The future on the pages: what scenarios do science fiction writers have for humanity?


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Much of what science fiction writers wrote about in the 20th century has already become a reality. Together with literary critic Vasily Vladimirsky, we consider different future scenarios from sci-fi books

In 2023, Xu Techs 4 years old. As part of the anniversary, we decided not to look back to the past, but rather to look forward to the future.

The Xu Techs team is taking up the initiative: columns by visionaries from the fields of science, education, technology, society, ecology, and education will appear on the project website . Together with them, we will try to imagine how the world will change within 30 years, what it will be like in 2053, and what place people will occupy in it.

The project does not imply accurate forecasts; together with experts, we are trying to imagine possible directions and scenarios for the development of our society, based on current trends.


In 1981, writer William Gibson, the future founding father of cyberpunk and author of Neuromancer, published the short story The Gernsback Continuum . Through the gray concrete of the present, the main character of the story begins to see a different America – reading the patterns encrypted in the architecture of abandoned shopping centers and gas stations of the 1920s–1940s, in the industrial design of the first half of the 20th century, on the yellowed covers of Amazing Stories magazine. Self-propelled roads, Fuller’s domes, mooring masts of cargo airships, funny flying cars – an alternative present that never happened.

A lyrical, nostalgic story, a real hymn to retrofuturism – and at the same time a surgically accurate diagnosis: this is approximately how all “future scenarios” proposed by writers and futurologists work without exception.

They never fully come true, but sometimes they cast a shadow on the present, brighten up everyday life, and create a sense of perspective.

Let’s talk about these shadows.

The Midjourney neural network fulfilled RBC Trends’ request to imagine what the covers of science fiction books might look like (Photo: Image generated by the Midjourney neural network)
Under the shadow of societal transformation
The 20th century is often called the era of dystopias – which, in general, is not without reason, considering how many trials humanity has faced during this century. However, dystopian novels, even the most influential ones, do not so much show future scenarios as indicate impassable dead ends. And if the possibilities for development have not been exhausted, then hope remains – and the book automatically drops out of the list of dystopias in the traditional sense.

Utopia is a different matter. Social thinkers and writers of the 19th century, from Karl Marx and Charles Fourier to Edward Bellamy and H. G. Wells, left us with a ream of instructions for creating a happy and just society. It was these scenarios, patched and upgraded in accordance with the spirit of the times, that formed the basis for most of the “positive utopias” of the next century. Moreover, writers on both sides of the Atlantic drew inspiration from the same sources. The only difference is that in the Soviet Union, the main and necessary condition for building the future utopia was the renunciation of private property, and Anglo-American science fiction writers developed libertarian and technocratic scenarios for the future.

While Soviet authors were struggling with the “predatory things of the century” and the remnants of the philistine worldview (for example, in the utopian world of Ivan Efremov’s “Andromeda Nebula,” the private instinct, the desire for possession, falls under the category of mental disorders), their foreign colleagues described a society ennobled and comfortable thanks to the efforts effective managers and brilliant engineers, in whose hands the levers of power are concentrated.

However, Anglo-American literature also did not escape the influence of early socialist utopias. For example, in Robert Heinlein’s first novel, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs , written in 1939 in correspondence polemics with Bellamy and Wells, the equality of citizens is ensured thanks to the social credit system, the uniform and widespread distribution of national dividends. True, this novel was published only in 2003, many years after the author’s death.

With the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, technocratic utopias in Western fiction fade into the background, and the future scenarios that Anglo-American writers offer the public become more restrained – and more realistic. In books from the 1960s and 1970s, society changes (often in unpleasant ways) in response to global challenges. Population crisis and depletion of natural resources, as in John Brunner’s novel Stand on Zanzibar ( 1968 ) or Harry Harrison’s Move Over! Move over!” ( Make Room! Make Room!, 1966), irreversible climate change, as in J. G. Ballard in The Drowned World ( 1962), local nuclear war in the Third World and the influx of immigrants into Europe, as Christopher Priest in Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972), require immediate response.

Meanwhile, late Soviet science fiction still depicts a perfect “world in which you want to live.” But such writers of the 1970s and 1980s as Kir Bulychev, Olga Larionova, and the mature Strugatskys avoided, if possible, focusing on the tools that made it possible to achieve such an impressive result.

The last outbreak of techno-optimism in genre literature occurred in the 1980s–1990s, the period of the IT revolution and the rapidly developing Internet. In the works of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan and other cyberpunks, digital technology equalizes the poor and the rich, the brilliantly educated heroes and the barely literate. By connecting to cyberspace, connecting directly to the Network, any person gets unlimited access to the main resources of the new era, information and computing, and whether he will be able to manage these opportunities is only a matter of his mind and talent.

Representatives of post-cyberpunk slightly adjusted this scenario. In “Avalanche” ( Snow Crash , 1992) and “The Diamond Age” ( The Diamond Age or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer , 1995) by Neal Stephenson, and especially in “The End of Rainbows” ( Rainbows End , 2006) by Vernor Vinge, they already rule the roost not so much cyber cowboys, brilliant lone hackers, but large communities, online “communities of interest”. However, the utopian message remains: by competing and cooperating, such communities build “a world in which one wants to live”—at least, those who make up these communities want to live.

Under the shadow of nature’s transformation
Man in the literary tradition eternally challenges God: Doctor Faustus, Victor Frankenstein, Professor Preobrazhensky. Well, humanity is challenging nature – and since the 19th century, conscious and purposeful transformation of the environment has become one of the most important elements of future scenarios.

“Nature is not a temple, but a workshop, and man is a worker in it” – a maxim attributed to Ivan Turgenev (in fact, this is the direct speech of a character, and not the most sympathetic one, Bazarov from Fathers and Sons), especially clearly articulated in Soviet culture and Soviet science fiction. Alexander Belyaev in the novel “Under the Sky of the Arctic” (1939) melts the permafrost and turns Antarctica into a fruit-bearing plain, he is echoed by Grigory Adamov in “The Expulsion of the Lord” (1946). In the happy utopian future of Ivan Efremov’s “Andromeda Nebula,” the desalination of salt lakes and the greening of deserts are in full swing. No less large-scale experiments are carried out by the heroes of Georgy Gurevich’s novel “We are from the Solar System” (1965), Sergei Snegov’s trilogy with the self-explanatory title “People like Gods” (1966–1977), the early Strugatskys, etc.

Ambitious scenarios are realized not only in literature. In 1948, the Soviet Union adopted the “Stalinist Plan for the Transformation of Nature,” aimed at creating thousands of kilometers of forest plantations; in 1954, the development of virgin lands began; in 1968, the State Planning Committee and the USSR Academy of Sciences began to develop a scheme for turning Siberian rivers into Central Asia. And this is not purely Soviet know-how. At the World’s Fair in New York, which took place in 1964–1965 and was dedicated to the image of the future, the global transformation of nature was talked about as an inevitable and self-evident event.

Futurological scenarios developed by large corporations (General Motors, Ford, IBM, Walter Disney, etc.) in this sense differed little from the scenarios of the Soviet State Planning Committee. Greening deserts, diverting rivers, melting permafrost, eliminating the Amazon rainforest, tearing down mountains that impede the construction of highways, establishing mineral extraction from the ocean floor – all these seemed obvious and quite achievable tasks in the foreseeable future.

At the same time, science fiction writers actively developed the theme of terraforming, the adaptation of planets, satellites and asteroids of the solar system for a comfortable life for representatives of the species Homo sapiens. And in this sense, they are especially attracted to Mars. The greening of the Red Planet becomes a central poetic image in The Martian Chronicles (1964) by Ray Bradbury. Arthur C. Clarke meticulously describes the terraforming process in the science fiction novel “ The Sands of Mars” (1951), and 40 years later the same experiment, but at the modern level of scientific knowledge, is repeated by Kim Stanley Robinson in the “Mars” trilogy ( Mars , 1992–1996). And so on and so forth, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of such works.

It is curious that science fiction writers do not see anything wrong with radically changing the natural environment of other planets. One of the most memorable episodes of the Strugatsky brothers’ story “Trainees” (1962) is the chapter about the hunt for Martian leeches, the last representatives of an endangered and largely unstudied endemic species of predators. The task was completed conscientiously, the leeches were completely destroyed, no one else prevents the “new Martians” from breeding and multiplying under the slowly turning blue skies. By the time futurologists and ecologists started talking seriously about the threat of overpopulation, the limitlessness of natural resources, climate change and other man-made disasters, terraforming had become a commonplace, a wandering plot in SF.

What the solar system of the future looks like in modern science fiction can be judged, for example, from James Corey’s Expanse series , which started in 2012 and is not completed to this day: some of the characters live in natural and artificial cavities inside asteroids, some – under impenetrable domes, and some – on planets that have been completely changed for the needs of humanity, for example on Mars. Perhaps the only notable text where the author questions the ethics of such a practice is Vladimir Pokrovsky’s story “Barbershop Guys” (1989). The profession of a kuafer, a special forces soldier who, with fire and sword, “combs” alien biocenoses with one brush for subsequent colonization, here the profession is important, necessary, but socially disapproved: the ranks of kuafers are filled mainly by outcasts, marginalized people, people with serious mental disabilities, who are simply there was no room.

As for the Earth, by the 21st century writers have generally reached a consensus. Active changes in the natural environment are permissible only in two cases .

When disaster is already knocking on the door and the question is not about ethics, but about the basic survival of Homo sapiens. As in Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl (2009), where there are no fossil fuels left, and energy is obtained thanks to super-efficient springs and the muscular efforts of genetically transformed animals, or in River of Gods (2004) by Ian Macdonald , where economics and politics are built around fresh water supplies.
Such an impact is permissible for the sake of restoring biological diversity, stabilizing the climate, correcting the mistakes made by civilization in the past, and preventing disasters in the future – in “The Ministry for the Future” (2020) by Kim Stanley Robinson , for example, a whole powerful an organization specifically created for such purposes. True, such sensitivity to the environmental problems of the Earth does not prevent the author in another novel, “2312” ( 2312 , 2012), from enthusiastically talking about the terraformed planets and satellites of the solar system: what is allowed to Jupiter is not allowed to the bull.
Under the Shadow of Man’s Transformation
To create a new society means, first of all, to raise a new person. To break human nature or, on the contrary, to bridle it, harness it and put it at the service of society. Charles Fourier writes about the importance of education, Soviet innovative teachers talk about this, and the Strugatsky brothers rely on the High Theory of Education in their “midday cycle.” In the 1960s, at the peak of the psychedelic revolution, Anglo-American science fiction writers began to cautiously talk about medicinal means of changing human consciousness – this topic was ironically played up in 1971 by Stanislaw Lem in his brilliant “Futurological Congress” (Kongres futurologiczny. Ze wspomnień Ijona Tichego ) . However, by the end of the 20th century, technological solutions came to the fore – and quickly became mainstream, an obvious and inevitable scenario for the future.

The new man today is one whose body and mind have been radically improved with the help of revolutionary technologies, especially IT and genome manipulation. Of course, people have written about the merging of a person with a computer before – for example, Harlan Ellison in the story “ I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream ” ( 1967) or the Strugatskys in the story “Distant Rainbow” ( 1963). But now the emphasis is placed differently. Mind-body transformation is a personal choice, a relatively simple, painless and accessible procedure that gives a person a new set of highly effective tools. This is not a risky experiment, not a rare exception to the rule, but a new normal.

The transhumanistic transition radically expands the range of human capabilities, allowing you to live and work comfortably in a new environment – in cyberspace / virtual reality, in outer space, on the ocean floor, in a deeply urbanized city of the future.

Bruce Sterling, in his novel Schismatrix ( 1985), still draws a line between shapers who rely on biotechnology and mechanists who prefer mechanical implants. But this border is quickly erased. Already in the novel “Vacuum Flowers” ​​( Vacuum Flowers , 1987) by Michael Swanwick and the cycle about Marîd Audran ( Marîd Audran , 1987–2003) by George Alec Effinger, genetically enhanced heroes use chips that allow direct transfer of experience, instantly mastering any profession, any skills, transform your personality – and then painlessly change your set of tools.

Next, as they say, is a matter of technique. Today, writers have no doubt that technology will change people – but what, they are already changing. Some science fiction writers – Charles Stross in Accelerando ( 2005 ), Hannu Ryaniemi in the Quantum Thief Trilogy (2010–2014) and others – are already talking about the instantaneous transformation of body and mind at the quantum level as one of manifestations of the approaching technological singularity. But for now this remains more of a spectacular plot device, albeit not without a scientific basis. But a wide range of genome manipulations, as in “False Blindness” ( Blindsight , 2006) and especially “Echopraxia” ( 2014 ) by Peter Watts, will probably become available in practice in the coming decades.

And here we come to the main thing: how relevant are the future scenarios drawn by writers over these one and a half to two centuries? Yes, large online communities are already capable of lowering the rating of a film or video game, even slightly influencing stock exchange rates, but they do not determine world politics. Cyber ​​cowboys frolic on the World Wide Web, hacker hacks have become routine, billions of lines of personal and confidential data are regularly leaked onto the Internet, but not a single political regime has yet fallen as a result of such insights. Smartphones have long overtaken the power of the first computers, but even virtual reality glasses have not become a hot commodity outside the gaming community, let alone expensive and unsafe implants.

The future creeps up on tiptoes, rather than rushing in with a whoop, kicking the doors open. Radical plans for the reconstruction of society, nature and people for the most part remain on the pages of books.

Paradoxically, future scenarios speak more about the past – about what previous generations feared and were inspired by, in what direction their imagination moved, and what issues they unconsciously avoided. The topic is not so much for futurologists as for historians and cultural researchers.

It is important not to forget: it won’t be long before we ourselves become a source of such material for historians of the future. And this is perhaps the only forecast of which I am absolutely sure today is 100% accurate.


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