Tag Archives: futures

William Gibson does not think our present was anyone’s future

David Wallace-Wells has a long interview with William Gibson on the Art of Fiction in the Paris Review.  The interview concludes

Do you think of your last three books as being science fiction?


No, I think of them as attempts to disprove the distinction or attempts to dissolve the boundary. They are set in a world that meets virtually every criteria of being science fiction, but it happens to be our world, and it’s barely tweaked by the author to make the technology just fractionally imaginary or fantastic. It has, to my mind, the effect of science fiction.

If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of a really clear and simple description of the world today, they’d have read your proposal and said, Well, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense. Granted, you have half a dozen powerful and really excellent plot drivers for that many science-fiction n­ovels, but you can’t have them all in one novel.


What are those major plot drivers?


Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilizing the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.


And you haven’t even gotten to the technology.


You haven’t even gotten to the Internet. By the time you were telling about the Internet, they’d be showing you the door. It’s just too much science fiction.

Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints.

7 Billion

1) Guardian visualizes world population growth estimates from UN. Nice comparison of similar countries, but results for Africa don’t look right 314 million people in Tanzania in 2100? 140 million people in Niger in 2100? A ten fold increase in its current population density?

2) From BBC – how much has the world population grown since your birth? Since mine, its doubled.

3) National Geographic on 7 Billion

4) and from Nature news

Because high fertility is linked with poverty, the big worry globally is the 3.4 billion people who survive on less than US$2 per day, says Joel Cohen, who heads the Laboratory of Populations at the Rockefeller University in New York. The average number of children per woman in the least developed countries is 4.5, compared with 1.7 for developed countries, Cohen says, and this means that most of the additions to the global count are born where there is little access to energy and education, further fuelling the population steamroller. This reality underscores the importance of international development efforts: small increases in wealth and education can lower fertility and dramatically ease the burden of population growth decades down the road.

5) And population data from the UN Population Divsion.

Why are there so few positive stories about the future?

Today’s stories about the future seem to be pretty bleak. Recent big apocalyptic novels have been McCarthy’s The Road, Atwood’s Year of the Flood, but I can’t think of many influential positive environmental futures after Ecotopia in the early 1970s.

On Tor.com, science fiction novelist and critic Jo Walton speculates about why there are not more positive futures?:

When I was writing about The Door Into Summer, I kept finding myself thinking what a cheerful positive future it’s set in. I especially noticed because the future is 1970 and 2000. I also noticed because it isn’t a cliche SF future—no flying cars, no space colonies, no aliens, just people on Earth and progress progressing. Why is nobody writing books like this now? …

Why is this?

I don’t think it’s because we live in terrible depressing times. 1957, when Heinlein wrote The Door Into Summer, wasn’t a particularly cheerful … Anyway, people were writing cheerful optimistic stories about the future in the 1930s, when things could not have been blacker. People always want escapism, after all.

First is the looming shadow of the Singularity, that makes many people feel that there is no future, or rather, the future is unknowable. I’ve written about why I think this concept may be inhibiting SF.Another thing may be the failure of manned spaceflight. Most hopeful future-oriented SF includes space colonization and we’re just not doing it. It is cool sending robots to Mars and Jupiter, but it isn’t the same. The problem is people in space doesn’t really seem to make sense, and that puts us in the position where we want to have a moonbase because… because we want to have a moonbase. …

The third thing I see is anthropogenic climate change—far more than the threat of nuclear annihilation this seems to bring with it a puritan yearning for simpler greener life, self-hatred, and a corresponding distrust of science and especially progress. It isn’t the reality of climate change that’s the problem, it’s the mindset that goes with it. If you suggest to some people that small clean modern nuclear reactors are a good way of generating electricity they recoil in horror. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain and sequels have people dealing with the climate change by planetary engineering, but that’s very unusual, mostly it gets into books as something to cower before.

And then there’s the fact that for the most part we don’t understand our technology any more. I know how a CRT monitor works—LCD, not so much. We have a lot of it, it has certainly progressed, but when we take the back off it’s very mysterious. I think this is part of the appeal of steampunk, looking back to a time when tech was comprehensible as well as made of brass. In a similar but related way, maybe progress is moving too fast for optimistic science fiction. … It’s hard to get ahead of that, except with disaster changing everything. Halting State was out of date practically before it was in paperback.

She asks her readers for examples of books that are:

  • Published since 2000
  • Set in our future (or anyway the future of when they were written)
  • With continuing scientific and technological progress
  • That would be nice places to live.

But, on her site people cannot come up with many near future positive stories.

Can any Resilience Science readers suggest novels with positive environmental futures?

Self-organized traffic safety

The UK County Surveyor’s Society Transport Futures group has just published a report Travel is Good that considers how to deal with problems likely to be encountered in transport over the next 20 years. They recommend increasing uncertainty and allowing the self-organization of multiple forms of traffic to increase safety, along with congestion pricing cars, and preparing for climate change.

This report is part of a trend of European traffic planners moving away from signs and regulations to increase traffic safety. Rather than legislating space for cars they are requiring drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to think about what they are doing rather than obeying signs. This approach appears to fit many resilience principles by encouraging many small disturbances makes the overall system more resilient (see: Traffic Safety: Regulation vs. Self-Organization).

The UK’s Times Online describes the report in their article How stripping the streets of traffic lights and signs may be a life saver:

Redesigning roads to leave drivers and pedestrians uncertain about who has priority will save lives, according to a report by Britain’s most senior transport officials. The move would automatically cut traffic speed without the need for cameras, they say.

Barriers and signs such as railings, kerbs, traffic lights and white lines cause crashes because people assume they will keep them safe and therefore fail to focus on what other road users are doing. Giving drivers less information by removing signs will encourage them to slow down to negotiate a safer course along high streets and across junctions.

The report by the County Surveyors’ Society, which represents local authority directors responsible for most roads in England and Wales, recommends a revolution in road design. It calls for widespread adoption of the concept of “shared space”, pioneered in the Netherlands and better known in Britain as “naked streets”.

It says: “Paradoxically, creating barriers and divisions may worsen safety because drivers and riders feel more confident and speed up, despite the limitations on the speed at which the human mind can take in the amount of information now displayed on our roads. The human response to increased in-car and on-road safety may be to increase risky behaviour.

…Ben Hamilton Baillie, a transport consultant who contributed to the report, said it marked acceptance at the highest levels of shared space principles that five years ago were considered outlandish. Roads in Bath, Ashford in Kent, and Ancoats in Manchester are being converted to shared space. Work will begin next year on removing kerbs and giving pedestrians greater priority on Exhibition Road in West London