Fiction and the Future(s)

One of those special traits of our species – of us – is that we are a story-telling bunch.

We don’t just exist and communicate, we also tell stories of where it all came from and how it will end, what course our lives have taken and why, how people do and should act. We find such stories in diaries and biographies same as in fictional literature, in myths and fairy tales just like on TV.

And often enough, they shape us.

Whether we see our lives as playthings of gods and fate or as given a certain course by our own steering, the extent to which we seek immediate, egoistic gratification or work for our older, future selves and our communities, even the focus we put on creating and experiencing or consuming and comparing – they are all based on the stories we have in our heads, shared in our cultures and social groups.
(But also, like so many a rationalization, they are added on to the ways we simply learned to do things, by seeing how others did them and doing so ourselves – which is why changing thoughts tends *not* to change things.)

Education will be your best chance for advancement, or school doesn’t really teach you anything of use?
It’s storytelling.
You will love soft drinks and fast food, and it will make you happy – or you will just get fat and die young and unhappy from it?
As much as there are also biological, material influences behind it all, a major influence are the stories of marketing and peer groups.

Wine will taste better coming from a bottle with a label you know to be good and expensive – and it’s the same with baked beans or the coke of the brand you just know you prefer. The “best” marketing tells stories of the success and happiness the products will bring, making them bring it…
(Here, yes, the thought can come first and shape the experience, just as the thought that things could be different, better, can be – is? – the necessary first step for those who would initiate change.)

With this perspective in mind, take a look at the stories we now hear, of now and the future, of environmental concerns and happy lives.

Seems that we are in trouble.

Happiness apparently comes from consumption, the good life comes only with growth – and the conditions for both aren’t promising even before we start looking at environmental fears. Add in “green” concerns – or just look at the Asian boom towns – and contemporary reality already starts looking like the future of only too many a movie: polluted, uncomfortable,  if not outright hazardous to human health. Crowded and dangerous, with water that’s unsafe to drink, food that’s fake and, even when conventional, not exactly the most nourishing, “crazy bad” air quality, and insecurity.

We hear a lot about human ingenuity and adaptability and how they mean that humanity will survive – but if we look at the great works of imagination we currently have, in movies and novels, it seems like it will only be a select few fighters who somehow survive, and strangely enough without having a need for skills such as in growing food and organizing communities.

The Colony,” dumb and predictable a story as it was, at least started out and was partly about our need for food and the necessary conditions to grow it (or a certain other way of procuring it).

The “Matrix” movies, beside all the fighting, were fundamentally about machine’s need for electricity and included at least a little nudge towards a kind of ecological thought when the councilor commented that machines grow the humans’ food – and “we only notice when something breaks down.”


Paolo Bacigalupi’s novels, for example, go a step further.
The heroes of The Windup Girl or Ship Breaker also live on the future Earth we are now producing, but they are rather more everyday people just looking to get by, make a living somehow – and seeds and food production, biopiracy and patents, energy to run factories and sails to power shipping are themes that play a role. Not everything is good, but it’s also not all over-the-top bad, and the focus isn’t on fighting solving everything. It’s that life’s a struggle no matter what. It’s life.

Daniel Suarez’ Daemon and Freedom(TM) are among the few near-future novels in which the present is strongly recognizable, and there’s not only the fight for power over the future, fought by some heroic characters (though there’s plenty of that), but ways forward to resilience and better futures are also being built, started in ways that are quite recognizable from current initiatives.

Of course, fiction needs some simplification.

It’s difficult to tell the story of a civilization. (Then again, not so few science fiction authors have done just that.) The focus on fighting and fighters, as well as simple problems to find a solution to – the last livable place, a promised land, whatnot, makes for easily recognizable story lines following a hero’s journey.

It’s the more complicated and grungy, but also creative, stories that make for any story of a more realistic life, though. In reality, we need creativity, cooperation, and a knack for crafting and continuing better ways of making a living, whether they be adventurous or average. Actually, most lives must be average – and most people don’t want to have to be heroic, just human. Indeed, aiming at least to be our better selves, not our worst, should be quite enough.

Perhaps, science fiction writers could inspire us to that…

Leave a Reply

Related articles