Cory Doctorow is is the co-editor of Boing Boing and a writer whose books include Little Brother, Makers, Walkaway and Radicalized.
As the decade draws to a close, let us pause a moment and give thanks that science fiction’s alleged ability to predict the future is itself a work of science fiction: Not only is science fiction terrible at predicting the future, I am prepared to make a prediction (in my capacity as a science-fiction writer) that science fiction will always be terrible at predicting the future.
Thank goodness! Not merely because science-fiction writers are no smarter or more insightful than anyone else, but mostly because no one can predict the future. No one can predict the future because what we do affects the future.
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Science fiction can affect what we do, of course. Our fears and aspirations for the future – which can be tracked from moment to moment by looking at which science-fiction stories are popular – inform how we interpret the future when it arrives and how we respond to it, and thus what happens next. Science fiction reflects back current events and current fears and aspirations, and then the world turns some of those fears and aspirations into reality, which in turn sparks new science fiction.
Science fiction’s furnishings and props rise periodically and extrude themselves into the “real world.” Trekkies in Motorola’s design division created the flip phone out of an inchoate urge to cosplay the Starship Enterprise, but were overtaken by Blackberry’s mechanical microkeyboards and then today’s ubiquitous distraction rectangles. The future is generally weirder than SF writers imagine.
Forget showers of abuse from Mr. Spacely of The Jetsons: If you’re an exploited Uber worker today, you will likely never be shouted at in person by chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi (although his predecessor did once get captured on a dashcam screaming abuse at an Uber driver). Instead, you will be relentlessly micromanaged by an imperious, unaccountable app that scores you, tallies your pay and scripts your movements to a fine degree that would give Frederick Winslow Taylor the fantods.
Science fiction is at a crossroads, struggling to escape the dystopianism that so many of us find so easy to believe in (it’s easy to find fears credible and hopes unbelievable). It’s no longer artistically viable to depict a future in which everything just turns out for the best – and besides, such a story feels reckless, calculated to soothe us into inaction just as action is urgently needed.
I believe that the right answer is to tell stories of adversity met and overcome – hard work and commitment wrenching a limping victory from the jaws of defeat. Such tales are the opposite of “optimism” or “pessimism” (these being synonyms for “fatalism” – that belief that a specific future will arrive regardless of what we do). Instead, we can call it “hope.” Hope: the belief that a different world is possible.
The decade to come, we’re told, will be a crucial one, maybe the most crucial when it comes to our species’ survival since that very first decade when our trembling, newly speciated ancestors eked out a tiny evolutionary niche and were not snuffed out by their environments as unsound mutations.
This decade may once again weigh the soundness of us hairless, big-brained primates, and once again ask the primordial question: “Does Earth really need multicellular life?”
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If you need proof that science-fiction writers are trapped by our consensus on the future and struggle to steer it, consider this: It’s not that hard to imagine surviving a just climate transition. Our leaders are willing to accept the market orthodoxy that businesses can expand production infinitely on a finite world by realizing new efficiencies in material and energy usage. Is that so different from the proposition that, as the crisis looms, we can find the material, energy and labour needed for seawalls, clinics, relocations and new energy production and storage facilities?
Considered in the grand sweep of human achievements, resolving the climate crisis is a big job, but it’s not the biggest thing we’ve ever done. We have built great cities, international aviation systems, an internet that wires together the planet like a vast digital nervous system. We can do this.
But, it seems, we can't.
The looming climate emergency is proving the axiom that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the human race than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” Our species – which has mobilized millions of bodies for war, gold rushes, Beanie Babies and Beatlemania – seems to have given up hope of any chance of mobilizing a comparable effort to avert its own extinction.
How is this possible? How is it that we can contemplate the great achievements of our ancestors and insist that we ourselves could never hope to match them? Are we trapped in a science-fiction tale of the brutish remnants of a fallen civilization, living amidst its slowly disintegrating machines, unable to repair or replace them?
I don’t think so. But I feel the same sense of inevitability as you do, the sense that although we can see that the bridge is out ahead, that although we know where the steering wheel and brakes are, that, for some reason, we cannot yank the wheel nor hit the brakes. That, as in a nightmare, we are doomed to sit in mute horror as we careen to our doom.
Why this failure of imagination? I blame Margaret Thatcher. It was she who popularized Herbert Spencer’s 19th-century axiom that when it came to markets, “There is no alternative.” That is, if market mechanisms can’t deliver whatever you’re seeking, then it is unattainable and any attempt to buck the market will end in heartbreak and catastrophe.
“There is no alternative” – a phrase Thatcher repeated so often that wags called her “TINA Thatcher” – is a devastating rhetorical cheat: a demand phrased as an observation. “There is no alternative” doesn’t mean “No alternative is possible.” It means, “Stop trying to think of an alternative.”
We've lived through 40 years of TINA thinking, and it's left us stranded on a sandbar of our own devising, as the seas rise and begin to lap at our knees.
That’s where science fiction comes in. Science fiction doesn’t predict, but it can influence. When crises arrive, panic induces tunnel vision, in which the outcomes that we can picture most easily and vividly are automatically assumed to be the most likely ones (behavioural economists call this “the availability heuristic”). Science fiction’s most cherished and hackneyed tropes dominate this availability heuristic. We imagine that every disaster is followed by mob violence – despite the rich historic record of neighbours caring for one another in times of crisis. This belief has all the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as people assume the worst of one another, so that mistrust turns disaster into catastrophe.
But science fiction needn’t be monochromatic disaster porn. Many of our most cherished science-fictional visions (few of them in vogue today) propose a better world – not a perfect one, and never free from strife (dramatic tension has to come from somewhere) – but still hopeful and inspiring.
The stories we tell about our future affect what we do when the future arrives, so science-fictional tales of weathering the crisis have the makings of a movement that allows us to do so.
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Try this on for size: As the vast majority of Canadians come to realize the scale of the crisis, they are finally successful in their demand that their government address it unilaterally, without waiting for other countries to agree.
Canada goes on a war footing: Full employment is guaranteed to anyone who will work on the energy transition – building wind, tide and solar facilities; power storage systems; electrified transit systems; high-speed rail; and retrofits to existing housing stock for an order-of-magnitude increase in energy and thermal efficiency. All of these are entirely precedented – retrofitting the housing stock is not so different from the job we undertook to purge our homes of lead paint and asbestos, and the cause every bit as urgent.
How will we pay for it? The same way we paid for the Second World War: spending the money into existence (much easier now that we can do so with a keyboard rather than a printing press), then running a massive campaign to sequester all that money in war bonds so it doesn’t cause inflation.
The justification for taking such extreme measures is obvious: a 1000 Year Reich is a horror too ghastly to countenance, but rendering our planet incapable of sustaining human life is even worse.
With the economy at full employment, our research institutes will turn to full-time work on climate remediation – new materials, new energy, new power storage. Our internet-based digital nervous system will be steered away from surveillance and extraction and into better co-ordination so we can enjoy abundance without maxing out our raw materials, emptying our garages and closets of low-quality, low-use items (such as suitcases, lawnmowers, power drills and other items most of us don’t use often enough to justify buying a decent one) with shared, circulating items that are of higher quality than any of us would have bought for ourselves.
A key part of a low-carbon lifestyle is adapting work and leisure cycles to the availability of renewables. In other words, taking a day off work when the energy conditions are suboptimal is part of your patriotic duty, and our networks are there to both redirect the tasks you were slated to do to someone living in a high-energy environment, and to help you find friends to socialize with when these jubilee days are declared, with high-quality goods that are vastly superior to anything you once clogged your closet with.
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Our country’s sprawling geography offers Canada a unique advantage: In a country as big as ours, the wind is always blowing somewhere, and even on the cloudiest day in one province, there’s sun in another. What could be more science fictional to the last generation to live under neoliberal capitalism than to imagine abundant leisure?
A nation united around such a shared purpose is likewise suited to the kind of hard work for truth and reconciliation and nation-to-nation negotiations with its First Nations. A country of economically secure people, living in systems that are steadily and visibly improving their chances and their children’s chances of thriving no matter what the climate throws at it, is well-situated to begin the long, hard work of eliminating the social role of the “settler” and replacing it with someone who is co-equal with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.
The “Canadian miracle” becomes a global inspiration, proof that it can be done. Canadian “Blue Helmets” go abroad to share their experiences, and experts from other countries flock to Canada to observe how we did it – and to tell us what we missed. Canada becomes a net exporter of radically transformative ideas: ideas about work, leisure, fairness, public health and, of course, energy.
As Canada moves from an emergency footing to a new normal, it must confront its past: the contribution its elites made to climate inaction and denial, and the millions of human lives their delay has cost.
They will be remembered as monsters, examples of how allowing extreme wealth concentration transformed ordinary human greed and self-serving rhetoric into an existential threat to our species. The leaders who abetted their campaign of ruination will be remembered as cowards and collaborators, and phrases such as “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there” will go down in infamy.
This is more than a decade’s worth of work, obviously, but imagine that, by 2030, we’re at a point when our brave climate warriors are visiting us on R&R from their work on the seawalls and our civil defence corps are helping us weather the storms or find ways to cool down in the heatwaves. Our employers are on a climate-remediation footing, and we are coming to grips with a new kind of leisure: hard to predict, but intense and sweet when it arrives.
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A new airship company is reviving long-distance tourism – with a catch. You don’t get to choose where you’re going, and you end up wherever the wind blows you. In transit, you telework from lavish staterooms over your blazing fast internet connection, and shortly before you arrive, you use a social-networking tool to find interesting strangers to visit with in whatever city you’ve arrived at. Jetpacks were the future of the past, an individualistic world locked in a Red Queen’s race with its roads and cars, where everyone dreamed of unfettered personal transportation and everyone was bitterly disappointed to find themselves rendered stationary by everyone else’s personal transport robot. Airships that go where the wind takes them, to destinations whose attraction is the opportunity to take leisure with strangers? That’s the transport of a world organized around our shared destiny as a single species on the only planet capable of sustaining it.
Now imagine that this story – and a hundred more that paint a picture of resilience and joyful thriving through and after a just climate transition – is the one that leaps most readily to mind when the wildfires rage or your city floods. Imagine the political will engendered by the gap between what we imagine our country can do and what our leaders believe is politically possible.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt is said to have told activists who demanded bold work to address the Great Depression, “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.” A world where we tell ourselves stories such as this is one where no politician would dare vow to extract and burn 173 billion barrels of oil.
I make no claim to predicting the future. I make up stories. Stories are better than predictions: predictions tell us that the future is inevitable. Stories tell us that the future is up for grabs.
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