What is the Future of the Future?

Whither Science Fiction and Fantasy? We know how the futures of the past were portrayed and how the futures of today are told: but how shall the futures of the future look?

As you recall from last episode, in this space we asked what was the good of Science Fiction? The proposed answer was the Science Fiction was for rest and recovery, a place where the imagination could dwell, if only for an hour, in a world either better or worse than our current world, but in either case, a world where the rules of art, rather than the rules of nature, determined the pace and tenor and tone of the places and events and inhabitants of that higher, if unreal, world.

Like all fiction, Science Fiction is an oasis of rest amid the wasteland of mundane life, a time between toil to lift our eyes to distant mountains and wonder what is beyond them, or to lift our eyes further, to the stars, and wonder.

Unlike other fiction, which contains imaginary places and events, science fiction also contains an imaginary cosmos that operates by different rules, perhaps one where men can be invisible, or fly to the moon in antigravity spheres, or suffer an invasion by hungry and superior beings from Mars. The bridge between the real cosmos and the science fictional cosmos is the speculation, either rigorous or lax, of scientific plausibility that connects them. If you have an invisible man in a science fiction story, he must perhaps walk unclothed, for example, because that is a realistic extrapolation from the unrealistic premise; or if you have invaders from Mars, they must have physiology evolved by Martian conditions, they perhaps will be swiftly poisoned by the diseases their more advanced civilization long ago abolished from their sterile world, because again this is a realistic extrapolation from an unreal premise.

Fantasy also postulates a different cosmos with different rules, but the bridge that reaches to the perilous realm of Elfland from our world is one of dream-logic. If the wicked witch says love’s first kiss will wake the sleeping beauty, only the prince who did not die on the enchanted thorns hedging the haunting castle may kiss and wake her, and not Doctor McCoy with a hypospray of stimulant. Because that is the way dream logic works, or fairy tales, or myths: the arbitrary rules of Elfland can be trespassed only with draconian retaliation, and the rewards achieved by the bold or the cunning performance of the twelve terrible tasks or the answer of the riddle of the sphinx. These are the dreamlike implications of the unreal premise, based on the rules of a realm no man has seen, but which we somehow always greet with a start of recognition.

Why do we need dreams to come from a cosmos other than this one?

I propose that while somewhere, on some dark and moonless world of inky seas beneath a blood-colored sun, some Coleopterous race of pitiless logic and soulless energy toil and travail nakedly without joy, copulate without love, live without dreams and perish without regret, their corpses left to rot where they fall, or are eaten by their larvae, that these insectiod swarms are the true heirs to this cosmos, and, unlike Man, feel no discomfort at existence here. Birth is no miracle to them and death no tragedy, because they are at home here, and their emotions exactly suit and match the contours of the world.

Not Man. We are exiles.

Why we feel this way is a question for another day; whereas the given fact we feel this way, enough men, I hope, in their hearts admit, that I need not this day take time to convince (if I could) a skeptic on this point.

We need rest because we have something like homesickness, or, rather, wanderlust, for a cosmos which suits us better.

But Science Fiction and Fantasy emerged in the modern age: I place the date of birth and name the fathers as Jules Verne and William Morris, albeit I will, if pressed, name Mary Shelly as the mother.

Stories before the modern age were often filled with wonders and fantastic elements, from Keat’s HYPERION to Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Scheherazade’s Thousand tales and One to Homer’s ILIAD. But these were not science fiction, nor were they fantasy, or, if you prefer, not speculative fiction. They were not supposed to be happening in a cosmos whose rules were other than what the audience accepted as the norm:  The wonders were supposed to be happening if not in the world their audience knew, according to the laws of nature they accepted (or, in the case of Keats and Wagner, that their forefathers knew and accepted).

I propose that Science Fiction and Fantasy tell about wonders that do not and cannot happen in the world we know.

There is a gray area, I suppose, if you tell stories about things happening by rules that some in the audience take to be real that others do not: for example, I once saw an episode of a police drama where a psychic knew the kidnap victim was in dire danger. Was that science fiction? Would someone who believed psychic powers were real call it science fiction? What about IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, which starts with an angel named Clarence being assigned by a saint to answer prayers for the salvation of George Baily? I do not call that science fiction, even though it is arguably a sideways-in-time travel story, but I might call it a fantasy, even though I believe in angels. (Which I do not believe are comedy relief ghosts of man named Clarence). What about A CHRISTMAS CAROL? Why is it not shelved next to THE TIME MACHINE by H.G. Wells or other time travel stories?

I hope we can all agree that these stories are in the gray area. By that I mean they are not unambiguously Science Fiction and Fantasy on the grounds that the world of psychics and angels are not different enough from the our world to require that bridge of the imagination to a new set of laws of nature which any fiction taking place in Tomorrowland or Fantasyland requires.

Putting that question aside, the gray area is small. Everyone, even the poor souls who put their faith in astrology, would call the Vulcan Mind Meld or the telepathy of the Jedi Knights “science fiction.” The question I would ask instead is: why now?

Why did science fiction and fantasy emerge in modern times?

I’ve suggested the definition of speculative fiction is that it contains all the imaginary elements, fictional characters and plots and themes and so on, as all other fiction, and the difference is that other fiction does not contain fictional laws of nature and rules of how the world works.

This implies that there is something about the modern cosmos that wearies us in our exile which the ancients did not find wearisome in their cosmos. I assume no one will be shocked if I suggest that the modern scientific world view postulates a cosmos that is inhuman, directionless, and inanimate. The modern view is that the globe is an infinitesimal speck in a boundless abyss and wasteland of vacuum and radiation. The modern view, admirable as it may be for any number of other reasons, does not sit well with the human imagination, and so we like to imagine something less lonely and pointless.

We like to imagine talking animals or men with pointy ears might dwell somewhere in the other infinitesimal specks called worlds circling the other infinitesimal specks called stars.

If you are as simple in your tastes and I am, we like to imagine Mars is a living world, exotic and dangerous, and to imagine a clean limbed fighting man from Virginia could stab and lacerate his way to the leadership of that warlike planet, and win the immortal love of the most beautiful princess of two worlds.

But even if your tastes are sophisticated enough to admire and understand the complexities and chilling implications of FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS by Gene Wolfe, the effect is still the same. Science fiction, or a large part of it, is for imagining we are not alone.

Another large part is imagining there is a point to the notoriously pointless process called evolution, perhaps even a spiritual point. CHILDHOOD’S END by Arthur C Clarke is perhaps the most pure and perfect example of this science fictional myth in print, with 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY close behind. Superior beings, aloof enough to be godlike without technically being gods play the same role in these tales as Prometheus did of old, or tales of transmogrification to new bodies and new lives beyond this life. If you remember, the climax of CHILDHOOD’S END was the evolution of the children of men into nonphysical beings of pure mind, so far in advance of Man as to be no longer capable of any communication or companionship with him, and in a moment of Gotterdammerung worthy of Wagner, the whole of the established Earth was shattered by these capricious superhumans for reasons no more explained in the text than the reasons motivating the Monolith Builders in SPACE ODYSSEY to uplift Australopithecus to Homo Sapiens (and thank you, Mr David Brin, for such a compact and useful coinage as ‘uplift’).

Another large part, and perhaps the largest is imagining that mankind will grow to fill that vast and unpeopled abyss called the solar system, called the galaxy, called the universe, and with a lot of reason and a little luck to understand, and by science, to conquer it. Science, in this basic consensus view of science fiction (or, at least of older science fiction, the kind I read in my youth) looks to science to correct this imbalance of magnitude, this inequality of power, the yawns between the titanic cosmos and the tiny human race. It promised science would make us titans, in times to come, as well.

Now, let me not rush past the point that as much science fiction, if not more, is pessimistic about man’s chances to fill the universe or find companionship in it, or enemies worth fighting or space princesses worth fighting for. The most famous science fiction stories of all, the ones even people who never read science fiction read are NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by Orwell and BRAVE NEW WORLD by Huxley.

Science fiction that is pessimistic about the role of science cautions us that using science to conquer nature may in the end conquer man. These tales are cathartic, in the same fashion as a tragedy about great kings and demigods whose downfall their tragic flaws conspire to accomplish are cathartic.

Even if the universe wrestles with us and defeats us, a science fiction story about that defeat puts the emptiness of the mindless universe in its right perspective to us, and reconciles the yawning gap between the human imagination and the vertigo we who dwell on the tiny speck  of our globe often suffer when we use the eyes of science to gaze outward into bottomless space, helpless as the Who’s in Doctor Seuss. I say that even a story as grim as, say, BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watts, which reveals that all human thought is vain, and evolution seeks a different form of life than the self-aware, even such a story reconciles man to the universe by having the universe abolish the overweening pride of man.

Again, I am proposing that this reconciliation is needed because our imaginations are not naturally in sympathy with the majestic and dizzying magnitude of a universe as empty of magic as it is empty of angels. Even meeting man-eating devils rising from antique mausoleums of Mars, or soul-absorbing vampires from Arcturus, in such a universe would be a relief. I submit that pessimistic tales about the role of science and the fate of man, even the Armageddon of world-wrecking pulp authors, serve and fill the imaginative purpose of which I speak: to make the scientific world suited to our human imaginations.

Fantasy, I take by and large (there are exceptions) to be a nostalgia for a world more suited to human dreams such as what our ancestors knew. Again, I suggest this is because the modern scientific view of the natural universe, vast and impressive as it might be for all other purposes, is not suited to the human imagination.

But whither then?  Science fiction has changed decade by decade as the years go, and fantasy, albeit by its nature more conservative and slow to change, has also. I am asking where the genre is heading by asking how the needs of the readers, across the decades, have changed?

I am not asking how the reader’s tastes will change—I doubt even the holy Muses of Mount Helicon know that. I am asking a more daring question.

If Science Fiction and Fantasy are applying a spiritual oasis from the yawning and unfriendly abyss modern science has revealed to our startled (and in some cases appalled) wide-eyed gaze, what need will it fill in the future?

Today I went to the bookstore, and saw almost no books with spaceships on the cover. More than half the covers displayed buxom young battle-bimbos in black leather showing fierce expressions and deep cleavages, carrying the knives and swords and wooden stakes with which to butcher their diabolic or vampiric or lycanthropic boyfriend-cum-foes.

I think in the Twenty-First Century, having survived a Cold War without a general nuclear exchange, and having sent probes to planets in the solar system and found them as lifeless as the Moon, our imaginations are no longer as awed or overwhelmed by the miraculous (or dreadful) impact of science in our lives as they were in, say, the 1950’s.

In that decade a man of middle age would have been five or seven years old at the turn of the century. He would have remembered a world where the muscles of a horse or the sails of a ship or the paddles of a mill wheel were the mightiest forces man could control. He would have remembered the first flight of the Wright Brothers, and first ignition of an atomic bomb. How could he not have been awed by science? If he lived to seventy years, he would have seen man walk on the moon, a thing that would in his youth been used as the very by-word for dreamy impossibility.

In this decade, other dreads parch our throats as we tread the wasteland of mundane life, and so we seek waters of another flavor in the oasis. Fantasy becomes more popular perhaps because faith in science wanes, or perhaps because scientific discoveries becomes so commonplace, that the marvels no longer have the power to provoke us to marvel.

Or perhaps —— and here let us for a moment be as grim as George Orwell —— perhaps the inundation of our schools and popular entertainment by the forces of political conformity and the incompetence of gluttonous government bureaucracy have produced a generation so lacking in the knowledge of basic science and so starved of poetry in their souls, that science has no power to inspire wonder in them, because they don’t understand it, or cannot grasp the emotional meaning of it. Books about wizards and vampire slayers require less imagination and concentration.

And yet I recoil from the harshness of that condemnation. My native conservative instinct tells me that one generation is not different in its wisdom or folly than another. Perhaps unusually (or ironically) for a science fiction author, I myself do not believe in evolution or devolution, at least not among civilized folk, nor do I believe in the perfectibility of man, nor, let us give thanks, in his imperfectability. I simply do not credit that men who lived under the benevolent social institutions of Gene Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets would be superhuman, and do not credit that the wretched slaves under the malevolent social institutions of George Orwell’s Oceania would be subhuman. So let us not credit the cynical notion that the current generation is inferior in imagination to the last generation, and this causes an growth of books about vampire slayers and a dearth of books about space princesses.

Instead, I suggest that the growth of fantasies about powerful young women slaying their way to love with dark and demonic men is a reflection of the sexual and social anxieties of our time. The sexual revolution has robbed women of the desire to be feminine and replaced it with a desire to be strong. So the monster-huntresses are all Amazons and Valkyries, who dress and act like men. That they are also eye-candy, if not fetish fuel (I have yet to see an overweight vampire huntress, or even one scarred from her many battles) appeals to male readers, and betrays that the feminine desire to win mates by attracting and luring them cannot, despite the brave attempts of modern sexual mythologies, be expunged from the feminine psyche.

The predominance of quest stories about parties of men and elves and dwarves fighting Dark Lords is not just due to Tolkien’s influence —— or, rather, that influence is due to a chord the great author struck in the common spirit of the times. It answer a deep seated need to find quests, something worth fighting for, in a questless world.

Other fantasies might indulge in grim and dark worlds, and this for the same reason that Orwell and Huxley wrote their pessimistic tales —— a mouthful of bitterness not only clears the palate, it appeals to that cynical sense of realism that makes the story easier to believe. This is as old as Conan tales in fantasy.

So look for a growth of darker fantasies in the future as the scientific world view slowly gives way to a world view that does not believe in science, nor in any over-arching narrative, nor in truth, nor in beauty, nor in virtue.

Movies like THE MATRIX reflect a metaphysical anxiety or even a paranoia typical of postmodernism that reality  is not reliable, and so the tale tells of rebellion against the falsehoods of the narrative of reality, and delights in the explosions of blood.

As this postmodern view slowly replaces the modern view as the consensuses, science fiction and fantasy will alter the flavor of the water in the well that refreshes the spirit to reflect more abstract — I am tempted to say metaphysical — anxieties and nightmares.

If the next generation is less anxious about the cruel and comfortless universe as seen by modern science, and more anxious about the roaring abyss of meaningless madness as seen by the blindness which follows the modern rejection of philosophy, reason, and faith that reality is real, then expect genre fiction to address that discomfort, and seek to reconcile the human imagination to it.

Expect book covers to be painted in darker hues.