No Future


Once my friends and I read science fiction tales
We dreamed of space, and rockets to the moon.
Some day we'd live to walk upon the planets;
The future, oh it couldn't come too soon.

Now it's long past the time we called the future
And still we carry on from day to day
The wonders of tomorrow still elude us;
Reality keeps getting in the way.

When was the last time you had hope for the future?

For a long time, science fiction futures were aspirational. They were futures with conflicts, as all stories are wont to do, but they were exploratory: going to new worlds, building new societies, pushing new frontiers. The epitome of this was Star Trek, an optimistic utopian vision of the future, looking outwards towards the stars.

But there have always been visions of dystopia. Science fiction has always examined possible and impossible futures to comment on society, societal trends and human nature, and sometimes the comment is that humans are awful, and would build the Torment Nexus at the first chance. They were extrapolations of trends and warnings of futures to come.

They proposed two things: a vision of the future, and a path to reach that future. The second half of the twentieth century had an optimistic view, as space exploration was at the top of the governments' minds, and it was easy to extrapolate forwards to a future of space stations and lunar domes. Despite cutbacks, this vision persisted with the Space Shuttle program, but at some point vision collided with reality: the program was underfunded, cancelled with no planned successor.

With the end of the twentieth century also came the rise of cyberpunk, initially following the fear of Japanese economic dominance before the Lost Decades, but whose lasting impact is the rise of corporatism, where corporations control the government, trodding over individuals and rights in pursuit of profit. Although modern day corporate warfare doesn't reach the levels portrayed in media, it is hard to argue that the capture of governments by corporations does not eerily mirror the tropes of the medium.

Along with this future coming true came another, compounding apocalypse. Fears of nuclear war, a staple and reflection of the anxieties of the time, faded with the fall of the USSR, replaced with a more nebulous environmentalism that coalesced into the more concrete fear of global warming. Inexorable, too big to deal with on an individual level, with those with the power to intervene unwilling to do so. It is such a spectre that no imagined future today can ignore it; all futures lead to global warming, and all futures must find a way to deal with it.

And therein lies the problem. To imagine a future is to imagine a path to it, and there are no paths to good futures. On one end are human solutions to global warming going wrong: Snowpiercer overcorrects and drives humans to near-extinction. On the other end are acknowledging massive amounts of suffering that may exist but are barely relevant: most people in the Expanse live in extreme poverty, with barely enough to eat. There are no optimistic stories of the future, because reality has shown us enough that any successful solution would shatter our disbelief. Because successful solutions require cooperation of those in power, and those in power are the corporations, who are legally bound to care for nothing but profit. Moloch has taken over, and hell is where we stand.

Even if we do solve the imminent problems on Earth, that still doesn't mean the return of the exploratory spirit. Space travel is now the realm of private corporations, helmed by individuals stripped of their humanity by the process to get there, piled with mistrust for the decision of escaping the world's problems instead of solving them. Visions of AI futures all center around human suffering, replacement and obsolescence, instead of the benefits and freedoms they can provide, because of course the corporations will extract all the value for themselves and leave nothing for the people.

The apocalypse is only a symptom of our cyberpunk present, and even when solved, there's just no probable path from here to there, the optimistic utopian future. As long as corporations are in charge, and value their own profits over the lives of individuals, there's no possible path. Visions are driven by fear, instead of hope. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. There's no possible future, unless we can leave it all behind.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe it's just that, as I grow older and learn more about the world and how it works, the more cynical I get. Maybe optimistic futures were always only the realm of those able to discard their cynicism, and the naive, too young to know any better. Maybe stories only sell if they have conflict, and a future free of suffering isn't interesting.

The best possible future I can imagine isn't thriving, it's surviving, eking out an existence in the shadows of the corporate giants, adapting to the massive changes we have no control over. Maybe that's optimistic.

Maybe that can be enough.