Every civilisation fears the flood. We live on a possibility island. There is a precipitous sense that decisions taken now will affect the human race in its entirety, that what we do now shall ripple outwards through history.
All over the world, there is now “a disbelief in the idea of the future,” said a theorist of memory, adding that “the past has invaded our consciousness”. In this future-fearing reality, the only way to make sense of what is happening around us seems to be through the lens of science fiction.
Particle physicists take the basic constituents of matter, boost them to near the speed of light through subtle manipulation of magnetic fields and then smash them into each other. They then study the entrails of these liberations of incomprehensible energies. Out of this haruspicy comes discoveries of both the very small and the very large, from the microcosmos of the sub-atomic world to the macrocosmos of the structure of the universe.
Science fiction writers, similarly, take ideas, accelerate and smash them together. From these collisions, they discern strange tracks that lead into the future, cyclotroned tomorrows that may yet arise. They enjoy the unique pleasure of a cartographer who, by drawing a map, also creates the territory.
Science fiction, then, is the science of ideas married with the fiction of possibilities. Each particular culture on earth has produced its own science of yet-to-be, from vimanas to brahmastras, its own imaginings of what the morning shall bring.
In America, the “pulps” — cheap magazines packed with thrill-a-minute storylines, adorned with hyper-gaudy illustrations and built on a substrate of military-technological advances of the Second World War – chronicled journeys over such landscapes. This led to what John Wyndham called the “outward urge” of those who heard the voices cry “star to faint star across the sky”. In novels like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, there came the Ecumenopolis, a city that covered an entire planet, Trantor, with its 450 billion bureaucrats. In these vertiginal scales, in universes where empires of a million suns quested and fought, earth was insignificant. This was the stage for the “space opera”, which was a “thrilling adventure tale of powerful rocket ships, dashing heroes, and far frontiers — stories of immense scope and scale, colour and action, taking us to the ultimate limits of both Time and Space”.
Yet, this belief that our destiny lay in the roads that led to the stars would be shattered. The technologies built to incinerate the world — intercontinental ballistic missiles, satellite command and control, data survival, information backbones — would in turn lead to new ways of perceiving and connecting us. The “epics of super-science” would be discarded for the “cyberpunk” journeys into inner space.
A star is a dance between gravity that demands an implosion, and a fusion heart that insists on an explosion. A star contracts and grows through its life, depending on whichever force is paramount. Science fiction, similarly, would retreat from the spaces beyond the stars into the space inside our minds.
Starting from the 1980s, writers like William Gibson were mapping out the interiors of the self through electronic interconnection, MNCs displacing the nation-state, digital atomisation of individuals, mass surveillance, media-enforced conformity, even as the internet was being assembled in parallel; a trillion black mirrors to our fracturing selves.
There was a path through this strange gyre of worlds, but it was hard to discern. The light from Mars would guide the weary traveller. The Red Planet, in many ways, is a karmabhoomi in the SF imagination. The film Total Recall, which came out in 1990, is a perfect balance between action on Mars and inside Schwarzenegger’s mind. Yet, by last year’s The Martian, audiences were already familiar with the cloaca of exploration, a vision of everyday life rendered through familiar off-the-shelf technologies.
Now, we have reached a balance, where the gravitational attraction of the past is held at bay by the bow-wave of the future pressing outwards.
The tech moguls, who made their money in business models torn from cyberpunk fiction, are now re-investing in their childhood dreams. They, too, had heard the cry, seen the strange gyre of worlds.
Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are themselves characters from a page of the pulps, reflections of the billionaire Palmer Eldritch cutting deals with aliens in Philip K Dick’s novel or Presteign with his solar system spanning megacorporation in Tiger, Tiger by Alfred Bester.
Yet, a subtle perturbation has crept in this orbital dance. The recent smog fear in Delhi, with all its paraphernalia — designer gas masks, air quality alerts et al are very standard SF tropes. John Brunner’s classic The Sheep Look Up, with its ubiquitous “ FILTERMASK DISPENSER: Use product once only—maximum 1 hour” and “Oxygen 25cents”, covered this ground in 1972.
Exploration has now become escape. Our planet is dying, and “we’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it”, as Michael Caine solemnly intones in Interstellar. What was once a delightful romp through planets, a la Star Trek, is now becoming a panicked flight.
Explorers are now refugees. Dystopias are everywhere. The MO of the ultimate crime — omnicide — is being catalogued in hundreds of television shows, films and books. How did a shining literature of hope become this slouch towards Jerusalem?
“Human beings,” the Egyptologist Jan Asman once said, “are the animals that have to live with the knowledge of their death, and culture is the world they create so they can live with that knowledge.” Ancient Egypt seems light years distant to the brave new dystopias that await us, but those who read science fiction know that the past is an echo of the future.
Jaideep Unudurti is a writer in Hyderabad.