Will Climate Change Crush Our Science Fictional Dreams?

Science fiction true believers have such big hopes for the future but I have to wonder if climate change is going to derail their cherished extrapolations. Science fiction is mostly fantasy but it’s byproduct has been certain faiths in the future. At minimum, we believe humanity will colonize the Moon and Mars, and spread out to the asteroids and outer moons. At maximum, we hoped to explore the galaxy. We also assumed we’d transform the Earth into a sustainable technological civilization with many wonders, including life extension, sentient machines, genetically improved humans, uplifted animals, clones, cyborgs, and even posthumans. Sure, science fiction has produced many fears about tomorrow, but for the most part people expect Star Trek as our destiny.

Can we reach the promised land if we don’t reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back to 350ppm? Because we show no real signs of slowing the increase of CO2 should science fiction writers start rewriting the future? Was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future the last great hope of the genre saving its cherished futurisms?

If we had all jumped in and worked together starting in the 1980s and 1990s when we first learned about the problems of CO2 pollution we might have saved ourselves. But greedy people who preferred wealth for themselves over a sustainable future for everyone convinced enough people not to try. Some people still have hope we can divert the worst scenarios from coming true. However, the momentum of adding all that CO2 beyond 350ppm is too great to stop now. Those delays have doomed us.

The only way to avert the countless looming disasters would be to ban air travel, immediately replace all fossil fuel engines with electric motors powered by clean electricity, and probably get rid of the meat industry and maybe the pet industry, and pursue the the kind of austerity that terrifies the capitalists. That won’t happen, will it? We’re on a runaway train with such tremendous momentum that nothing can stop us but the crash. People still talk of changing things by 2030 and 2050, but I fear that’s delusional dreaming. We could still avert the worse disasters, but I doubt we will, and even the minor effects of climate change we’ll see in the next couple of decades will be enough to transform society in ways we’re regret bitterly.

Elon Musk might get people to Mars but we’ll discover two things. Living on Mars will not be the romantic fantasy that science fiction fans have always dreamed, and leaving Earth won’t save us. We’ll probably also return to the Moon, but we’ll discover trying to colonize it will be nearly impossible and we’ll learn the true value of the Earth and its biosystem that was so perfect for us.

As the years progress and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increases and the percentage of habitable land decreases I believe our desire for space travel will wane. We won’t have to wait for dramatic sea level rise for everyone to be convinced, heat waves will start to kill millions. Just read the first chapter of The Ministry for the Future to understand. I expect events like it will come true sometime this decade. We won’t need to see drowned cities to know the disciples of Ayn Rand have doomed us. Increasing weather catastrophes, declining food production, and mass migrations of refuges will make it plain enough we made the wrong decisions and believed the wrong people.

But I’m not forecasting complete gloom and doom. Science fiction will just have to create new futures that we’ll want. It will require a new faith in big government. We need to consciously design society so that it’s sustainable and egalitarian. Of course, that might be just as much a fantasy as interstellar travel. But do we really want a minimal government when everything is falling apart? We’re in this mess because we chose to ignore the problem. The only way to solve it will be to manage the hell out of it.

Science fiction writers can work towards two futures. One, where everyone is out for themselves, winners take all. Or, they can imagine futures created by cooperation, where we design creative and enjoyable societies, ones that control the invisible hand of the marketplace. No matter how bad it gets, we still have unlimited possibilities.

When you read new science fiction think about what the story implies. Is it based on old fantasies or new possibilities? Or is it just the same old mental escapes? We don’t need science fiction to be virtual realities to hide out from a reality we’ve ignored for too long already.

James Wallace Harris, Earth Day 2021

Do We Still Need Science Fiction?

Spaceflight pioneers Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert H. Goddard, and Hermann Oberth all claimed their careers were inspired by reading Jules Verne. If you read interviews or memoirs from almost any space scientist they will say they were inspired by science fiction. I imagine if you asked scientists working with robotics and artificial intelligence the same kind of questions, they would also say they were inspired by science fiction too. Millions of people work in fields that were once considered science fictional. Do we still need science fiction to inspire students to study these endeavors? In fact, isn’t science fiction now a distraction?

Are there new theoretical ideas in science fiction stories being written about today that would inspire young people to grow up and make them real? Science fiction has always served two purposes. First, it speculated about reality. Second, it was escapist entertainment that helped us escape reality. Of the new science fiction produced today, how much of it helps us speculate about reality and how much helps us escape?

If you really cared about space exploration aren’t there enough nonfiction books to study to fill lifetimes? More than that, you can major in space sciences and actually work in the space industry. Why read about robots when you can build them? Why read about AI minds when you can be programming them? Why read stories about life extension and cyborg enhancements when you can be working to make them happen?

Science fiction has always helped us imagine tomorrow, either to inspire us to create better futures from our dreams, or avoid the nightmares by extrapolating on our sinful ways. Yet, how much science fiction is written today that is actually useful? Is science fiction best use today to let us pretend we aren’t here? The world has a lot of problems, peoples’ lives are filled with stress. So escapism is a needed commodity.

Hasn’t fantasy supplanted science fiction? Star Wars is immensely popular, but has it ever speculated about anything real? Isn’t it just a spaced theme Disneyland? And doesn’t most hard science fiction speculate about futures so far ahead that they are fantasies too? How often do we get books like The Windup Girl or Aurora that make us think hard about the future? Books like Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale are still incredibly useful but how often do we get genuine warnings like them? All too often modern dystopian novels are just escapist adventures for teenagers.

Do we need any more novels advocating space travel when the world is full of public and private space programs? Do we need any more novels about conscious machines when we’re speeding ever faster towards building them? Has the only value of science fiction become another opiate of the masses?

Where are the modern science fiction visionaries who are imagining things we haven’t imagine but need to build? What books being written today will be mentioned by future scientists as their inspiration for creating new technologies and social systems? Or has science fiction imagined all the possibilities already?

I hope readers can provide me with long lists of relevant stories and novels. Can you think of any SF story about something you want to see created in the real world that people aren’t already working on today?

James Wallace Harris. 10/1/19

[I got the idea for this essay while watching Last Call For Titan! on Prime Video last night. I realized while listening to the interviews with the scientists who built the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft as well as the authors of Beyond Earth who advocate human missions to Titan that we don’t need science fiction anymore. Not when real people can accomplish what they did with the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft and plan future missions to Titan.]