You can't get past me, I'm stuck in the future
The shit ain't all it's cracked up to be
The hovercraft's cool but the air's so putrid
Run The Jewels – Call Tickertron
Hip hop supergroup, Run the Jewels, lyrically capture the spirit of the age – the science-fictional zeitgeist – in their song, Call Tickertron: “the shit ain't all it's cracked up to be.” The future was supposed to be amazing, wasn't it? That was the great promise held out for most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. It was the American Century: the future was coming! There'd be jetpacks and day trips to the Moon. And yet now, in what many agree is the post-cyberpunk, science-fictional condition, everything is far from amazing. Sure, so many things that were the plots of sci-fi novels are now business plans; SpaceX are taking tourists on a joyride around the moon, and have a ten-year plan to get our asses to Mars at last. And while there's still no jetpacks, an updated version of the fully-automated Jetsons-like future where everything runs not on sprockets, but AI is – every techblog in the world informs us – imminent. Yet we're also in the midst of the ecological collapse to the point of a Sixth Mass Extinction and very little seems to be being done to actually remedy that.
The future is a place that haunts some, imprisons many and calls to a few.
It's a common misconception that the goal of science-fiction is to predict the future. Writer and activist, Cory Doctorow has called it 'radical presentism;' it's only ever been meant to reflect the present back to us – to provide a dramatic representation and extrapolation of the vectors technology and society are on, as they feed back into each other. The Future then, is a mirrorworld of The Present. By listening in on conversations with some of its citizens as they speak about living with one foot in the future we can get a sense of its nature – its psychology. To take a psycho-geographical survey of the Future.
Where is the future then? What is it? Where was it? Was it a place, a space, a promised land or a mirage on the horizon meant to keep us trudging through the desert of the real – a marketing scheme hatched to sell consumer goods with built-in-obsolescence, where the next version would be perfect, just you wait!
Let's take a survey then of this place and hear the words of some of its elders so that we can better view its landscape.
Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, and what's lost on many is that it was a satire. But the idea of a utopia – that if we can just endure the present, a better life awaits on the other side – is what's powered most cultures and civilisations. The promise of a coming golden age. For the twentieth century, the conjuring of this mythology was largely provided by science-fiction. What's different is that promised land lay forwards, not backwards in time. For nearly every known culture, the golden age was something from the past to be recaptured. Even America's brief competitor for dominance, Hitler's Germany, saw itself as bringing back about the Holy Roman Empire. But it was America that triumphed, and set to write a unique narrative for its era. As author and psychogeographer Alan Moore explains, talking about the Twentieth Century in conversation with John Higgs:
1910, 1915... America discovers science fiction in the form of Tom Swift and it is a different thing altogether. It is not about giving dire warnings for the future it is about saying: "look how great America's going to be in the future." It's almost, I suspect what the tendency in older nations when we want to big ourselves up is to reach back to the past to something imaginary in the past - King Arthur or something like that. America hasn't got that amount of history to deal with, so in some ways what America needs is science fiction when we're trying to say "look at what we were" then America more or less has to say: "look at what we will be." And so the science fiction from the 1920s, with the boom of the pulp magazines, it was all of this bright, optimistic new frontier stuff where it was going to be Cowboys and Indians all over again - only it was going to be Earth-men and Neptunian - but you could just go through the whole of the tropes of the western genre and pioneer fiction but in space, and it became this, in my opinion, that was probably one of the worst things to ever happen to science fiction.
America needed a mythology, so it took science-fiction and painted a techno-utopia as its promised land. A place that was waiting for its citizens if they obeyed their leaders. An alternate dimension – not in space, but in time.
What Alan Moore is, I think, bemoaning is that, used for such purposes, science-fiction lost its power of critique. Its ability to give “dire warnings,” which had been its function since the work generally considered to be the first of its kind: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. But as John Higgs says to Moore during their conversation, pointing to the bleak vision of recent films, such as Prometheus – of man crossing the stars, meeting his maker and being punched in the face for his trouble – without that techno-utopic vision, that mythical land awaiting us, would Von Braun and his allies ever have taken us to the Moon?
Even today, it continues to serve this function. SpaceX's founder, Elon Musk, isn't just inspired by golden age science-fiction tales of rockets to Mars, but also by more contemporary works; taking the names for his drone ships from Iain M. Bank's Culture books. And it is Elon Musk – Space X being just one of his many companies, each tasked with bringing a science-fictional element into the present – that shows us where the future as a place has shifted to for many, especially those in Silicion Valley: it's off-world.
“A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies!” - Blade Runner (1982)
If one film has done more to conjure the present into being it's Blade Runner, and fittingly our present has recently merged with its fictional future. The inception dates for its replicants now lie in our past. In conversation with VICE, the man responsible for sketching out that world, Syd Mead, described the world of the future as he then saw it:
I received the script and saw that it was a very dystopian world we were looking at. Earth had been left behind because all the technology was directed off-world.
Which is very much how the future is being pitched today by the likes of Elon Musk. Earth may fall to ruin, but there'll be back-up colonies on Mars, so we'll survive. The path of technology and humanity is being directed off-world. Mars, and space in general, is the new promised land. That's the holographic projection beamed above the cities for those not staring into their smart phones to see.
Speaking about the problems involved in conceiving the future today, Mead notes that:
[t]he technology of reality is starting to compete with the imagination of what movie writers can write. More and more‚ like William Gibson‚ we'll see this social embedment in an imaginative future. But technology is background – it's not the story.
A far more pessimistic view is given by Adam Curtis in his most recent documentary, HyperNormalisation. The central idea he explores is “the imaginative death of the future,” pointing to the slew of disaster movies of the late 1990s as evidence that western culture was only able to conceive of its demise; something that became like a self-fulfilling prophecy after 9/11. Curtis's pessimism is so contagious that when first considering this biography of the future, I could only conceive of it as an obituary. That the future was something born in trenches of World War I – and its notable that Bruce Sterling's most recent novella is an alternate history about Futurism as the fascist loving art movement that followed that conflict – that died in the rubble of the Twin Towers. Thankfully I've recently been reading The United States of Paranoia, which uses science-fiction to talk about the paranoid visions cultures have, breaking the spell and reminding me that so much of the genre is, as Alan Moore says, full of dire warnings.
Curtis is, like Musk, filled with the utopic visions of the science-fictional promised land. Where Elon sees it relocated to Mars, Curtis sees the promised land turned wasteland; the future is no longer fertile ground where hope can grow, it's turned fallow. It's been salted by the managerial class... and he's right; looking around today it's hard not to agree that the Western Culture is in decline and has lost its vision, its right to architect the world of tomorrow.
But the future has splintered. There's AfroFuturism – though, as Lauren Beukes rightly points out in her conversation with Sophia Al-Maria, The Future Was A Desert, lumping the vision of an entire continent – #africaisnotacountry – under one banner is... problematic. There's Gulf Futurism, a term coined by Sophia Al-Maria to describe the present, highly science-fictional but dystopic situation in cities such as Dubai. Talking to VICE she said:
Probably 90 percent of corporate videos encouraging investors to the Gulf take you on a journey from the past to the future. There’s also one children’s television show where these kids get on a monorail in the modern day. They travel through a lab and are teleported to 2030. They come out the other side and there are even bigger buildings and the train is flying through the air. One little girl goes to the hospital and works in the hospital for a day.
There’s no room for reality and the basic needs of people. For example, young love in the Gulf is so mediated by technology; everything is covert and conducted via phone. And then there’s the artificiality of the landscape—every tree is planted, nothing happens by chance. But when you go out to the desert, it rains, and overnight it’s completely green with little yellow and purple flowers. This sense of dystopia rising comes from being disconnected to the land.
The Gulf States are even rising to challenge Elon Musk with their own vision of a Martian colony, with an arguably more realistic hundred year plan to install a city there. Something they'll be qualified to do, since by then their own region will be increasingly uninhabitable and Martian-like, with heat waves predicted to be so intense by 2060 that going outside would be impossible without some sort of environmental space suit. All of which informs this critique, as VICE notes:
Al-Maria coined the term “Gulf futurism,” which has since been used as a byword for the way that a generation, forced indoors thanks to the intense heat, developed a view of the future informed almost exclusively by video games and Hollywood films. However, for Al-Maria, the phrase was originally meant to refer to the way in which human life is being forced to accommodate the rampant growth of consumer and luxury culture in the region.
There is very little hope in Gulf Futurism – except that it offers a valuable critique of the present and points to where amends can be made in conceiving of a better tomorrow... which was supposed to the point of science fiction.
So where does the imagined land of the future lie today? Off-world, the Gulf... or China? The latest splintering of the future echoes the shift in power Eastwards: SinoFuturism. And it's a very different vision. Less Chess, more Go. Where the goal isn't zero sum dominance, but just not losing. At least, that how it's being pitched by Lawrence Lek. It's another valuable critique, and shows that though the West may be in decline, with Silicon Valley preparing to take off to orbit, it will be conjured anew on Earth.
The future then remains an idea with power. It is still a promised land, just far more complex than simple early 20th Century white, patriarchal techno-utopianism.
It spans planets now, and speaks many languages.
It goes back and forwards in time, but remains firmly anchored in the present.