The International Writers Magazine: On Fiction
On Speculative Fiction
Why is it so hard to get the future right?
I grew up on Philip K Dick and his fantasies about global nuclear war, robots that were indistinguishable from people and a world engulfed by consumerism.
Luckily nuclear war didn’t arrive yet, but who is to say Iran won’t oblige in the future? Oddly enough Dick’s vision of our society isn’t far off being right. He was a paranoid delusional but that doesn’t mean his vision of a planet where everything is under surveillance won’t come true. But it may not end up with totalitarian states. North Korea notwithstanding, nor President Putin trying to put the concept of free speech back in the bottle.
Dictators now understand that they cannot allow the Internet into their society. Free Information is slowly but surely undermining Communist control in China and as much as they try to contain it, smart people work around it.
The law of unintended consequences rules however. Twitter and NATO helped topple Gadaffi but now we have a beginning of civil war growing in Libya potential big trouble in Egypt between the new President and the Army (funded by the US). The trouble is we have this terrible yearning to read or watch terrible disasters. The destruction of an ecologically perfect planet by rapacious soldiers led by a fascist moron became one of the most successful movies of all time. Avatar. To be honest I could have enjoyed it just as much without the soldiers (or the proposed three sequels.)
We live endlessly with this idea of paradise lost and it crops up again and again in fiction. Yet paradise is and has always been an illusion or at least something that only very few people ever experience usually at the expense of the toiling masses. The elegant classical giant Mansions that followed land enclosure demonstrates that well enough. The idea of entitlement first came to those who gave themselves ‘titles’.
But how inevitable is a western totalitarian state?
Speaking for my generation I prefer privacy. I realise, sometimes with shock that the young don’t care for it all. They want to share everything about their lives, every scrap, bad and good, nothing is private, their joy or bitterness and this is the enemy of totalitarian societies where secrets are power. Facebook rules the world alongside Google. People not only know where you live but what you eat and whom you sleep with and it doesn’t seem to matter. No one predicted this. Not even William Gibson.
No one expects the unexpected I guess.
Take an alt view of society portrayed by movies and books such as:
Twelve Monkeys, A Clockwork Orange, The Fifth Element, Escape From New York, Total Recall, Outland, Snow Crash, Land of the Dead, Sin City
Cities are hell on earth. Everyone is a criminal. Extortion and prostitution is the norm, as is disease and a short life expectancy.
Weirdly the one place where this is coming true is Mexico, a virtual drug economy where gangsters regularly do mass killings and mass corruption of the police and army is normal. Yet all the sci-fi stories set this human and ecological crash in New York or LA or Chicago. Where is that great Mexican novel that is tune with the reality of a failed state underpinned by oil money that flows only to a few corrupt rich.
You can point to Detroit as the city that time forgot and yes you can easily build a case for dystopia there, but then again, some people are beginning to reclaim the empty city lots for urban farming and who knows, people might start to rescue the abandoned art deco factories and homes. A new non-industrial city might blossom.
It is easy to come to a judgment about the death of capitalism by looking at Detroit but if you know your facts you’ll always know that the history of America is to use then discard and move on. Gentrification and preservation are relatively new ideas there. In the seventies people were writing off New York, garbage was piled high on the streets, crime was rising exponentially and real estate crashing. It was rescued by human will and the enforcement of laws. It’s too easy to write whole countries off but if you take the long view you can be a much better predictor of events. Cities will continue to grow and thrive because that’s where the jobs are. Cities of fifty million people won’t be unusual in the next fifty years. Whether you’d want to be living there is another matter. The future LA of Bladerunner was based on a reaction to a visit to Hong Kong by Ridley Scott. Predicting is fraught with danger. If you had told anyone in majority white Vancouver forty years ago that 45% of the population would be Asian in 2012 they would have considered you mad. Not only has the population changed but what it does and how it lives and eats and of course came with it the rise of gang culture, crime and a much more dynamic city. Speak to a futurologist and they will tell you the future is China and they will come to dominate the world. But this may not be inevitable. Internal dissent is rising – a desperate Government has to keep growth at 8% to keep a lid on it. We read that they are planning to build 70 international airports in the next three years. The country is exposed to outside influences that must contradict what the Government wants and believes. Around 1600AD China had seen the world and suddenly closed the door on it. Who is to say they won’t do that again?
We are in recession. We are probably a bit disappointed that Greece elected to stay in the Euro. We were all secretly ready to watch the road crash of the Euro collapsing like your auntie who always said about your boyfriend or girlfriend that it would all come to a bitter end. It hasn’t yet and beware of predicting that it will. The closer one is to history and events the harder it is to see ahead.
Right now everyone says it’s like the 1930’s and therefore history will replay as fascism or communism, but history repeats only as farce and for all those pictures you see of people scrabbling for food in Athens – two million Brits will go to the Greek islands this summer and live like Kings as they always do and will hardly notice a thing. (They might skip the Athens tour however). Averting our eyes to poverty is very human. Ever seen the pictures of people sunbathing on Spanish beaches as illegal African immigrants wash ashore and scavenge in the bins. It really happens. I have witnessed this.
Twelve Monkeys is a favourite movie of mine. Having written a virus novel myself I look at this with awe. Yet people surviving underground for decades? This requires some organization. That this disjointed group would also discover time travel is cool but highly unlikely.
Time travel will probably be always a delusion. (I’ll look at the door now in case my other self cares to step in and correct me – no? Well I’m disappointed.)
This doesn’t stop us writing about time travel as a literary device. It’s so tempting to go back and ‘fix’ stuff or mess with it. Talking of which ‘Abraham Lincoln - Vampire Hunter’ started in the movie theatres last month? Are they serious? Teaching history is going to get real complicated I think from now on. No, Miss Elizabeth Bennett was not really a zombie, nor Mr Darcy, but your kids will think they were.
I am not going to address alien movies. Or the fact that so many of them appear to be humanoid. I tend to think that it is more than likely that aliens will be insects or pretty gross ugly monsters, but thinking monsters with opposable thumbs? I suspect not. (Starship Troopers probably got it right).
Can we get things right? Neal Stephenson perhaps got closest to predicting the death of the high street and how the mafia will come to control the economy. Even now I find it hard to believe that people won’t want to wander the mall or Winchester High Street and have coffee and see a movie, ‘cause what else will people do with their time when it all disappears? Answers on a postcard please.
Paulo Bacigalupi is the most prescient writer I think with his Ship Breaker and The Wind-Up Girl, both required reading for any sci-fi readers. Here is a guy who has really thought about the future. But in Ship Breaker all he had to do was observe that on the India coast labour is so cheap that they break up decommission ships by hand. Transpose this to the USA and you have future shock.
The same goes with space travel. Studies show us that the longer humans are in space the greater the risk to bone density. Essentially if you intend to go to infinity and beyond you aren’t coming home again. Not many sci-fi writers seem to get that.
Given what is happening right now on Earth that might be tempting to go into space but psychologically will we ever find the right kind of people to make the Star Fleet if they know it is a one-way ticket? And where is that Warp Drive? Has Dyson got the patent yet? We got to the Moon forty years ago but here we are still stuck in the fossil fuel age and planning nostalgia trips to the lunar surface at £100 million a ticket.
This brings me to teleportation. Another popular theme in fiction. My new novel The Repossession is in part a study of that phenomenon. Just how hard teleportation will be to develop:
This is an © extract from a scene at the dinner table in Chapter Two between Rian and his tormentor, his Mother’s boyfriend.
“Teleportation is bunk, Rian. Pure bunk. No one will ever beam up Scotty. It’s impossible. The future never happened. There are no aliens and we don’t commute in flying cars. Star Trek is rubbish science. Bunk.”
The usual dinner conversation. Rian would say something and Mr Yates MBA would pounce on it, try to make himself look clever, and his mother would eat it up. Nevertheless, Rian defended his position.
“I’m just saying that if we accept climate change as inevitable then teleportation would eliminate air travel and that’s a whole lot of pollution that goes with it. We could save the polar icecaps and the bears.”
Mr Yates stared at Rian a moment and Rian could see the muscles in his thick red neck pulsating as he sought to deliver a withering reply.
“You shouldn’t bait Mr Yates, Rian,” his mother said. “You know science-fiction is just that, fiction.”
“The problem with science-fiction,” Mr Yates finally barked, “is that it makes people believe that there are solutions for everything. There aren’t. Take teleportation. What you envisage is just magic. It can’t happen. The amount of energy needed to deconstruct a human made up of trillions upon trillions of atoms would be equivalent to the energy output of ten nuclear reactors, at least. Plus, reassembling those same atoms back in the right order is a monumental logistical task. Way beyond what any software programme could do. We are talking turning your whole body into digital form, into photons, and sending them across town by light waves, then putting it back together exactly as it is now. Your clothes too. Impossible. One slight wrong calculation or dropped piece of code and your arm will come out your head or you’ll just collapse into a heap of jelly. It would have to reassemble skin, bone, and eyes.
It would need the basic carbon raw materials to generate it at the end destination. Any idea how complex your eyes are? Hell, just putting your feet back together would be beyond the power of any machine for decades ahead. Decades.”
“Scientists say…” Rian began again, but Mr Yates interrupted.
“Quantum physics states that you cannot say for definite the position and velocity of any single particle. More importantly, Rian, for teleportation to work, and let’s assume someone actually has all the computer power in the whole world at their fingertips to store a trillion, trillion atoms – in order for you to be ‘transmitted’, much like an email with an attachment say, you, in the process of being disassembled would be destroyed. The new you across town would be a copy and each time you moved you would be another copy. Can a computer also deconstruct and store your memory? Your imagination? If it can’t, you would be a 16-year-old baby with no memory of anything. Your memory would get wiped every time you teleported.”
“Never mind losing your soul, Rian,” Mrs Tulane interjected.
Mr Yates beamed at her. “Quite. Every human is unique – I’m telling you it will always be totally impossible. We should not play God.”
The secret of The Repossession is finding ‘volunteers’.
© Sam Hawksmoor July 2012
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