The future can be worrying to consider at the best of times. But with a global economic crisis looming, a war on terrorism and the continuing threat of climate change to ponder, the future looks bleak indeed. It’s at times like these that people seek escape in the pages of popular fiction. But anyone looking for a better future in science fiction is in for a shock.
Back in the golden age of science fiction, the future was a much brighter place. Pulp magazines gave readers amazing stories of flying cars, towering skyscrapers and the utopian metropolis. Legendary writers like Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov predicted a future where science took mankind to the stars and beyond. And all this in the face of the Great Depression, two world wars and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. There was no lack of reason for people then to be very gloomy indeed about the future, but maybe because the times were dark, readers flocked to the visions of a brighter future offered by science fiction.
But for all its sense of wonder, golden age science fiction was guilty of a peculiar naivety in its depiction of the future. In its wake the character of the genre changed radically. The new wave movement, lead by writers like J G Ballard, Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison, reacted against the pulp roots of the genre, writing science fiction that drew heavily on literary technique and values.
Writers from Ursula K Le Guin to Octavia Butler saw the potential of science fiction for expression, but rejected the overwhelmingly white, male perspective that dominated the genre. Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and other cyberpunk authors imagined futures so dark that even the human soul could be destroyed. Science fiction evolved into a sophisticated literature of ideas, offering dark warnings of the future to come.