Apocalypse: Now?

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I'm a couple weeks behind on Doctor Who for various reasons, but that's not really the only thing this place is supposed to be about, anyway. So now I want to talk a bit more about the idea that science fiction needs to bring us more optimistic visions to complement all the doom and gloom.

I'm in the middle of reading an anthology called Hieroglyph. The book is actually part of a broader project designed to bring fiction writers and actual scientists together to think about technologies that could make the world better, and envisioning the kind of world that either brings about those technologies (that is, our near future) or the kind of world that results, or both.

In some ways, both the book and the project it's part of could be an answer to my own commentary that I recently reposted, but in fact it's an answer to a more detailed and cogent battle-cry by the much-more-famous Neal Stephenson.

One thing that fascinates me about these stories, so far, however--and that was also a key premise of the Metatropolis audio anthologies (which I recommend, by the way)--is that they almost all start from the premise that, even if the future doesn't have to suck, the present really kinda does.

Most of these stories predicate that we are already living in a dystopian world--maybe not as visible terrible as Blade Runner but still pretty awful--where corporations and the ultra-rich accumulate more and more money (for which, read: power) while the ordinary citizen is pushed closer and closer to poverty. Worse, those ultra-rich people and corporations are doing nothing to solve the real problems of the world. If they're not actively causing them, they're nevertheless letting them fester, because there's no profit to them in solving them.

As such, to build their more hopeful futures, the stories are often about under-the-radar movements and technologies that somehow bypass the institutions of the modern world. They're about gift economies and other things that side-step "traditional" capitalism, including some things we can actually do now, like crowdfunding.

Many of them are also about things that bring communities together. Without verging necessarily into outright socialism or communism, both Hieroglyph and Metatropolis tend to propose solutions built around cooperative efforts, not rugged individualism. The Metatropolis anthologies, for example, are about the evolution of cities--hence, communities--in a world where climate change is reshaping what it means to be able to sustain a city.

Oh, some stories, like Stephenson's "Atmosphæra Incognita" in Hieroglpyh are based heavily on private efforts that would make libertarians happy. But even that story isn't about one man getting filthy rich off of an idea. It's about one man building a team to execute a vision, in the process revitalizing entire industries and bringing skilled jobs to hundreds.

I could probably spend a week diving down that rabbit hole alone--how forces are working to break down our sense of community, divide and conquer, make our present and our future less and less ones of opportunity and hope and, yes, risk; and more and more about safe profits for a lucky few. But I'll spare you that for a moment to note one thing I really find interesting:

Star Trek didn't do it this way.

Star Trek--and here I mean mainly the original 1966-69 series, but also somewhat The Next Generation--started from the premise that the present was actually kinda cool. Technology was improving people's lives daily; civil rights were advancing; our understanding of the human brain and of our world in general was leaping and bounding. The 60s were a time of deep challenge, but Star Trek assumed that those challenges eventually all got solved. It extrapolated the "cool" present into a "cooler" future.

But we don't really have that sense that our present is cool at all. Oh, there's progress on all kinds of fronts--gay marriage and gay rights in general being the one that springs immediately to mind--but the forces of retrogression, of reaction, are gathering there even as they've already sprung their attacks on other civil rights gains. We no longer really know how to go to the Moon and Mars is pretty much right out. We've conquered many of the old diseases but created new terror in antibiotic resistent ones, and the profit-oriented model of pharmaceutical companies make them less and less inclined to pursue the next step. War is as constant as any Orwellian nightmare. And rich and powerful people are actively spending money and energy to suppress and distort the truth about climate change, because denial is more profitable to them than solving the problems it raises.

We no longer live in, or believe in, an age of wonders. Our world is, in many ways, smaller than it's ever been, but even that is no longer a wonder.

Which brings me back around to my original thesis. My original thought was really that we need more stories with a positive outlook, with a sense of wonder. I still believe that, and that's not really what we have in Hieroglyph or Metatropolis.

What we do have in those stories, however, is almost as important: empowerment. We need these stories that restore the sense that we can make things better. We need stories that are as much about solutions as problems--and that remind us that problems are solvable. We have the power to solve them.

And if we don't, no one will.