Monday, August 15, 2011

Committing Futurism

In the 1950s (I’m talking about a narrow slice of fantasy and science fiction) our genuine futurists projected two kinds, one aggressively primitive, the other aggressively progressive. The first envisioned worlds where Conans the Barbarian dwelt, the other a world were all of us commuted in fancy little flying machines and the post-war bureaucracy of the 1950s had morphed into an oppressive ant-heap challenging real heroes to revolt.

My own instincts were in the primitive direction. The scientific stuff essentially bored me. Jules Verne had already done that in the nineteenth—projecting technology. And technology, per se, does not a story make. Conan had seen the light of publication in 1931, a bit later. But that projection, rooted in human behavior, promised more fruit. SF, strictly speaking, was not imaginative enough. I never encountered a story in the 1950s, for example, projecting a future in which young people—and the not so young—would expend their free moments staring into tiny mirror-like objects, all alone, isolated by togetherness, as it were, indeed even when with others, even in crowds. Naw. Instead of that writers improved big outer things (transport, city scapes) and dangerous things like weapons.

But there is a reason for all this. It is extraordinarily difficult to imagine radical shifts in the river of existence that carries us in time. The motion is forward. In the 1950s the technologically New was still spreading. Air travel was taking off. Plastics. I still remembered a family transition where horse-drawn carriages moved our furniture. I still remember heating with wood. Experiences of progressive change had a grip on writers of hard SF. The other side, informed by intuition, had more history to look back upon—in which cycles displaced each other, and after the glories of Greece and Rome, Conans did, again, ride their steeds through overgrown countryside. And looking at the social, rather than the physical landscape, the early signs of trouble were already there. Even the primordial science-science fiction writer (after Jules Verne, of course), Isaac Asimov, saw this himself—when he shifted his view to society—through the eyes of his character, Hari Seldon. Seldon, the psychohistorian, foresaw the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire too (Foundation).

All this by way of saying that it is extremely difficult for us to imagine, staring at a five-inch flicker of a feed, how the world is likely to change when the oil finally runs dry. I pondered some of the basic on a humid August walk and offer some here for would-be SF writers. But before I do, what about the timing of that drastic change? Maybe not in fifty years, but certainly in seventy or eighty. And writing stories about the 2180s, 2190s would be science fiction. The alternative, fusion energy, certainly still is fiction, and if it ever comes to be, it won’t be a solution; if you don’t mind some technical detail, here are the reasons as I summarized them a while back. Now some notes.

It is said that the world is getting smaller. When oil runs out it will magically become enormously large again. Distances, as measured in time and cost, will become very much greater. Transatlantic travel, except for the super-rich, will be long, tedious, and done under sail again.

A correlate of that is that large institutions (private, public, government) will become small. Centralized powers will lose power, decentralization will be the new New. Anticipate initially de facto, later de jure break-up of the United States. Regions will assert themselves defensively—say California its agriculture, the Great Lakes region its water—to protect themselves from redistribution, by a higher level, of their core wealth to others.

Naturally fertile, naturally moistened land will become the greatest single object of value—and society will arrange itself to hold and guard it. Various forms once known, now considered forever gone, will come back: centrally ruled river systems, forms of feudalism.

Careers like mine—functionally centered on working with symbols—will be very rare, poorly compensated, and possibly, as in the Middle Ages, celibate. Symbol manipulation will have lost most of its economic value; it has it now because we’re operating at a great distance from physical reality—and able to do so by symbolical commands.

Most people will once more work with their hands because an absolute die-off of machines is in the offing—unless they’re smart enough (the machines, I mean) to run on water or the energy of wind.

When my grandchildren are raising their children, it will be well for them to insist that their offspring acquire high skill in crafts along the lines of carpentry, iron work, leather tanning, weaving, and the like. Want to be in advertising? Learn to paint or carve attractive signs. We must remember that in those times things as simple as nails will be hard to get, and skills to build things without them will be prized. No oil, disappearing coal—where’s the fuel to smelt ore or melt down the corpses of machines?

Rare the panel on C-Span that discusses such eventualities seriously. When we occasionally see one, the participants talk about planning for that future, arranging things, changing current institutions. No way, José. In the run-up to that future, conflicts will mushroom. Indeed we may be in that time already, unknowingly. In the turmoil of those times such words as planning and societal change will no longer carry any meaning.

But, living as we do in the Age of Flickr, I’ve written too much. Virtually no one will read this far down, so I ought to bring this to a close.

1 comment:

  1. It will be something we have never imagined; it always is. Perhaps not a retrogression in technology, but an advance that goes hand in hand with our return to Political Barbarism and Know-Nothing-ism and Holy Impoverishment.

    The future will be well-powered for the rich, and we shall labor on street corners dispensing samples of the produce and technology for their momentary enjoyments as they made short walks during their urban day.
    I fancy I shall be a "barsool sahib", a parasol handler who runs from one member of the new gentry to the next, asking for bakshish as I shield them from the sun.

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