My brain is in a weird place this morning. I woke up in the middle of a vivid dream and I haven’t quite managed to get my head on straight since; also, it’s a new month. The year’s turning. There’s a lot going on.
All this – and some incidental stuff, like the fact I watched the movie Avatar yesterday for the first time in ages and a book review I read this morning – are conspiring to fill my mind with thoughts of speculation about the future and how little, in real terms, we can know or imagine about it.
I like to read SF books. I won’t say that I’m well read; beyond the basics (Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein and Ursula K. LeGuin, and a few others), and a couple of oddities I’ve picked up second-hand over the years, I have a fairly thin knowledge of the genre overall. I’m more of an interested amateur. However, one of the things that has always struck me when reading SF is, strangely, not the unlimited breadth of imagination that greets the reader, but the strangely limited views about humanity and its future that one tends to encounter. One of the ways in which this manifests, for me, is the fact that I’ve rarely, if ever, come across a classic SF book which doesn’t mention ‘tapes’ – audio and video tapes, history recorded on reels and reels of celluloid, manually operated and paused and edited. This has always fascinated me.
We can imagine worlds where giant gelatinous cubes can make three-dimensional copies of any object placed in front of them – essentially, an organic 3-D printer – but we can’t imagine anything like a digital future (In Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death (1970)). Even Fahrenheit 451, one of my favourite SF novels, imagines a totally analogue world, despite the fact that television screens have become so large that they act as the walls of the room the viewer is sitting in. Books are still hard-copy, and nothing like the internet has even been thought of. The book review I read this morning was for The Monadic Universe, by George Zebrowski (1977), which features a story called ‘The History Machine’, again imagining an archive far in the future which is entirely dependent on tapes. I haven’t read this story but it did chime with the impression I have often received when reading SF books and stories – when it comes to certain aspects of human culture and technology, SF seemed to have been strangely blind.
(Then, of course, you have books like Neuromancer which blow this ‘theory’ out of the ballpark, but you don’t often find books like that – books which resemble our world, but a much less humane and comforting version of it. Usually SF books make me feel like we live in a horror-filled version of their dream of the future; Neuromancer makes me feel like we live in paradise. But I digress).
Sometimes I read SF books and I realise exactly how rooted they are in the world which created them, and how indicative they are of the prejudices and preoccupations of their own age. Inverted World, for instance, which I recently read, was originally published in 1974 and, while being an amazing book about relativity, environmental decay and massive-scale engineering, it also features the most egregiously offensive scenes in terms of its treatment of women and marginalised peoples, and their function in this society. Of course, perhaps this was the point – maybe the author was trying to say something meaningful about how no matter how much changes in terms of technology, old school prejudice and sexism will always be alive and well – but I’m not sure. It just seemed to be a no-questions-asked, this-is-how-the-world-operates acceptance to me, and quite possibly a reflection of the world it came out of rather than the world it was imagining. I know all literature does this – and of course it does, because nobody can see the future – but for some reason I expect more of SF. I expect it to be focused on imagining wider horizons, presenting ways in which the future will be better, more than we can dream of, filled with impossibility. But this genre, more than any other, describes exactly how limited the human imagination can be. We see futuristic societies and thought processes and whole centuries of imagined history (far into our own future, of course), but we still rely on tapes, or women are still abused, or it’s still all about war and terror, and the whole edifice collapses.
Then, perhaps is a cause for optimism that these SF novels seemed so limited in so many ways. As they wrote stories about far-distant futures where celluloid was king, in reality the seeds for a digital future were being sown. As they wrote stories about women as objects for use like any other resource or tool in worlds all over the galaxies, women in reality were fighting – and winning – their battles here on Earth. As we were taking some of the best ideas from the SF novels so beloved by so many and turning them into reality, we were also developing faster than any SF novel had ever dreamed. Perhaps it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that our development has outstripped the dreams of our most far-sighted writers, and perhaps that’s something to be celebrated.
And perhaps I should have rolled over and gone back to sleep this morning instead of getting up and trying to function. Who knows?
Welcome to a new week, y’all. Let’s try and make it something to be proud of.