02 abril 2010

The bright side of science fiction

The future. If our television screens are to be believed, it's not a place you'd want to go. Dwindling resources will continue to fuel national rivalries, pitching the world into a state of endless war. Our environment will become ever more chaotic and unpredictable. Our economic system will collapse under its own weight, plunging the first world back into a pre-industrial state. And of course nuclear armageddon, so narrowly avoided during the cold war, may yet come back to bite us on the rear.
Hmm. Well, maybe.
In recent decades even science fiction, once abundantly optimistic about the future, has been overwhelmed with pessimism. The Shine anthology of optimistic science fiction aims to reverse that trend by bringing together some of the most optimistic visions of our future in one volume. Shine is new writing in the most literal sense, with stories from emerging talents of SF including Alliette de Boddard, Lavie Tidhar and Gareth L Powell. But Jason Stoddard, whose extraordinary ability to extrapolate today's emerging technology into tomorrow's everyday reality, provides perhaps the book's crown jewel with Overhead, a story of an emerging post-scarcity society.
Post-scarcity is not a new idea in science fiction, but it may be one with growing relevance in our real world. Anyone who has seen an episode of Start Trek has encountered the edges of post-scarcity, but among the most complete explorations of the idea is Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Put simply, post-scarcity is the idea that a future society will achieve such efficient means of manufacture that all of humankind's material needs will be easily met. Food, shelter, clothing, and even currently rare luxury goods will be available in unlimited quantities to everyone. With our material needs sated, humankind's focus will shift to the few things that are still rarities in society – intellectual achievement, for instance.
While it may seem unlikely in the midst of a sustained economic collapse, post-scarcity is not just the stuff of science fiction. The technological developments that have lifted millions into a near post-scarcity existence in the last century are set to accelerate. It is a very realistic possibility that our key challenge in this century will not be the conflict for limited resources, but managing the economics of abundance and unlimited resources.
But if post-scarcity is hard to imagine, transhumanism will leave many incredulous. The core ideas of transhumanism are easy to say but difficult to believe. Emergent technologies including biotech, nanotechnology and IT hold the potential to fundamentally alter our basic assumptions of what it is to be human. The simplest but most radical of these alterations is in lifespan. We have already seen average human lifespan increase into the 70s and 80s; might we realistically expect to see that number grow into the hundreds? Or even further? And if the most radical aims of transhumanism are realised, could mortality itself become a thing of the past?
The future. A shiny place we can all look forward to. Our every material need met. A society freed from work, where intellectual endeavour and spiritual growth are our only concern. Lives measured not in decades, but in centuries and the full wealth of human knowledge available to all.
Hmm. Well, maybe. The future, at least in the next decade or two, is likely to be much like our present: an uneasy mix of dark pessimism and shiny optimism. For some the worst abuses of dystopia will be a horrific living reality. For others a technological utopia is already unfolding before them. The only thing that seems certain is that we are all caught in an accelerating process of change that will make the future, for a better or worse, a very different place from the present. But if we are to have some some influence over how that change unfolds, isn't it important that our stories, whether they be in the news, on television screens or in the pages of science fiction novels, fully explore the optimistic possibilities that technology represents?

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