Some months back I read a mainstream review of a recently published anthology of science fiction — mainstream in the sense that the review was aimed mainly at people not themselves SF readers. What caught my eye was a sense on the reviewer's part that SF was "exhausted" — their word. That word matched some of my own feelings, that the wonder and the confrontation and the spellbinding of SF had been drained out and replaced with cynicism and bitterness and mystification. And for good reason: look at the headlines!
On reading this, some part of me thought: This can't be that new, can it? Surely people felt just as grim back when Kennedy and Khrushchev were eye-to-eye over Cuba, or when four kids got gunned down by trigger-happy National Guardsmen at Kent State, or when any number of other days (and months, and years) of blood and sorrow came. But clearly something is different this time, and I think it's the feeling that we really are living in one of the science-fiction dystopias we used to only write about in a cautionary way. Modern life is cyberpunk now, and the no-exit flavor of such a life makes it hard to feel like anything is worth dreaming about anymore.
Now, I do think some of that has rolled back slightly in the last few years, in no small part due to a growing number of writers contributing to the field who aren't just straight white dudes re-enacting their warmed-over Heinleinisms. But the core truth remains; it's hard to write stuff that feels like it's reaching for the stars when we feel more acutely than ever how we are drowning in our own waste products. Why write about Mars when we might well never leave home anyway? Or as I put it in the concluding grafs of my review of 2001: A Space Odyssey:
The biggest motive for the movie to stand back and watch was to make us feel like we were witnesses to a possible future. Not a future we were destined to inhabit, though; just a possible one, made alluring and exciting despite its airless and bloodless flavor. 2001’s model future inhabits roughly the same upper end of the curve where also dwelled Star Trek, where humanity could slip its earthly bonds, dwell among the stars, and raise its consciousness to match. But as the decades ticked by, the aspirational flavor of such a future seemed ever more remote, to the point where Blade Runner (or Blade Runner 2049) seemed the optimistic scenario and The Road Warrior (or Mad Max: Fury Road) the pessimistic one. The most dated thing about 2001, it would seem, is not its Pan Am logo but its optimism about humanity’s ability to elevate itself. It seems less likely than ever now that humanity will follow a path remotely like the one sketched out in the film.
But less likely does not mean impossible, and I must remind myself that in 1968 the threat of self-inflicted annihilation loomed as large in the mind then as it does now. ... 2001 was [Kubrick's] incarnation of a belief we can all find a way to make incarnate on our own. Despite the obstacles of the natural world, despite dangers self- and other-inflicted, despite the sheer emptiness and indifference of the universe itself, humanity somehow finds a way into, and masters, things it once found impossible to even comprehend, and unknowable from where we stand now. How we get “beyond the infinite” is not as important as the fact that we do—or maybe better to say, the need that we must. That part hasn’t dated one bit. I don’t think it ever will.
Where I went with this is a little tougher for me to verbalize, because it's a mostly unformed thought that only took shape while writing this essay. Here goes.
Most of us know the term "myths to live by" — the idea that there are shared dreams of a sort, things we know may not actually exist but which we find constructive to pretend as if they do exist. The idea of the self, for instance — in Buddhism, the self is a convenient fiction, not a reality. I sometimes think the same goes for free will: it may not exist as we like to think it does, but it helps for us to pretend it does, because in doing so we give rise to a better kind of living than if we didn't. It's better for us to pretend we must take some responsibility for what we do, than to assume all talk of taking responsibility is foolish because human behavior is forever and always a matter of conditioning.
The same sort of thing applies with regard to speculating about the future. It's better for us spiritually as well as intellectually to imagine a future that has nothing to do with our possible futures. This has little to do with nudging such things towards realization; nobody dreams about Middle-earth as if it were something we could eventually realize, but we don't say the same thing about The Expanse or what have you. But to me both of those things are valuable because they have little or nothing to do with our present moment or any possible future we could have. They allow us to not only think counterfactually, but believe and feel counterfactually, and those things have value far beyond anything in them that is predictive or projective. We don't only dream to make real; sometimes we dream only to dream, or to learn how our dreaming-to-dream about the impossible helps us to make real the things that are far closer to home.
So, in short: If you have an "impossible" future in mind, write about it about it anyway, because it's always useful to dream. Dreaming broadens the mind, and there are always new generations who do not share your exhaustion. And do not deserve to.
İlhan Mimaroǧlu, the musician, once wrote a piece called "Like There's Tomorrow," and on this he commented: "What's the point of believing there's no tomorrow?"
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