Alternate futures

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades

Science fiction used to be a lot better. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking. In a galaxy far, far away and long, long ago there were a lot of seriously evil people.

But even Disneyland had a sparkling view of the future. Walk past the castle in fantasyland, make a turn and the future prospects of Tomorrowland were just as magical. Rockets? Spaceships? All of it was fantastic and getting better by the minute.

My first forays into science fiction were that sort of giddy optimism. The world of Star Trek was as pure and seamless as any happily-ever-after fairy tale. As Kirk liked to expound, the biggest flaw of mankind was the insatiable desire to explore.

And then my older brother tossed some Heilein at me, and I saw some more of that exploration of the universe, with unbounded freedom. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress showed a wild-west space colony using science to gain their freedom from the remote earthbound leaders. The protagonists were very pleased with their prospects and pretty sure that things were getting better.

That’s something that Sci-Fi has always been able to do for us. Imagine a world…same laws of physics and science…. but we have better tools…What could we do then?

Certain authors and an older tradition of science fiction had that optimistic thought-experiment tone with their storylines.

But others looked into the future with dystopian gloom. The very recent Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is set in an impoverished world where people escape into virtual reality without ceasing. Neil Stevenson’s The Diamond Age from 1995 is cyberpunk gloom, with organized crime barely worse than the official governments.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer from 1984 has vat-grown food in a hopeless future where people jack into their technology to have any kind of power. Even HG Well’s The Time Machine published in 1895 showed a terrible future for the planet.

I had for the last few years been very suspicious of science fiction because I couldn’t deal with the gloom. Some of my friends may remember an extended rant I went on regarding Stephenson’s’ Seveneves after I hit the darkest point in the story and dropped it like a hot coal. I was angry at the author.

This was going too far! Science fiction plays into the pessimistic tendencies of people to extrapolate into the future the worst possible outcome of the current trends.
Unbridled pessimism as unrealistic as unbridled optimism. Are people terrible? No doubt. Will we do the wrong things? Yes.

But more often, we do right things. We are generous and creative and kind.

I stumbled on a recent book in the optimistic tradition that reminded me why I used to read science fiction Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon. It was not dystopian, it had a girl flying spaceships and having an adventure.

THAT”S WHAT I”M TALKING ABOUT! I am pleased to have some adventures in space where bad stuff happens but a little hard work, ingenuity and good character saves the day. We are not powerless, not now and not in the future.

Yes, Captain Kirk, humans are amazing. I’m proud to be part of this group. We are imperfect to be sure, but the future is full of promise. Look what we’ve already done so far!

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