Readersforum's Blog

December 3, 2011

Can science fiction lead us away from economic collapse?

Post-apocalyptic visions ... Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Recent SF novels dealing with the fall of western capitalism seem right on the mark. But do they offer any answers?

By Damien Walter

It’s a truism that science fiction, however distinct its vision of the future, is always just as much a reflection of its present. The golden age of SF writers, including Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke, predicted near futures of a colonised solar system and an era of engineering marvels from robotics to space elevators. But, viewed through a historical lens, their futures say far more about the cold war politics of 1950s America than the post-industrial world of 2011. If science fiction provides a record of the hopes and fears of each generation for the future ahead, what do contemporary SFwriters say about today?

Seed, by debut novelist Rob Ziegler, extrapolates a future rooted in the economic and environmental concerns of the early 21st century. In common with novels such as Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl, it explores one of the main preoccupations of science fiction in recent years, the collapse of western-style capitalism. Hardwired into Ziegler’s post-apocalyptic vision of a US ravaged by famine and warfare, is an exploration of the extreme material scarcity that the collapse will create for generations to come.

Through a Rust Belt landscape of decaying cities and starving refugees, Ziegler weaves a fast-paced action plot, creating a powerful metaphor for the choices we face today in a world of economic uncertainty. Seed’s narrative turns on the mega-corporation city state that controls the future economy, significantly named Satori, the Zen Buddhist term for spiritual enlightenment. Solutions lie, Ziegler’s novel suggests, not in the military or political spheres, but in our capacity to address and improve our own nature as humans.

If western capitalism is the victim in much of contemporary science fiction, then China is often the beneficiary. Maureen F McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang is surely among the most prescient SF novels of the last century. In McHugh’s future, China’s command economy dominates the world, and the US has become a secondary power following the Cleansing Winds Campaign, a socialist revolution similar in nature to China’s own cultural revolution.

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