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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The West, Science Fiction, and No Future

Over at Genreville (on the Publisher Weekly's blog), Josh Jasper asks a very intriguing question:
Perhaps the future really belongs to people who’re hungry for it, not the ones who take it for granted. Does western culture take the future for granted these days, whereas rising cultures don’t?
I think this really depends on who you talk to. Scientists, by and large, would likely take the future very seriously, and many geeks and technology-oriented individuals consistently display their love of the present and the future of the industry (in technology, of course, thinking about the future in logical terms is quite impossible, since the industry is shifting so rapidly that one can't be expected to keep up).

But scientists, geeks, and technology-oriented people are not the majority of the population in the West. They're a minority; a fairly vocal minority (at least it seems so in the 21st century), but a minority nonetheless. Most of America (and other Western countries, I would assume) is fairly introverted, and I don't mean that in a negative way. Most of us have to be, particularly now in this difficult recession. The future of things like space travel (kind of a thing of the past, really) holds no weight in a culture struggling to keep jobs, find jobs, pay bills, survive, and be happy (whatever that might entail).

I think the issue here isn't that we take the future for granted, but that most of us (obviously not myself) see no value in much of what Jasper is talking about. Yes, it has value. Absolutely. I would be a lying scumbag if I said that the future of space travel (near future) has no value, or that people aren't excited about the futures of medical technology. The problem seems to be that, in the west, so much of our daily lives don't feel as though they are influenced by the things that used to be the future or by what will eventually be our future. We don't make an A to B connection between, say, the guy who predicted the cell phone in a science fiction novel or movie to the product itself. We benefit, most certainly, but the connection is not made explicit in our daily lives. This is a particular problem with space travel, as mentioned earlier, because as much as space travel is wonderful and has taught us so much about the universe, our planet, and even ourselves and our fellow critters, most people down on the ground and outside of the scientific and technology-oriented communities don't see the benefit.

And, countries that are now getting into the technology world seem more excited because, in that initial boom, it is exciting. When the Internet first started exploding in households, that was a big deal in the United States. Same with the car, the cell phone, and so on. But normality eventually reduces that to, well, normality. We take for granted such things because the value decreases with the increase of acceptance in culture.

How does this translate into written science fiction (something Jasper brings up as clear separation between the West--who seems more focused on near future dystopia and far future impossibilities--and the non-West--with a focus on the excitement of the technological revolution)? Well, you could argue that all the problems I've discussed above have led to a public disinterest in that excitement. Space travel isn't exciting to most. It's mundane at best, and worthless at the worst (I disagree, but that's me, and I'm not in that community of naysayers and for-granted-takers). The technological revolution is, in a way, over for us, and thinking about a future where we're doing basically what has already been done, just on a grander scale, isn't necessarily appealing or exciting. The future is, perhaps, mundane in the West for those who fail to see its value in their daily lives (not because they're stupid, but because we have done a piss poor job of instilling that love and excitement one needs to make light of the present).

So, certainly we take the future for granted (I'm intentionally conflating the future and the present here). In some ways, that's a bad thing. How do we get that back into our culture and our science fiction (it's there, just marginalized)? I don't know. I'm not sure we can, at least not on the scale that would make for meaningful change. The inevitable future of cultural consciousness, at least as I see it, is that every country eventually reaches the point of mundanity about the future. For now, the non-West is booming with excitement because, well, to finally get your own space ship in space or to do all these new, futuristic technological wonders that you've yet to do (even though others have) is exciting. Wouldn't it be exciting if tomorrow was the first time the United States put a man into space, or that someone had thought of the idea in a book and it was the first time for us, ever? Of course! But that's not us. We've done it already, and the future/present isn't offering something tangible for the masses to demonstrate that there's still something to be that excited about.

But, enough about what I think. What about you?

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  1. I think it's always the majority of the people in any culture who are mostly concerned with the mundane. It's always the few who are the "astronauts" of a society who reach for more- travel to distant lands, or space, or new inventions.

  2. Amanda: I don't think so. The space race certainly grabbed a lot of attention in the U.S., and probably Russia, and that was hardly mundane.