Building Our Future
By Mike Meyer
Science fiction is now the critical literary form and the primary focus of literature. There are still other genres but almost all of them are now in the meta world of future fiction and deal with scientific changes disrupting aspects of our lives one way or another. Literature is now the primary way we work through the destruction of our traditional realities and explore the diversity of futures. The range of science fiction sub-genres give some indication of the diversity of futures and problems.
The history of science fiction can claim this through the last half of the 20th century and did, in fact, create critical changes to American and world reality including geostationary satellite technology, moon landings, and robotic beings prone to evolutionary change. The struggle to understand the collapse of American society and the pending critical cusps that will define success or failure for Homo sapiens on planet Earth are now the issues of daily news just as they had been in some future story.
We live with this and see and hear it discussed constantly around us. The essential chasm is between the panicked authoritarians desperately denying the future and the majority who simply want an openly diverse society and to see just how things evolve. The first group didn’t read the books but hate them and the second group have several they really like.
The blocking of that future was the work of those who managed to start the action by stopping civil rights and limiting science in America with the placement of Ronald Reagan in the White House. The old ranger was rich enough to hang with the very wealthy and to dance to the music of the John Birch Society although cagey enough to keep some distance that saved him later. From that point what was said and what was done in the US politically began to diverge drastically. Lies well rehearsed in Orwell’s 1984 were used to lock in control by those who had what they wanted and wanted nothing to do with fast evolving human society. Change was the work of the devil or the Communist Party which was worse.
But the changes driven by a growing population shaped by science fiction as its base literature could not be prevented but only slowed. That slowing is neatly graphed by the loss of middle class income and the increasingly insistent attacks on science and social change.
On the planetary stage this became the dark side of neoliberalism which tried to have its cake and eat it too by gaining continuous economic growth driven by efficient use of a global workforce while hoarding the assets gained. The bright side of neoliberalism in America was only a few shades lighter than the dark side. The complex and paradoxical counter play of the two aspects of neoliberalism is the greatest tragedy of the late 20th and earlyy 21st centuries as it may mean our ultimate collapse with defeat snatched from the jaws of glorious victory. In the US this was the merger of the two official parties realizing the efficiency of an economy based on globalization but with very different outcomes in mind.
This is the base of the confusion that has befuddled much of America. While one faction paid lip service to social welfare and, at least, rudimentary social services with diversity, the other had lost all purpose but destruction of democracy to protect the hoarding of vast wealth in the hands of a tiny oligarchy. The means to this was globalization with hyper-capitalism loved by one group and tolerated by the other. The result for the great majority of the US and post industrial societies was the same.
This was a side issue to the transformation of human socioeconomic system driven by geometric changes in information technology. Those changes have pulled the paradigmatic rug from under everyone. While the most frightened of the future deniers went looking for authoritarian strong men to turn back the clock, the majority has begun to sort out the wheat from the chaff in planetary trade. How do we move assets to the majority instead of the other way around. But there are bigger issues afoot.
It seems to be a growing awareness that the importance of the broad genre of science fiction is not as much about anticipating technological breakthroughs, anti-gravity skate boards and self driving cars, but these human changes and social transformations. We are building our future or destroying it. There are really only two choices and neo-fascists or Trumpsters are clearly on the side of destruction. but what does the positive side look like? Where are we going? A very recent article by Jack Preston King illustrates this directly.
The loss of reality
While everyone deals with our science fiction reality now they have yet to understand how we are evolving to deal with diverse realities that are not absolute. This is not surprising as we have never had to learn to do this before. The fact that it has created a nearly unbridgeable polarization in our society has distracted everyone from the critical process of education that we all must complete. Everyone needs to do their homework and read the assigned books.
But we all must understand the learning outcomes that we must achieve. That’s what this is about.
Learning to live with high complexity represents a range of specific outcomes that we need to master. Change is a given but the real problem is the loss of a single shared reality. And that is the reason for the high cultural interest in science fiction. We have entered a world that will require the easy movement between multiple realities blended together in virtual societies in the same geographic planetary space. No one has a clue how to do that. All we know is that the world we all grew up in is coming apart quickly around us. And we don’t know how it is coming apart while a significant minority desperately insists that it isn’t and they won’t consider it.
An interesting aspect of this is that 1984, one of the few seriously political works of science fiction, has become a serious parody of Donald Trump’s Republican dumpster fire administration in 2018. This has, I think, begun to complicate the development of the standard apocalyptic novel that must stay ahead of the US lead reality. Nearly all novels with contemporary settings now must carry elements of science fiction to represent the disruptive influences and rapid changes that drive us.
The missing realization
My real interest is in the development of the fully alien as a critical lesson of our future but this is, perhaps, not as obvious as it seems. You see we have a problem. The strongest tradition that holds, still, hope for the future are the nearly infinite variations on the space opera. In the popular consciousness this is the ground of Star Trek and Star Wars with parodies and drama. These look like any adventure story but with star ships and empires and speed of light battles. We’ve been doing this for the last fifty years but it is getting harder and harder to pull off. The suspension of disbelief in a population that is comfortable in an Einstein universe rather than the old Newtonian one leaves us with the problem of space and time.
Warp speed, worm holes, hyperspace had to evolve in the last half of the 20th century to handle the size of the universe and apparent insurmountable problem of jumping between worlds in different star systems. This is the wonderful transition in the popular consciousness between Newton and Einstein. The early Buck Rogers movies of the 1930's had no problem with planets that maybe were just around the corner in our own solar system or, go a little faster, and find another one around another star. Einstein was a wise old scientist that no one understood.
That changed and keeps changing. That universe has gone the way of the canals and gentle people of Ray Bradbury’s Mars. You just can’t get there from here. And that is setting in more and more clearly. Even if could reach near light speeds you have to deal with time that slows down almost to a stop but only for the folks in the ship. Relativity is brutally real just as the vast size of our universe means that all but the closest stars are almost certainly beyond our reach. And if we got there we couldn’t come home again. We now know too much to keep getting away with this abuse of science.
So what has this become? Very clearly an intense and continuous exploration of where we are going and what we may become. Parts of the Science Fiction oeuvre are still purely entertainment but almost all contain elements that are acclimatizing us to things we think we will need to understand and live with. Take a look at Amazon and you will find standard components that are expected: sentient systems in everyday life; augmented humans in various forms, continuous recording of everything that happens that may or may not be available to everyone. Increasingly you will find societies of different types with some degree of isolation along with extreme societies that may be partially or totally virtual.
What we are looking for is ourselves in the form that we must become to survive. Realizing that comes very easily when you read some of the best of the last fifteen or twenty years. Iain M. Banks Culture Series was one that took traditional science fiction and pushed human culture to new places. We will change biologically via genetic engineering and electronic digital augmentation. We know that. It is not some future thing but what is happening now. Barbara Streisand cloned her favorite dog.
Evolving at light speed
This will continue to evolve at light speed. Another contemporary series that includes an exploration of time and space that is based on drastic genetic engineering with more distant future results is the Paradox/Pelted Universe of M.C.A. Hogarth. This suggests what may happen as we modify our selves and our favorite animals and how that may play out on multiple worlds.
While these all are primarily entertainments they are, I think, much more than that now. They are very active analysis of what we are doing and the drastically different world that we are building today. On a sociopolitical level we must become completely and morally comfortable with great diversity because we are creating far greater diversity than we currently struggle with on this planet at the start of the 21st century. We don’t have time to dither. We are committed. We will change. And we need to study at the very edge of our understanding.