How Science Fiction Imagined the 2020s
What ‘Blade Runner,’ cyberpunk, and Octavia Butler had to say about the age we’re entering now
When 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.