Friday, October 29, 2010

A Singular Society

I've often thought that these are hard times for a just-starting-out science fiction writer like myself. While I wasn't there personally and thus am purely speculating, it seems as if the twentieth century was considerably more amenable to long-term speculation than the twenty-first; really, if you started by assuming that "there is no nuclear war and everyone doesn't die," you'd already be on a pretty good tack. For some authors that wasn't even necessary - see L. Sprague de Camp's Viagens Interplanetarias series, where a nuclear war propels Brazil to world leadership... and also where interstellar travel is fairly easily within the reach of a planet shattered by nuclear war.

Well, they didn't know all that much about the consequences of tossing up all the firecrackers back in the 40s and 50s, so I'll give a pass on that.

Now, though - it feels like back in the day, so long as you assumed that humanity would not toss the firecrackers around and start Armageddon early, things would continue to get better; bit by bit we'd crawl out of the muck of the past, make everyone prosperous and healthy, and defeat all the threats to our way of life like Francis Fukuyama said we did in 1989 and 1992. Whether that's actually *true* is something that only someone who was around for it can say. Whereas now, who can say *what* situation we'll find ourselves in even in the near future? Back in 2004, how many people could have, or for that matter would have, predicted the Great Recession? Its consequences are still rumbling and it's not dead yet - and thanks to Google, unsettling news is only a click away. What about the recent suggestion from economist Laurence Kotlikoff that the United States is, effectively, bankrupt?

Ten years ago that sort of claim would have been hilarious or ridiculous, pure hyperbole thrown around by opponents of whoever was in power. Now, though... now, when you take into consideration the groaning strain of Social Security, Medicare, and pension obligations, the tens of millions of people still out of work, and decades' worth of robbing Peter tomorrow to pay Paul today, the idea of a bankrupt US seems disturbingly plausible. At least to me.

There's no telling where we're going to be ten years from now. In a way, that sort of assurance has been with us for a while now, in terms of the technological singularity - at some point, so they say, the rate of technological advancement will increase exponentially until it's vertical on the graph you use to measure, at which point all bets will be off. That's what I feel like the world is like today, but in society. Like we've crossed the event horizon of a social singularity.

Things are changing fast - and not just in society. Sure, mores and attitudes are in flux and women are wearing miniskirts and mobile phones are transforming codes of conduct, but speculating about the consequences of those situations is the bread and butter of any sf author. From here, it feels like things are changing so fast that there's no assurance we'll be able to predict what things will be like once the cards fall into stable patterns - not even close.

Part of it stems from greater understanding. You could easily define history as being "a time in which people had less appreciation of the consequences of their actions" (something that applies just as easily to us, but that would be from the perspective of those who come after us, so there you are). Consider Viagens Interplanetarias, Star Trek, and all those other twentieth-century science fiction settings where nuclear war was, ultimately, no big thing. For me, writing about the future now feels like it requires the same sort of mental gymnastics you'd expect from a writer who, despite being well-familiar with the consequences of nuclear war, was crafting stories of a future utopia in October 1962.

I know that science fiction isn't supposed to be prophecy - that it always reflects the time in which it was made. That, if nothing else, explains why so much science fiction has been so damn pessimistic recently. We have no idea where we're going, we have no idea what the place will look like when we get there, and there aren't even any assurances that they'll let us in the front door.

"The future, always so clear to me, had become like a black highway at night. We were in uncharted territory now, making up history as we went along." That's from Terminator 2, but it could just as easily describe what's in front of us today. No one knows where things are headed anymore.

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