The Future of the Future

How science fiction fails us


in Blog


The future isn’t what it used to be. We need new futures.

Science fiction traditionally has had the task of providing us with alternative visions of the future. For the most part, it has done a terrible job. The main reason for its failure is that it assumes global uniformity.

In optimistic visions of the future, there is a liberal and democratic world government, or perhaps an interplanetary federation. In dystopias, there is a single global tyranny. In post-apocalyptic novels and movies set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, nuclear bombs seem to off gone off everywhere in the world, even in places remote from the homelands and allies of the major combatants.

The assumption of uniform conditions in the world of tomorrow saves science-fiction authors and screenwriters the trouble of explaining the Sino-Indian dispute of 2345 AD, allowing them to concentrate on the plot and the main characters. But it is completely unrealistic.

The last time all human beings were more or less at the same level of technology and social organization was the Paleolithic Era. With the development of agriculture, a radical division opened up between farmers and old-fashioned hunter-gatherers. Agrarian communities themselves underwent profound differentiation. Some remained stuck at the level of Neolithic village farming. Others developed into the great literate, stratified empires of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

The industrial revolution, beginning in Britain in the 18th century and diffusing first to Western Europe and North America, created yet another divide. Around 1900, the differences among human societies were greater than they had ever been. There were urban, industrialized societies; traditional agrarian societies; and small populations of surviving hunter-gatherers pursuing Stone Age lifestyles.

By 2100 or 2200, most people on earth may be urbanites equipped with modern technology, not peasant farmers. But even in an industrialized world of wage workers and cities, the gaps between rich and poor regions are likely to remain enormous. Even as some backward areas catch up, innovative regions will shoot ahead.

Differences of wealth among societies translate into differences of power. In the Neolithic era, agriculture permitted farming populations to explode and to displace smaller hunter-gatherer societies. It is now thought that Europeans descend chiefly from Neolithic farmers who invaded Europe from the Middle East thousands of years ago, with a later genetic contribution from invading herders from the steppes (who may have brought the ancestors of Indo-European languages with them).

Mass migrations are likely to reshape the world in the future, as in the past. Thanks to a combination of contraception and liberal individualism, most developed societies have below-replacement fertility rates. The central internal debates in U.S. and Europe revolve around whether low-fertility nations should boost their population and workforce by bringing in more immigrants. When immigrants are from quite different cultural backgrounds, whether and how to incorporate them into the host nation can be a divisive political issue.

Wars, hot or cold, are also missing from standard science fiction versions of the future. Interplanetary wars don’t count, and neither do wars with robots or zombies. I mean wars among nation-states or global alliances or regional blocs. George Orwell’s 1984, inspired in part by James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, imagined a world divided among three totalitarian blocs: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. I can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction.

Typically, as noted above, science fiction authors posit a united world under benign or tyrannical world government. How our present divided world came to be united in the future is seldom explained. Science fiction authors are notorious for getting out of plot holes by inventing new technologies like “handwavium.” The political equivalent of handwavium is the World Federation of Handwavia.

Global political unification is becoming less, not more, likely. In 1900, outside of the U.S. and the independent former colonies of Latin America, most of the human race was ruled by the British, French, and other European empires. If Imperial Germany had conquered Europe and subordinated the European overseas empires, it would have had a shot at world domination.

It was already too late for Hitler to conquer the world by the 1930s. Industrialization had added the Soviet Union and Japan to the ranks of great powers outside of Western Europe, in addition to the U.S., which by then potentially was by far the most powerful country. The Soviet Union was a major threat but it never had a chance at global domination. By the 1970s, its leaders sought the status of an equal superpower, a status which their economy and military-industrial base could not sustain.

Following the surrender and disintegration of the USSR between 1989 and 1991, some American neoconservatives and liberal hawks fantasized about creating an informal American global imperium. But the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan turned the public against these fantasies. The rise of an anti-American entente of newly-industrialized China, Russia, Iran, and other states is forcing the U.S. to choose between retrenchment and paying much higher costs merely to retain its global position. In time, a richer and more powerful India may join China and the U.S. in a trinity of continental superpowers, creating a new Orwellian pattern: Oceania, Eastasia, and Southasia.

Great-power rivalry, demographic collapse, mass migration — three of the major forces reshaping the world — have been all but completely absent, both from classic science fiction and newer novels and movies that have shaped public consciousness. Most science fiction is not trend analysis, but a moral or political allegory, as the late Thomas M. Disch pointed out in The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of. And, as he also pointed out, much of it is children’s literature. Unfortunately, literary and cinematic visions of the future influence the way the public and the policymaking elite think about the future.

This is particularly a problem for the left. Since the 19th century, the Marxist left has expected that at some point in the future an ill-defined revolution would create a global utopia — the World Socialist Republic of Handwavia, as it were. When this vision of the future collided with reality, the Marxist left split into reformist social democrats, who were hardly distinguishable from left-liberals, and communists, who, in the countries in which they came to power, soon abandoned socialist ideology for nationalist Realpolitik and the perks of a new ruling class.

Meanwhile, from the early 20th century to the early 21st, many centrist liberals have put their hopes in international institutions — the League of Nations, the United Nations, or, more recently, projects of trans-national regionalism like the European Union. Great power rivalries marginalized both the League and the UN, and populists in European nations like the British citizens who voted for Brexit now seek to dismantle or limit the powers of the EU.

Today’s national populists are told that they are on the wrong side of history, by elites whose members claim to speak on behalf of an emerging world community. But maybe the populists and nationalists are on the right side of history and the elites have been duped by bad science fiction. •

Images courtesy of  Dennis Meene, via Flickr (Creative Commons).