Sunday, June 10, 2012

Embracing Doomsday

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dystopia.
There is much harrumphing from certain quarters lately that our times demand 'more optimistic' science fiction.

Wringing its hands in gloomy lockstep with this meme is the assertion that 'we no longer believe in science'. The longing for a return to a Golden Age of Sci-Fi, and even a new Space Race, is palpable enough to cut with a light sabre.

A poster for the deliriously
lovable 1930 futuristic comedy
musical "Just Imagine", which
posits a 1980 filled with flying
cars and numbered people.
But what did we believe about science, anyway? We believed in the flying cars. We believed in the jet packs, the too-cheap-to-meter electricity, the ubiquitous robot servants, the weekend getaways to Mars. None of this, of course, involved much actual science, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that we believed.

Since none of that happy stuff happened, clearly 'science' lied to us. So what are we ripe to believe in now? Well, if science can't make the world a utopia, the thinking goes that perhaps it can be reasonably expected to squeeze out a nice, juicy dystopia. Thus, we have seen a new sci-fi genre – dystopian fiction – offered to a public whose minds have been well-prepared to embrace it. Its success has inspired a growing number of practitioners to dump a steaming mountain of doomsday product onto the credulous marketplace of ideas.

Practitioners of The Art of Contrary Thinking teach us that when the human mob fixates on an idea, it's almost always wrong. The Tulip Mania was wrong, and wildly so. (They were not the New Currency, the salvation of mankind, or any other elixr. They were – well, they were tulips.) The market 'certainty' of a deep post-WWII depression (we'd had one after World War I, after all) was completely off-base. And we never did need those fallout shelters, either. Anyone peddling their services as a 'futurist' does so knowing that the unwashed masses have little memory of their dubious snake-oil history.

Mind you, the dotcom bubble was a far more nuanced obsession. When it burst, it was immediately and widely denounced as Tulip Mania. This certainty in itself was a fixation worthy of distrust. The 'net was no passing fancy, it was here to stay. The run-up had merely been too quick, and embraced too many unfit players. The market didn't crash and burn, as was expected. Instead it saw a major shakeout, after which it climbed again steadily for years. Unlike tulips, the disruptive change the dotcom world promised was quite real, and many who survived the bumps along the way became quite wealthy.

I'm immunized from dystopian fears by the knowledge that the future is never the thing we expect. That's why I don't need to be spoon-fed a 'positive sci-fi' message from my would-be cultural nannies. When everyone is planning for their 200th birthday party and living off a pile of easy money – I'll worry. But as long as we're so very certain of the worst, I can reasonably hope for the best.

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