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How Science Fiction Imagined the 2020s

Photo: Ning Li/Getty Images

WWhen you imagine the future, what’s the first date that comes into your mind? 2050? 2070? The year that pops into your head is almost certainly related to how old you are — some point within our lifetimes yet distant enough to be mysterious, still just outside our grasp. For those of us growing up in the 1980s and ’90s — and for a large number of science fiction writers working in those decades — the 2020s felt like that future. A decade we would presumably live to see but also seemed sufficiently far away that it could be a world full of new technologies, social movements, or political changes. A dystopia or a utopia; a world both alien and familiar.

That future is, of course, now. Last year famously marked the moment when the setting of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi movie masterpiece Blade Runner (1982) slid from the future into the past — it was set in November 2019 — spawning dozens of hot takes and essays not unlike this one. But Blade Runner is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to science fiction movies and novels that depicted the then-near future of the 2020s. Seeing as how we are now unhappily ensconced in said 2020s, we have a chance to use hindsight to evaluate them. What did they get right, and what makes them now seem dated? Why? And what can we learn from the future forecasts about our now-present from the writers and speculators of the past?

The story begins, as many futures conceived during and after the 1980s do, with cyberpunk. Back in the 1980s, before movies and video games reduced the genre to a mass of unimaginative violence and body modification tropes, cyberpunk was the literary movement that was busy projecting our fears about rampant capitalism, media oversaturation, and emerging computer networks into fictional futures. William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and the related short stories in its orbit might have coined and popularized the term “cyberspace.” But it was a slightly lesser-known novel by a writer who was just as influential that arguably presented the first detailed exploration of a heavily networked world.

‘Islands in the Net’ by Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1988) is set in 2023 and depicts a world consumed by something similar to the internet, known simply as the Net. The Net both houses and is controlled by vast, decentralized multinational corporations. While Islands in the Net is notable for foreseeing how monopolized parts of the supposedly free internet would become, perhaps its most chilling prediction is the use of drones to fight a forever war between government-corporations and terrorist data pirates rebelling against top-down globalization:

When they locate the bandits, they attack them with robot planes… They’re specialists, technicians. They learned things, in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Namibia. How to fight Third Worlders without letting them touch you. They don’t even look at them, except through computer screens… Small, quiet, run by remote control. Fighting in places where no one looks.

What’s fascinating about Sterling’s predictions about warfare here is that, at first glance, he seems to have missed the reason for the war itself. Islands in the Net isn’t about the never-ending conflict between Islamic terrorism and Western governments that we’re constantly being told we’re fighting, but instead a war between developing nations and globalization itself. The economic booms of the 1980s saw an opening of global markets and massive increases in the power of multinational corporations as they threatened to diminish the role of governments and nation-states. Those corporations then proceeded to steamroll them with the unstoppable homogeneity of free-market economics, cookie-cutter consumer brands, and familiar corporate logos.

The world of ‘Islands in the Net’ is filled with consumer devices that sound remarkably similar to Apple Watches and Nike running shoes that record performance data.

Of course, you only have to scratch at the surface of the real so-called war on terror to reveal the industries that profit from it — the arms manufacturers, the oil and mining companies, the mercenary armies of private security companies, the banks and developers that swoop in to rebuild after the destruction — and Sterling’s fear of a war between multinational corporations and the global poor suddenly doesn’t seem unrealistic at all.

The world of Islands in the Net is filled with consumer devices that sound remarkably similar to Apple Watches and Nike running shoes that record performance data. But as Brendan Byrne points out in Arc magazine, for every accurate glimpse of consumer gadgets and corporate networks, its ending feels off. A global conspiracy, revealed via leaks, hacks, and whistleblowers, is dumped for all to see on the Net. The result is a shock to power, a minor revolution where public outrage at the revelations results in real political change and mass wrongs being righted. From the real-world 2020s, where it feels like injustices are exposed on a daily basis, but where our hope for justice is lost in the signal-to-noise ratio of the infinite scroll, this idea now feels naive.

‘Software’ by Rudy Rucker

Not every 1980s cyberpunk novel nailed the 2020s as well as Sterling’s did, but many of them captured the zeitgeist in other ways. Like Rudy Rucker’s cult hit, Software (1983), a post-singularity tale set in 2020. At first glance, Rucker’s world is entirely unrecognizable from a vantage point of the real 2020: Robots — known as boppers — have become self-aware and fled to cities on the moon, while the humans left behind are uploading their consciousnesses to try to compete. But hidden within the high-tech drama lurk concerns that are strikingly familiar to ours: There’s a palpable generational angst as aging baby boomers struggle to find their place and identity in this rapidly changing world, and the humans’ battle to be uploaded feels a lot like our own current fight for affordable health care.

It’s pretty easy to see the roots of these hopes and fears — the 1980s were also a time of seemingly limitless and rapid technological change. Many people started the decade not really understanding what a computer was and ended it using them in many aspects of their daily lives. Microchips were suddenly in every household object and appliance, from refrigerators to microwave ovens, and video games and VCRs were redefining entertainment and how we interact with and consume it. It was an exciting time, but it also came with new anxieties, such as the very real fear that you had to keep up or be left behind — made old, forgotten, and redundant — by each new technological wave. It’s a fear Software (and its sequels) captures perfectly, and one that, of course, still resonates today, making Rucker’s techno-hippie characters and tripped-out, psychedelic prose feel relevant all over again.

‘The Running Man’ by Stephen King

Concerns about how technological acceleration was affecting culture and the economy were such a focus in the 1980s and ’90s that even writers not usually associated with the genre were taking a stab at near futures set in the 2020s. In 1982, Stephen King, writing under the alias Richard Bachman, published The Running Man, the story of a violent, gladiatorial TV show where everyday citizens compete for money in a dystopian 2025 America that has collapsed into extreme wealth inequality and oppressive policing. The Arnold Schwarzenegger movie adaptation came out in 1987, and the two are largely quite similar apart from a few details — in the film, contestants are framed as criminals and dissidents, while in the book, protagonist Richards volunteers for the show out of desperation as a way to save his struggling family from extreme poverty. In the book, the game itself plays out over weeks, rather than just the one night, and the arena is the whole of the United States, allowing King to explore his projection of American society at large and focus more widely on issues such as race and economic collapse.

‘The Children of Men’ by P.D. James

Another writer not usually associated with sci-fi or the future is the crime novelist P.D. James, who in 1992 published The Children of Men — another book better known for its movie adaptation. Set in 2021, both the book and movie focus on a sudden collapse in fertility — men’s sperm counts inexplicably drop so low that the human race simply stops being able to reproduce. Again, the economy collapses, inequality grows, and a fascist dictatorship rises. While the excellent 2006 film adaptation is famed for its eerily realistic depiction of a country in decay, the book has some fascinating ideas that didn’t make it to the movie — such as a growing obsession with pets as a substitute for children, with owners doting on their pets in extreme ways, including dressing them in clothes, pushing them in prams, and even holding christening services for them. None of which, it should be noted, actually feel that outrageous to anybody who uses social media in 2020. Infertility may not be the driver, but these days there’s often a distinct feeling that people are channeling some latent paternal love into pets rather than children. And indeed, the economic pressures and anxieties about the future are discouraging many millennials from having kids.

‘Past Tense’ (‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ episode)

Also deserving of a mention here because it seems so atypical and eerily prescient is a two-part episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine broadcast in 1995 called “Past Tense.” Even Star Trek — more commonly known for far-future, techno-utopian, planet-hopping space opera — couldn’t escape the widespread fears of collapse in the 1980s and ’90s. The first episode opens with a transporter error that sends three crew members back in time to 2024 San Francisco. Two characters are promptly arrested for being homeless and dumped in a “sanctuary zone,” a walled inner-city internment camp for those unable to find work. The third crew member conversely has the good fortune to be found by a literal tech billionaire who made his fortune running media platforms on the internet — sorry, “the interface” — and government data-mining contracts. The story takes an even more radical and political turn when the characters realize they have to ensure that a riot happens in the sanctuary zone, thus triggering political events that will give rise to the Federation, or it will never come to exist. It seems that the peaceful, science-driven, post-scarcity utopia of Star Trek was, in fact, built not just on Californian technology, but on protest and revolution.

It now feels like much of Butler’s ‘Parable’ books might have been pulled straight off this afternoon’s Twitter.

‘Parable of the Sower’ and ‘Parable of the Talents’ by Octavia Butler

Two science fiction books set in the 2020s tower over everything else from that era in their terrifying prescience: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). These books by the late master kick off in 2024 Los Angeles and are set against a backdrop of a California that’s been ravaged by floods, storms, and droughts brought on by climate change. Middle- and working-class families huddle together in gated communities, attempting to escape the outside world through addictive pharmaceuticals and virtual reality headsets. New religions and conspiracy theory–chasing cults begin to emerge. A caravan of refugees head north to escape the ecological and social collapse, while a far-right extremist president backed by evangelical Christians comes to power using the chillingly familiar election slogan Make America Great Again.

Although it now feels like much of Butler’s Parable books might have been pulled straight from this afternoon’s Twitter or tonight’s evening news, some elements are more far-fetched. The second book ends with followers of the new religion founded by the central character leaving Earth in a spaceship to colonize Alpha Centauri. Butler originally planned to write a third book following the fates of these interstellar explorers but, sadly, passed away in 2005 before she had a chance. She left us with a duology that remains more grounded and scarily familiar to those of us struggling to come to terms with the everyday dystopias that the real 2020s seem to be already presenting us.

Not that this remarkable accuracy was ever her objective.

“This was not a book about prophecy; this was an if-this-goes-on story,” Butler said about the books during a talk at MIT in 1998. “This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is I certainly hope not.”

In the same talk, Butler describes in detail the fears that drove her to write this warning: the debate over climate change, the eroding of workers’ rights, the rise of the private prison industry, and the media’s increasing refusal to talk about all of these in favor of focusing on soundbite propaganda and celebrity news. Again, these are fears that feel instantly familiar today.

PPerhaps that’s the most important thing to consider when evaluating science fiction about the future, whether old or new: to not get bogged down in the details, in the accuracy of its predictions, or whether it seems dated. Making accurate predictions about the future is not only an impossible task for science fiction but also one of its least interesting aims. It’s never really about the future, but the present, is an oft-repeated mantra for good reason: It’s impossible to remove art from the time in which it was created, and as such, stories about the future will obviously reflect the aspirations, concerns, and fears of the period in which they were first told.

Which is why so many themes in 2020s science fiction from the 1980s and ’90s seem to be repeated: A fear of economic collapse and inequality is understandable when your well-being seems tied to fragile cycles of boom-and-bust economies, and it’s not surprising to worry that technology might strip you of political control — or even your humanity — when there seem to be so many new, smaller, more powerful gadgets in the stores every week that you start to lose track. It was also the era when climate change started to make the news for the first time, and while it didn’t find its way into the public consciousness quickly enough, it certainly seemed to have grabbed the interest of science fiction writers. What’s interesting when looking back is how often these works got things right. They might have missed some details, gave consumer objects stupid-sounding names, or failed to see the smartphone coming, but they’re remarkably close to the issues we’re worrying about in 2020 and a testament to their authors’ ability to tap into trends, changes, and conflicts in the world around them.

So maybe it’s time for us to reevaluate what it means to be “dated”as less of a criticism and more of an accolade. It could signify that a novel or movie is “of a certain date” and perhaps acts as an important historical document or as a time capsule of the author’s dreams and nightmares (and perhaps those of wider society) and the lessons they can teach us about the futures we are yet to shape.



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Tim Maughan

Writer. Debut novel INFINITE DETAIL out now on FSG. Bylines at BBC, Motherboard, New Scientist.