From the vaults: Science fiction after ‘the end of history’ (1998)

downloadThe article below first appeared in issue #5 of revolution magazine, March/April 1998. revolution was one of the print ancestors of this blog. Its author was a reader of the mag and a science fiction novelist based in Edinburgh; he contributed several articles to the mag in its roughly nine-year history.

by Ken MacLeod

William Gibson, one of the best current science fiction (SF) writers, recently commented, “The best SF of the nineties is on CNN. Hard to beat that garbage-module slamming into space station Mir!” And, indeed, the co-operation between Russia and the West on the Mir space station may be the perfect symbol for the present state of affairs: actually-existing capitalism relying for its life support on the clapped-out projects of formerly-existing socialism, lurching from one crisis to another and going round in circles. After all, what happens to SF when the future goes dark?

When the future was bright

To answer that question we need to look back to when the future seemed bright. The past of SF as a self-conscious, largely American-centred genre can be mapped fairly closely to social developments. What the SF critic John Clute has aptly called ‘Agenda SF’ flourished roughly from the 1920s to the late 1950s. Although inevitably tracking the vicissitudes of boom, slump, world war and Cold War – including much of counter-current, query and dissent – and encompassing many developments of literary style and scientific/technological speculation, Agenda SF retained its coherence as an ongoing projection of humanity’s and capitalism’s – advance.

The consensus stages of this Future History included first the exploration, then the colonisation, of the solar system; the launching of gigantic ‘interstellar arks’, with generations living and dying en route to Alpha Centauri; until some future Edison/Einstein cracked the intractable problem of the light-speed limit, and opened the way to the stars. A great explosion of human pioneers would swarm across the galaxy, and be eventually unified into an Empire which would, inevitably, Decline and Fall. . . and beyond this Fall, new heights would rise.

For all its blind spots, Agenda SF’s handle on the future had a grandeur and ambition which can still inspire.

John Clute himself dates its decline from Sputnik – the moment when it became apparent that Agenda SF had been telling the wrong story, that the space age had arrived and it was a sight more complicated, messy and political than its ‘prediction’ had allowed for. The real change, however, came in the 1960s, in a turbulent conflict and interplay between Agenda SF’s old guard (and Young Turks, just to make things complicated) and what bec ame known as the New Wave.

New Wave SF grew out of the realisation that the ‘decadent future societies’, glanced at and frowned upon in the backdrops of Agenda SF, had already arrived. Sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, the Vietnam War, the strange ’60s notion that linked the birth control pill to fears of over-population, all became more important determinants of what went on in SF than the increasingly expensive and bureaucratic manned space programme. Society or psyche became the venues for exploration – ‘inner space’ with outer space as backdrop.

Unthinking optimism

Writers like J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison consciously despised then-existing SF for what they saw as its unthinking optimism, its cliches, its cardboard characters and, above all, its blindness to what was actually going on around it. How could anyone, in clear conscience, write tales of colonial conquest in space when a real, dirty, colonial war was being fought (in Vietnam) by the very society (America) which was being held up as a model for the whole human future?

One of Ballard’s short stories, “The Killing Grounds”, sketches a British NLF fighting US occupiers in a world which had become “a global insurrectionary torch, a world Vietnam”. Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories eventually became an exploration of the joys and sorrows of life in the decadent heartlands which, even in their length, weighed in impressively against the the Foundation trilogies of yesteryear. And Harrison, in stories that scavenged fantasy, space opera and the social realism of “Running Down”, caught the gloom and doom of early seventies, late-Labour Britain.

But the new-wave ran into the same barrier as the old SF – its future arrived. The post-war boom which, in retrospect, suffuses with sunlight even the most entropic and pessimistic tales of that period, faded out. (John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, published in 1969, set in 2010, brilliantly depicts an appalling world which is actually much better than the one we live in, let alone the one which in 12 years time, we’re likely to get.)1 The New Wave collapsed in a dribble of exhausted froth.

From froth to cyberpunk

Other developments – the rise of self-consciously ‘hard SF’ which didn’t fudge the physics – failed to re-ignite the genre’s engines, and (at least as I remember it) the late seventies and early eighties were pretty dire. (And not only in SF!) Almost as soon as the recession was over, and the destruction of swathes of manufacturing industry “paid off” in a financial and services boom and consequent proliferation of computer/communications technology, the SF genre came up with an equivalent response: cyberpunk.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is as good a benchmark as any. Gibson knew almost nothkng about computers, but he wrote about them the way their actual users – and especially their programmers – thought about them: containing spaces you could get into, problems you could tunnel under, traps you could work around. Inner space joined outer space as backdrop: Gibson’s characters, and those of cyberpunk generally, were almost sociopathically affectless, at least in their pose. The real action was inside the information networks, in. . . cyberspace.

He word coined for the novel is now, of course, common currency, and the cyberpunk world a common image: the ‘future noir’ of Blade Runner and Johnny Mnemonic, dominated by mega-corporations and policed by their ninja hitmen. Government is irrelevant, the environment a lost cause: “the sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel” is Necromancer’s first line – and last word- on that particular subject.

In its turn, however, cyberpunk became a told tale albeit a tale still well worth reading. Against the backdrop of the World Wide Web and the Internet, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, it told us nothing we weren’t already seeing on CNN.

Post ‘socialism’

The diversity of science fiction in the nineties makes it difficult to categorise. Whereas it’s easy enough to look back and note the ‘waves’ of the past (and to ignore, for brevity’s sake, so many cross-currents and eddies and swirls), it’s harder to describe the wave you’re currently swimming in (especially for SF writers, swimming for their lives).

Some, like Peter F. Hamilton, look forward to a resurgent capitaist future, beyond the present crisis. Others, like the Australian writer Greg Egan, focus hard on the cutting edge of current science. Paul J. McCauley’s fractured near-future Fairyland confronts the present head-on, but his most recent work turns to a post-human world of conscious machines millions of years hence. Jack Womack’s explicitly post-Soviet Let’s Put the Future Behind Us exemplifies another response – to examine a displaced present rather than a near, or far, future.

Alternate histories and self-conscious pastiche (Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships) allow a certain side-stepping of the problem, however interesting and exciting such tales may be in themselves. Kim Stanley Robinson combines socialist politics with technological optimism (and a degree of ecological pessimism) in his ambitious Mars trilogy. The bravura of Iain M. Banks communist-utopian Culture novels – mostly drafted in the seventies, published in the eighties – has gradually given way to darker, post-human visions as his youthful backlist has cleared.


Whether it’s in genetic inter-breeding with aliens (Octavia Butler) or in the emergence of self-aware artificial intelligence (most of the rest of us), current SF’s common theme suggests a continued confidence in technological and scientific progress combined with a scepticism about the capacity of humanity to power it.

The torch of progress, it is suggested, must be handed on to better minds and stronger hands than ours. It may not be too fanciful to see this as a reflection of a society where technical progress – albeit fitful – coexists uneasily with social stagnation. The contradiction between the forces and relations of production could hardly be more rawly expressed!

The problem in the real world, of course, remains one of human agency. There are no saviours from above, no angels or aliens to save us. And, for sure, there are none behind the computer screens. Artifcial awareness is where it’s been since the 1940s and always will be “just twenty years away”. The better minds and stronger hands must in fact be our own.

SF is by no means dead – its literary and scientific sophistication is in many respects better than it’s ever been. And if it reflects a stalled and fragmented world, it also, as we peer through our own reflections, continues to give us glimpses of the world beyond that wall of glass which – with hard work and a bit of luck – we may yet break.

1 Keep in mind, this was written in 1998

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