Visions of the Future

There are a lot of things I like about science fiction, chief among them the genre’s capacity for using metaphor to discuss bigger ideas. Like how the original Gojira explored nuclear fears and Edwards’ Godzilla discussed the question of the relation between humanity and the environment.

But another thing I really like about science fiction is the way it tries to guess what happens next. Ender’s Game saw the potential of computer networks for a user generated news network, though writer Orson Scott Card didn’t quite capture just how prolific the user generated and focused content of Web 2.0 would be. The divide that exists between the future that could be and the future that is is the source of so much fun.

It also says a lot about the concerns of society. Look at how many 80s films set in the near-future showcased crime-riddled New Yorks and Los Angeleses. Or New York as a walled off prison colony that Snake Pliskin has to escape from. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that rising crime was on the public consciousness.

So then it’s interesting to look at what today’s science fiction says about tomorrow. Now, the beauty of science fiction is that it doesn’t have to be accurate, just plausible. I doubt anyone seriously believed New York would become a giant prison, but the looming potential for crime was there. Take Firefly, which envisions a future where the combined might of the United States and China was able to colonize space in order to escape a decaying earth. A logical assumption, what with China on the rise in the early 2000’s.

The Expanse also features a spacefaring humanity, with one of the protagonists being part of a crew mining ice from asteroids. Which makes sense, since getting water would be an essential part of sustaining and off world colony. Another tiny detail of The Expanse that I love is the existence of a seawall around New York. It’s a small thing, but one that grounds the future in a certain kind of realism. Rising sea levels will necessitate some sort of countermeasure, and a seawall makes enough sense.

The Windup Girl takes things in a different direction. Rising sea levels consumed many cities (including New York — why’s it always New York?) and others, like Bangkok, sink a wealth of resources into keeping the ocean at bay. But Paolo Bacigalupi paints a grim image of the future, one where a scarcity of fuel has plunged humanity into a time when electricity as we know it now is a distant memory. Now genetically engineered domestic animals turn cranks to power machinery and store springs with potential energy. It seems old fashioned, but at the same time, all too likely.

It’s a bleak outlook to be sure, but Bacigalupi’s novel (which I’m still reading, as of this writing) is also set against a world where genetic modification and patented genes are rampant. Sure, it sounds like science fiction, but both are things currently being discussed. A world where rice itself is copyrighted isn’t as nonsensical as it would have sounded a few years ago. The Windup Girl just takes sends things to a pessimistic conclusion.

Maybe in a couple decades we’ll have solved the energy crisis and stopped the sea levels from rising and these futures will look as ridiculous as assumptions that the United States and USSR would still be at war in the 2030s (in space!). But it’s okay to be wrong, it’s fun to imagine what’ll happen next. Sometimes things turn out right, sometimes not. Still makes for a good read.

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