Unimagined Worlds to Come

Lately I’ve been diving into the somewhat recent Old Mars anthology. This collection features stories set on the Mars of science fiction’s old solar system—the Mars, that is, with a breathable (if often cold and thin) atmosphere, ancient canals and ruined cities, and a variety of strange alien life. As someone who did not read much science fiction as a child and has heretofore delved only lightly into the old solar system, the collection is proving quite fun, and leaving me excited to crack open the companion collection, Old Venus.

I came upon the anthology via John Michael Greer’s recent announcement of a new writing contest. Unlike many of his past contests—which have focused on deindustrial science fiction and, ultimately, proved the impetus for the founding of Into the Ruins—this one is focused on stories set in the old solar system: one teeming with strange life and accessible to human beings through a variety of fantastical means, in many ways unconcerned with technical feasibility as it relates to our current scientific knowledge. The stories set in this universe are proving a real joy to read, and it’s the lack of concern for our current understanding of our solar system that makes them so. Rather than a lifeless void dotted with lifeless planets, the solar system in these stories is filled with varying forms of life, offering stories that are as often as not part adventure, featuring strange new worlds that help get the imagination churning.

In case it’s not clear, I like this. Much of modern science fiction, frankly, is boring in its depictions of techno-utopias, techno-dystopias, and everything in between—so long as there’s a “techno” in front of it. The focus of the story is too often on the technology, and the technology is far too often some extrapolated version of what we have today. That’s not all that interesting—especially if, like me, you don’t find most of our current microprocessor-based gadgets all that interesting. I find life more enjoyable and more lively when such gadgets have a minimal presence in my life.

Similarly, I like my non-Earth planets filled with strange, beautiful landscapes and fascinating alien lifeforms. Based on what we know of the planets in our solar system, though, they aren’t. Mars is not filled with ancient canals, ruined cities, and bizarre Martians. It’s more a barren, lifeless desert with soil that probably kills bacteria, so far as we know, and devoid of the myriad life that makes being outside here on Earth a joy. I don’t mean to knock Mars—if it was simple to take a day trip to check it out, I would—but humans are exquisitely designed for and a product of only one planet with all it’s particulars and peculiarities, and that planet ain’t Mars (or Venus, or Saturn, or Jupiter . . .). It’s Earth. There’s a reason we like it here. It created us.

Given the reality of Mars (to the degree that we know it) and every other planet in our solar system, it’s only in fiction that traveling to these planets opens up thrilling adventures, fascinating discoveries of new forms of life, and sweeping landscapes that rival our own in their beauty. And it’s only in fiction that the dull, lifeless planets of our solar system are transformed into fantastical alternate versions of the one planet that we humans actually do know.

Of course, despite my enjoyment of this type of science fiction, such stories don’t really fit the focus of Into the Ruins. They aren’t set on earth and they don’t tend to follow the laws of the natural world as we best understand them. (Granted, I am open to flexibility on this point, as I don’t believe we fully understand how the natural world works and I’m a big believer in mystery, but I’m confident that Mars and Venus in reality are not the teeming worlds of science fiction past, and I’m furthermore confident that zipping around the solar system to these planets is something that we likely never will do and that, if we do, it will be a one- or two-off affair at best before we realize—consciously or not—that we simply can’t spare the energy and resources for such unnecessary and largely pointless excursions.) Despite this, though, I think they have something to teach science fiction writers, deindustrial and otherwise: unique worlds teeming with life are fascinating settings for a good tale, and worlds largely devoid of life are much less so.

How is that relevant to deindustrial science fiction? Well, to my mind, tales set in unique futures teeming with life are for more fascinating than airbrushed tales of the future dominated by microprocessor-driven gadgets and other technological artifacts. And futures depicting a linear extrapolation of current technology and the dominant political, economic, and social orders of today are not unique futures; they’re mostly just more of the same, both in terms of what we already know in our day-to-day lives and what so much of science fiction unimaginatively regurgitates in the pop culture of our time. That’s one of the reasons I started the magazine, to get different visions of the future out there. Another reason I started it was to publish tales in which humans are given their rightful place in the cosmos: as simply one more unique and compelling species on this planet, evolved out of the particular ecosystems found here over the planet’s life, a part of this world but not apart of this world, and with the ability to influence but not the ability to exert anything near total control over the natural world or our ultimate path within it. Much in the same way that I find adventures in the old solar system more compelling than adventures in the real solar system, tales taking place within this understanding and context are, for me, far more interesting than ones that suppose human control over the natural world.

What’s most exciting to me about these old solar system tales, though, is the ways in which they allow for a wide variety of visions, creatures, worlds, landscapes, and other creative and imaginative details not locked into some straight jacket of over-familiarity. Granted, no doubt this version of the old solar system has its own tropes and common themes that I’m sure were written into the ground throughout the decades of the subgenre’s dominance. But one of the joys in returning to them now is the stark contrast they provide to the dominant SF tropes of today, and the dizzying array of storytelling options available on planets with water and breathable atmospheres, as opposed to the lifeless deserts or otherwise hostile environments we now know them to be.

You know what other planet with water and a breathable atmosphere offers a dizzying array of storytelling options? The one we call home, of course. That, to me, is the eventual promise of deindustrial science fiction: the opportunity to break SF as commonly presented today out of its doldrums and unleash it into a future world that can—and almost certainly will—look nearly as alien as the planets of the old solar system. I don’t think we’re there yet, as many stories still have not moved past some of the already-established tropes of the emerging genre and it is still so hard for most of us stuck in the prison of our shockingly unimaginative culture to truly envision future cultures that look nothing like our own, use technologies as alien to us today as our current technologies would have been to someone living centuries or millennia past, organize themselves along economic and political lines that have yet to be thought of or invented, and interact with domestic and wild species yet to evolve. And yet, all those future possibilities are out there, and they all can exist within realistic natural limits.

The old solar system—and good deal of other forms of science fiction settings—have led to incredibly imaginative works from writers throughout our history. The future as imagined by science fiction has, too; it just so happens that many of those future imaginations—particularly more recent ones—not only won’t happen, but can’t happen due to the limitations and hard realities of the planet we live on and universe we live within. There are still, however, an incredible variety of futures yet to be imagined that could still happen within the limitations of our planet. Yet the vast majority of those futures have remained unexplored in science fiction because they don’t confirm to the computer-focused futures and the linear extrapolations of today’s realities that have come to dominate the genre.

It’s far past time to start exploring those futures, though. This is not only because those are the kinds of futures we actually are going to get, but that humane and functional futures that are feasible in the face of energy and resource constraints are far more likely to come to fruition if we begin imagining and exploring them through the creative avenues of our time. It’s also time to start exploring them because these are far more interesting futures than the ones that science fiction so often explore. I think there are fascinating future civilizations that will develop in the centuries and millennia to come, and I’d really love to read some good stories in which creative writers imagine those future civilizations and their distinctive and, to us, likely bizarre ways of understanding, knowing, and interacting with the world. Just as a great story set on a shockingly alien world is an exhilarating spark for the imagination, so too can a great story set in a shockingly alien, but still distinctly human, future right here on earth send the mind wheeling off in a thousand creative directions.

As Into the Ruins continues to develop and evolve, and the subgenre of deindustrial science fiction does the same, I hope to see more of these strange, stunning, alien futures come to the fore and emerge as creative forces from some of the many great writers in the world today. Minds set to unleash the possibilities of completely different forms of technology, different economic and political arrangements, new religious forms, different ways of living within and interacting with the broader world, and different ways of meeting basic needs, taking joy in life, and earning personal fulfillment could yet influence the course of history, opening up possibilities that seem unimaginable—or, more on point, currently are unimagined—in today’s world. There’s no reason we can’t begin discovering those futures today, and so I hope that those reading this will take the time to pick up a pen or fire up the word processor and begin imagining those futures.

And when you’re done, send it in. Whether as a full fledged story or a letter to the editor, let’s start getting the ideas out there, and start imagining the real futures facing us, and the exhilarating possibilities those futures hold.

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