Tomorrow never knows? Sci-fi and the future

Saturday 29 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Students' Union Lunchtime Debates

‘The dystopian novelist,’ said Martin Amis of Anthony Burgess, ‘is a satirist. He looks around him and makes everything worse’. If science fiction – from HG Wells through to Philip K Dick and current stars such as Alan Moore, Iain M.Banks and China Miéville - has traditionally expressed the political anxieties of the day, today’s future seems to take as its starting point the inevitable end of civilisation. Through the popularity of survivalist dramas - a genre spanning works as diverse as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Alfonso Cuaron’s The Children of Men and the beautifully rendered apocalyptic scenarios of video games such as Fallout – or ethical critiques of scientific developments such as cloning in Never Let Me Go, the question troubling contemporary society is not how humanity should shape the future, but how we’ll ever survive it.

While some may retort that where there’s an audience of teenage boys there will be carnage, sci-fi has long moved beyond its stereotypical fanbase. With sci-fi writers revelling in a hard-won reputation for taking on serious themes around science and technology long rejected by ‘serious’ writers, and seeing that debt repaid now by literary authors, the future for the genre is as rosy as its depictions are bleak. Yet some may still yearn for the dash of post-war optimism which saw Star Trek ‘boldly go’ and explore the possibilities, rather than merely warn of the dangers ahead; even its modern equivalent Battlestar Galactica saw humanity locked into a death-match with its own robotic creations. At the same time, the growth in ‘alternative histories’ seem to add a backwards-looking glance to the ‘what if’ imaginings of science fiction.

Does writing about the future always necessitate a degree of dramatic doom-mongering, or has there been a distinct shift in how we imagine it? Does every generation produce its own definitive dystopia, or is imagining humanity on the brink simply a release valve for an otherwise progressive society? What role and responsibility does a science fiction writer take in the ‘two cultures’ society, where science is simultaneously treated as humanity’s potential saviour and destroyer?

Gerry Feehily
Europe editor, Courrier International; author, Gunk

Ken MacLeod
award-winning science fiction writer; author, Descent, The Restoration Game and Intrusion; writer-in-residence, MA Creative Writing, Edinburgh Napier University 2013-2014

Martin Wright
writer, editor and adviser on environmental solutions and sustainable futures

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Recommended readings
The Purpose of Science Fiction

How it teaches governments—and citizens—how to understand the future of technology.

Robert Sawyer, Slate, 27 September 2011

The end of the Space Age

Inner space is useful. Outer space is history.

The Economist, 30 June 2011

Apocalypse now? Christian Rapture fiction and the end of the world

As a US broadcaster predicts Earth's imminent demise, this SF-influenced genre has long been warning us what to expect

David Barnett, Guardian, 20 May 2011

Science Non-fiction

The writer of science-fiction is an artist who happens to be interested in science, unless he is a scientist who happens to be interested in art. The line between the two wasn't always drawn as thickly as it is today.

Macy Halford, New Yorker, 31 January 2011

Is science fiction dying?

The genre set the groundwork for our current century, but is it on the decline?

Paul Di Fillippo, Salon, 16 December 2010

How sci-fi moves with the times

Can science fiction keep up with modern science?

BBC News, 18 March 2009

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