Does Science Fiction Offer Guidance about the Future?

John Micheal Greer describes how some science fiction writers explore the future, sometimes with surprising accuracy. He says that some writers picturing the post peak oil landscape are producing peak oil fiction that could be useful for people who want to prepare for a very different world. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Future That Wasn't.

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.

…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.

…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.

…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.