Until the New Wave began in the middle 1960s, most science fiction was fundamentally “rationalist” in that the worlds it imagined were overwhelmingly built on rational principles.
This is true even if the story were about a point of failure in the system, like Asimov’s Foundation series, which is a parable about how to return — or from our standpoint, how to create — the world “as it should be.” What saves us is learning, prophetically preserved in a library by a saint of science, the discoverer of the laws of history.
The pulp era was certainly a time of looking forward to things “as they should be.” Anyone who lived through two world wars and a great depression can be forgiven for indulging dreams of a brighter future, and the magazines of the time obliged. They confidently predicted we would soon live in “The City of the Future” and make our food in “The Kitchen of the Future” — utopias of good design, completely sanitized and free from worry.
Whirlpool even proposed a robotic vacuum cleaner in 1959, part of a fully automated kitchen, controlled from a central console. If you watch the black-and-white infomercial at the link, it’s clear they didn’t once imagine the internet, but I think it’s also safe to assume that even if they had, they wouldn’t have imagined surveillance capitalism either.
Fiction is a reflection of society, and science fiction, as the language of the future, is a reflection of our unconscious assumptions about it. It was not by accident that the New Wave replaced the pulp era in the late 1960s, exactly when the rest of society was changing.
The middle of the 20th century is (thus far) the only liberal era in history, by which I mean the policies pursued were overwhelmingly liberal: women’s suffrage, racial integration, pensions, a basic social safety net, etc.
I’m talking here about sailing direction, by the way, not absolute position, which will trip some people up, but something always trips some people up.
In the US, the core of this era ran from the stock market crash of 1929, which inaugurated the New Deal, to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which was famously a chaos.
Even the conservative administration of the time upheld the values of the New Deal consensus. To encourage capital investment over profit-taking, Eisenhower supported a high marginal income tax on both corporations and the wealthy. He forcibly integrated schools, created the interstate highway system, and coined the phrase “military-industrial complex,” which he warned us about in his farewell address.
But by the late 1960s, with the passage of Social Security, a minimum wage, banking reform, legal integration, and health care for the poor, the New Deal consensus had more or less achieved everything it set out to, and so it collapsed, a victim of its own success.
At the same time congress was contemplating what would become the last of the major social reforms, New Wave writers in the US and UK were consciously breaking from the pulp era and asking themselves where science fiction could go next.
With negligible exceptions (Wells, Stapledon and who?), nearly every science-fiction writer up to a very few years ago made one very hidden—and indefensible—assumption. They assumed that science changed; that the world changed; that everything you could imagine changed, except one thing. The human race.
—Frederik Pohl, 1965
What the New Wave and its progeny imaged was a multiplicity of worlds and, for the first time, new ways to be human in them.
Where Asimov and Clarke were significantly concerned with the points in the universe where everything was the same for all — that is to say, laws, not just of robotics but of time, space, and human history itself — writers like Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delaney, and Philip K. Dick were imagining worlds of difference: alternate histories, alternate societies, altered states of consciousness, differences in gender and in the nature and perception of reality.
This was a radical break, and the mark it left was indelible. After the 1960s, everyone was free to imagine a different future, with or without blasters and rocket ships.
But just like the 1968 DNC, the New Wave movement collapsed, and for the same reason. There was simply nothing to unite so many disparate visions beyond a rejection of the past.
The following decade, amid the specter of stagflation, the English-speaking world lurched right again. Supply-side policy, which favors capital over labor, became the norm, and the 1980s saw a wave of deregulation under Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK. Taxes were cut on corporations and the wealthy at the same time that automation and foreign competition were erasing working class wage gains.
Just as Eisenhower is largely unrecognizable as a conservative today, liberal administrations of the conservative era, Clinton and Blair, were “Third Way,” or right-leaning centrists. Clinton’s achievements are all planks in a classic Republican Party platform: a balanced budget, welfare reform, and deregulation of the banks.
So it is, circa 1980, a new vision of the future appeared, a future of corporate greed run amok and technology as an enslaver rather than a liberator, a future of breaking laws rather than discovering them, of hacking computers and hacking the human body. Cyberpunk seemed to announce, just in case anyone had missed it, that the liberal era was dead.
Unlike in 1959, today there actually are commercially available robotic vacuum cleaners. It was revealed a year or two ago that Roombas secretly make maps of our homes and beam them back to the company, ostensibly for “product improvement” but of course we can assume for marketing as well, which includes making profiles of our private lives.
The humble tractor, symbol of honest labor, has also fell victim to the age. As a matter of intellectual property law, you are forbidden from modifying or even repairing the machine you buy, which requires firmwear maintenance and upgrades such that John Deere can can disable it if you stop paying (or they stop supporting your model).
So too with seed. Farmers don’t buy seed. They buy the one-time right to use seed whose genetic makeup Monsanto owns, which means farmers are forbidden from reseeding or hybridizing, even where possible. Many stocks are deliberately bred sterile so that farmers have no choice but to buy more next year.
This is digital sharecropping. The new unfettered economy looks a lot like the old unfettered economy. John Deere and Monsanto have leveraged their capital position to exact rents on every crop — just like the landowners of old — and farmers, whatever of them are left, are dependent on the company store.
It is still possible to buy a tractor that’s just a tractor, but who knows for how long? Computer security expert Bruce Schneier recently tried to buy a car and found that there wasn’t a single new model on the market that didn’t come automatically connected to the IoT — the infamous internet of things.
Orwell, it seems, was an optimist. He assumed the government would mandate audiovisual listening devices in our homes. He did not imagine we would buy and install them ourselves for the sake of a few conveniences. Barely a week goes by that there’s not some creepy new revelation about Amazon Echo or Google Home. And yet, people not only keep buying them, they keep buying products that link to them, like Echo-ready headphones, which can listen to you everywhere you go rather just in your kitchen.
Liberalism places its mythical golden age in the future, which is why the science fiction of the liberal era couldn’t imagine a future that wasn’t at least basically rational, if not idyllic (like the original Star Trek), with a heavy emphasis on fairness (universal laws) and self-determination (voyages of discovery).
Conservatism places its mythical golden age in the past, whether it ever truly existed or not, which is why the science fiction of the conservative era, like “Neuromancer” and Terminator, is largely pessimistic. The future can never live up.
(The 90s are an interesting blip, brought about by the simultaneous death of communism and birth of the internet, but that’s a longer discussion.)
The 21st century has so far obliged the depressing view: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the housing collapse, the failure of the Arab Spring, the Snowden papers…
No sooner has China reappeared on the world stage, after a gap of 250 years, than her first Hugo Award-winner, Cixin Liu, told us in “The Three-Body Problem” that there’s no hope of getting along.
What we imagine when we imagine the future today is no future at all: the zombie apocalypse, the robot apocalypse, nuclear holocaust, environmental collapse, or any number of post-apocalyptic dystopias like “Hunger Games” or “The Road.” It seems we have trouble believing anything might work out.
We can’t make a better world if we don’t believe it’s possible.
It’s tempting to suggest that science fiction is dead — in the same way that Nietzsche said God is dead or that Lemmy said rock is dead. It isn’t that people no longer believe in God or that He isn’t an active force in their lives. It isn’t that people aren’t making and listening to rock n roll or reading and writing science fiction, even very good science fiction. It’s that those things are no longer the generative force of the age. Technology is.
We’re living in the future, which is why we no longer have a language of it. The language of the future is the language of the present. Science fiction has simply become fiction.
No new vision has emerged this century because all visions have emerged, or are emerging, including from writers outside the Western world like Liu and Nnedi Okorafor, for whom the classic myths of science fiction — a white male colonizer blasting his way through hordes of aliens — were only relevant in reverse.
This is also the distinguishing feature of our political moment, where we’re deadlocked amid cries of mutiny and no one can hold the floor. It strikes me as the cacophony before a deafening silence. But I hope I’m wrong.