man in Space was probably their first systematic glimpse of space travel treated as a real-world endeavor. Producer-director Ward Kimball mapped out a scenario already long familiar to sf readers: how we would put a man into orbit, followed by the building of a space station, a landing on the moon, the exploration of Mars, and ultimately the launch of a fleet to the nearest star. Authorities including Werner von Braun gave all this an aura of scientific credibility, dwelling on now-commonplace facts that must have seemed bizarre to uninitiated viewers in 1955: A satellite, once launched into orbit, will never fall down! (True in the Newtonian sense; less so in practice, as it turned out.) A man (of course a man) in space will float as if weightless! (While the calcium leaches out of his bones, but that codicil was still forthcoming.) There is no air on the moon! And so forth.
But the best parts of the program were the most fanciful: the partially-animated Bonestellian spacescapes; an alien city discovered on the dark side of the moon; Martian lifeforms that looked like escapees from one of Aldous Huxley’s mescaline dreams—sidebars, you might say, to the unvarnished truth.
We lived with that consensus future for the next couple of decades. Its apotheosis was the moon landing, and it unraveled along with the Apollo program, Skylab, the shriveling of NASA, and a dawning appreciation of the technical difficulty of prolonged manned space travel. Its legacy—one in which we can take great pride, I think, as a species—is the continuing robotic exploration of the solar system. We didn’t get that big shiny Wheel in the Sky, but we’ve seen the vastness of Meridiani Planum and the icy bayous of Titan’s methane rivers.
In the meantime the consensus future has shifted radically. ABC’s Earth 2100 is much the same kind of program, using art and narrative to sketch a scenario of what science leads us to expect from the future, but it’s more dismaying than Man in Space, the way a cancer diagnosis is more dismaying than a clean bill of health. What it tells us is that our civilization is teetering on the brink of unsustainability and collapse. Earth 2100 presents a scenario that ends with major cities flooded or deserted and a global population decimated by starvation and disease. (And God bless us all, as Tiny Tim might say.) Even the panaceas offered as consolation at the end of the program seem absurdly timorous: better lightbulbs and electric cars. In this world, Disney’s Tomorrowland is either a grotesque incongruity or simply a ruin.
Behind both visions of the future, however, there were and are unspoken caveats. The specter stalking Tomorrowland from the beginning was nuclear war. The implicit promise of Man in Space was not that its glittering future was an inevitability, but that it would be our reward if we managed to sidestep atomic annihilation.
And ABC has given us a stick rather than a carrot, but the implication is strikingly similar: this is what will happen if we are not wise, and prompt, and lucky.
It’s the continuing business of science fiction to explore these consensus futures and to challenge them. Optimism is still an option—we may indeed be wise and lucky—and, even in the worst case, the Earth 2100 scenario still leaves us with a human population and the possibility of creating something better than civilization as we know it.
And in the end the new consensus future will prove just as true, just as false, just as prescient, and just as absurd as was the Disney version. The only well-established fact about the future is that we can never completely predict it. Which is what makes science fiction such a useful and pertinent art. Even now. Especially now.
Robert Charles Wilson
is the author of the Hugo-winning novel
. His new novel,
Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America
, is available now from Tor Books. You can read excerpts from his book