Looking Ahead to the Future

“WMD world map” by Fastfission is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Much of speculative fiction, particularly in the science fiction and (post) Apocalyptic genres, deals with imagined future worlds. These futuristic settings allow speculative authors to envision the fate of humanity in various potential scenarios. Often this involves extrapolating current political, social, or moral trends, envisioning what our future circumstances may be if we continue down certain paths of social and technological development. There are many speculative works which follow this approach, such as:

  • Margaret Atwood’s Madd Adam trilogy, which explores a future of corporate dominance, widespread genetic manipulation, and advanced climate change.
  • George Orwell’s 1984, in which a totalitarian regime has successfully dominated its people through constant surveillance.
  • Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, which examines class-ism and the effects of industrialism.

Screenshot from the opening scene of Deus Ex

The setting for the game Deus Ex was conceived along these lines, with writer Sheldon Pacotti and director Warren Spector imagining a future where nations are effectively governed by large corporations and the widening divide between rich and poor stirs unrest and rebellion in the form of domestic terrorism. Utilizing this imagined future setting, the game’s creators ask players to think critically about ideas relevant to reality, such as capitalism’s ability to self-regulate or the consequences of continuing modern trends of grossly unbalanced wealth distribution. Pacotti explains how “Warren Spector’s vision of a future in which high technology empowers the elite felt to me like sober futurism compared to the dot-com delirium [of the time]” (qtd. in Butler), indicating the appeal of utilizing a dystopic future over a strictly realist setting.

“CCTV Cameras Apocalypse” (uploaded by Alex Borland)

However, speculating about the future is not limited to just imagining the consequences of current trends. By dealing in an imagined future world, speculative authors can take social, political, and moral concepts to their logical extremes. Philosopher Ross Cameron suggests that “creating an extreme world can help convince us of some moral claim by isolating and exaggerating the relevant features” (32). In 1984, Orwell sets out to warn societies of the dangers of pervasive, unchecked surveillance by imagining governmental surveillance taken to its extreme ends. In Deus Ex, audiences are asked to consider the consequences of sacrificing freedom in favor of security.

The idea, then, is that these imagined futures invite readers to think critically about reality in a way that realism perhaps does not. As authors Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner suggest, “[b]y proposing possible visions of the future, science fiction asks questions of us—of humanity, of Earth, of individuals—that we wouldn’t ordinarily ask ourselves.”

“London meteor apocalypse” by Ben Sutherland is licensed under CC BY 2.0