The Future That Wasn't

It’s a common affectation of pundits and professional thinkers to claim for their ideas a historical importance they probably won’t have. It does happen now and then, of course, that some thinker ends up having a massive impact on the shape of history; Karl Marx relished his self-defined role as forerunner of a Communist future, though I doubt he would have welcomed the trajectory his thought actually took from the barricades and marches of the late 19th century, through the bloodsoaked debacles of the 20th century’s revolutionary dictatorships, to the slow descent into bureaucratic torpor and collapse that finally swallowed the Communist dream.

Still, it needs to be remembered that Marx was one of more than a dozen major (and scores of minor) would-be social prophets who flourished in the century or so that centered on his life and are utterly forgotten today. Charles Fourier, for example, was a massively influential figure in his time, the inspirer of hundreds of what would now probably be called lifeboat ecovillages, but I have yet to meet anyone who has read his Theory of the Four Movements or takes his theories of social change through passional attraction seriously; most people who have heard of him at all these days tend to confuse him with the mathematician Jean-Baptiste Fourier, an entirely different person whose elegant discoveries are still much used today.

The same point can be made more broadly. Most of the intellectuals who were household names in the early decades of the 20th century are forgotten now, and their ideas have dropped out of circulation so totally that canny promoters today can resurrect notions of that time and market them as the discovery of the ages. Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, the hugely successful pop spirituality phenomenon of two years ago, was exactly such a rehash of forgotten commonplaces; its promoters correctly guessed that ideas that appealed to the public during the boomtime of the 1920s, no matter how dubious those ideas were, would be just as popular during the late housing bubble. No doubt they’re sorting through the rather different self-improvement literature of the 1930s in search of a bestseller for the decade ahead of us.

The interesting thing is that there were thinkers busy during these same decades whose visions ended up having a huge and enduring impact on the way the entire Western world thinks about the future. These visionaries weren’t to be found in the ivory towers of academe or any of the other prestigious places where people, then and now, expect great minds to be found; they didn’t even have the cachet of romantically starving to death in garrets. Most of them could be found in ordinary urban apartments and homes, hunched over clattering manual typewriters, as they fed a couple of dozen cheap gaudy magazines with science fiction stories.

The impact of science fiction on current visions of the future has been on my mind of late, for reasons mostly involved with two writing projects of mine unrelated to this blog. One of them is a study of the UFO phenomenon, unimaginatively titled The UFO Phenomenon, which is due out in March. One of the themes central to that book is the extraordinary way that every UFO-related belief of the last six decades surfaced in pulp science fiction many years before it showed up in reports of UFO encounters; that inevitably focused my attention on the wider impact of science fiction on contemporary images of the future.

The second is even more directly related to the SF genre, and rather more personal. Long before I started writing nonfiction about the future, or anything else, I cherished the dream of becoming a science fiction author; I wrote something like a dozen SF novels, and amassed an impressive collection of rejection slips from nearly every publisher in the field. I shelved that dream when I launched a nonfiction writing career in 1995, but a fine bit of irony awaited; one of my SF novels has finally been published by a small press. The Fires of Shalsha – that’s the title – isn’t about peak oil, though it has more than a little ecology woven into it and some of the themes discussed in these essays are part of the story.

The fact that science fiction counts as a literary genre at all these days is one measure of the wild ride it has had through the world of letters. 19th-century science fiction, what there was of it, counted as respectable literature; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which many critics consider the first true SF novel, received the same attention as other Gothic novels of the time, and Jules Verne was no less respected as a popular novelist in his time than Alexandre Dumas. At the beginning of the 20th century, such literary talents as E.M. Forster dabbled in SF, and H.G. Wells’ novels were reviewed alongside the serious literature of the day.

Enter the pulp magazines. The pulps – the name comes from the cheap paper on which they were printed – descended from the Victorian penny dreadfuls, with the same lurid topics, loud advertising, garish illustrations, and abysmal quality that made their 19th century equivalents so profitable. American pulps covered the spectrum of popular genres – Westerns, romances, mysteries, two-fisted adventure stories, you name it – but the gaudiest of the lot were devoted to science fiction. As it became a pulp genre, science fiction traded the salon for the gutter, and for several decades few authors who valued a literary reputation would touch it.

This plunge into the depths of popular culture had immense consequences. Despite the claims of importance noted above, serious literature rarely has a major impact on society. Its readership is too small and too well educated to slip into the uncritical enthusiasm that shapes the imagination of an age. Most often it turns out to be the popular literature, the reading material of housewives, factory workers, and schoolchildren, that reaches into the crawlspaces of culture where the future takes shape. By shedding literary credentials and wrapping itself in the gaudy finery of the pulp magazines, science fiction worked its way into the collective imagination of the modern world.

In this way, drawing on the passionate modern belief in the goodness and necessity of progress, science fiction in its pulp days transformed itself from a somewhat esoteric literary genre to a folk mythology that still shapes most of our thinking about the future today. Onto the blank screen of infinite space, as a result, the modern imagination projects all the dreams, fantasies and fears other cultures assign to more obviously metaphysical realms. Many of the essays I’ve posted on this blog have focused on disputing assumptions about the future that root straight back into the science fiction of the pulp era.

What makes this all the more interesting is that the grand future shared in common by most science fiction from the pulp era straight through to the 1970s – the leap upward from Earth to the first colonies on the Moon and Mars, the expansion through the solar system, the inevitable arrival of interstellar flight, and the panorama of star federations and galactic empires to follow – has lost nearly all the conviction that once made it look like the inevitable shape of things to come. It had its day, and accomplished certain things in that time; without Jules Verne and his many successors, human footprints probably would never have been left on the Moon, but its day is over now. Those who still cling to the old hope today – I am thinking of Ray Kurzweil and the Extropians here – have been reduced to wrapping Protestant eschatology in the borrowed garments of science fiction; rapture into heaven followed by immortality is a religious concept even when the god who is expected to provide it is named Technology. It’s a measure of this loss of faith that the publication of science fiction novels in the English-speaking world, at least, has declined steadily since the late 1980s and now amounts to only a few hundred titles a year.

In this light it’s interesting to note that the impact of peak oil on the future of the industrial world has begun to be explored using the toolkit of fiction. James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand is the example most people in the peak oil scene know about, and deservedly so; it’s a rousing, readable tale that borrows from familiar genres (notably the Western) to portray the aftermath of the petroleum age in accessible terms. More experimental and, to my taste, even more interesting is Caryl Johnson’s self-published “essay-novel” After The Crash, which weaves together a tale about the writing of a narrative history of the end of the Hydrocarbon Age in post-Crash Philadelphia with social criticism directed at the present and speculation about the future.

This is not quite a new genre; its roots arguably go back to older works such as Richard Jefferies’ After London and Stephen Vincent Benet’s novella “By the Waters of Babylon,” and flowed into and then out of some of the byways of science fiction – I am thinking particularly here of Edgar Pangborn’s Davy and its sequels, alongside more straightforward SF works such as the novels of Wayland Drew’s Erthring Cycle and Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin’s The Masters of Solitude. Still, the emergence of books of this kind focused on peak oil strikes me as a hopeful sign. Just as science fiction enabled people to get their heads around such improbable realities as moon landings decades in advance, peak oil fiction could make it easier for people today to make sense of the approaching changes in our own world.

If the peak oil movement of today is going to have much effect on the future, such options probably need to be explored. Today’s intellectuals are no more immune from the future’s forgetfulness than their great-grandfathers were – I cheerfully expect my own work to be forgotten just as thoroughly as Charles Fourier’s, for example, once I’ve been dead for a century or so. The history of science fiction shows that indirect routes of influence may be the most lasting and powerful options we have, and I hope more peak oil writers and visionaries take the time to explore them.