Getting a Better Future

Mr Davis on his way to the Brexit negotiations.

With all the bleak stories in the news, the future looks grim. At times like this, science fiction gets called upon to illustrate what’s happening. David Davis has talked about how Brexit won’t lead to a Mad Max future. Protests by young people have been compared with dystopian fiction, in which teenage protagonists rise up against the mess adults make. Sci-fi may have shaped the way we see the world, and it’s certainly shaping the way we talk about it.

But most sci-fi ignores an important reality – that the world is getting better. Stories are driven by struggle and conflict, so sci-fi needs to make things difficult for the characters. Often, that means making their world a tough place. It means that our metaphors for the future are about disaster.

That’s useful as a warning and great for entertainment. But it might not be so helpful for thinking about where we’re going.

On the whole, the world is becoming a better place. Literacy keeps rising. Poverty keeps falling. Health keeps improving and child mortality declining. There is less violence, relative to the number of people in the world, than at any measurable point in history. That’s not to mention ever-accelerating moves towards equality, which seem heartbreakingly slow at times, but have included dramatic leaps forward in changes like gay marriage.

It’s hard to make that into dramatic sci-fi. Even Iain M. Banks, whose sci-fi was built around the post-scarcity Culture, had to step outside that utopia to provide conflict.Sci-fi is seldom going to show us the better place we’re moving towards. And so, even as a sci-fi writer, I have to admit the limits of my genre. Because it’s seldom going to help us see the better futures we might have. Only the worse ones which, as Davis pointed out, we won’t.