Science fiction has struggled to achieve the same credibility as highbrow literature. In 2019, the celebrated author Ian McEwan dismissed science fiction as the stuff of “anti-gravity boots” rather than “human dilemmas”. According to McEwan, his own book about intelligent robots, Machines Like Me, provided the latter by examining the ethics of artificial life – as if this were not a staple of science fiction from Isaac Asimov’s robot stories of the 1940s and 1950s to TV series such as Humans (2015-2018).
Psychology has often supported this dismissal of the genre. The most recent psychological accusation against science fiction is the “great fantasy migration hypothesis”. This supposes that the real world of unemployment and debt is too disappointing for a generation of entitled narcissists. They consequently migrate to a land of make-believe where they can live out their grandiose fantasies.
The authors of a 2015 study stress that, while they have found evidence to confirm this hypothesis, such psychological profiling of “geeks” is not intended to be stigmatising. Fantasy migration is “adaptive” – dressing up as Princess Leia or Darth Vader makes science fiction fans happy and keeps them out of trouble.
But, while psychology may not exactly diagnose fans as mentally ill, the insinuation remains – science fiction evades, rather than confronts, disappointment with the real world.
The case of ‘Kirk Allen’
The psychological accusation that science fiction evades real life goes back to the 1950s. In 1954, the psychoanalyst Robert Lindner published his case study of the pseudonymous “Kirk Allen”, a patient who maintained an extraordinary fantasy life modelled on pulp science fiction.
Allen believed he was at once a scientist on Earth – and simultaneously an interplanetary emperor. He believed he could enter his other life by mental time travel into the far-off future, where his destiny awaited in scenes of power, respect, and conquest – both military and sexual.
Lindner explained Allen’s condition as an escape from overwhelming mental anguish rooted in childhood trauma. But Lindner, himself a science fiction fan, remarked also on the seductive attraction of Allen’s second life, which began to offer, as he put it, a “fatal fascination”. The message was clear. Allen’s psychosis was extreme, but it showed in stark clarity what drew readers to science fiction: an imagined life of power and status that compensated for the readers’ own deficiencies and disappointments.
Lindner’s words mattered. He was an influential cultural commentator, who wrote for US magazines such as Time and Harper’s. The story of Kirk Allen was published in the latter, and in Lindner’s book of case studies, The Fifty-Minute Hour, which became a successful popular paperback.
Psychology had very publicly diagnosed science fiction as a literature of evasion – an “escape hatch” for the mentally troubled. Science fiction answered back, decisively changing the genre in the following decades.
To take one example: Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972) purports to reprint a prize-winning 1954 science fiction novel. The novel is apparently written, in an alternate history timeline, by Adolf Hitler, who gave up politics, emigrated to the US, and became a successful science fiction author and illustrator. A fictional critical afterword explains that Hitler’s novel, with its “fetishistic military displays and orgiastic bouts of unreal violence”, is just a more extreme version of the “pathological literature” that dominates the genre.
In her review of The Iron Dream, the now-celebrated science fiction author Ursula Le Guin – daughter of the distinguished anthropologist Alfred Kroeber – wrote that the “essential gesture of SF” is “distancing, the pulling back from ‘reality’ in order to see it better”, including “our desires to lead, or to be led”, and “our righteous wars”. Le Guin wanted science fiction to make strange the North American society of her time, showing afresh its peculiar psychology, culture, and politics.
In 1972, the US was still fighting the Vietnam War. In the same year, Le Guin offered her own “distanced” version of social reality in The Word for World is Forest, which depicts the attempted colonisation of an inhabited alien planet by a macho, militaristic Earth society intent on conquering and violating the natural world – a semi-allegory for what the USA was doing at the time in south-east Asia.
As well as repudiating the worst parts of the genre, such responses implied a positive model for science fiction. Science fiction wasn’t about evading reality – it was a literary anthropology which made our own society into a foreign culture which we could stand back from, reflect on, and change.
Rather than ask us to pull on our anti-gravity boots, open the escape hatch and leap into fantasy, science fiction typically aspires to be a literature that faces up to social reality. It owes this ambition, in part, to psychology’s repeated accusation that the genre markets escapism to the marginalised and disaffected.
The future isn’t what it used to be, at least according to the Canadian science fiction novelist William Gibson. In a interview with the BBC, Gibson said people seemed to be losing interest in the future. “All through the 20th century we constantly saw the 21st century invoked,” he said. “How often do you hear anyone invoke the 22nd century? Even saying it is unfamiliar to us. We’ve come to not have a future”.
Gibson thinks that during his lifetime the future “has been a cult, if not a religion”. His whole generation was seized by “postalgia”. This is a tendency to dwell on romantic, idealised visions of the future. Rather than imagining the past as an ideal time (as nostalgics do), postalgics think the future will be perfect. For example, a study of young consultants found many suffered from postalgia. They imagined their life would be perfect once they were promoted to partner.
“The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone”, Gibson said in 2012. “Ahead of us, there is merely … more stuff … events”. The upshot is a peculiarly postmodern malaise. Gibson calls it “future fatigue”. This is a condition where we have grown weary of an obsession with romantic and dystopian visions of the future. Instead, our focus is on now.
Gibson’s diagnosis is supported by international attitude surveys. One found that most Americans rarely think about the future and only a few think about the distant future. When they are forced to think about it, they don’t like what they see. Another poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of Americans were pessimistic about what lies ahead.
But pessimism about the future isn’t just limited to the US. One international poll of over 400,000 people from 26 countries found that people in developed countries tended to think that the lives of today’s children will be worse than their own. And a 2015 international survey by YouGov found that people in developed countries were particularly pessimistic. For instance, only 4% of people in Britain thought things were improving. This contrasted with 41% of Chinese people who thought things were getting better.
But other research suggests that this widespread pessimism as irrational. People who support this view, point out that on many measures the world is actually improving. And an Ipsos poll found that people who are more informed tend to be less pessimistic about the future.
Although there may be some objective reasons to be pessimistic, it is likely that other factors may explain future fatigue. Researchers who have studied forecasting say there are good reasons why we might avoid making predictions about the distant future.
For one, forecasting is always a highly uncertain activity. The longer the time frame one is making predictions about and the more complicated the prediction, the more room there is for error. This means that while it might be rational to make a projection about something simple in the near future, it is probably pointless to make projections about something complex in the very distant future.
Economists have known for many years that people tend to discount the future. That means we put a greater value on something which we can get immediately than something we have to wait for. More attention is paid to pressing short-term needs while longer-term investments go unheeded.
Psychologists have also found that futures that are close at hand seem concrete and detailed while those that are further away seem abstract and stylised. Near futures were more likely to be based on personal experience, while the distance future was shaped by ideologies and theories.
When a future seems to be closer and more concrete, people tend to think it is more likely to occur. And studies have shown that near and concrete futures are also more likely to spark us into action. So the preference for concrete, close-at-hand futures mean people tend to put off thinking about more abstract and distant possibilities.
The human aversion to thinking about the future is partially hardwired. But there are also particular social conditions that make us more likely to give up on the future. Sociologists have argued that for people living in fairly stable societies, it is possible to generate stories about what the future might be like. But in moments of profound social dislocation and upheaval, these stories stop making sense and we lose a sense of the future and how to prepare for it.
This is what happened in many native American communities during colonialism. This is how Plenty Coups, the leader of the Crow people, described it: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”
But instead of being thrown into a sense of despair by the future, Gibson thinks we should be a little more optimistic. “This new found state of No Future is, in my opinion, a very good thing … It indicates a kind of maturity, an understanding that every future is someone else’s past, every present is someone else’s future”.
In 2007 the then President of China, Hu Jintao, delivered a speech to South Africans acknowledging the benefits of a strategic partnership. He also stressed that the connection is not merely pragmatic. It must, he argued, serve to honour and deepen the countries’ long abiding friendship in the future.
The idea of friendship has undoubtedly informed the nature of Sino-African engagement. But if we use contemporary science fiction as a barometer, African sentiment towards China appears more inclined towards dystopian forecasts.
Science fiction writing often serves as a thought experiment that explores shared and hidden beliefs whose material and political reverberations lie further in the future. Various short stories portray how China’s economic ascension, operating under the guise of African development, uses technology as a means to invade and control Africa.
Narratives of this kind surface neo-colonial fears that a “new scramble for Africa” seems imminent. But they also provide a speculative arena to interrogate how we ultimately perceive the value, use and future of Sino-African political friendship.
As I’ve explored in my research, this means that science fiction can serve as an imaginative production of political theory. It intercedes in ways that international relations cannot because of the confines of diplomacy.
My research focused on three short science fiction stories from Africa.
In the first, Tendai Huchu’s “The Sale”, China has taken control of Zimbabwe through the production of a corporatised state called CorpGov. It’s a surveillance state that leaves no room for political dissension. Zimbabwe has been purchased by China in a piecemeal fashion. It is now set to lose its last free portion of land in a final sale. When a young Zimbabwean man fails to prevent the sale of this remaining plot of land, he succumbs to despair and puts himself in the path of a Chinese bulldozer.
His suicide evokes a sense of profound helplessness and warns that China will need to be vehemently counteracted in the near future to protect Zimbabwe’s already breached borders. Huchu’s narrative provides a sharp sense of clarity that makes the story incredibly impactful.
The pathos of “The Sale” holds a mirror up to China. It communicates an earnest appeal for more humane engagement. Yet the heaviness of its dystopian narrative also breeds a spirit of nihilism or Afropessimism. This overrides any sense of African accountability in the degenerative state of future Sino-Zimbabwean relations.
Abigail Godsell’s “Taal” (an Afrikaans word meaning “language”) is self-conscious in this regard. It’s set in the year 2050, after a nuclear war between China and America has left the entire globe in a state of desolation. As a result, the South African government willingly signed over ownership of the country to China in exchange for protection.
The central protagonist, an especially resentful young woman named Callie, has joined a militant rebel group in a covert attempt to overthrow the Chinese. But after injuring a soldier, she pulls off his helmet and is surprised that he converses in Afrikaans because, to all other appearances, he is Chinese. The fact that he speaks Afrikaans implies he is a South African. She is stupefied by the exchange: it highlights her simplistic understanding of what the enemy should look like.
This uncanny revelation undoubtedly draws attention to the spectral presence of Chinese-South Africans who have not received due recognition as bona fide citizens.
Callie, who is initially critical of Chinese propaganda, begins to read her positionality as a South African freedom fighter on equally problematic terms. Her defensiveness drops and she confesses that South Africa was caught off-guard amid a global crisis. The country did not have a sufficient national security plan; China has offered significantly more protection than the South African government was capable of at the time.
Godsell’s introspective narrative shift focus away from Chinese agitation. It allows the reader to consider the nature of South African apathy by conveying that the country may not lack a fighting spirit but, unlike China, lacks the necessary foresight and organisation to bolster the nation.
Negative representations of China in the African imaginary gesture at the idea that a certain amount of envy informs the continent’s responses to China. They also suggest that African countries can benefit from emulating China’s uncompromising nationalistic and commercial drive. This possibility is more fully explored in Mandisi Nkomo’s “Heresy”.
Nkomo’s narrative is set in the year 2040. South-South interactions challenge the global status quo. China has risen in global economic rankings. But South Africa has not fallen under its sway: the nations are caught up in a highly competitive space race. South Africa is determined to not be outdone by the Chinese and channels its resources in meeting this goal.
“Heresy” conveys how Africans can construct an invisible enemy out of China by exponentially accelerating South African development. This light-hearted narrative assumes the challenge of imagining the current tension of Sino-African relations otherwise. It shows how friendly rivalry can inadvertently lead to African progress.
In their book Friendship and International Relations, academics Andrea Oelsner and Simon Koschut write that it is:
necessary to think of international friendship not as something that is merely being performed at the intergovernmental level but as something that is being enacted in the day-to-day activities and imaginations at all levels of society.
This certainly includes science fiction narratives that present us with a “succession of literary experiments, each one examining a small part of a much larger image and each equally necessary to the greater vision”.
Through these short stories, it immediately becomes possible to consider how China-Africa relations need not result in Chinese neocolonialism and African exploitation. They offer us more creative approaches to political friendship by reinventing and reinterpreting the roles of both parties in their narratives.
Similarly, pursued in this way, the future of China-Africa relations need not be seen as a singular act of solidarity that demands repeating. Instead it could be viewed as a more fluid encounter that allows for mutual investment in world-building projects while also providing enough objective distance to nurture difference and autonomy.
We are headed towards a future that is hard to contemplate. At present, global emissions are reaching record levels, the past four years have been the four hottest on record, coral reefs are dying, sea levels are rising and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Climate change is the defining issue of our time and now is the moment to do something about it. But what?
Society often looks to culture to try and make some sense of the world’s problems. Climate change challenges us to look ahead, past our own lives, to consider how the future might look for generations to come – and our part in this. This responsibility requires imagination.
So, it is no surprise that a literary phenomenon has grown over the past decade or two which seeks to help us imagine the impacts of climate change in clear language. This literary trend – generally known by the name “cli-fi” – has now been established as a distinctive form of science fiction, with a host of works produced from authors such as Margaret Atwood and Paolo Bacigalupi to a series of Amazon shorts.
Often these stories deal with climate science and seek to engage the reader in a way that the statistics of scientists cannot. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012), for example, creates emotional resonance with the reader through a novel about the effects of global warming on the monarch butterflies, set amid familiar family tensions. Lauren Groff’s short story collection Florida (2018) also brings climate change together with the personal set amid storms, snakes and sinkholes.
The end to come
Cli-fi is probably better known for those novels that are set in the future, depicting a world where advanced climate change has wreaked irreversible damage upon our planet. They conjure up terrible futures: drowned cities, uncontainable diseases, burning worlds – all scenarios scientists have long tried to warn us about. These imagined worlds tend to be dystopian, serving as a warning to readers: look at what might happen if we don’t act now.
Atwood’s dystopian trilogy of MaddAddam books, for example, imagines post-apocalyptic futurist scenarios where a toxic combination of narcissism and technology have led to our great undoing. In Oryx and Crake (2003), the protagonist is left contemplating a devastated world in which he struggles to survive as potentially the last human left on earth. Set in a world ravaged by sea level rise and tornadoes, Atwood revisits the character’s previous life to examine the greedy capitalist world fuelled by genetic modification that led to this apocalyptic moment.
Other dystopian cli-fi works include Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015), and the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004), both of which feature sudden global weather changes which plunge the planet into chaos.
Dystopian fiction certainly serves a purpose as a bleak reminder not to act lightly in the face of environmental disaster, often highlighting how climate change could in fact compound disparities across race and class further. Take Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (2015), a story of environmental disaster with a focus on gender and race relations – “illegal” Haitian refugees are bulldozed on the spot. A. Sayeeda Clarke’s short film White (2011), meanwhile, tells the story of one black man’s desperate search for money in a world where global warming has turned race into a commodity and circumstances lead him to donate his melanin.
The future reimagined
It is this primacy of the imagination that makes fictional dealings with climate change so valuable. Cli-fi author Nathaniel Rich, who wrote Odds Against Tomorrow (2013) – a novel in which a gifted mathematician is hired to predict worst-case environmental scenarios – has said:
I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality, which is that we’re headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative. And it’s the novelist’s job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?
As the UN 2019 Climate Action Summit attempts to bring the 2015 Paris Agreement up to speed, we need fiction that not only offers us new ways to look forward, but which also renders the inequalities of climate change explicit. It is also key that culturally we at least try to imagine a fairer world for all, rather than only visions of doom.
When now is the time that we need to act, the rarer utopian form of cli-fi is perhaps more useful. These works imagine future worlds where humanity has responded to climate change in a more timely and resourceful manner. They conjure up futures where human and non-human lives have been adapted, where ways of living have been reimagined in the face of environmental disaster. Scientists, and policy makers – and indeed the public – can look to these works as a source of hope and inspiration.
Utopian novels implore us to use our human ingenuity to adapt to troubled times. Kim Stanley Robinson is a very good example of this type of thinking. His works were inspired by Ursula Le Guin, in particular her novel The Dispossessed (1974), which led the way for the utopian novel form. It depicts a planet with a vision of universal access to food, shelter and community as well as gender and racial equality, despite being set on a parched desert moon.
Robinson’s utopian Science in the Capital trilogy centres on transformative politics and imagines a shift in the behaviour of human society as a solution to the climate crisis. His later novel New York 2140 (2017), set in a partly submerged New York which has successfully adapted to climate change, imagines solutions to more recent climate change concerns. This is a future that is mapped out in painstaking detail, from reimagined subways to mortgages for submarines, and we are encouraged to see how new communities could rise against capitalism.
This is inspirational – and useful – but it is also is crucial that utopian cli-fi novels make it clear that for every utopian vision an alternative dystopia could be just around the corner. (It’s worth remembering that in Le Guin’s foundational utopian novel The Dispossessed, the moon’s society have escaped from a dystopian planet.) This is a key flaw in the case of Robinson’s vision, which fails to feature the wars, famines and disasters outside of his new “Super Venice”: the main focus of the book is on the advances of western technology and economics.
Forward-thinking cli-fi, then, needs to imagine sustainable futures while recognising the disparities of climate change and honouring the struggles of the most vulnerable human and non-humans. Imagining positive futures is key – but a race where no one is left behind should be at the centre of the story we aspire to.
This is a concerted effort among news organisations to put the climate crisis at the forefront of our coverage. This article is published under a Creative Commons license and can be reproduced for free – just hit the “Republish this article” button on the page to copy the full HTML coding. The Conversation also runs Imagine, a newsletter in which academics explore how the world can rise to the challenge of climate change. Sign up here.