Saturday, March 24, 2012

Imagination breakdown - why has Sci Fi failed us?

That's the equivalent of more than $9 a gallon - but how long before even that seems cheap?
For all the talk of 'green shoots' and economic recovery over the past few weeks, there remains one inconvenient fact that simply won't behave itself. Petrol, gasoline, benzine – whatever you call it, the stuff you fill up your car is becoming more and more expensive. In Britain, for the first time, it now costs over £100 to fill up the tank of a family sized car. £100!! It took me the best part of ten years to save that sum up once to buy myself a BMX bike (okay, so I was ten).

Here in Denmark it's at a record high as well. The picture above was taken this morning outside the filling station near where I live. You can see that the regular fuel costs 13.54 kroner per litre – which is £1.52 a litre – or, for Americans, $9.17 a gallon.

There's a bit of grumbling about it here in Denmark, but nothing of note. It is not, for example, making headlines. This is definitely not the case in Britain where, as ever, many people are outraged to the point of apoplexy. The Daily Telegraph's libertarian readers can be relied upon to froth at the mouth at the mention of price rises of any kind (or wind farms, gay marriage or a number of other seemingly random issues) and they have been in fine form of late bewailing the price of petrol. The gist of the 632 responses (when I last looked) was simple and can be summed up in one word: blame.

Blame the government. Blame the oil companies. Blame the petrol stations. Blame the Arabs. Blame Iran. Blame wind farms. Blame the lefties. Blame the environmentalists. Blame blame blame!

To try and interject a sober note of reason into the, er, discussion is to invite a group mauling by angry motorists wielding cyber pitchforks. None of this is new, of course, and every time the price of petrol spikes thousands of voices cry out that it's not fair on them because they have small businesses, live in remote areas, are disabled and have to rely on large vehicles etc. That's tough for them but it is hardly the fault of oil, being finite and all that. No amount of complaining or blaming can ever make the oil to which we feel entitled come back.

What is actually quite amazing is the fact that anyone should be surprised that oil prices are going up, and with them the price of petrol and every part of the system that has been built on the assumption of abundant and cheap concentrated energy. It is a brave soul who stands up and says 'Actually, you yourselves might be the ones to blame.' The fact that we've had almost 40 years to retool our economies and societies to adapt to a much lower energy future but chose to put our heads in the sand and wish it would all go away is probably the biggest collective failure of imagination modern man has ever made (and when you stick your head in the sand a certain part of your anatomy is rather exposed). We could, if we had wanted, have spent the available time since the 1970s using our vast windfall of cheap energy to build a bridge to a future in which we really didn't have to use it much for fuel, but could still use it for useful things like pharmaceuticals and plastics. Instead we chose to pack as much of humanity as possible into millions of hollow cylinders and boxes and shunt ourselves all over the damned place.

But why should this be so? Why should so little attention be devoted to what happens when the black stuff starts to peak and then decline? True believers in the Illuminati will insist that there are plenty of forms of free energy available for our use, but that the powerful oil cartels, in league with governments, have suppressed all the research. There are any number of videos surging around the Internet that suggest technological breakthroughs which would give us all the energy we would ever want. Time and again these have proved to be hoaxes, or scams to raise capital or simply vehicles for self publicity.

In any case, I don't buy into large-scale conspiracy theories so, that being the case, what could have caused us to hit the snooze button? Well, of course vested interests have done their best to ensure funding flows their way, and the oil industry in particular is run by a bunch of planet-cooking crooks who will likely end up swinging from lamp posts before the party's over. But one area where there has been a clear failing is in the realm of speculative fiction.

Call it scifi if you like, but the genre of fiction grounded in what will happen in the future has been dominated by laser gun wielding, planet hopping fly-boys for too long. Okay, so the Space Race probably had a lot to do with it, but where are the natural successors to George Orwell's 1984 or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World - or even E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops? Could it be that this nascent genre was strangled at birth?

Anyway, these thoughts have been playing in my head a fair bit recently, so I was quite interested to hear that Sony had launched an intiative in which writers were asked to imagine the future in 2025 and write a short story about it. I listened to a few of the entries, and the standards were pretty high, but it was the story by Marcus Sedgwick that exercised me the most. Entitled, Life in 2025, the story involves a man who has invented an app that allows people to escape into their ultimate fantasies as they dream each night. Predictably enough, everyone in the rich world gets utterly hooked on it and becomes distant and dysfunctional, while everyone in the poor world just carries on dying of starvation and catastrophes brought on by climate change.

So far, in our X Factor world, so realistic. But travelling on a train on which every other passenger is programming their smart phones for that night's passionate dream, the inventor realises he has created a Frankenstein and sets out on a quest around the 'real' world. Of course, enlightenment ensues and the tale has a more or less happy ending. It's very well written, gripping, and most of all believable.

But … the form his enlightenment takes is the 'realisation' that nanotechnology and genetic modification can 'save' the 'developing' world. The hero then decides to devote his life to developing 'good' technology rather than the 'bad' technology that increases fecklessness, relationship dysfunction and loss of productivity. Haven't we been here before? The belief that technology is neutral but can be put to either a good use or a bad one is something that I'm finding it harder and harder to agree with. It seems to me that technology, which can roughly be equated with power, will always fall into the hands of those who will use it for destructive purposes. Therefore it follows that the creation of a new technology isn't exactly neutral at all. Sedgwick himself seems to acknowledge this in an interview where he states that he was slightly uncomfortable with receiving the commission.

Listening to the other stories a pattern emerges. All of the imagined futures focus on 'apps' and the greater integration of web technology. In one an adult son gets to know his dead father from all the social network information on his smart phone. There it is again: smart phones, apps, social networks. The message is clear: the future is like now but more so.

It's vaguely worrying, but hardly surprising, that companies like Sony are trying to colonise our minds with their visions of the future. It's a future which gives a nod towards things like climate change and overpopulation, but insists that these 'problems' can be solved by smart guys with smart phones. There's no mention of ecological constraints, the disappearance of groundwater, loss of top soil or lack of cars (a character in one of the stories drives around in an electric car that drives itself!). Instead, it's a future where everybody is so enmeshed with high technology that the best term to describe them is 'cyborgs'.

But there is no app for peak oil. Luckily, there is John Michael Greer, who will be releasing an anthology of peak oil sci fi some point soon (not sure exactly when) written, for the most part, by commentators on his Archdruid Report blog. I, for my part, have written a couple of short stories imagining the kind of future that seems more likely than not. These will be added to my scant collection on Ether Books, just as soon as they fix the upload app (there's that word again).

In the meantime, if anyone thinks they could do a better job of writing a short story set in the future in which energy is severely curtailed just drop me an email at jasonhepp at gmail dot com and I'll consider putting an extra page on this blog as a kind of online anthology of stories (in case you're wondering if anyone would ever actually read it, this blog is getting around 1,300 unique visitors a month, and growing). If not, then just enjoy the warm spring weather and try not to drive too far.


  1. We citizens of the first world are rather spoiled, but then this goes without saying. This sense of entitlement from cheap gas to luxury products overwhelms any attempts as genuine sustainability. People think having a hybrid is enough to qualify for 'sustainable living'.

    Outside the first world the issue of petrol is quite a different story. If you look here you can see the cost of petrol across numerous countries:

    India is at about $1.48/litre. Now India's GDP per capita (nominal) is at $1,527/year. From that perspective the cost of operating a vehicle for average people, besides maybe a scooter, is out of the reach of most people. Period. You won't even get a loan.

    In due time the same thing will happen in the first world. Driving will become simply unaffordable. However, before the permanent lack of affordability sets in I imagine there will be the political will to launch war after war to acquire oil resources and keep the first world on the road until the very end when the resource becomes so scarce ordinary people are priced out of owning a car, but before then the gasoline stands might go out of business.

    Ironically, as this becomes a reality the film industry which produces Sci Fi films will also probably go out of business...

  2. Your criticism of speculative fiction's failure is undeserved and doesn't befit your blog's excellent quality. I don't read much science fiction now (I find the lack of stylistic polish distracting) but consumed it readily from middle school through college. There is a long and storied tradition of warning and doubt about the bright, shiny future promised by the techno-lords. Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, William Gibson and Ursula K LeGuin immediately come to mind. Norman Spinrad and even Roger Zelazny I remember writing several beautiful stories on technology gone wrong.

    US science fiction from the 1970s was a fertile plain of doubt and questioning where all this technology was taking us. I remember reading a very good critical book about these writers and that time period in grad school, though of course can't remember the name of the book!

    Even movies were serious. You can't get much more dystopian than Planet of the Apes. THX-1138 is a tour de force and, in many ways, the world we actually live in.

    I haven't kept up with science fiction trends (I don't think the phrase makes any sense, but writers will chase readers, or more accurately, chase editors) but I am sure that the suspicious, warning school of science fiction must still exist. When my job ends I plan to add to it.


    1. Hello Derek - you're right of course.

      I was also a fan of Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury and Leguin - even including Moorcock and Asimov. And yes, THX1138 - which I only got round to watching last year - is truly prophetic.

      I guess the point I was trying to make is that none of these have truly broken into the mainstream in the way that Orwell and Huxley managed. And as for contemporary stuff - like you, I'm sure it must exist, but I'd need to quit my job to even begin to read it.

      Another factor may be that science fiction just can't keep up with science reality any more. Our accelerated world just keeps coming up with new crazy stuff every day. Science fiction? Just open a newspaper ...

  3. I forgot Moorcock! Shame on me to leave out one of your countrymen.

    I read a few years ago the very question you bring up: does SF mean anything in today's world? If anything SF blends more with fantasy for the really extreme cases, or the metaphysical. I think really that's where 'science' is heading anyway. We are coming to the limits of objective knowledge.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.