Surprisingly, “Cyberpunk” has long been the best image to describe the future. Bruce Bethke’s short story with that title is 35 years old, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner premiered in 1982. We need new visions that basically reflect where people think the world is heading. What micro genres are appearing, and what trends and themes best describe how the creators imagine the future? Here are nine suggestions:
1. Chinese science fiction and chaohuan, the “ultra-unreal”
In the last five years or so, a wave of Chinese literature has reached us – most of it through Ken Liu’s outstanding translation work — and has won many major awards in the science fiction genre.
But why are Chinese and Taiwanese authors writing so much science fiction, and why is it leaving a mark up to this point? “Realist literature often can’t keep up with the pace of change that is occurring in China,” says Alec Ash, a writer who lives in Beijing, in The New York Review of Books. In a 2016 article for The New England Review, the writer Ning Ken explained: “It is as if time in China has been compressed.”
Ning coined the term chaohuan, or “ultra-unreal,” in the same article (available in Lithub under the heading “Modern China Is So Crazy It Needs a New Literary Genre“). He describes chaohuan as an acceleration of Latin American magical realism: chaohuan aims to reflect a Chinese reality that is often stranger than fiction and in which: “There is nothing you can’t accomplish if you hold power”.
Chaohuan has four characteristics:
- It captures the present and “the social issues that are the hottest topics of the popular discussion of the moment”.
- “It is philosophically speculative” and avoids direct criticism of the current situation in China, changing it for paradoxes and uncertainty.
- “It is has the quality of a fable or an allegory”, because “one way to give fiction freedom is to maintain its “fabulous” quality.”
- There are risks with the form: the ultra-unreal is a “complex viewpoint”, and that has to be reflected in the type of writing it produces.
It is possible that the Western and English-speaking reader appreciates a certain indirect nature in these principles. This is politically necessary. As Isaac Stone Fish points out in an article in Foreign Policy about apocalyptic fiction, “in China, it’s far too sensitive for the Communist Party to be criticized, even implicitly.” This does not mean that chaohuan is afraid to be provocative, as indicated by Ash in The New York Review of Books.
What to read:
- Han Song, 2066: Red Star Over America (2000)
Han Song, un periodista de la agencia de noticias Xinhua, es conocido por haber dicho que los artículos de información que escribe durante el día son más de “ciencia ficción” que la ciencia ficción que escribe por la noche, una actitud muy chaohuan. En 2066, en un mundo sinocéntrico, una delegación de jugadores de Go visita unos EEUU caóticos que se hunden tras un atentado terrorista contra las Torres Gemelas. Cualquier paralelismo con la Revolución Cultural que tuvo lugar 100 años antes es lo bastante sutil como para poder negarlo.
- Liu Cixin, Three-Body Problem (2008, first edition in Spanish 2016)
Really exceptional: former US President Barack Obama has said it is “fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty — not something to worry about.” The book, set during the Cultural Revolution, follows the astrophysicist Ye Wenjie who, desperate about the world’s situation, invites aliens to Earth to solve the chaos in which humanity is immersed. And this comes out as well as you would expect.
- Hao Jingfang, Folding Beijing (2012, English edition 2015) Jingfang won the Hugo Prize for Best Novella in 2016 describing a city so overcrowded that people are divided into three classes, which are forbidden to mix.
Like the Chinese science fiction mentioned above, Afrofuturism provides an entirely new center of gravity for speculative fiction away from the white anglocentrism of traditional science fiction and much of cyberpunk. There are concrete connotations that this future is built on a cultural terrain that is different from the current one. They are worlds centered on the history, culture and cosmologies of Africa and diaspora. Many writers (particularly the creator of the genre, Octavia Butler) explore counter-stories and mix science fiction with fantasy to create new imaginary futures, not only for the current lives of black people, but for everyone’s lives.
In 2013, Alondra Nelson and Reynaldo Anderson tried to broaden the definition of gender and created the “Afrofuturismo 2.0”, which goes far beyond fiction and becomes a way of analyzing science and scientific studies, as in the study most important of Nelson’s on the genetic testing industry, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. It is also a way to study the humanities, critical theory and digital aesthetics. Afrofuturism and its Africanist manifestations “overlap around the speculative and the designed, and interact around the nexus of technology and ethics”.
What to read:
- N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season(2015)
Jemisin has won three Hugo Awards and has changed the established step of science fiction. Starting with The Fifth Season, set in a supercontinent called LaqQuietud, that suffers a catastrophic climate change “season”. In her acceptance speech for the 2018 Hugo Prize, Jemisin said: “For some of us, things have always been hard, and I wrote The Broken Earth trilogy to speak to that struggle, and what it takes to live, let alone thrive, in a world that seems determined to break you.”
- Nisi Shawl, Filter House (2008)
A collection of 14 short stories that are a mix of future and fable, of deceitful African gods and colonial extractions, dragons and space travel. Ursula K. Le Guin has praised the variety of the collection, which ranges from “the exotic and baroque complexities of At the Huts of Ajala to the absolute purity of the The Beads of Ku fable.
- Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death (2010)
Onyesonwu is a young girl from the oppressed Okeke tribe in an African Saharan world. She has been rejected by her people after being raped, but the development of her sorceress and spirit traveler powers, in her struggle against nature, tradition, history and love, will not only save her life, but also that of her people. Okorafor won the World Fantasy Award with this novel, and George R. R. Martin has proposed a series for HBO.
3. Gulf futurism
This is a fresh and controversial concept that refers both to the aesthetic “overdevelopment” of architecture in the region and to its criticism. They are “the Blade Runner fantasies of the oil princes,” as Natalie Olah said in an article in Vice from 2014.
The artists Sophia Al-Maria and Fatima Al Qadiri described in Dazed in 2012 how “the themes and ideas of Gulf Futurism emerge: the isolation of individuals via technology, wealth and reactionary Islam, the corrosive elements of consumerism on the soul and industry on the earth, the erasure of history from our memories and our surroundings and finally, our dizzying collective arrival in a future no one was ready for.” In the works of Al-Maria and Al Qadiri images of shopping malls, satellite television and video games, which are elements of teenage life, are swirling. A world seen through a screen, always with an intermediary.
Just like vaporwave, the musical genre of the second half of the current decade with which it is associated with Al Qadiri, Gulf futurism maintains an ambivalent relationship with hypercapitalism and, to a certain extent, parodies it, but, in the end, it is pure fascination.
What to consume:
Gulf Futurism has not really produced novels as such. Instead, look at:
- Sophia Al-Maria, The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi (2008)
This was a limited edition book, but you can still see the videos and the essays in scifiwahabi.blogspot.com, and they are the best resource to get into the project.
- Fatima Al Qadiri, Desert Strike EP (2012)
In 1991, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and a US-led coalition counterattacked with Operation Desert Storm. A year later, Al Qadiri bought a copy of the console game Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, based on the same war he had just experienced. Time disappeared, reality faded, and 20 years later, he made a cold and electronic maxi-single in which terror, childhood, war and games were synthesized, inspired by the militarist futurism of the initial grime.
- Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (2008)
Iran is not a “Gulf State”, but Al Qadiri and Al-Maria describe the speculative history (or theoretical fiction) of the Iranian philosopher Negarestani who revolutionized the genre as a related prism about the horror of oil, war machines and the desert. Extraordinary and brilliant.
4. Climate fiction
“All novels written now should be climate change novels unless they’re a fantasy in some way. Realist novels that don’t have climate change as part of the contemporary landscape are fantasies, genre novels”, affirms the writer Jane Rawson.
Some of the best options:
- Margaret Atwood, the MaddAddam trilogy (begins with Oryx and Crake, published in 2003)
La pandemia de la “Inundación sin agua” ha acabado con la población humana, y el último superviviente, conocido como Snowman, tiene que realizar un viaje con la ayuda de los Hijos de Crake, la nueva y dócil especie genéticamente diseñada que ha heredado esta Tierra neosalvaje.
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)
Climate change is not really mentioned in this novel. It is simply apocalyptic: something has reduced planet Earth to a dead rock in space, and human beings – and their humanity – have been terribly destroyed. It is a book about survival, savagery and suffering, and the terrible fragility of the appearance of civilization. Writer Andrew O’Hagan called it “The first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation.” The 2009 film adaptation displeased me more than anything else I had ever seen in my life, and I never want to see it again.
- Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior (2012)
“How do we live, Kingsolver asks, and with what consequences, as we hurtle toward the abyss in these times of epic planetary transformation?”, Dominique Browning wrote in his review for The New York Times. Dellarobia Turnbow, a restless housewife from Tennessee, discovers that the valley behind her house is full of monarch butterflies that are away from where they prefer to spend the winter in Mexico. Will they survive the cold Tennessee winter?
The next two movements of speculative fiction are subgenres of climate fiction, but they are fascinating enough and characteristic enough to be considered to be at the height of climate fiction and to include them in this guide. Let’s start with the unexpectedly optimistic.
What would the “good life” be like in a society in a stationary state, without growth and totally sustainable?
According to “On The Need for New Futures“, a 2012 article published on Solarpunk.net, that is the question that this movement – which mixes speculative fiction, art, fashion and ecoactivism – tries to answer. In the same entry, the anonymous founders of solarpunk warn: “We are starved for visions of the future that will sustain us, and give us something to hope for”. However, what would happen if we dreamed differently? What would happen if we tried to answer another question: What is a sustainable civilization and how can we achieve it?
Solarpunk is the opposite of cyberpunk nihilism, which offers stories, according to the founders, about “ingenuity, generativity, independence and community”.
What to read:
- Kim Stanley Robinson, the Mars trilogy (starts with Red Mars, 1992)
“I’ve always written utopian science fiction,” says Robinson. He is one of the best builders of worlds of contemporary science fiction, and these stories about terraforming Mars have been worked on exhaustively, both technically and socio-politically. They describe a future in which human beings could be able to achieve an equilibrium of the ecosystem.
- Cory Doctorow, Walkaway (2018)
It is much less utopian than Robinson’s work, but perhaps, in a discreet way, just as inspiring. In a world tormented by climate change and totally dominated by corporate power, most people lead a miserable life and survive with difficulty in “standard” cities.
- Lean Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation (2017, eds. Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland), the first English fiction collection of solarpunk. And Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastical Stories in a Sustainable World (2014 / English 2018, ed. Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro) for stories from Brazil and Portugal.
- At medium.com/solarpunks there are also more essays and interviews.
6. Thrillers about the water crisis
If you run out of water, you only have 100 hours to live, maintains Claude Piantadosi from Duke University. This gives special tension to the novels about droughts and water crisis.
The scenario they explore is not any “future” at all. Earlier this year, Cape Town, in South Africa, narrowly avoided “Day Zero“, the point at which the city’s water reserves would reach a critical level and the authorities would have to cut off the supply for four million people. UN-Water informs that one third of the world’s largest groundwater systems are already in danger, and that by 2030, the water shortage in arid and semi-arid places will result in up to 700 million people having to leave their homes.
A handful of writers and science fiction movies are exploring this imminent reality.
What to read
- Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus (2015)
It has not rained in Los Angeles for years. Luz, Ray and a strange child named Ig flee from the guards and go deep into the vast and ever-changing sands of the Dunes Sea of Amargosa, following the rumors that exist about an impossible city and a “prophet” who discovers underground springs. In this story there are strange echoes of the Manson cult, since Watkins’ parents let themselves be swayed by him in the 1970s.
- Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife(2015)
Arizona has become the new Dust Bowl, and the southwestern states, ravaged by drought, have formed militias and closed their borders. Ángel Velázquez is a former member of a band that has become a water knife that carries out covert operations for the Southern Nevada’s corrupt Water Authority, caught between the business interests that build huge luxury hotel complexes and the people traffickers who move people to safe California.
- Benjamin Warner, Thirst (2016)
On a hot summer’s day in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Eddie Chapman turns on the tap, but no water comes out. Water has run out everywhere, and communications and electricity do not work either. What would you do? How would you survive? Nobody in this novel really knows, and the characters oscillate between the common desire to lend each other mutual help and the impulse of instinctive survival triggered by panic.
Other classics of this microgenre are the novel The Burning World by J. G. Ballard (1964, later entitled The Drought), and also the movies Tank Girl (1995) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
7. Kitchen sink dystopia
I think I’d call it “kitchen sink dystopia,” in the spirit of English drama from the 60’s. That’s how I think of it, when I’m doing it. But the “everyday” or “workaday” sentiment is the same.
— Madeline Ashby (@MadelineAshby) 9 de septiembre de 2018
Think of this microgenre as a “minimally speculative future,” a way of telling stories that seems totally mundane and normal until something goes a bit wrong. Fiction writer Brendan C. Byrne calls it the “day to day debasement of Super Late Capitalism.”
What to read:
- Madeline Ashby, Domestic Violence (2018)
“I couldn’t leave the house,” says one character. “The house—well, I mean, the condo—wouldn’t let me out. The door wouldn’t open.” Ashby’s short story about intelligent technology for houses that aggressors turn into weapons was published by Slate three months before The New York Times wrote on this subject as an objective reality.
- Tim Maughan, Flyover Country (2016)
Maughan’s story for Vice describes a world with a universal basic income and iPhones manufactured in the United States. At the Foxconn-CCA Joint Correctional and Manufacturing Facility, Michael replaces the chips in defective devices. It’s an elegant and tense story that Jeff Bezos could read for his optimization notes of the assembly lines.
- Chris McCrudden, Battlestar Suburbia (2018)
In McCrudden’s first novel, a pleasantly ridiculous opinion about “kitchen sink dystopia”, machines rule, but not as super-powered Artificial Intelligences, but as breadmakers equipped with senses, Machiavellian smartphones and a mobile hair salon. Humans are now the servants of household appliances, fit for little more than scrubbing the floor and flirting a little over the phone.
8. Space opera with social awareness
It’s a slightly brazen name suggested by Tim Maughan, the author of Flyover Country and the forthcoming novel Infinite Detail (2019). In this micro-genre, which is at the extreme end of kitchen sink dystopias, are the familiar elements of classical science fiction – space travel faster than light, distant futures (as in 20,000 years), and, of course, aliens – with a contemporary sociopolitical touch.
Three more to read:
- Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice(2013)
The main character is a warship, which used to be part of a hive mind of AI, in search of revenge, so that the “hard science fiction” label could fit. However, it is also a feminist book, set in a genderless universe (with feminine pronouns by default), and it’s full of questions about identity, individuality and freedom to choose, which also gives it a lot of social awareness. Leckie won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards in 2014, becoming the first writer to receive all three for the same book.
- James Tiptree Jr., (pseudonym of Alice Sheldon), Up the Walls of the World (1978) and Brightness Falls from the Air (1985)
Tiptree/Sheldon’s only two novels deal with human telepathy and alien species on the verge of extinction, and issues of species care, atrocities in colonial space against indigenous inhabitants and the tragic consequences of unjust socioeconomic systems.
- China Miéville, Embassytown (2011)
On planet Arieka, a colony of human beings lives along with the hosts, a species so alien that its language has no capacity for abstraction or lying. Unfortunately, contact makes this change, and the hosts turn to humanity with the hope of eliminating the source of their corruption. It’s a novel about the hypothesis of Sapir-Whorf, the nature of otherness and the opium wars.
9. New weird
It’s not really new – the name has existed since around 2002 – but, there’s no doubt, it’s weird. Unlike other subgenres of speculative fiction that have been discussed here, New Weird is inspired by supernatural horror and fantasy and science fiction tropes. Bodies do not often become fully human: one of the main characters may be a mutated bear or may have a beetle for a head. Plants and mushrooms can often do much more than they are supposed to do. The mood is disturbing and uncomfortable.
- China Miéville, The Scar (2002)
It is possible that Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000) started this whole genre, but The Scar is a better read. It is set on the vast floating pirate city of ‘Armada’, among mosquito-people, walking cacti, criminals punished by being surgically ‘remade,’ and a fine cast of monsters (from the murderous grindylow to the incomprehensible avanc).
- John Langan, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013)
Langan is known as a horror writer, but, once again, speculative fiction is not just science fiction. This collection of seven short stories and a short novel, Mother of Stone, takes some classic tropes of vampires, werewolves and zombies, and revolutionizes them in an ingenious and extremely disconcerting way.
- Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation (2014)
The government’s scientific body sends expeditions to Area X, but they tend to disappear unpleasantly. Aniquilación plays with the fears of the real Chernobyl exclusion zone and the radical alterity of nature itself.
Adaptation of a text originally published in How We Get to Next with the title Exploring the Future Beyond Cyberpunk’s Neon and Noir, under one Creative Commons licence which also applies to this article.