Near Future

Tagged: Theme

Images of the near future in sf differ markedly from those of the Far Future in both content and attitude. The far future tends to be associated with notions of ultimate destiny, and is dominated by metaphors of senescence; its images display a world irrevocably transfigured. It is viewed from a detached viewpoint; the dominant mood is – paradoxically – one of nostalgia, because the far future, like the dead past, can be entered only imaginatively, and has meaning only in terms of its emotional resonances. The near future, by contrast, is a world which is imminently real – one of which we can have no definite knowledge, which exists only imaginatively and hypothetically, but which is nevertheless a world in which (or something like it) we may one day have to live, and towards which our present plans and ambitions must be directed. The fears and hopes reflected in our images of the near future are real, however overpessimistic or overoptimistic they may seem (see Optimism and Pessimism). In order to plan our lives we must all possess such images, and the fact that they are fictions does not mean that they are unimportant. Literary representations of the near future both reflect and nourish those images.

Just as fictions of the far future could not emerge until there was an appreciation of the true timescale of the Earth and the forces involved in long-term change, so fictions dealing with the near future could not emerge until it was generally realized that an individual's lifetime might see changes of considerable import. An awareness that habits and strategies designed to deal with the past and the present might not be adequate to deal with one's personal future emerged rather more slowly than an awareness of the geological timescale, and was handicapped by a dogged ideative resistance. It is doubtful whether many people, even today, have really cultivated a genuine appreciation of the scope of the change that might overtake the world in the space of their own lifetimes. The difficulty of making such an adjustment was the subject of Alvin Toffler's bestselling work of popular Futures Studies, Future Shock (1970).

The near future is implicitly threatening; whatever innovations it produces must invalidate – however temporarily – the past experience on which our present consciousness is based. At a time when no one believed in the possibility of fundamental change, this threat was ineffective, not because innovations never occurred but because they were unanticipated and the processes producing them were unperceived. In today's world change is so rapid we cannot fail to perceive it, despite our most fervent efforts to ignore it. In such a historical situation it is easy to understand the popularity of dogmas of conservatism and conservationism, and the acuity of sensations of personal and social insecurity. It is also easy to understand the rapid growth of a literature which both reflects these anxieties and offers palliative reassurances.

In much early futuristic fiction there is no trace of either near or far future in the senses outlined above; events take place in a disconnected, generalized imaginative space which is comprehensively distanced by its dating. Examples include the anonymous The Reign of King George VI 1900-1925 (1763), L S Mercier's Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (1771; trans 1772) and Jane Loudon's The Mummy! A Tale of the 22nd Century (1827). The earliest near-future speculations are warnings about the consequences of specific political practices; I F Clarke's bibliography, The Tale of the Future (3rd edition 1978), lists inter alia a 1644 pamphlet on the dangers of restoring the monarchy and an 1831 pamphlet warning of the effects of the Reform Bill. The idea of historical change independent of strategic action on the part of governing bodies did not come until the late nineteenth century.

The first class of near-future fantasies to emerge was the Future-War-anticipation genre in the UK, which began with a political debate concerning the need for rearmament. George T Chesney's classic drama-documentary The Battle of Dorking (May 1871 Blackwood's Magazine; 1871 chap) headed a tradition of speculative stories (for early responses to Chesney, see Battle of Dorking) exploring the probable effects of new Technology on the business of warfare which eventually led writers like George Griffith and H G Wells to produce literary nightmares of war remade by submarines, tanks, aeroplanes and atomic bombs. Griffith died before the outbreak of World War One, but most of his readers did not; Wells lived just long enough to witness the advent of the real atom bomb. The anxieties reflected in this early class of near-future fantasies were entirely justified, and the notion of "a war that will end war", in Wells's phrase – an idea already popularized in such jingoistic extravaganzas as Louis Tracy's The Final War (1896) – was enthusiastically borrowed by the promoters of World War One as a means of selling it to the populations which became involved.

A somewhat different set of images was presented by another subgenre which emerged in the same period, celebrating the modern wonders of a newly emergent era of technological Discovery and Invention. Significantly, there are few genuine Utopias in this class, most ideal societies being cast forward by at least a century, as in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888); and even the fervently optimistic Hugo Gernsback subtitled his Ralph 124C 41+ (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; 1925) "A Romance of the Year 2660". Technological wonder stories located within the personal future of their readers were mostly concerned with the future of Transportation, connected to the war-anticipation genre by virtue of rejoicing in the conquest of the air. Jules Verne is the archetypal early writer of near-future sf, although his imitators often took a more cavalier view of imminent possibility than he did; where Verne went Around the World in 80 Days (1873; trans 1874), André Laurie went from New York to Brest in Seven Hours (1888; trans 1890). Sf writers were slower to take account of the Automation of industry than they were to foresee new opportunities in Leisure. When Gernsback attempted to capture the scattered aspects of technological enthusiasm and bind them all together into a medium of communication which would hopefully "blaze a trail, not only in literature, but in progress as well" he was still a man ahead of his time, despite the precedents set by Verne and Wells. He saw Scientifiction as a means not only of anticipating the transformation which the world was undergoing through the acceleration of technological progress, but also of making a crucial contribution to it. He was an inventor himself, passionately involved with contemporary technology and particularly with the development of radio. In the editorials which he wrote for his early sf Pulp magazines he talked about atomic energy, radar, television and space travel. His near-future anticipations were by no means unjustified; most of his readers were in their teens in the 1920s, and so lived to see Gernsback's hypothetical technologies made actual.

Genre SF undertook to deal with all aspects of the future, but it was in its generalization of images of the near future that it was really new. The impact of sf upon young readers in the 1920s and 1930s may have been partly due to a consciousness of the immediacy of change as well as to the vastness of sf's imaginative horizons. That said, most early pulp sf was located in numinous eras beyond the personal horizon, and its grasp of the extent to which technological change would alter the quality of life was decidedly weak. Outside the genre, the wide-eyed optimism and ludicrously uninhibited melodrama of most pulp sf seemed childish; in the less prolific but far more earnest tradition of the UK Scientific Romance, the anxieties attendant on the awareness of change were much more prominently represented. The balance began to be redressed when John W Campbell Jr took over Astounding Science-Fiction in the late 1930s and began to ask for more carefully considered appraisals of future possibility. Many authors understandably preferred the freedom of more distant future realms, where they could set melodramatic Space Operas against the gaudy background of a Galactic Empire, but a new generation of sf writers were prepared to tackle the problems of the near future, and in a more realistic fashion. The late 1930s and early 1940s produced several notable stories dealing with the advent of Nuclear Energy, and Robert A Heinlein attempted to construct a detailed future History mapping the interplay of technological innovation and political response. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the first atom bombs brought into the world a sensation of existential insecurity unparalleled in modern history (it is perhaps more easily comparable with such events as the slaughter of the population of Europe by the Black Death in the fourteenth century). To those professionally involved in the sf field, like Campbell and Donald A Wollheim, it seemed that sf had been "justified" by the unveiling of the atom bomb, and that from 1945 on everyone would have to acknowledge the power of technological change to transform the world. But such advances in sf's popularity and esteem were limited, and there also emerged within the genre a powerful sense of nostalgia for that Golden Age when sf had been aware of change only as a succession of miracles and make-believe adventures.

The response of sf authors to the new intellectual climate was varied. Straightforward Predictions of imminent atomic doom were abundant (see End of the World; Holocaust; World War Three), but a more eccentric response was the widespread creation of distorted future societies in which some contemporary power-group had "taken over" and formed an oppressive regime; the archetype of this species is The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; 1953) by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth. These stories of distorted societies are often labelled Satires, and do indeed have a satirical edge, but there is also an element of actual anticipation in them, and they reflect a genuine fear of the swamping of individual ambitions by large-scale bureaucratic institutions.

The baroque and slightly surreal mode of this kind of imaginative exercise gradually gave way to a more acute awareness of real processes of change in the contemporary world, and of their dangers. In the 1960s Overpopulation, Pollution and resource crises (see Power Sources) became standard features of sf's images of the near future. Stories on these subjects often have a hint of panic about them, and there was a distinct apocalyptic note about the sf of the 1960s and 1970s. Images of the near future produced outside the genre became virtually indistinguishable in attitude from those produced within it (although the near-future novels produced by Mainstream Writers tended to work with an impoverished vocabulary of ideas). Insofar as it deals with the near future, genre sf is primarily a literature of anxiety; optimism and colourful adventurism remain the prerogatives of fiction set in a more distant future, in which the particular problems of Spaceship Earth are often reduced to irrelevance.

Our awareness of impending ecocatastrophe (see Ecology) has been complicated in the 1970s and 1980s by the advent of two new species of technology which promise dramatic transformations of the way we live. The Computer revolution has pressed forward much faster than most sf writers of the 1950s and 1960s anticipated; Cyberpunk fiction represents a somewhat belated but suitably intense response to this developing situation, and its rhetoric is feeding back into the real situation much as the rhetoric of the future-war story fed back into the actual build-up to World War One. Second, while the cracking of the genetic code and the subsequent advent of Genetic Engineering have not yet begun to transform the everyday environments of the home and workplace, the inherent possibilities hold the promise of a new technological revolution which might overturn many of our assumptions about the nature of Machines (see also Nanotechnology). Within the last few years the assumptions which sf writers have made about the Politics of the future have been devastated by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and this too has ensured that virtually all extant sf images of the near future, however recent, are now almost redundant. Those which seem most pertinent are those which anticipate the greatest confusion.

Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net (1988) is perhaps the most compelling recent image of the near future, overtaking Frederik Pohl's The Years of the City (1985), which has already begun to seem tentative. David Brin's far more optimistic Earth (1990) is a worthy attempt to celebrate heroic attempts to cope with ecocatastrophe but ultimately founders on the rock of its outrageous deus ex machina, while Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990) obtains its conviction by focusing tightly on the particular predicaments of a handful of characters. The vast majority of sf writers are either narrower still in the focus of their concerns or content to farm the much greener pastures of hypothetical futures which lie safely beyond the personal event-horizon. This is probably inevitable. The near future is an uncomfortable imaginative space for writers and readers to inhabit, and it is entirely understandable that those who venture into it should go equipped with blinkers, armoured by some protective obsession which obviates the necessity of dealing with the near future-world as a whole.

The faster the pace of technological change becomes, the more horrifying a prospect the near future seems. It could not be otherwise. Our personal ambitions are tied to our expectations, which – if they are not mere castles in the air – are based in our experience of the past. The innovations which the future will surely bring are much more likely to threaten these ambitions than to aid them (even though they may compensate by making possible new ambitions) and are therefore bound to be sources of acute anxiety. The rate of technological change will certainly not slow down – unless Disaster overtakes the entire cultural/industrial complex and renders all ambitions beyond mere survival redundant – and there now seem no grounds for hoping, as some apologists for sf once did, that assiduous study of images of future possibility will help us adapt ourselves to the acceleration of that change. Despite the increasing number of sf titles published each year, realistic speculative fiction about the near future is scarce and will undoubtedly remain so. Such fiction is too frightening to be popular; even those readers who like to be frightened prefer to gain their excitement from the obsolete workings of the supernatural imagination, which are utterly without consequence for the way they must live their lives. [BS]

further reading

see also: Metal Gear.

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