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Guest post: cancelling the apocalypse

It often gets me down that it's seen as stupid to expect anything other than looming apocalypse: while the world can look grim, a life without hope isn't great either. Here, Anna Fruen explains how optimistic SF can shine a light through the mushroom clouds.

When Nate said he wanted people to write guest posts for his blog, I wanted to contribute right away. Out of charity, for the most part - I mean, the man needs SOME sort of web presence. I believe in his future, y'see. In fact, I think it's important to believe in the future in general.

A lot of people view fiction, and especially science fiction, as escapism. It can be that, but it also shows us how things could be: how humans might respond to new challenges. And we can learn from those imagined responses, if we choose to.

Of course, the nature of the challenge tends to be heavily influenced by the era the work is conceived in. When you're looking forward, your view is coloured by the current political climate, cultural expectations, and even by your mood that day.

The Jetsons

Remember those old 1940s pictures of a not-too-distant utopian future? The prosperity of post-war peacetime led to the development and sale of endless gadgets, which made consumers' lives easier piece by piece. We looked to the future, and it was bright: robot servants, flying cars, and clean, spacious cities. We were all going to be the Jetsons, right?

This sunny outlook darkened from the 50s. America had established peace at tremendous cost, and once the world knew the Soviet Union had atomic bombs as well, the image of the big, red, world-ending button loomed large in the public consciousness.

Sometimes, when I'm talking to someone older, the subject of the cold war comes up. They talk about how normal it seemed: some people had bunkers, some would be lucky, but most would become shadows on the wall and warnings about the hubris of man. We began to wonder how - and if - we could rebuild after disaster, and what humanity might look like in the wake of societal collapse.

Everybody is super boned

These are the futures we're more familiar with in the 21st Century. Rather than a clean, egalitarian version of tomorrow, we look forward to a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which the few remaining humans war over dwindling resources. Maybe there are zombies, maybe there are triffids, but one thing is always clear: it was humanity's fault for pressing some kind of button. For dropping the virus. For meddling.

Of course, this is true to the roots of the genre - just look at Frankenstein* or Jekyll and Hyde - but it's not the only way science fiction can be.

In 2004, after watching the Day After Tomorrow, I suddenly became bored with the grimdark, everybody's-super-boned take on our future. Of course I know we could destroy ourselves. I know that we very well may. But we still need a contingency plan. If there's nothing put by for our future marked "in case of no emergency," we're going to get too despondent to actually work on turning this world into a better one.

If we accept self-extinction as a harsh and inevitable truth, then what's the impetus to change anything? Why bother recycling your plastics if we're all going to be underwater in 50 years? It's a seductive line of thinking, and it's one I've fallen prey to at various points, but it's important to remember that the future isn't written in stone. Just in tropes.

Tough love

My main objection to apocalypse fiction is that it's lazy. Most of the humans die, and "we," the ragtag group of survivors, inherit the earth. Suddenly there's room enough for all of us, and we can go right back to consuming and using and taking, the way we always have. No learning, no growing, no tough decisions.

I'm interested in something far harder: optimism. Noam Chomsky said “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

But it's difficult, pals! It takes effort and determination. And because so few people bother to write it, it takes more imagination.

A wizard will sort it

Some SF authors solve the problem by gifting mankind with magical powers, usually framed as emergent evolutionary traits. In Anne McCaffrey's Pegasus series, some people manifest mental powers. They may be mindreaders, telekinetics, or even broadcasting / receiving empaths who can be deployed as crowd control. Despite all the talk of brainwaves and EEGs, however, there's no expectation that humans could work towards this in the real world.

Others talk about tech-enhanced humanity, in a way that sounds distantly possible if we really level up before reaching a crisis point. This overlaps with cyberpunk in its employment of cybernetics, neural implants, or the ultimate "uploaded to the cloud" endgame described in Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross' The Rapture of the Nerds.

Right under our noses

Both of these approaches come under the umbrella of transhumanism, and the solutions they present rely on tech that doesn't exist yet, or biology that isn't going to happen by itself. But what about solutions that already exist? What about the energy so prosaic that people petition against it obstructing their view, or so ubiquitous that your calculator ran off it in high school?

While browsing Tumblr a couple of years ago, I stumbled across a post about a near-future SF aesthetic called Solarpunk. Being the fictional counterpart to bright green environmentalism, it focuses on how technological advancement and social change could form a more sustainable way of living.

It was described by missolivialouise on Tumblr as "based on updated Art Nouveau, Victorian, and Edwardian aesthetics, combined with a green and renewable energy movement... A balance of sustainable energy-powered tech, environmental cities, and wicked cool aesthetics." (The art in her post is gorgeous, by the way, so do click through.)

A blueprint for optimism

The aesthetic is rich and interesting precisely because of its optimism. Art nouveau is a wonderful jumping off point for an ecologically mindful society. The sweeping, natural lines echo the organic elements, and as Olivia points out, solar-panel stained glass (a viable option in the near future) could lead to a huge surge of interest in sustainable architecture.

You may want to check out Matt Cloyd's TED talk on what Solarpunk life could look like, and how it could change our cities. It's not just an iconic look, but also a shift in thinking that emphases locally-sourced produce, ecologically conscious power consumption, and artisanal goods (not in a pretentious way, in an "I know the woman who made this chair" way).

I wish I could tell you everything about Solarpunk's history, but there's not much of it. This is a genre whose hallmarks haven't yet been set in brass. I love the potential of that. As a framework for stories, it frees us up to imagine a future in which we are overcoming our current problems, not being destroyed by them.

Life imitates art

The future will find us. We're headed there now, and if we don't start making decisions that reflect that fact right now, we're failing our planet and our grandkids will be dead, or mad at us. Or both.

So how can we get it right? Not all at once, because that seems insurmountable, but in all the little ways that will hopefully add up to something big. Well, stories might be a good first step.

Imagining better futures is how we may bring them into being: not through the magic of positive thinking, but through life's tendency to imitate art. We've seen this before. It's why people are still so desperate to make hoverboards happen. It's why we still secretly want jetpacks, even though we know how likely we'd be to finish off half a bottle of prosecco and annihilate ourselves against an office block. It's why almost every discussion of advanced AI robotics references Asimov's three laws.

Speculative fiction shows us the way, and we do everything in our power to follow it. Once something's been imagined, and described, and shown, it all feels so much more possible. Don't you think?

You can find Anna as @Thiefree on twitter, or hosting the 3 Parrots Podcast, a marvellous celebration of hypothetical dilemmas.

* EDITOR'S NOTE - we're now two for two on guest blogs that mention Frankenstein. I'm going to make that a rule.

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