Just over two years ago, when science fiction writer Mary Robinette Kowal took part in a strategic task force looking into a Department of Next at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, it didn’t take long for her to realize why she’d been asked to attend.
Faced with flat attendance and the pressure to remain relevant in an entertainment-saturated world, the museum was looking to inject a sense of urgency into its mission. The board wanted to reposition the 84-year-old institution as “a futurist and provocateur,” as president and CEO David Mosena put it at the time. Exhibits moving forward should include plausible futurescapes and a narrative shape to how human beings might live.
“And one of the things that happened during these massive brainstorming sessions was that people would keep saying things like, ‘We don’t think anyone has really thought through the ramifications of what would happen if you tried to colonize another planet, having to set out in a ship that would involve people living on it for generations before they got there,’” says Ms. Kowal, a four-time winner of the Hugo Award, science fiction’s top prize.
Some 50 thinkers participated in the museum’s task force, including scientists, business leaders, and a few other science fiction writers. “I told them, that’s called a ‘generation ship,’ and I can give you a reading list of people who’ve imagined that,” says Ms. Kowal, whose own short story “For Want of a Nail” did so in 2011.
On the cusp of this new year, 2020, the Monitor invited Ms. Kowal and a number of contemporary science fiction writers to take part in our own version of a Department of Next, asking them a simple, open-ended question: What will life be like in 2050?
Their visions vary from cargo liners that will float down from space to move your furniture, to smart robots that might make it unnecessary for people to work, to buildings embedded with crops in a new network of global green cities.
But before we get into their predictions, it might be worth asking something else: Why query science fiction writers at all? For starters, we thought that 2020 was a year practically begging for careful reflection on the future, it being a marker of two decades into the 21st century and both an election and a census year. Even its digital symmetry conjures something like a call for collective visions of the future and past.
And science fiction writers do dabble in notions that sometimes become reality. Jules Verne, Gene Roddenberry, and Philip K. Dick dreamed up technical wonders such as submarines, hand-held communication devices, and touch-screen computers decades before they became reality. They and other sci-fi writers are even credited with inspiring engineers and designers who later constructed these cutting-edge innovations.
“We are the ones who inspire; we’re the ones who throw people into the future before we get there and say, ‘Well, look, our world might be better than this,’” says Tade Thompson, author of the critically acclaimed “Wormwood” trilogy, a series of novels about the social and political state of the world in 2066, decades after an alien invasion in 2012.
The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago wasn’t the only institution to invite the perspectives of science fiction writers. The consulting behemoth PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) published a 2017 corporate guide on “Using science fiction to explore business innovation,” and that same year the Harvard Business Review produced a report on “Why Business Leaders Need to Read More Science Fiction.” Since then a host of corporations, civic institutions, think tanks, and government agencies have been hiring science fiction writers to help them create their own visions of the future.
“A lot of what science fiction does is … conduct thought experiments about the technology that we are currently grappling with, and extend the logical causal chains into the future to see what the ramifications of that technology will be on our social structure,” says Ms. Kowal.
“For me, it’s less about what technology are we going to see in 2050, and more about what society is going to look like with the technology we have now, if it continues to develop in the way that it’s going,” she says.
In our conversations, however, nearly every author dismissed the idea of science fiction writers being able to predict new types of technology, à la the Vernes and Roddenberrys of the past.
“It’s not going to be in the realm of technological advances, because we are already living in what was a science fictional world when I was a child,” says Mr. Thompson, who sets his “Wormwood” trilogy in Nigeria, decades after the alien invasion decimates much of the West. “So to me, it’s no longer about impressing audiences with futuristic designs of machines or spacecraft or whatever.
“The best, the most important area of exploration for a science fiction writer right now is how society will be built,” he continues. “It’s the Ursula K. Le Guin type of science fiction in which you think about alternative societies.”
But there was one thing Mr. Thompson and most all of the science fiction writers emphasized. “Science fiction cannot be ‘scientific’ if you don’t talk about global warming, talk about the effects climate change will have on everything we’re doing in 2050,” he says. “To be a good science fiction writer in this day and age, you have to include the state of the environment.”
A ‘little, vulnerable’ Earth
That was certainly a dominant theme in writer Laura Lam’s predictions about the world in 2050. When researching her forthcoming novel “Goldilocks,” Ms. Lam asked a number of scientists what Earth might look like from orbit a few decades from now, in a worst-case climate scenario. In an extended written answer to our query, she included a description from “Goldilocks,” a story about the first all-female space mission to an exosolar planet, part of a rush to the heavens because the Earth has only 30 years left of human habitation.
It didn’t look like a marble; it was too clearly alive. The clouds crawled slowly, the planet bisected by the line of day and night. …
The land on the other continents was too brown and golden, the green too sparse. There were swathes of land where humans could no longer survive, and the habitable areas were growing crowded. There was even some gold-green in the oceans from dust storms blowing off the continents and fertilising phytoplankton blooms.
Earth was such a little, vulnerable thing in the grand scope of the universe.
Yet the worst-case scenario envisioned in her novel, which will be published in 2020, is not the only possibility she sees for life in 2050. In her response to the Monitor, she weighs two different pathways.
“Turn right: do everything we know we need to do, fix Earth, still look to space but with less urgency. Turn left: we’ll be in space in 2050 because we ran out of time,” she writes. “There was no planet in the magic Goldilocks zone. We might be in space stations, looking out the window down at what we did every morning. Well, the ones who can afford the ticket will. That won’t be most of us.
“I wonder which direction we’ll go.”
Why Africa is the future
Writer Tochi Onyebuchi foresees a world in which new power centers begin to emerge on the global stage, as climate change and fast-changing population patterns disrupt those of the past.
“One of the things that I envision is a sort of rise of the global south,” says the author of “Beasts Made of Night,” a fantasy story also set in Nigeria that depicts a group of young “sin-eaters” called the aki, who must conjure and then battle beasts that materialize from the sins they discern in others. “I often say to almost anyone who will listen that, you know, Africa is the future.”
Mr. Onyebuchi has said that “Beasts Made of Night” is in many ways a metaphor for the effects of criminal justice systems and mass incarceration, a prism through which he explores concepts of guilt and sin, who gets punished for what and why.
One of his specific predictions, however, is the growing influence of China throughout the African continent. And as China’s economic and military might continues to expand in a region often dismissed or ignored by Western media, the relationships Beijing is cultivating with African governments will have enormous cultural effects on both regions of the world.
“You look at, for instance, Brexit, and you look … at all the current political turmoil in the U.S., and it’s very easy to extrapolate a world in which China becomes the reigning superpower with this vast array of political and cultural influence,” says Mr. Onyebuchi.
“African countries are already sending their students to schools in China. There’s the teaching of Mandarin in African schools, even as the interlocking of business interests between Chinese corporations and African governments continues to expand,” he says. “That in itself is a reality that can completely decenter the U.S., and that can completely decenter the [United Kingdom], and it’s essentially a sort of post-post-colonialism.”
A sleeping dragon in England
Part of the decline of the West will also have to do with the demographic challenges of an aging population, says the fantasy writer Priya Sharma, who is a London-based physician.
“So I think in the future, in 2050, obviously this population is going to need people to look after it over the next 20 years, and that’s going to affect social movements and global migration patterns,” says Ms. Sharma. She is the award-winning author of “Fabulous Beasts” and the 2019 fantasy novel “Ormeshadow,” a family drama set in the English countryside where the landscape, according to folklore, covers a buried, sleeping dragon that dreams of resentment, jealousy, estrangement, and death. “Countries like Japan, countries like those in the West with aging populations, are going to have to welcome immigration.
“In the U.K., we’ve historically poached highly trained professionals from the former colonies,” she continues. “I mean, during the ’60s, we had this whole generation of people from India and Africa who came in to be nurses, who came in to be doctors. Taking trained staff out of those countries raised questions about the morality and ethics of it all, but as living standards in the U.K. and in the Western world change, what if we get China and India and Africa poaching professionals from us?”
Such migration patterns will also be set in motion by the effects of climate change in 2050. As the geography of coastlines begins to alter, once-powerful cities, which rose to prominence over the centuries because of their access to oceans and global trade routes, will begin to lose their clout, says Ms. Kowal.
“California will not be a wine-growing region in 2050,” she says. “My husband is a wine-maker, and this is something that the wine industry has been talking about for over a decade.
“So I have been thinking a lot about how one of the things that’s likely to happen is that we’re going to see a population shift as people move away from the areas that are hardest hit by climate change,” Ms. Kowal says. “The coastlines’ new boundaries are going to change the world’s economic power centers as people migrate to other locations, and those locations are going to be around whatever is most conducive to power.”
Technology will play a role in these shifting global power centers. “If Elon Musk actually manages to do the things that he appears to be doing, the world’s economic centers may, in fact, become something like orbiting platforms – but this is like serious speculation at this point, beyond 2050,” Ms. Kowal says.
She notes that spacecraft such as the Crew Dragon being developed by Mr. Musk’s SpaceX and the Starliner by Boeing Co. could be perfect vehicles for moving a lot of cargo quickly. “The interesting thing is that, once you can mass-produce these kinds of rockets and containers, the cost per pound of payload when launching a container into a suborbital flight and then coming back down to, say, China could be the same as if we had a train that could run from New York directly to Shanghai, but now orders of magnitude faster.
“Then you’re looking at a future where the idea of suborbital flights, instead of airplanes or ships or trains, becomes economically viable,” Ms. Kowal says. “Whether or not we actually wind up there by 2050, who knows? But it is a future that is plausible.”
Machine learning speeds up
The science fiction writer Liu Cixin, author of “The Three-Body Problem,” a richly layered Chinese novel that describes first contact with extraterrestrial life forms, foresees the transforming effect of artificial intelligence.
“I don’t believe that in 2050 strong artificial intelligence that surpasses human beings will appear, but AI will have developed enough to compete with humans for jobs,” Mr. Liu says in a written statement to the Monitor, translated from Chinese by staff writer Ann Scott Tyson.
“This will have two possible profound implications for society,” he says. “One is that the jobless public and AI will be in a long-standing conflict, causing long-term social turmoil and instability. The second is that humans will have smoothed out the relationship with AI and established a leisurely life in which people reduce their working hours or even don’t need to work. The latter, however, will require major changes in the current political and economic distribution system of mankind.”
At first blush, the visions of the future many contemporary science fiction writers present, at least in their books, can seem unsettling and bleak. But for all the dystopian futurescapes and scenarios of impending doom – tropes that often define the genre – most of the authors here described the threat of catastrophe as an ironic metaphor about the resiliency of hope.
In his novel “Tropic of Kansas,” science fiction writer Christopher Brown describes an American dystopia in the middle of the 21st century, where the country’s divisions metastasize into violence and rebellion. He writes about a heartland where “big swaths of the corn belt had turned sick, from bad [gene] splices, failed economics, burnt climate, broken politics, or divine retribution.” The book opens with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arresting and deporting an American immigrating illegally at a border crossing that Canada has fortified with a 30-foot wall buttressed with machine gun towers – its efforts to keep the disruptive violence of its southern neighbor at bay.
“But talking about a bleak future, that can also be helpful in getting people to think about how they can avoid it,” he says.
Mr. Brown, who made climate change a major theme in “Tropic of Kansas,” was in many ways the most optimistic about the future in 2050. “I talk a lot about ecology and about the idea of green cities,” he says. He envisions urban areas restoring a lot of natural habitat. He cites as an example efforts by New York City to build tree-lined parks out of the dilapidated remnants of its industrial past – such as the High Line in Manhattan, which transformed century-old elevated train tracks into a haven for trees and indigenous plant life.
“[Such projects] show this yearning people have to bring back the urban green in the heart of the city,” says Mr. Brown, a resident of Austin, Texas. “And the prospect of that dialing up by 2050 is very probable – and when you think about the idea of a green landscape, with urban architecture embedded with greenery and vegetable production, as human populations become concentrated in cities, that will become a central component of urban development and planning all over the world.”
Global competition or cooperation?
The same ironic interplay between looming disaster and the resiliency of hope infused other authors’ visions as well.
In “Rosewater,” the first novel in his “Wormwood” trilogy, Mr. Thompson describes an alien invasion that comes not with spaceships and ray guns, but partly with “strands of alien fungi-like filaments and neurotransmitters” that link to human skin. These filaments form a biopsychic network called the “xenosphere,” and certain people use it to sense the activities of those around them.
“At the core of the whole thing, it is me criticizing a colonialist type of past and present, while seeking ideas about how the future could be run,” says Mr. Thompson, who depicts the United States as having gone “dark,” with no country having heard anything from the former superpower in 43 years. London, as well as the rest of Europe, was devastated by the initial landing of the alien presence, which arrived in a meteorlike rock the size of Hyde Park in 2012.
In “The Calculating Stars,” the second novel of her “Lady Astronaut” series, Ms. Kowal reimagines the space race in the 1950s, setting its urgency not in the looming presence of the menacing Soviet Union, but in the aftermath of an asteroid strike. Its impact wipes out most of the country’s Eastern Seaboard, including Washington, D.C., and will soon make the Earth uninhabitable.
Her alternate history is something of a metaphor for the globe’s current climate crisis, in which cooperation rather than global competition is critical. “The question for me is, how do we structure our world so that the people that we’re trying to protect in that first blush of disaster can survive?” she says. “When we get territorial, it’s because of how we are defining an ‘us versus them.’”
Indeed, it’s the social side of the future, the ways the societies of the near future will begin to evolve and reorganize, that’s important, many contemporary science fiction writers insist.
“We don’t use the conventions that were used in early science fiction, those ‘astounding tales’ of the 1950s and 1960s, you know, the classical science fiction tales that use the language of conquest,” Mr. Thompson says. “We now have to think of harmony. Now we have to use words like harmonization, like, how can we work in harmony with the places that we live in, and the people that we live with?”
He says he’d like to see the optimistic parts of his work inspire children so that they think, “OK, yeah, this is a pretty good idea for the future. And then one day they will grow up to be in power, and the seed has been planted, so when they’re older it has grown up with them.”
Meet the authors
Tade Thompson is the author of “Rosewater,” which won the United Kingdom’s top science fiction award. Born in London to Yoruba parents, he lives and works on the south coast of England as an emergency room psychiatrist.
Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of the “Glamourist Histories” series, “Ghost Talkers,” and the “Lady Astronaut” novels. She’s won four Hugo Awards. A professional puppeteer and voice actor, she lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and 12 manual typewriters.
Priya Sharma is a physician and short-story writer whose work has appeared in top British science fiction publications. “Fabulous Beasts” won a British Fantasy Award. “Ormeshadow,” which came out last fall, is her first novella.
Tochi Onyebuchi holds an undergraduate degree from Yale, an MFA from New York University, and a law degree from Columbia. His fourth book, “Riot Baby,” is due in January. He lives in Connecticut, where he’s worked in the tech industry.
Christopher Brown is a writer and lawyer whose debut novel, “Tropic of Kansas,” was a finalist for a top sci-fi award. He’s worked on two Supreme Court confirmations and co-hosted a punk rock radio show. He works out of an Airstream trailer in Austin, Texas.
Liu Cixin is a prolific and popular science fiction writer who is often called the Arthur C. Clarke of China. He’s won the Galaxy Award, China’s top prize for science fiction, nine times as well as a Hugo Award. He lives with his family in Yangquan, China.
Laura Lam is an award-winning author of science fiction, fantasy, and romance novels. Raised in California, she now lives in Scotland. She lectures on writing at Edinburgh Napier University.