Science fiction as a bellwether

I have been reading more about optimistic and ambitious visions sketched by science fiction. Before the Walkman, Apple IIe, and Silicon Valley re-directed the creative imagination of much of the tech world, it was governments that led the charge into new frontiers. And rather than the anticipation surrounding new apps and devices that would be brought to market, the public marveled at big technology and science pursued by their governments. Saturn 5 rocket. The Space Shuttle. The Concord. The SST. The SR-71. Particle accelerators. Supercomputers. Of all the elements of the historical Cold War, this gaze upward to the sky and outward to the limits of possibility is one of the most missed aspects – and yet it is hardest to quantify or explain. There is an element of zeitgeist in the interplay between technological aspirations and the times and whether the outlook is hopeful or pessimistic.

A quote from author Kim Stanley Robinson in Smithsonian Magazine hints at this and it resounded with me in part because the glut of seemingly bad news out there these days. Robinson said :

“Science fiction represents how people in the present feel about the future,” Robinson says. “That’s why ‘big ideas’ were prevalent in the 1930s, ’40s and partly in the ’50s. People felt the future would be better, one way or another. 

The 1930s-1950s were marked by the Depression, war and post-war rebuilding – a pretty dark backdrop for writers’ imagination. The same article notes that the cyberpunk genre emerged in the 1980s, a time I remember as pretty culturally empty, full of angst and when the panic of the arms race gave way to a fear that a computer glitch could set off mutually assured destruction. Clearly, if sci-fi is a bellwether, we are living through the darkness the cyberpunks’ foresaw 30 years ago. Just look at the images of beheadings published online. The public is horrified and, like watching a car-crash in slow motion, can’t look away. 

Negative news today
Negative news today

It’s probably for this reason that I enjoy science-fiction from the 1960s because it was conceived of in a time when the Space Race was in full swing, incomes were rising and possibilities felt bright for the generation that had grown up with no memory of the Depression or World War. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar concludes with an ambitious plan by a multinational company and the US State Department to lift a small African nation into the modern world. People believed in achieving big things.

Space elevator (courtesy Liftport
Optimistic visions for the future – a space elevator
(courtesy Liftport

So, given this casual linkage between science fiction and the era of its creation, what can we make of new optimistic visions in science fiction? Is it possible we’re entering a time roughly equivalent to the 1930s, in terms of geopolitical forebodings and slumping economies? Sure. And with unrest from Libya straight through to eastern Europe, there is plenty to worry about. The Islamic State captures the world’s attention with their lurid execution videos. West African countries – the same location of the fictional Beninia from Stand on Zanzibar – struggle to contain the Ebola outbreak, while the world fears the virus could mutate. It’s hard to see a cause for optimism.

But history runs in cycles. And maybe nascent optimism is the vision-thing in science fiction today. It seems counterintuitive, but just as event seem to worsen in unexpected ways, countercurrents continue to run. Surely, stories written now won’t change the world overnight. But the ideas introduced into the bloodstream of the culture have a way of catching on, refracting, expanding. Now the visions just need the economic and historical imperatives to pull them forward. 

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