One of Science Fiction’s ongoing concern’s has been “the Future”. This is why some of the futures written about in the past seem so stale to us in the present. Some still tell an entertaining tale -a good story is a good story after all. For example, it is still a blast to read Philip K. Dick, even though many of his stories were set in the 1990′s (and while the tech in his books was not necessarily prescient, the biting social commentary has continued to be so).
“The future, as always, is now,” novelist John Crowley writes in his wonderful essay for Lapham’s Quarterly, The Next Future. Crowley goes on to say about Science Fiction, later in his text, “from the beginning it gained extraliterary power from its prediction of actual marvels that were sure to come sooner or later. No other fiction, not even the tales of Darkest Africa or polar exploration, had that. The more often the future was imagined, however, and the more detailed the guesses, the more they proved unequal to the strange meanderings of real time.” Still further into his timely thicket he asks “Why should the future be privileged as a realm of speculation?”
Indeed, some of the most innovative of “Speculative Fictions” have been alternate histories, different “nows”, postulated through magic or the parallel worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. These are the “forking paths” which have emerged from Jorge Luis Borges‘ famous garden. One of my favorites in this subgenre is by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt which imagines a world where the Black Plague destroyed European and Christian culture, leaving Islam and Buddhism in a cultural ascendancy. It is a very useful thought experiment to make. And it tells the alternate history from the time of the Black Plague, up to present times. (One of the more interesting elements is how it follows several characters and their reincarnations through the centuries.)
Locus: the Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field even has a regular column entitled “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” penned by Graham Sleight which looks back at various SF writers bodies of work. (It’s always one of my favorite parts of the magazine.) Following this, and following the SF field in general, a reader can discern how the future changes with time.
Having contributed a story to a contest being run by John Michael Greer, author of many books on magic and the popular peak-oil blog, The Archdruid Report, and having followed not only Greer’s line of reasoning about peak-oil, but also James Howard Kunstler’s, this question of probable futures is very engaging for me. As a writer of Science Fiction and Fantasy, among other things, doubly so.
Greer, in his initail post about the contest writes, “Still, one of the virtues of science fiction is that it doesn’t always fall into such ruts, and more often than other branches of literature, recognizes that the social and technological habits of any given era are not the permanent fixtures they sometimes seem, but points along a historical trajectory shaped, among other things, by ultural fashions and sheer dumb luck. Even if we get through the crises of our age the way the people of Stephenson’s world got through the period they call the Terrible Events, and create a technological society on the other side of it, our descendants won’t be wearing T-shirts or calling people on cell phones in the year 5400 AD, any more than we now wear togas or take notes on wax tablets the way the ancient Romans did; they’ll wear other clothing and communicate with other tools—and with any luck they’ll snack on something less repellent than energy bars. Fairly often, science fiction catches wind of such shifts; sometimes it succeeds in guessing them in advance; tolerably often, for that matter, what starts out as imagery from science fiction becomes the inspiration for design in the real world—I trust nobody thinks, for example, that it’s accidental that most early cell phones looked remarkably like the communicators from the original version of Star Trek.” He then goes on to ask for the writers in his audience to come up with stories depicting responses to peak-oil, with the following reasoning, “Still, the arrival of the limits to growth bids fair to have at least as massive an impact on the future of the decades ahead of us as space travel and its associated technological advances had on the decades that followed science fiction’s golden age, and it seems to me that it’s past time to get thinking and writing about the dangers and adventures, the hopes and fears, the dreams, problems and possibilities of a world on the far side of peak oil.”
Then, a number of weeks down the line I get wind of Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph Project, in an article he wrote called “Innovation Starvation“. In it he proposes that Science Fiction writers shouldbe inspiring more of the kind of big engineering projects that industrialized countries, specifically America, pursued in the wake of World War II. Massive highway systems. Space shuttles to the moon. The internet. And he gives two good theories as to how Science Fiction is able to inspire people into action:
“1. The Inspiration Theory. SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers. This much is undoubtedly true, and somewhat obvious.
2. The Hieroglyph Theory. Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.”
I don’t feel the same way Stephenson does about the passing of these big projects. The US interstate system has made it easier to navigate from point A to point B, to get from the West to the East and from the South to the North, but what is missed on those trips are the inner corners of America, what Harry Smith has called “the Old Weird America” reached on the Blue Highways that written about in William Least Heat-Moon’s book of the same name. And while I’ve been inspired by the notion of visiting other planets, I’d much rather visit the Otherworld and take care of the Earth. Besides, I don’t really believe we have to kind of fuel and resources it would take to get back to the Moon, let alone Mars or outside the Solar System.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t like some of the other points Stephenson makes, particularly those where he contrasts isolated research, the kind done by individuals and groups in the pre-internet area, that required visits to the library, and the kind of wide open research done nowadays with a few clicks on google. There is something to be said for the kind of long, slow developments that occur when working on a problem over a duration of time. Or when learning a skill or craft over a period of many, many years. This is how all great art develops, from the initial insight to the hours, days, weeks, months and years it takes to see a vision be grounded in physical creation.
And where do occultists, magicians, and dreamers stand in all this? How do today’s pagan philosophers at the growing edge envision our collective future? As Stephenson and Greer both know, fiction is a great playground to toy with these types of thought experiments. And to inspire readers to action. There has been a tradition of Occult Fiction that goes all the way back to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, on to Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune, and that stretches onwards to the likes of Kenneth Grant and Storm Constantine to name just a few culprits.
Esoteric artwork is at this time coming into its own, as is the field of magickal musick. Esoteric publishing is hitting a renaisance with many of the wonderful presses issuing fine editions. I’m thinking of the likes of Scarlet Imprint, Xoanon Limited, Three Hands Press, Fulgur Limited and Waning Moon Publications, again to name just a few. Now is a ripe time for those who are Operative Mages and also Working Writers to come forth with a new generation of Occult Fiction. This is just one of the things I’m working on.
If you have what might be considered Occult Fiction of your own, please link to it in the comments.
(Thanks to Sophie Gale, from the Green Wizard’s forum, for the John Crowley article.)