There's no question we're living in unpredictable times. With rapid advances in technology, ever-shifting governments and national borders, and unforeseen natural, political, and economic disasters, it is getting more and more difficult for people to make stable plans for the next few years. And, as novelist Charles Stross (Saturn's Children) points out, it's a challenge not only for those looking to plan their actual futures, but also for those attempting to plot out the future in fiction.The crux of Stross's argument is that it takes so long for a novel, or even a work of short fiction, to reach publication that, by the time it's published, many of the assumptions or hypotheses the author made while writing it are already incorrect. Hence, the work is dated before anyone gets a chance to read it. He uses events in the past few years to illustrate his point, inviting us to imagine how we might have envisioned a 2019 United States in pre-Katrina 2006, then how we might have envisioned it in pre-fiscal crisis 2007, and how we would imagine it today:
Now extend the thought-experiment back to 1996 and 1986. Your future-USA in the 1986 scenario almost certainly faced a strong USSR in 2019, because the idea that a 70 year old Adversary could fall apart in a matter of months, like a paper tiger left out in a rain storm, simply boggles the mind. It's preposterous; it doesn't fit with our outlook on the way history works. (And besides, we SF writers are lazy and we find it convenient to rely on clichés — for example, good guys in white hats facing off against bad guys in black hats. Which is silly — in their own head, nobody is a bad guy — but it makes life easy for lazy writers.) The future-USA you dreamed up in 1996 probably had the internet (it had been around in 1986, in embryonic form, the stomping ground of academics and computer industry specialists, but few SF writers had even heard of it, much less used it) and no cold war; it would in many ways be more accurate than the future-USA predicted in 1986. But would it have a monumental fiscal collapse, on the same scale as 1929? Would it have Taikonauts space-walking overhead while the chairman of the Federal Reserve is on his knees? Would it have more mobile phones than people, a revenant remilitarized Russia, and global warming?
Stross concludes on the disheartening note that if the current fiscal crisis results in too much upheaval in the U.S. and E.U., his next novel (a follow-up to his near-future Halting State, set in the year 2023) will already be so dated that he will have to market it as fantasy. Can you even guarantee the U.S.A. and E.U. will still exist in 2023? Stross's complaints may provide an argument for more direct writer to consumer distribution, but it also suggests that speculative fiction somehow fails unless it is predictive of an actual possible future. Yesterday's speculative fiction may be today's alternate history, but it can still inform the way we examine the world we do end up living in. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Living through Interesting Times [via Reddit]