Living in the Future: The Fate of Science Fiction

Click HERE for the Audio Edition!

 

Plenty of genres will remain relevant in the future:

Horror, because we still like to be scared.
Fantasy, because magic retains its fascination since it can’t materialize in the real world.
Romance, because we still love, long for, and lose.
Humor, because we need to laugh.
Historical Fiction, because we want to experience other times and places.

But what about Science Fiction? During its Golden Age, this genre presented the perfect opportunity to extrapolate on emerging technologies and speculate where they might take us in the future. Some of those postulated futures turned out to be eerily prescient. But now we live in an age where automated cars and soft AI are becoming reality. Where we carry powerful miniature computers in our pockets that connect us to virtually any person on the planet. Where 3-D printers create entire houses in a matter of days and drones deliver packages directly to your home. Everything keeps getting (or seems to be getting) faster, sleeker, and more efficient, changing the social and economic landscape at an astonishing rate.

With all of these advancements, where exactly can science fiction take us? Where else can we imagine to go? I think this might be why we’ve seen a surge in post-apocalyptic fiction in recent years, because a lot of people can’t see technology advancing us any farther: only as a means of destroying ourselves. And granted, I can understand that concern. Between death by radiation and death by superstorm lies a vast array of options to hasten our own extinction, both deliberately and incidentally.

“Enterprise NX-01” from Star Trek by Charity Wood

 

But while we may be catching up to or even surpassing a lot of science fiction from a technological standpoint, there are still plenty of ways we fall short. There is still a disparate distribution of resources, allowing some populations to starve while others have the luxury of discarding anything a day or two past its expiration date. Some countries have high-speed fiber-optic cables to distribute more hours of information and entertainment than anyone could watch in a lifetime, while others don’t have reliable electricity, if they have any at all. Political, racial, social, religious, and economic divides still cause friction, which can have deadly consequences.

And exploring those consequences is where I think science fiction will continue to remain relevant. Sure, advances in the hard sciences may have developed differently than what was presented in the 1950s. (After all, both 2001 and 2010 have come and gone, and we still haven’t found a monolith.) But science fiction still explores universal human issues, like:

–  The line between human and machine.
–  The conflict between the individual and the collective.
–  The struggle for survival in adverse conditions, either on Earth, in space, or on another planet.
–  The friction between exploration, colonization, imperialism, and the raw forces of nature.

Despite the technological trappings, science fiction (good SF at least) retains a very human core. People in the future are still people, trying to find their place in life and hashing out their problems with varying degrees of success. That continuity of character and common experience is the thread that connects ancient Chinese essays bemoaning the hassles of bureaucracy to modern news outlet opinion pieces to the complex political mores of The Expanse and Babylon 5. Plus, there are still plenty of scenarios, both in the near and far futures, that we haven’t encountered yet. The deadly satellite debris field in Gravity, the alien encounters of Star Trek, and the challenge of terraforming a planet like in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy are all examples of possible futures that will test human ingenuity and spirit to their outermost limits.

So let’s keep writing stories about what may be ahead, be it a positive to fulfill or a negative to avoid. You have the conn, Number One.

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