The Future's Not What it Used to Be

On an old Babylon 5 episode, the space station encounters a long-range space probe from the 21st Century with two astronauts in stasis. Only one survived their 300 year journey. At one point G'Kar, a reptilian appearing alien, says to the lone survivor, "Beware, the future's not what it used to be."

I have to agree with G'Kar. For those of us who grew up in the 50's and 60's we remember reading about the 21st Century. By now, we should be making frequent business trips to the moon, flying around our domed, climate controlled cities in hovercraft, having our homes cleaned by human looking robots, and using computers the size of notebooks. Well, one out of four ain't bad.

The "future" of the 21st century turned out to be both less and more than the science fiction writers predicted. Some ideas like domed cities and personal hovercrafts should have been obviously impractical, even if doable. How do you ventilate a domed city? Just imagine a hundred thousand sources of body odor in an enclosed area. Scary. And we have a hard enough time keeping people driving on the right side of the road, what would we do if people drove in three dimensions.

On the other hand, even the science fiction writers missed just how ubiquitous the computer would become and the advent of the greatest revolution in communication since the printing press - the internet. And today's smart cell phone technology makes Dick Tracy's wrist radio look quaint by comparison, and the padds of the later Star Trek series are just a little more advanced than a Palm Pilot.

Perhaps the one place where the future has changed is that it has become increasingly darker. If you read the science fiction of the "Golden Age" of John Campbell's legendary editorial leadership in the 30's and 40's, you notice a nascent optimism. We might be battling the ugly critters from outer space, but at the end of the day, we win. Even a materialist like H.G. Well's ends The War of the Worlds on an optimistic note as the "humblest of God's creations" bacteria kill of the invading Martians.

In the future, technology would bring us less work and more time for intellectual and artistic pursuits. Space travel would take us to "strange new worlds to seek out new life and new civilizations." The quest would be dangerous, but somehow it always succeeded. Illness is eliminated, society reformed, poverty removed, and technological wonders would solve problems without creating new ones. The limits were - well, limitless.

For many of us that is what attracted us to science fiction. When things got bad for me, when I felt isolated from my peers because I was a nerd and a geek (and a few other words I don't use) to others, I could retreat to Bradbury's Mars or join Susan Calvin as she unravels some mysteries of robots who are more ethical than the people of my world.

But that optimism is fading. Moral ambiguity, societal decay, dystopic visions of the future, and anti-heroes are everywhere. Instead of the future being a place of hope, a place where, when society begins to fade on earth, everyone jumps on a spaceship and builds a new society elsewhere, social, environmental and moral decay escalates until it consumes the story.

One can argue that the optimism of the past was unrealistic and this "gritty realism" of the present produces "better" literature. One can argue that point, but even if it is true, we are losing one of the great gifts we received from science fiction from the time of Jules Verne until the 1960's and 70's, and that gift is HOPE!

One must never underestimate the power of hope. Children who read about spaceships going to the moon one day sent one to the moon. Kids inspired by stories of pocket sized computers ended up building them. The belief that science and technology could make things better has resulted in many advances. Of course, science and technology run awry have also produced pollution, global warming and frightening weapons capable of destroying the world.

But are we going to be inspired to do the innovative science to produce clean energy and reduce greenhouse gasses and find ways to keep from killing each other en masse, by writing stories of despair?

Ray Bradbury wrote a story a few years ago called "The Toynbee Convector." In the story, a man had supposedly gone forward in time, he brought back films and tapes of a future society which had conquered poverty, eliminated pollution, found cures for diseases, and lived in harmony with each other. Fifty years later, he is remembering his journey as an old man talking to a young reporter who is writing a story to commemorate the date that the scientist supposedly arrived from the past. The scientist admits it was a hoax. But because people believed things would be better they worked to make them better.

Well, I don't know about deceiving people into hope, but we can inspire them. This doesn't mean we have to become Pollyanna's and ignore the very real social problems around us such as war, immorality, corruption of both political and religious entities, poverty, pollution and the misuse of technology. Problems are the core of storytelling. Without a problem to solve, you don't have a story. But let's not leave our readers without hope, with evil triumphing, with man drowning in a morass of his own making.

Maybe we can no longer naively expect future science and technology to solve all problems, but let's not overcompensate and leave our readers feeling hopeless. Remember of the three Graces
Hope stands between Faith and Love. Let's not over look her in our writing.