Moving beyond the darkest visions of humanity’s future
Let’s be clear: I have no hope. It’s been a long time since I’ve had any, so long that I’m not sure I’d recognize the feeling if it came up and bit me on my ass. Perhaps it’s my traumatic childhood and adolescence, or maybe it’s the constant fight of being a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical world. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the correct reaction to the world we live in today: A planet on the precipice of extinction, and we all know it. More accurately, it’s the sum of all these parts creating a gestalt in my mind. One thing I’ve learned about mental health is that it’s never just one thing.
Many of my friends have been experiencing a similar loss of hope entering their lives over the past ten years, most of them for the first time. My peers finally echo my misery, but their reasons are far less complicated. For a lot of people in the mid-2020s, anxiety comes down to one thing: the impending destruction of our planet. A new level of existential dread looms over the past decade. It affects the entire world community. In 2022, the surface temperature of Earth was measured at .86 Celsius (1.55 F) and AI models predict we will hit the dreaded 1.5 threshold within the next decade. This is precisely the plot of the new Apple TV show Extrapolations, which I happen to love.
In the show, we are witness to a global temperature increase, as it tracks now, throughout the decades of the 21st Century. In 2047, fish are almost completely gone. There is one humpback whale left. In 2057, residents of India are subject to day-time curfews and oxygen pump vendors. People drop dead in the afternoon heat, so they live at night. Hope of geoengineering the earth’s weather and atmosphere collapses into compounding disasters like flash floods and the erasure of what crops are left. The Svalbard seed depository makes an appearance. Extrapolations works. We’re left both entertained and anxious for the future, even if some of us won’t make it that far.
Climate fiction, or cli-fi is a legitimate subgenre of science fiction currently dominating the genre. Stories take place in our age, the late-Anthropocene. Plots cover issues we can relate to or imagine. Chronologically, these stories generally happen anywhere from the near future to maybe 200 years out. The further out you get from our current epoch, the more dystopic the literature becomes. There is a dearth of this material being published and produced. Humans love watching a train wreck, even if it’s the train we’re riding on.
We are bombarded with news of our own collective demise each time we open the newsreels, social media, or, if you live where I do in Oregon, when the sky is covered with the soot of our state’s great forests dying. (The fires of 2020 were so bad I couldn’t leave the house for a week; the sky was orange and breathing the hot ash was death.) Our entertainment does not offer much solace: movies and television shows depicting the dystopic end we are running towards have been around for ages, and they’re more popular now than ever. It’s the same phenomenon that saw the pandemic movie Contagion hit number one on Apple and Amazon rentals for months in a row at the beginning of the COVID year. We love to scare ourselves by watching ourselves.
It’s arguable if it’s healthy or not. For some, watching these movies can be a curative experience, whether it leaves the rest of us beguiled or not. My anxiety is relieved by some of the most deranged horror movies most people I know wouldn’t watch, so I get the mechanism. And hey, I love these movies and books and comics and shows, too. At the same time, I recognize how this overexposure to apocalyptic content feeds into an already oversized sense of planetary existentialism.
As much as I love everything I’m reading and watching, I’m also getting bored. I’m bored with the idea that we’re all going to die by the end of the century, or that a severely dwindling population will converge on a far north sanctuary, governed by despots and corporations. As a writer, I’m exhausted by the sheer number books published each year with the cli-fi tag. Science fiction asks, “What if?” and cli-fi does the same thing, but maybe they’re not asking the question in the right direction. Cli-fi’s only question seems to be “What if… we never change?”
The best science fiction I’ve read, the stuff of legends, asks the opposite. Granted, book series like Foundation and Dune were written while the crisis was building below the awareness of society, but didn’t Rachel Carson publish Silent Spring in 1962? Wouldn’t Frank Herbert have been aware of the slowly growing environmental concern as he was paging out Dune? (Asimov probably gets a break for publishing in the 50s). Herbert and his contemporaries like Le Guin and Butler were writing the exact opposite of dystopia: Humans have survived and thrived throughout the galaxy. Sure, some of our acrimonies endures, we’re probably still racist, but for the most part humans are still around, thousands of years into the future (Herbert takes us to the far-flung future, where science and magic are the same thing). In short, sci-fi was as utopic as it was dystopic in the before times.
Are we doomed to depressing tales of a scorched earth ran by despotic dictators and faceless corporations, or AI? It certainly seems so. Writing is influenced by the cultural currents of the age and ours are running hot and scared. Perhaps writing and reading about the horrific state of the way things will be relieves the torment of the way things currently are. It could always get worse is a nice thought to hang your hat on. I can certainly understand the therapeutic nature of confronting that which you are afraid of. There are other options, though. Options with caveats.
I’m interested in the stories that see humans living together in 1000 or 2000 years. I’m interested in reading them and I’m interested in writing them. Think about where humanity was in the year 1000 as opposed to the year 2000. When I look at history with this large lens, I must agree with Dr. Martin Luther King that the “arc of history bends towards justice”. The problem is that humans change slowly, and this may be our destruction as well as the basis for the popularity of pessimistic visions of the future. The arc of history needs us to move faster, or we won’t be around to see the inevitable justice our future could hold.
Maybe it’s a Pollyanna view, maybe it’s not realistic. Indeed, certain critics will always think this way. It seems everyone from Gen X and under feel disenfranchised by the world’s governments inaction in the face of a burning planet. But maybe our future truly will be the United Federation of Planets. And why not? Technology progresses exponentially in the digital age, and that speed will only increase in the age of AI (if we can make sure Skynet never takes place). Techno solutions to climate change have just as good a chance of existing in 2070 as autocrats who use water as currency. So why not explore the hopeful options?
For me, I wonder if exploring this type of literature, both in my own writing as well as in my reading, would lead to a little less darkness in my life. Sure, I can’t change my past and the way my brain was created, but I’m finally learning to cope with these things here in my fourth decade of life. Perhaps reading and writing more hopeful visions of the future will provide some respite from the hyperpyretic reality unfolding outside my writing studio’s window. Maybe even inspiration.
Who knew Dune could be a cold drink of water on a hot desert day?