New Scientist gave the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson some pages to edit on the theme of fiction, and he wrote an essay on the place of science fiction in creating meaning in the world of 2009, and commissioned eight British SF writers to contribute short pieces on life a hundred years from now. It works as a kind of snapshot of the literary “long imagination”. Without giving too much away, they don’t expect things to turn out well.
Why a hundred years? Because Robinson thinks it is “the hardest zone of all (which is why I asked the writers here to give it a go) – the time about a century from now, when our growing capabilities will be confronted by immense dangers, creating an unstable and unpredictable future.”
Of the eight pieces one – by Geoff Ryman – eschews fiction and more or less writes a trends piece, peppering his text with good questions about uncertainty. He concludes,
The future will look like Darfur, Lagos and Shanghai. Wonderful, terrible, depending on who you are.
But he declines Robinson’s invitation, and looks no further than about 2030, which he sees as the end of “the oil culture”.
The end of the oil culture will be mass creative destruction and I have no idea what lies the other side of it. At this point I echo the delicacy of Canada’s great SF writer, Elisabeth Vonarburg: “I can’t face writing across that mountain of corpses.”
Others aren’t so squeamish. Nicola Griffiths’ piece, ‘Acid Rain‘, is quite like a poem:
The rain when it came burned through their skin and down to the bone, which bled.
Womenfolk fled, children hid in dread, and the sky stayed wide and open….
It rained until the world was stone, and bone, and famine.
Paul McAuley also picks up the environmental theme, but is slightly more optimistic. Sure, half the Earth’s population is living in slums along new coastlines, but his characters are reclaiming for farmland the defrosting edges of Antarctica.
The rest of the stories, in their different ways, look at technology. While this is perhaps a more traditional area for science fiction, these tiny stories are stretching. Stephen Baxter imagines a conversation with a simulated Lord Kelvin, one of Britain’s most distinguished scientists (who gave his name to the Kelvin Scale) but who was also consistently wrong about the future. Justina Robson gives us a clone who is asking that her digital and biological records are returned so that she is the last in the line. Ian Watson foresees a world in which virtual people have both proliferated and acquired rights (“deletion would be genocide”), creating a virtual population crisis, while Ian MacDonald has women deprived of education – a ban which is subverted by a secret phone app.
Finally, Ken MacLeod’s story is the lightest one here, playful, even funny. He conjures up a future of jetpacks, heads-up visual displays, and skin-tight shiny clothing. So far, so knowing. It turns out – spoiler alert – to be the breakfast table sharing its night-time dream with its owner.The owner wants it to skip the dream and get on with breakfast.
[Update: There’s a long and worthwhile review of Peter Maass’ book, Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, on the subject of the destruction associated with the end of the oil culture.]
The image at the top of the post is by the artist Michelle Lord, and is from her project, Future Ruins.