|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Sunday, August 05, 2012
Jo Walton recently wrote about how the future, and particularly the future we can imagine ourselves or our children living into, has darkened or is avoided in current SF. Along the way she linked to an earlier piece, on the dystopian future Earths, over-populated and over-regulated, that backdropped so many of Robert A. Heinlein's novels for young readers. She points out that we don't usually see these futures as dystopias, wonders why not, and asks:
No individual one of these would be particularly noticeable, especially as they’re just background, but sitting here adding them up doesn’t make a pretty picture. What’s with all these dystopias? How is it that we don’t see them that way? Is it really that the message is all about “Earth sucks, better get into space fast”? And if so, is that really a sensible message to be giving young people? Did Heinlein really mean it? And did we really buy into it?Well, I bought into it. It wasn't just Heinlein, and it wasn't just juveniles (as SF for young readers was called before YA, a category that has a whole 'nother passel of problems, as Farah Mendlesohn will tell you). A hefty proportion of the SF I read in my teens had dystopia or disaster as default for the fairly near future, say the first decade or two of the 21st century. It gave me the impression that the world I was going to grow up in was doomed to something like The Fall of Rome.
A bad influence on the young, I'm sure you'll agree, and no preparation for the challenges of real life in a world that is making fitful, unevenly distributed, but nevertheless significant progress.
Today in the Sunday Herald there's an opinion piece by Ian MacWhirter about the ongoing financial crisis, and a column by Trevor Royle, the paper's diplomatic editor, on the ongoing confrontation of the US and Israel with Iran.
MacWhirter suggests that if a Eurozone state (Spain, to pluck an example from the air) defaults or otherwise goes bust, UK (and other) banks might be so exposed that the only way to keep them functioning would be outright nationalization of the financial system, 'this time for keeps'.
Royle's article assumes without evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon - but never mind that, the point is that he discusses the prospect of an attack on Iran by the US or Israel within the next year or so. Russia and China, he says in passing, would not stand idly by. We've heard all this before, of course, and I've sometimes been too quick to take such talk seriously.
What strikes me, however, is how strange normality has become. I don't expect to see, next Sunday, a single letter telling the paper's editors that two of their respected writers have lost the plot. The crisis has become the spectacle. We've all got used to a situation where we don't know, from day to day, if the world we know will be here in the morning. We could wake up and find the ATM doesn't work, and be living by lunch-time in a West gone redder than China. Or we could turn on the weather forecast to find ourselves looking in disbelief at fallout patterns from wrecked nuclear reactors.
There's no question that either of these (or both) would be a bit of a downer. Twitter would be in meltdown, I'll tell you that for nothing, all OMG #banks or Holy Shit #Iran #Russia. What not enough people appreciate, however, is the suffering these possibilities are causing right now. How many, reflecting on how war and crisis have become always-imminent, spare a moment's thought for science fiction writers?
It's all very well for those of us writing all that talking squids in outer space rubbish. What if you're trying to write realistic, socially relevant, near-future SF? I'm working on a novel whose back-story starts, oh, a few years from now, and one of the key points in that back-story is a moment where, as an emergency measure to deal pragmatically with economic collapse, the financial systems of the West get nationalised almost overnight. I came up with that bold idea a year ago. Now I have to consider it possible that something like it might actually happen before I've finished the first draft.
If I could write a novel that centred on that problem, the problem of the radical uncertainty of the near future, I'd be getting somewhere.