SciFi as Prophecy:
When I was young I did a lot of reading. For a stretch between age 15 and 18 I was averaging 5 full books a week. I was a teen trapped in the middle of America who didn’t like TV. What else did I have to do? The current state of the internet was only a rough sketch.
The bulk of what I was reading could be called science fiction. Gibson, Sterling, Stephenson, Shelly, Burroughs, Ellison, Dick, Lem, Ballard. These writers spoke of a time and place that I would live to see, not some distant future of golden ages, but a place just over the horizon in societies evolution, often a dark place filled with dirt and technology.
Everyday I wake up to that world. I get out of bed and check my email and communicate with people all around the world. I take pictures, upload them, make films and share them. As I listen to music recorded yesterday on the other side of the world that has come in my morning email I find myself a character in some unknown author’s portrayal of the future.
The concept of the sci-fi author as a prophet of the future is nothing new. It goes back to the beginnings of the genre itself. Jules Verne’s fantastical creations of the 19th century are commonplace objects in our daily lives in the 21st century. We are his distant future, with or without all of the steam.
By the early 20th century writers like Wells, Orwell, and Huxley would talk about a future where we shaped our lives around technologies, where surveillance would be ubiquitous, where chemical modification for mood control was necessary for social function, where crossing continents would take only hours instead of days.
In the wake of that initial sketch of man’s future hundreds of youthful would-be authors who grew up reading sci-fi magazines and watching low budget films would carve a huge path through the 50’s and 60’s and by the early 1970s Bradbury and Lem would have chimed in on mankind’s ‘fictional’ fate. Our computers would control us, reading would become secondary to other forms of information exchange, and TV would become our lives. Harlan Ellison would attack TV for the farcical nonsense it was long before marketing got control of the reigns. Again, these prophets of doom spoke of an even darker future, building on the ideas of the past they elaborated on these themes of sinister urban decay and technological dependency.
And then in the 80s cyberpunk was born. An understanding at last of that Glass Bead Game Hesse would painstakingly avoid describing. Cocaine having replaced Heroin as the drug of the now the 80’s gave birth to writers like Gibson and Sterling, whose vision was one of a near future in which corporations played a game of chess with humanity. In which technology was both a commodity and a religion. Gibson and his peers had read Boroughs, had done the drugs, and understood what was coming. Stephenson just added the genetic retailer to the graffiti scrawled future of tomorrow.
At each of these periods over the past 100+ years of science fiction the authors were able to see some pattern, they envision the way in which man will interact with the variables in his own evolution. Drugs, computers, communication, corporate greed, all these cards playing out in a hand of poker, a plot evolving out of individual fictions within the shape of the prophetic worldview of the author themselves.
Yet how is it that these writers are seeing so clearly the future that everyone else sees as mere fantasy? How do they paint so perfectly the days we have yet to live? By what mechanism are they able to grasp hold of the day after tomorrow and rend it down onto the page for others to read? Is it some mystical force, some inborn talent of prophecy? Like Dick do they all have visions of the empire itself?
I think that in the shape of how writers seem to predict the future we must look at the way they portray the world. Because they are calling it a fiction it is so much easier for them to take the blinders of modern living off and see straight ahead. Without the need for denial that we all live with everyday they are free to interpret the data that most of us choose to ignore. When they get into their cars and drive across town to shop for groceries they see that this action is what is feeding the power structure of oil companies. When they watch fat children stuff food into their mouths at a fast food restaurant they see the apocalyptic end of mans control over the world. The feedback loop of environmental abuse, the consumer culture that is eating the world we live in, taking it away from us and all future generations in order to feed our constant need for more.
These authors are simply looking at the world without the ‘rose colored spectacles’ on any longer. The have learned to rend aside the veil we create out of denial in order to perceive that great economic algorithm that is the world today. And in seeing the world for what it is they are able to imagine that short distance it is going down the dark road that lies ahead.
As I sit in my London home I think of the way that money flows around the world. I think of the charts and maps of data exchange, of the corporations like Google and Facebook collecting our lives into their math problems. I think of the government’s screening all of the data, listening in like an Orwellian auntie to see what troubles we are up to. The vast interconnected game of life on earth, a game of commerce and chance. We are all merely characters in this science fiction we call life.