In fantasy, and perhaps even more so in science fiction, there’s been a tendency in the recent past to make the vision as dark and dismal as possible, viewing the future and the possibilities inherent in the human condition with dour pessimism and a belief that nothing ever improves. Depictions of a future society in which any of our current problems are solved, in which people live more egalitarian lives, in which corporate interests don’t dominate and control all functions of government, in which we have a sustainable society with respect to the natural world or one in which war has been abolished, are seen in many quarters as naïve, utopian, and unrealistic.
What’s actually unrealistic, though, is the belief that the problems we have today won’t be solved, and that we’ll still be facing them hundreds of years from now. That isn’t realism. It’s a failure of the imagination and also reflects a very poor understanding of history.
Hundreds of years ago, whole economies in the richest and most powerful of nations were founded on slavery. Today, slavery still exists but only in poor and backward countries and on the fringes and margins of the economy, such as in the sex trade. Workers in mainstream industries today are coerced by subtler means and much better rewarded for their work than slaves ever were.
Hundreds of years ago, the government was not only influenced by the rich and powerful, but actually restricted by law to those who were born into privileged families and held titles of nobility. Today, that isn’t true even in countries where titles of nobility still exist.
Hundreds of years ago, women were regarded as the property of men, either of their husbands or, if unmarried, of their male relatives or in some cases of religious institutions such as convents, which were part of organized religious structures that were run by men (even if the convents themselves were often run by women). Today, while we still have a ways to go to achieve true gender equality, that attitude is no longer accepted and mainstream.
Hundreds of years ago, war was not only constant but regarded as normal, noble, heroic, and necessary to build national character and the strength and dedication of each new generation of youth. In fact, that attitude persisted until a mere hundred years ago. (It was the First World War that put an end to it.)
A person from the world of a few hundred years ago, magically transported by a wizard’s spell or a time machine to today’s world and looking around, would on first impression think he had entered Heaven. No constant war? No grasping nobility? Enough to eat even for the poorest people? Men can’t rape their wives with impunity? Why, this is a perfect world!
Of course, on closer acquaintance he would discover that problems still exist. They’re just different problems than the ones he was used to. But because we are always focused on the problems we have before us, the idea that those problems might some day be solved seems utopian. It’s what we hope for, or cynically fear to hope. And yet nothing is more likely than that they will someday be solved. And so do depict a future world in fiction where such problems persist isn’t realistic, but just the opposite.
That’s particularly true of the two problems that threaten the survival of civilization today. One of these is war. The other is unsustainable exploitation of the environment. It’s not unrealistic to say that these problems may not be solved. But it is completely unrealistic to depict a future society in which they still confront us. If they are not solved, our civilization will cease to exist. Therefore, any future society will either be one in which they are solved — or it will not exist. And that in turn means that a fictional portrayal of a more advanced society than our own, either human or non-human, must be a peaceful and ecologically sustainable one, not because the future will turn us virtuous (although in fact it may), but because any civilization that survives to become substantially more advanced than ours is one that has solved these problems.
Which brings me to my own Refuge series, which I characterize as both fantasy and science fiction, and which includes two fictional alien species, the Andol and the Droon, who destroyed each other in an interstellar war and some of whom have reincarnated on Earth as human beings. In some ways these are personified good and evil creatures. The Andol are egalitarian, benevolent (if often ruthless and manipulative), and have attitudes that are socially and culturally more advanced than any but the most enlightened of human beings. The Droon are just the opposite: elitist, thoroughly nasty (they like to subject their inferiors to years of torture just for fun and games), and bent on reducing humanity to a race of slaves and pain toys. Some might see both races (I suspect: especially the Andol) as unrealistic. I contend otherwise. It all comes down to the fact that those two problems, war and environmental stress, must be solved for an advanced civilization to survive. But there is more than one way for a society to reach that point. There are in fact at least two. One of the Andol describes this as follows:
A mature intelligent species has a unified planetary government, doesn’t fight wars anymore, and has a sustainable relationship with nature. It’s in no danger of destroying itself either in war or by exhausting the planet’s resources. That puts it in a position to explore the nearby stars, especially since it usually discovers faster than light travel about the same time. . . .
But you lay those things out in front of most people, and they’ll think ‘utopia.’ That’s not always true. The Droon prove it. They had a unified government, didn’t fight wars anymore, and had a sustainable relationship with nature, and yet they also had a master class that turned all the rest of their people into slaves. That’s one way a species can mature. The master class imposed harsh rule, stamped out all the Droon warlike tendencies, and forced their society to go green . . .
We had a global economy, planetary government was set up to regulate it, and then a democratic movement took it over. We came to our senses collectively. It meant we were a lot less polarized than the Droon. We had no master class in the end, but we could have gone the same way as the Droon, if the democracy movement had failed.
There might also be other ways besides these two. But the point here is that depicting a future (or alien) society in either of these modes isn’t unrealistic at all, but shows two ways in which a society can survive to become advanced.
The only thing that is quite unrealistic is depicting a future (or alien) society that is exactly like our own in its fundamentals. We can be absolutely confident that that, at least, will not happen.
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