I grew up in America in the 1980’s, a time of resistance and revolution throughout the world. AIDS, Reaganomics, and deep cuts to social services made corporations richer and tossed the country’s most vulnerable people out of government institutions and into the streets.
The science fiction I grew up with didn’t promise flying cars and moon colonies, as had the science fiction of my parents’ generation. Instead, we were promised a Robocop future ruled by greedy corporations, authoritarianism, fascism, doublespeak, government spying, a digital wild west, and augmented reality… right before the nuclear winter where we’d all end up wearing leather, driving around in tricked-out cars, and eating each other.
For better or worse, our generation appears to have gotten the first part of the future we were promised. Right now, we’re dancing around whether or not we’ll get the nuclear winter and eating people part, but even without it, the timeline we’ve ended up on is dispiriting, at least from this current vantage. Sometimes I think that the terrified warnings from science fiction writers back in the seventies and eighties served only to push out this inevitable future a few decades. We survived past 1997 without blowing ourselves to pieces, so maybe we can call that a win for cautionary science fiction tales.
But writing fearful, dystopic tales of the future that serve as warnings can only take us so far. If all we can imagine is dystopia, and if the dystopia appears inevitable, how can we expect to build anything else?
The resurgence in space opera—typified by the success of novels like the Imperial Radch trilogy, which begins with Ancillary Justice, and The Expanse, which is now a successful show on the SyFy channel, as well as films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, and the new installment of Star Trek due in 2018—may not all show us happy utopias, but they show humanity surviving long past World War III. That itself is a hopeful statement right now. This renaissance has been fueled, in part, by the increasingly grim reality of our own timeline. Fifty years of social progress, striving to overcome the various -isms and biases that plague our ability to forge peaceful and prosperous societies, is now in danger of being rolled back, because the future that many of us saw as free was far more terrifying to some people than George Orwell’s 1984. Maybe that’s because 1984 felt more familiar. We had a map of it. We knew what to expect and what was coming. But the progressive utopia? To many, that looked more like Huxley’s Brave New World to them than Star Trek.
Every day I wake up now, I find myself staring at the edge of the apocalypse, wondering how much longer we can stave it off, or if one mad tweet war between heads of state is going to end in fire. Now that we find ourselves in the future from the books, it’s time to write ourselves out, and show people what a progressive future could look like, and why it’s worth fighting for. Whether misguided or not, ordinary people and even governments have looked to science fiction writers to help them imagine how the world could be different. As our current timeline begins to bend more toward what is worst in humanity than what is best, I find myself taking that expectation very seriously.
The first series of science fiction novels I wrote was the God’s War Trilogy, set on a resource-strapped planet at perpetual war. It was Mad Max in Space, and the most hopeful part about it was simply that some characters lived. After eight years writing in that world, I found myself burned out on the death of utopia, so I wrote about a fantasy world plagued by genocide instead. You know, something lighter.
But, after a time, I realized that I was writing about the death of hope and contributing to an overall cultural nihilism that likely helped get our society to where it is now. Apocalyptic futures, I find, are also a lot more fun to write when you’re not expecting one every day. I needed to go somewhere different.
When I came up with the idea for my own space opera, The Stars are Legion, I envisioned a humanity that had overcome the practical limits of long-term space travel. This was a humanity who had engineered their starships and themselves to survive the immense distances between galaxies. While their legion of starships may now be dying around them, they use human ingenuity to work toward saving themselves. They are a people with a hopeful future, and while the things they do to one another represent some of the worst humanity has to offer, their persistence and dedication to saving their world also represents some of the best. And it’s the best that we need right now.
At every turn, great science fiction challenges limitations and expectations. It drives us to consider: what would happen if you really could travel faster than light? Speak and travel instantaneously over great distances? Upload your consciousness into a new body? These are all things that—based on what we know to be true now—are impossible. But in many ages, it was once thought impossible that humans could fly, let alone exit the atmosphere. How much of what we believe to be true now will turn out to be, simply, a failure of imagination?
Instead of fearing the future, it’s time we started to embrace it again so that we can build it into one that we want. Fear brings out the worst in us, but hope can build better futures.
We’ve imagined our way into this dystopia, so let’s imagine our way out.
Kameron Hurley is the author of the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and many anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, Bitch Magazine, and Locus Magazine. She posts regularly at KameronHurley.com.
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