The strange capacity of science fiction to foresee the future

Although the epidemic is not yet gone, we have become accustomed to its inconveniences. What will be the next disaster? Is there a bubonic plague strain that is resistant to antibiotics? The end of the world as we know it? Is there a mass ejection from the coronary arteries? Will the next disaster be natural, such as a big volcanic eruption similar to Tambora in 1815, which we haven't seen in over two centuries? Will it be a man-made disaster, such as nuclear war or a cyberattack? In our efforts to avert such disasters, can we accidentally slip into a new sort of AI-enabled totalitarianism?

It's hard to assign more than made-up probability to all of these potential tragedies. So, what are our options for dealing with them? The best response is that we should make every effort to envision them. This has been science fiction's function for the previous two centuries. Dystopias are fictional future histories. This may appear to be a contradiction in words, but because they have always mimicked current fears (or, to be more accurate, the anxieties of the literary elite), they demonstrate which former fears played a part in history. 'I am a preventer of futures, not a prophet of them,' stated Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451. How many policy choices, on the other hand, have been affected by dystopian visions? And how many of them turned out to be wise?

The appeasement policy of the 1930s, for example, was predicated in part on an inflated concern that the Luftwaffe could destroy London in the same way that H.G. Wells' Martians did. Nightmarish images, on the other hand, have frequently failed to persuade governments to take action. Science fiction, on the other hand, has served as a source of inspiration. When Silicon Valley was considering how to use the internet, they looked to authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson for advice. Today, no discussion of artificial intelligence is complete without mentioning 2001: A Space Odyssey, and virtually every discussion of robotics includes a mention of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Blade Runner, the film that was inspired by it.

Now that the long-awaited pandemic has arrived, along with rising sea levels, virtual reality, flying car prototypes, and levels of governmental monitoring never imagined by George Orwell, we may return to science fiction and ask: who got the future most right? Because the fact is that dystopia is now, not somewhere in the future. The history of the future is worth studying, partially because it may help us think more critically about the shape of the future. For all types of forecasting, historical data remains the foundation. Models based on theory may function, but we can't validate them without prior data. Future technological advances, on the other hand, are difficult to predict based on the past. If we simply looked backwards, we wouldn't see many imagined discontinuities, but science fiction presents us with a big sample of them.

Mary Shelley is best known for Frankenstein (1818), but The Last Man (1826) was equally revolutionary. With its vision of mass extinction following a plague and a depopulated world, it was the first truly dystopian novel. By the 1890s, dystopia was a popular genre, thanks to H.G. Wells. In The War of the Worlds (1898), the Martians annihilate Londoners with weaponry reminiscent of the intra-terrestrial world wars that lay ahead. Humanity is saved by a pathogen against which the invaders have no immunity.

In our time, anxieties about man-made climate change have made environmental disaster a subject for dystopian fiction. Works like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) project humanity’s worst fears with apocalyptic dread.

Novels about the planet turning against us have their precursors. During the Cold War, visions of climatic disaster drove the anti-nuclear and environmental movements. In Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), people face the slowly spreading fallout from nuclear war. In J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962), rising temperatures (owing to solar activity, not pollution) submerge cities.

Finally, dystopias based on widespread migration exist. In Michel Houellebecq's Submission (2015), the French left opposes the right-wing Front National by siding with an Islamic fundamentalist group. Non-Muslims are being purged from official and academic posts, polygamy is legalized, and attractive wives are being distributed by the new regime. The protagonist submits to the new order at the end of the novel. Despite the fact that Houellebecq was often accused of Islamophobia at the time of its release, the novel is a parody on France's frail institutions and the incapacity of urban intellectuals to protect them.

As Submission shows, science fiction is as much concerned with political catastrophe as with natural and technological disasters. A recurrent dystopia since the 1930s has been a fascist America. This fear has persisted, from Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008). The nightmare here is Stalin-like totalitarianism. Fahrenheit 451 (published in 1953 but set in 1999) describes an illiberal America where books are banned and the job of firemen is to burn them. (Though the novel is sometimes interpreted as a critique of McCarthyism, Bradbury’s real message was that the preference of ordinary people for the vacuous entertainment of TV and the willingness of religious minorities to demand censorship together posed a creeping threat to the book as a form for serious content.) But of all these dystopian visions, none has surpassed Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

In a remarkable letter written in October 1949, Aldous Huxley — who had been Orwell’s French teacher at Eton — warned him that he was capturing his own present rather than the likely future. ‘The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ Huxley wrote, ‘is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion… Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World’. Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) is a very different dystopia. Citizens submit to a caste system, conditioned to be content with physical pleasure. Self-medication (‘soma’), constant entertainment (the ‘feelies’), regular holidays and ubiquitous sexual titillation are the basis for mass compliance. Censorship and propaganda play a part, but overt coercion is rarely visible. The West today seems more Huxley than Orwell: a world more of corporate distraction than state brutality.

None of these authors, however, could have predicted our networked world, which has seen increased technological acceleration accompanied with a slowing of growth in other fields, such as nuclear energy, as well as a decline in governance. The true prophets are lesser-known authors such as John Brunner, whose novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is set in a period – 2010 — when population pressure has resulted in societal fragmentation and political radicalism. Despite the fear of terrorism, owing to a supercomputer, US firms are thriving. China has emerged as America's new adversary. Europe has come together. Affirmative action, genetic engineering, Viagra, the demise of Detroit, satellite TV, in-flight video, gay marriage, laser printing, electric automobiles, marijuana decriminalization, and the fall of cigarettes were all predicted by Brunner. There's even a progressive president named 'Obomi' (albeit he's from Benin, not America).

William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) foreshadows the internet and artificial intelligence with similar foresight. It begins in the dystopian Japanese underworld of Chiba City and imagines the'matrix,' a worldwide computer network in cyberspace. Snow Crash (1992), a novel by Neal Stephenson that was particularly popular among Facebook employees in its early years, predicted corporate overreach and virtual reality in an almost anarchic America. California's state has shriveled away, and everything has been privatized. The majority of individuals spend half of their waking hours in virtual reality, where their avatars have more fun than they do in real life. Meanwhile, refugee flotillas are making their way across the Pacific. These cyberpunk Americas are significantly closer to the United States in 2021 than Lewis, Atwood, or Roth's fascist dystopias.

Similarly, when it comes to making sense of today's authoritarian regimes, the most prominent prophets of surveillance states — Orwell and Huxley — have been outflanked. Consider China, which is more akin to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, a work published in 1921 but repressed by the Bolsheviks. It takes place in a future 'One State' headed by 'the Benefactor,' in which the 'ciphers,' who have numbers instead of names and wear uniformed 'unifs,' are constantly monitored. All of the apartments have glass walls and curtains that may only be pulled while having state-licensed sex. When faced with rebellion, the omnipotent Benefactor orders the mass lobotomization of ciphers, believing that the only way to maintain universal bliss is to eliminate the imagination.

Then there's Chan Koonchung's The Fat Years (2009), which isn't allowed to be shown in China. The tap water in this narrative is loaded with medications that make people docile, but at a cost. The month of February 2011 is no longer remembered in official records or popular memory. This was the time when China's economy was stabilized and its hegemony in east Asia was asserted through harsh emergency measures. Chan is one of a growing number of Chinese authors who see America's collapse as a consequence of China's ascent. The Fat Years is set in an alternate 2013 in which China has overtaken the United States as the world's largest economy as a result of a second Western financial crisis. A terrorist strike destroys the World Trade Center in Han Song's 2066: Red Star over America (2000), and the rising ocean rushes across Manhattan. And in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (2006), a Chinese nanotechnology expert and a Beijing cop lead the global defence against an alien invasion that’s the fault of a misanthropic Chinese physicist.

Yet even mainland-based Chinese authors are conscious of the country’s deeply illiberal nature and recurrent instability. The ‘problem’ of The Three-Body Problem is a virtual-reality game, set in Trisolaris, a distant world with three suns rather than one. The gravitational attractions of the suns prevent this planet from settling into an orbit with regular days, nights and seasons. It has occasional ‘Stable Eras’, during which civilisation can advance but, with minimal warning, these give way to ‘Chaotic Eras’ of intense heat or cold that render it uninhabitable. The central conceit of Liu’s novel is that China’s history has the same pattern as the three-body problem: periods of stability always end with periods of chaos. The three bodies in contention are not suns but classes: rulers, intellectuals, masses. The Tri-solarans, like good totalitarians, are omniscient. Their invisible ‘sophons’ provide them with complete surveillance of humanity, enabling them to prevent further scientific progress on Earth. But these approaching invaders turn out to have a weakness. Their culture of complete transparency — communication via unfiltered thought — precludes cheating or lying, so they cannot ‘pursue complicated strategic thinking’.

Is it too much to consider this as an analogy for China's shifting position in the globe, or perhaps a new Cold War between America and the People's Republic? If not, it's an unsettling metaphor — a fascinating foreshadowing of a future global calamity.

If stock market falls properly forecast nine of the previous five American recessions, science fiction has successfully predicted nine of the last five technical advancements, as Paul Samuelson joked. Time machines are nowhere to be seen, while flying automobiles are still in the prototype stage. (Of course, science fiction has anticipated a lot more than nine world-ending events.) Nonetheless, the genre has the potential to assist us in thinking properly about the future. Because I spent 2019 reading the books mentioned above, I was one of the first to notice that a pandemic had started in January 2020. I can't promise that reading Neal Stephenson's latest book, Termination Shock, will get you ready for the next metaverse. There are, however, worse locations to start planning for the next crisis.

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