The Magazine

Future Imperfect

Science fiction as guide to the stages of life.

Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Writing at age 35, on the cusp between youth and the rest of life, I wanted to know what to do about being a rock critic when I was no longer young. (Easy—quit.) Now, 20 years later, and on the verge of leaving middle age, I look to science fiction to help me master the imaginable sting of death: not knowing what is going to happen in the world once we are gone. Though not all science fiction is set in the future, it’s the only genre that can be used to extend the emotional resonance of memory to the future. And so it is a natural fit for those no longer young.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson

This runs in the face of the casual understanding of the genre. Teenagers used to be assumed to be the primary audience for sci-fi, maybe for the reasons I advanced in 1993: They have few memories, so the line between past and future is blurrier for them. But though I cannot quantify my guess, many of the sci-fi novels published in the last decade seem so sophisticated, so complex and long, that it’s hard to imagine a very young person reading them. Yet even as far back as Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick—whom most people will know through the films of their works, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner—sci-fi novels have been obsessed with time and mortality. These are concerns much closer to the heart of the middle-aged and old than the young.

Consider some common themes: human beings setting off on multigenerational space voyages which the original travelers won’t live to complete; peoples’ memories being uploaded to a machine or a new body; the life-extending effects of traveling past the speed of light. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974), which has become iconic among the American military, is probably the best-known example of that last theme. It deals with life and death in interstellar warfare, with the additional complication that the fighters age just a few years for every hundred or so that occur in the society they are defending on Earth. Haldeman’s reflections on aging are more interesting than his futuristic combat scenes. (One wonderful motif is that the new young recruits for the endless war, born 500 or 1,000 years in the future, have to be taught 20th-century English in order to communicate with their commanders.)

Another great sci-fi trope—other worlds—has something to do with death as well. Sure, it’s natural to be fascinated with the idea of life in other worlds; but these counterlives can also be seen as standing in for an afterlife—or afterlives—few of us now believe in, or are able to picture. It is no stranger to be curious about living in the future than about living in the past, but for a combination of reasons, historical novels have enjoyed much more respectability than science fiction. If they are set in the recent past, such as Leo Tolstoy writing in 1869 of 1805 in War and Peace, historical novels aren’t even tainted by the genre label; but even books set in Tudor England get treated with more respect than books set 500 years in the future! One reason, no doubt, is that we know what happened 500 years ago, while anything about the future is pure speculation. 

Another reason, perhaps, is that sci-fi has a deserved reputation for emotional shallowness, for focusing on gadgets at the expense of psychological depth. It’s true that even the best of sci-fi tends to lack emotional nuance: I have yet to find a Marcel Proust or Jane Austen, a Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf writing about the future. This is probably because of an unconscious assumption in the genre that the reader provides some of the emotional urgency: We each have a keen interest in our mortality. But the three books reviewed here have characters as live and real as those of Anthony Trollope or Edith Wharton, if not as vivid as those of masters of the first rank. And there’s no reason to be embarrassed to read these authors: China Miéville, a 40-year-old Briton, has a doctorate in international relations from the London School of Economics and has stood for Parliament; Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ph.D. is in English literature; the Finnish Hannu Rajaniemi is a 34-year-old string theorist who has also set up a consulting firm in Scotland, where he lives. 

Reading 2312, Embassytown, and The Quantum Thief one after the other would be particularly interesting, since they offer some degree of consensus as to what the future will look like. All anticipate human beings living off Earth, with Machiavellian power politics played out across the solar system, bisexual and hermaphroditic norms, and extended human lifespans and other advances that lessen the sting of death. Each has a thought-provoking vision of a future society, and each has a startling take on time and/or mortality. 

2312, Kim Stanley Robinson’s imagining of a fully inhabited solar system and dying Earth, seems fresh and vital. In this future, humans routinely live to be nearly 200, and those who have chosen to be “smalls” (under a meter high) have never known a natural death. The main character is an immature 135-year-old performance artist, Swan Er Hong. Surgical and chemical augmentations are common in 2312, but Swan has had what even her contemporaries feel is a shocking number of bodily and brain modifications, including taking DNA that gives her the ability to chirp like a bird and purr like a cat, and ingesting the only alien life found in the solar system. She is also a hermaphrodite, who has both given birth and impregnated a lover. 

Robinson, who has published more than a dozen well-regarded sci-fi novels, many with environmental themes, relishes his many descriptions of the artificially terraformed asteroids that house people in this future world and serve as a means of traveling around the solar system. They are fascinating. So is the description of Hong’s home planet, a terraformed Mercury, known for its artistic communities, which have made “goldsworthies” and “abramovics” in its striking, dangerous landscape. Like many locals, Swan enjoys “sunwalking” on the dark side of Mercury, keeping just ahead of the dawn’s deadly heat.

China Miéville’s Embassytown imagines a colony of humans at one of the ends of the universe, set up to interact with a planet of aliens whose language remains stubbornly inaccessible to humans. I loved the playful treatment of the idea of the indeterminacy of translation, and the way the aliens are called Hosts—just as Afghanistan is called the “host nation” for our armed forces, with a similar absence of irony. The heroine, a space pilot named Avice Benner Cho, was a “simile” in her childhood, a resident of Embassytown honored by being asked by the Hosts to act out what will become a part of their language. (Hosts have no understanding of metaphor and are unable to lie.) To express the idea of being “as happy as a pig in mud” they would have to put a pig in mud and watch what happens. And humans call their speech “Language” with a capital “L.” 

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi is a thriller set on a far-future Mars, in a solar system caught up in complicated political maneuvering. The residents have near-immortality, but the catch is that not all of their life is spent being human. Everyone is born with an allotment of Time, which they spend for whatever consumer goods they like. They live longer when living frugally. When a local’s Time runs out, his personality is uploaded into a nonhuman worker body, a Quiet, which does repetitive physical work on behalf of the colony until it’s time to get a human body again.  

The hero, Jean, a master thief, has amnesia when we meet him in prison. His feisty love interest, Mieli, from a radically different culture at the other end of the solar system, rescues him to stage a heist. Things get complicated as Jean and Mieli become entangled in an almost-love triangle with Mieli’s spaceship, Perhonen, an artificial intelligence with a personality. Another interesting facet of this far-future Mars is that all information is uploaded into the equivalent of a cloud, called the exomemory, but everyone has adjustable personal privacy shields. You choose who can see you in public, and how much. You can appear as a blur, if you want. Two roommates can live in the same apartment, while keeping their privacy screens on, and each can feel himself alone.

Ann Marlowe, a writer in New York, is the author, most recently, of David Galula: His Life and Intellectual Context.