Science Fiction and the Future in the Present Day

Fragile Wishes
Fragile Wishes from Neil Gaiman

Some days plans take off for hell in a hand basket and some days plans take you exactly where you expected. And still some days it pays to not have any plans because you end up meeting people and experiencing things you didn’t expect, but were exactly what you needed.

Several months ago while researching my dissertation, I stumbled across an article on io9 about how science fiction could help us understand social media. I book marked it for two reasons:

1) Before even reading the article I remembered a few nights I had spent staying up reading the Uglies Quartet by Scott Westerfeld and thinking, especially about the fourth book Extras. The technology that their society depends on to function is an exaggerated version of social media that is so embedded in their lives that publishing and sharing stories turns into a sort of currency. The connected celebrity can be made by “kicking” the right story at the right time, just as it happens today with our voracious need to share.

2) In a way, it echoed what my dissertation talked about. I was writing about artists use of social media to build community and this was exactly what could happen on a grander scale if things were pushed further. It spoke to what happened to society, what happened to community and how the notion of the individual shifted.

Unfortunately I never had the time to explore the idea in my paper. So this little bit of research was buried in the ever-growing pile of bookmarks and nearly forgotten about until this afternoon. I had all but committed myself to an afternoon on the couch, designing or writing, maybe reading. Earlier in the day I had caught a post on the Amanda Palmer forum about someone having extra tickets for a talk that Neil Gaiman was taking part in at the British Library. I texted him, but he got back to me nearly immediately saying both tickets had been vouched for. So having no plans, seeing the impending rain and cursing the planned closures on the overground I went to settled in on the couch. Then my phone rang and suddenly I had a ticket to the event Worlds of Wonder. I also had exactly an hour to dress, fix myself, put together a bag, grab things for Neil to sign and make a 45 minute journey to North London.

The panelists included Neil Gaiman, Rachel ArmstrongPeter F. Hamilton and Kari Sperring.

What is the future of the Future? Is the golden age of science fiction speculation now over or can the future still create a sense of wonder? Has the speed of change outstripped anything the story tellers, film makers, special effects artists and game designers can imagine? Or does the increasing knowledge we possess of the human condition and of scientific progress give us ever more fabulous ways to speculate?
from the British Library website.

The heart of the problem facing current day science fiction writers is that the future is much closer to us now than it was 50 years ago. Peter Hamilton articulated the issue best, William Gibson argues something to the idea that we are living in the future, but Hamilton disagrees, we’re living in the future of the 1950s just as they were living in the future of the 1850s. The gap there in time is what is incredibly important. In 1850 the future was a long time coming, technology was a slow-moving beast. In 1950 it was slower than it is today, but rapidly gaining speed. Today we have to go much farther into the future to imagine the same leaps in technology and society. It’s much harder to do.

Instead of looking at space operas (still a valid story telling platform, but perhaps not the most pertinent in today’s society to answer questions) science fiction is searching for new ways in which to speculate. Right now there is a collective obsession with catastrophe. In much of the western world the writing and imagining is that we will destroy ourselves, but more interestingly people are beginning to look at collaboration, communication, iterative processes that engage individuals to solve problems.

Science fiction talks about the future, but it is much more a reflection of the society and time in which it was written than the future it imagines. Today science fiction isn’t about space exploration, it’s about finding our way out of the problems we have created. There seem to be two main trends the death of capitalism and separated individual communities that are engaged in creating new models of living. Science fiction today is much more about the politics, the communities and the individuals than it has ever been before.

I was struck by the language that kept cropping up because it so closely correlated with my last few years of study in Advertising/Branding and Entrepreneurship. Collaboration. Communication. Iterative. Engage. States of flux. Storytelling. These have been the key concepts that I have been training to work with. I sometimes forget that not everyone is faced with this ideas in their daily life, because for so long I have lived and breathed them. Maybe it is because I read little else but science fiction and fantasy growing up, even to this day I barely touch “regular” fiction. Maybe it is because I found myself immersed in a network of people that want to try new things and change the status quo.

Science fiction allows people to believe that the world does not have to be the way it is, that it can, and will, change. It’s how we react to the current situation that determines those changes. Science is closely linked with science fiction. To survive in this technologically saturated world science has turned to storytelling to push the limits of what we can do further, push the limits of what we can imagine. Just look at any number of TED talks.

What the entrepreneurs, scientists and storytellers are doing is trying to define what this world will be when this massive shift in society settles down. We’re trying to push the world in the direction (or away from a direction) that we’ve imagined. We see possibility in change and we’re starting to take into account the consequences of actions or lack thereof. We may be making it up as we go along, but we’re trying to create something better, or influence someone to create something better – whatever that something is. Society is on the edge of a huge shift, practically perched on the edge of a cliff, and it isn’t really clear which direction should be blowing. Those of us that are playing with the possible ideas of the future though see that things like collaboration and engaging iterative processes are key to any progression. It’s all about the stories we tell.

Stories are fragile things.


Author: Monica

punk rock ballerina. writer. adventurer.

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