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The International Writers Magazine: On Fiction & Prediction

On Speculative Fiction
• Sam Hawksmoor
Why is it so hard to predict the future?

I grew up on Philip K Dick and his stories about global nuclear war, robots that were indistinguishable from real people and a world engulfed by consumerism.


Getting the future 'right' is hard. I remember about 20 years ago Nokia (then the worlds largest mobile phone company) was experimenting with cameras in their phones. Who on earth would want that I thought. Turns out everyone did. But virtually no one remembers Nokia or buys their products anymore. Yet back in 2000 you would have been dead certain Nokia was the future.

Now we have self-drive cars, literally coming down the road. Initial reaction is - who needs this? What about my freedom? Turns out people can't wait to hand over the steering wheel to Mr AI. All that traffic, the police with their radar vans and variable speed limits. Old people, and there's millions of them, want to continue moving around and self-drive cars are the perfect solution. Add the fact that millennials don't tend to learn to drive or own vehicle (because of the insurance costs I suspect) cars will have to become autonomous and finance themselves. You'll dial it up and it will come to your door. Own a car and when you're not using it it will go out on the road touting for business. Nice little earner. But I don't recall anyone writing about this twenty years ago.

Luckily long predicted nuclear war hasn't arrived yet, but who is to say North Korea won’t oblige in the near 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. The internet of things was satirical when he wrote about such things, now your fridge is in charge of ordering your groceries and your phone monitors your health and wealth.

Is it possible that technology makes it inevitable that we all end up living in totalitarian states? President Putin would say so - putting the concept of free speech firmly back in the bottle as he feeds poison to RT and Facebook around the globe to undermine our faith in democracy. Some say Trump is the end product - designed to disrupt and make us lose faith in justice and civilisation. Twitter is the weapon of choice for Trump as he wreaks daily havoc with his opinions and thoughtless rants. Perhaps he is the only one who doesn't know that a careless word can cause war. His promise to his base to bring back protectionism could also bring back the great slump of the 1930's. We shall see - only he probably won't be around to take responsibility for it when it arrives.

Dictators now understand that they cannot allow the Internet into their society without total control.  Free Flowing Information risks undermining Communist control in China and as much as they try to contain it, smart people work around it taking great risks. The Iron Curtain evolves into Firewalls of controlled information.

The law of unintended consequences rules however.  Twitter and NATO helped topple Gadaffi but now we have a self-destructed Libya and ISIS that is not defeated, despite what they tell us. Freedom of speech has almost disappeared in Egypt and pretty much everywhere in the Middle-East including Iran. That people are prepared to rebel against it is encouraging but foolhardy in such repressive regimes.

The trouble is we have this terrible yearning to read about 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 upcoming sequels.) The movie Wall-E remains in my opinion the best predictor of our future and the scandal of all that plastic in our oceans and now in our fish shows that some movies can face up to our ever increasing waists and waste.

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 enclosures in the UK and Europe 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 millennials don’t seem 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. To be fair Gibson did predict 3D printers that would replicate anything you want in a hole in the wall. Gun, spare body parts, anything. And that is certainly possible now.

How well did some of your favourite movies or sci-fi books do in predictions?
Twelve Monkeys, A Clockwork Orange, The Fifth Element, Escape From New York, Total Recall, Outland, Snow Crash, Land of the Dead, Sin City, The Wind-up Girl, The Water Knife ...

In all our futures cities are hell on earth. Everyone is a criminal. Extortion and prostitution is the norm, as is disease and a short life expectancy. Paulo Bacigalupi is the most prescient writer I think with his Ship Breaker and The Wind-Up Girl, both required reading. 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 an illiterate population and you have future shock. His novel (The Water Knife) about the scarcity of drinking water and energy in the USA results in power plays over water rights that destroy whole cities and their populations. This very month (Feb 2018) Cape Town, South Africa - a city of many millions, has run dry of water and it is killing the Cape economy. Wine and food production in particular, as well as tourism. It hasn't rained properly for over three years. California is experiencing many global warming effects. Fires, drought, then extreme rain or snow. Plenty of material for futurists. It would seem to conform to our visions of bleak futures.

Weirdly the one place where dystopia is coming true first 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?  In 2018 Venezuela is another failed state with an inflation rate of 2500% and a dictatorship that cares nothing for its people - prepared to kill any opposition.

You can point to Detroit as the post-industrial 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, discard and move on.  Gentrification and preservation are relatively new ideas there. In the seventies people were writing off New York. I was living there when garbage was piled high on the streets, crime was rising exponentially and real estate crashing.  It was rescued by human and political 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 thirty 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 50% of the population would be Asian in 2018 they would have considered you mad. Not only has the population changed, but what it does and how it lives and eats has completely been transformed. Negatively it also came with the rise of gang culture, and crime. But nevertheless it is a much more dynamic and prosperous city now. 

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 7% to keep a lid on it. The environment is a disaster zone and air quality is often poisonous. Their dash to electricfy all the cars by 2025 masks the tragedy of thousands of new coal-fired power stations that pollute the entire country. The country is exposed to outside influences that must contradict what the Government wants and believes. Lack of air and food quality might just be the thing that brings the goverment down one day. Around 1600 AD China had explored the world and was seemingly about to trade everywhere, then suddenly closed the door on it. Who is to say they won’t do that again? Hard though that may be to believe right now.

In Europe 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 the Euro is stronger than ever thanks to quantative easing. The closer one is to history and events the harder it is to see the road ahead. Europe is booming at the moment. Only Brexit is the unknown quantity that could distrupt not only the UK but Germany in particular.

Right now everyone says with the rise of populism it’s like the 1930’s and therefore history will replay as fascism or communism, but history often repeats as farce. 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 or turn a blind eye to refugee camps. 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.

Who gets the Future Right?

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 deeply 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. I tried myself with The Repercussions of Tomas D , a story about a boy who accidentally goes back to 1941 and changes the outcome of the 2nd World War. Continuum and Travellers are two TV series that are obessessed with going back and changing events to fix the future, but I suspect this will always be impossible.

Author Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) perhaps got closest to predicting the death of the high street and how the mafia will come to control the economy.  Amazon rules now and has devastated the retail market. But even so I find it hard to believe that people won’t want to wander a 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? And it is disappearing fast. Answers on a postcard please.

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. Star Wars is a fantasy - a great deal of fun, but essentially impossible.

Given what is happening right now on Earth it 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 Tesla 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 2012 novel 'The Repossession' is in part a study of that phenomenon. But 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 Repossession is out of print now but available in Turkish as TOZ and in French as Volontaires

Then again - I might be wrong about everything.

See if I have got the future right and sample my post-apocalyptic novel J&K 4Ever

© Sam Hawksmoor Feb 2018

J&K 4Ever - Love and Devotion in the Wastelands
Sixty years after the end of everything the city of Bluette survives, controlled by a malignant sect.  A place where men rule, girls receive no education and are matched at 16 to the highest bidder.  No one is ever permitted to leave the city and outside is a murderous wasteland of despair. Orphans Kruge and Jeyna have been devoted to each other through all the years of terror in this harsh regime and sworn never to be parted.  But the beautiful Jeyna has been betrayed by the Warden. Kruge has been swiftly banished to the Scraps, under the control of the Keeper. Jeyna is heartbroken; she will not accept her fate and escapes to find Kruge.  She is pursued by ruthless Enforcers on horseback, whose task it is to bring runaways back, dead or alive.
 'A genuine romance in a bleak but plausible and terrifying future' .
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