SF: No future in it?
The idea of the post-human sets the agenda for science fiction at the end of the millennium, says Ken MacLeod
'There is, of course, still a chance that human society will actually have a perfectly tolerable future - but while nobody can quite believe it, there can be no future in, and perhaps for, serious speculative fiction.' (Brian Stableford, 'Traces of a lost genre', Interzone, July 1998)
Science fiction, like society, faces a dark future: unknown, and probably unpleasant. SF writers have responded by focusing on almost everything except a near future of doom and gloom. The most striking expression of this tendency lies outside SF altogether, in the rise of the fantasy genre. Fantasy has its own value and validity, but fundamentally it responds to change by turning to an imaginary past.
Some SF writers, like Peter F Hamilton, look forward to a resurgent capitalist future beyond the present crisis. Others, like the Australian writer Greg Egan, focus hard on the cutting edge of current science and take it past a lightly sketched - disastrous - twenty-first century to a brighter world of humanity's AI progeny. Paul J McCauley's Fairyland confronts the near future head-on, but in his most recent work he too turns to a post-human world of conscious machines millions of years hence. Jack Womack's explicitly post-Soviet Let's Put the Future Behind Us exemplifies another response - to examine a displaced present rather than a near, or far, future.
Alternate histories and self-conscious pastiche (Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships, Voyage and others) are a common way of side-stepping the future, however interesting and exciting such tales may be in themselves. Kim Stanley Robinson stands out in that his ambitious Mars trilogy is set in a future which grows out of the present: his long-lived characters, if real, would be already born. The bravura of Iain M Banks' communist-utopian Culture novels - mostly drafted in the seventies, published in the eighties - has gradually given way to darker, post-human visions as his youthful backlist has cleared.
The idea of the post-human sets the agenda of nineties SF. Whether it's in genetic miscegeny with aliens (Octavia Butler, Gwynetth Jones) or in the emergence of self-aware artificial intelligence (most of the rest of us), post-humanism connotes a continued confidence in technological and scientific progress combined with a scepticism about the capacity of humanity to power it. The torch of progress must be handed on to better minds and stronger hands than ours. It may not be too fanciful to see this as a reflection of a society where technical progress - albeit fitful - coexists uneasily with social stagnation.
To see the depth of the contrast we must look back to when the future seemed bright. What the SF critic John Clute has aptly called Agenda SF flourished from the 1920s to the late 1950s. Although inevitably tracking the vicissitudes of boom, slump, world war and Cold War, and encompassing many developments of literary style and scientific/technological speculation, Agenda SF retained its coherence as an ongoing projection of humanity's - and capitalism's - advance.
The consensus stages of this 'future history' included first the exploration, then the colonisation of the solar system; the launching of gigantic 'interstellar arks', with generations living and dying en route to Alpha Centuari, until some future Edison/Einstein cracked the intractable problem of the light-speed limit. A great explosion of human pioneers would swarm across the galaxy and be eventually unified into an Empire which would, inevitably, Decline and Fall...and beyond this Fall, new heights would rise.
It's cheap to laugh. For all its blind spots, Agenda SF's agenda had a grandeur and ambition which can still inspire. John Clute himself dates its decline from Sputnik - the moment when it became apparent that Agenda SF had been telling the wrong story, that the space age had arrived and it was a sight more complicated, messy and political than its 'prediction' had allowed for. I think the real change came in the 1960s with what became known as the New Wave.
New Wave SF grew out of the realisation that the 'decadent future societies', glanced at and frowned upon in the backdrops of Agenda SF, had already arrived. Sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, the Vietnam War, the strange sixties notion that linked the birth-control pill to fears of over-population, all became more important determinants of what went on in SF than the increasingly expensive and bureaucratic manned space programme.
Society or psyche became the venues for exploration - 'inner space', with outer space as backdrop. Writers like JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock and M John Harrison consciously despised then-existing SF for what they saw as its unthinking optimism, its clichés, its cardboard characters and, above all, its blindness to what was actually going on around it. How could anybody, in clear conscience, write tales of colonial conquest in space when the USA, the very society which was being held up as a model for the whole human future, was bogged down in a long, dirty, losing colonial war in Vietnam?
One of Ballard's short stories, 'The killing grounds', sketched a British NLF fighting US occupiers in a world which has become 'a global insurrectionary torch, a world Vietnam'. Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius stories eventually became an exploration of the joys and sorrows of life in the decadent heartlands, which, even in its length, weighed in impressively against the Foundation trilogies of yesteryear. Harrison scavenged fantasy, space opera and social realism, and caught the doom and gloom of early seventies, late-Labour Britain in his finest short story, 'Running down'. The title says it all.
But the New Wave ran into the same barrier as the old SF - its future arrived. The postwar economic boom which, in retrospect, suffuses with sunlight even the most entropic and pessimistic tales of that period, faded out. (John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, published in 1969, set in 2010, brilliantly depicts an appalling world which is actually much better than the one we live in now, let alone the one which, 12 years from now, we are likely to get.) The New Wave collapsed in a dribble of exhausted froth.
Other developments - the rise of self-consciously 'hard SF' which didn't fudge the physics - failed to reignite the genre's engines. The late seventies and early eighties were pretty dire - in SF, and in the world. Almost as soon as that recession was over, and the destruction of swathes of manufacturing industry 'paid off' in a financial and services boom with its consequent proliferation of computer/communications technology, the SF genre came up with an equivalent response: cyberpunk. William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) is as good a benchmark as any.
Gibson knew almost nothing about computers, but he wrote about them the way their users and programmers thought about them - containing spaces you could get into, problems you could tunnel under, traps you could work around. Inner space joined outer space as backdrop; Gibson's characters, and those of cyberpunk generally, struck an almost sociopathically affectless pose. The real action was inside the computers, in...cyberspace.
'Cyberspace', a word coined in Gibson's novel, is now common currency, and the cyberpunk world a common image: the 'future noir' of Blade Runner and Johnny Mnemonic, dominated by mega-corporations and policed by their ninja hitmen. Government is irrelevant, the environment a lost cause: 'The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel' is Neuromancer's first line, and last word on that particular subject.
And cyberpunk, in its turn...but you're ahead of me, right? The world of the internet, the web and the fall of the Wall made it, too, a told tale. As William Gibson puts it: 'The best SF of the nineties is on CNN. Hard to beat that garbage-module slamming into space station Mir!' Indeed the cooperation between Russia and the West on the Mir space station may be the perfect symbol for the present state of affairs: actually existing capitalism relying for its life-support on the clapped-out projects of formerly existing socialism, lurching from one crisis to another and going around in circles.
Which brings us to now. There is no future in post-humanism. The problem in the real world remains one of human agency. There are no saviours from above, no angels or aliens to save us. And, for sure, there is none behind the computer screens. Artificial awareness is where it's been since the 1940s and always will be: 'just 20 years away.' The better minds and stronger hands must be our own.
SF still has the capacity to advance - its literary and scientific sophistication is in many respects better than it has ever been. And if it reflects a stalled and fragmented world, it also, as we peer through our own reflections, continues to give us glimpses of the world beyond that wall of glass through which - with hard work and a bit of luck - we may yet break.
Let's not put the future behind us.
Ken MacLeod is author of The Star Fraction, shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and The Stone Canal. His latest novel, The Cassini Division, is published by Little, Brown
Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999