Signposts to a post-pandemic future

All fiction is of its time and science fiction holds a special place, speculating how the fears of today might play out into possible tomorrows. Within the genre there’s a difference between the near-future and the apocalyptic. Or as people are now saying, there used to be.

These times of a Covid19 pandemic are unusual, but not unprecedented. There was the post first world war flu epidemic, HIV/AIDS and Ebola and you only have to look at Wikipedia to see the long litany of epidemics in the previous centuries. It’s inevitable that fiction has already reflected our fear of widely contagious diseases given the outbreaks of bubonic plague, influenza and cholera and my co-editors of the anthology, Tom Ward and Dan O’Hara, suggest these as relevant works: Defoe’s (1722); Shelley’s (1826); Carpenter’s (1956) and Garcia-Marquez’s (1967).

However, this is a personal and unprecedented experience for the majority of us.

As a near-future author I focus on the subtle disintegration of the now and the rocky road to a better future, not the apocalyptic big bang shattering and all-out dystopian collapse. During the lockdown I’ve been reflecting about this difference and thinking smugly that it’s only the creators of the post-apocalyptic stories who will have to change. It’s been amusing to read commentators who point out that the only writer with the foresight to see exactly how we would be dressed during an apocalypse was Douglas Adams with his dressing gown clad Arthur Dent. However, I doubt we’ll see the stay-at-home carefulness of this particular pandemic transposed into post-apocalyptic fiction. In reality I expect we will continue to read tales of alien invaders and uncontrollable military mistakes which in turn will continue to scare and thrill us with all-out carnage.

I thought that near-future fiction with its extrapolations of emerging technology shouldn’t be too affected by recent events, except for the almost ubiquitous use of Zoom. But then I did a bit more thinking and realised how wrong I was. The shift in our individual and societal view of the world will have to be addressed for near-future fiction to retain its authenticity, otherwise the premise it’s based on will not be recognisable and therefore its extrapolations will not be believable.

It may seem trivial in comparison, but I travelled through Russia in the times of perestroika and glasnost and through China at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests; both places were in the careful process of opening up to the outside. That experience changed my perspective on the world for ever. In both countries there was a high level of state control. In Russia this was accompanied by a general sense of fear. I had supper in a rundown estate on the outskirts of Moscow where the host, whose mother I’d shared a carriage with from East Berlin, cautiously offered a Marlboro cigarette from a locked cupboard. Presumably because it was bought with foreign money and therefore illegal. On a different day, a uniformed man knocked on our hotel door asking us to smuggle medicine out of the country for his ageing relative. We refused because it felt like a dangerous trap. An illegal currency exchange from Dollars to Roubles was a clandestine and nervous affair in a hotel room with gestured warnings of walls that were listening, compared to the same illegal exchange in China which was done on the open streets, albeit with accompanying machetes. In China, even though there were protestors in the square and tanks on the streets, the atmosphere was one of entrepreneurship. I remember the woman I was travelling with teaching a vendor of chips how to make tomato ketchup while he explained that although he wasn’t allowed to run his own business he’d teamed up with someone who was. On the day we were leaving Beijing an English speaking student took the brave step to openly warn us to leave the train station because the troops were rumoured to be coming in on the very train we were waiting for. The contrast between the apparent servility of the Russians and the defiance of the Chinese was striking. It gave me a real understanding of how different the world is and the understanding that different cultures react very differently to a controlling state and hence can have different futures. The influence of that experience is long lasting and partly behind my often repeated phrase, “The future is ours and it’s up for grabs…” I think another major shift is happening again for me, as it is for most people.

By holding up a mirror to the present to show a possible future good science fiction can help us capitalise on the best consequences of this shared pandemic, such as a desire to restructure the world of work and an increased respect for those in essential but low paid jobs. It can also help us resist the worst, such as the intolerable post-empire arrogance that believes this country is somehow superior to others. Covid19 and the resulting shift in focus by the media has brought home the stark fact that the number of low paid essential workers and those in poverty are disproportionally higher in BAME communities. It also exposed the fact that appalling conditions in factories such as those in Leicester still exist. The public attention on these and other inequalities may create an audience that is more open to different ways of structuring society and therefore more receptive to speculation about the future. To harness this receptiveness authors will need to successfully predict and incorporate the lasting changes and discard the temporary. That’s no easy thing to do. However, there are changes that we all recognise are likely to stay. For city-dwellers in particular a new set of priorities around what is important about a home has emerged — outdoor space, the neighbours and the local amenities. For those where it’s possible to work from home a higher level of trust between employer and employee has eliminated crushing commutes. Other changes are less certain to stay, for example the break from indulging in wanton consumerism.

How does this affect fiction?

The impact of a good story is more than the sum of its parts — the characters, the world in which it is set, the readers with their life experiences and the author’s narrative. Fiction is at its best as all of these come together and create that magical moment when the reader sees the world and its inhabitants in a new way.

We’re currently in the middle of the pandemic. Hopefully we’ll come to be post pandemic. Post Covid19, our relationship to technology and increasing social isolation or our concern about the dangers of being tracked twenty-four hours a day will no doubt change. This means that authors of near-future fiction may need to reconsider using these recurring popular themes of the genre to remain authentic and still create those moments. After all, the future has taken a dramatic fork in the road and raced ahead more quickly than we predicted and we will need to accept the possibility that some speculative trucks have may have already trundled. All we can be confident of is that there are plenty of other forks up ahead that we need to navigate together.

Recently, I was commissioned to write a short piece exploring possible positive outcomes from the pandemic to encourage governments to actively revise social norms rather than lazily returning to the pre-pandemic way of living. I was surprised at how difficult this proved to be. When trying to imagine a positive future I settled on a story that included higher empathy with our neighbours, a real recognition of essential work and better housing, but in a world made up of localised quarantines with home technology to create virtual reality settings for visitors. Now, as I begin to sketch out my next novel, I’m wondering whether there will be a backlash against virtual gatherings and home working. Whether the working week will be shorter and whether we will get universal basic income. I’m wondering what the disparity between communities and between countries will be like and whether we will be more or less obsessed by the nation state. Will the global effort to find a vaccine or the different regional experiences of lockdown lead to a more or less fractured world? Will reduced climate damage from air travel be replaced by the huge energy consumption of server farms and will there be an increase in the use of cars as a result of public transport being too dangerous to use?

Up until this pandemic I had taken a view that technology changes a lot faster than human nature and society, and even when a truly disruptive technology such as the World Wide Web or mobile phones comes along this remains true. That thinking of course didn’t factor in anything of Covid19’s magnitude and the disruption it could cause by forcing us to rethink societal norms around social interaction, housing, transport and trust in the establishment. The pace of change has astonished a lot of people. This is not a new phenomenon as we see from the fifty year old classic Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. However, if this pandemic has squashed many years of change into a small space of time this will have been an intensified Future Shock and one that has forced everyone to engage with both technology and other people differently. As a result the world feels less sure, more transient to use a term from Future Shock, and it’s probable that there will be an increase in the number of people that will be able to accept science fiction as plausible. Unless they are more sceptical because they associate science fiction with dystopia and they feel they know what a true one of those looks and feels like. One thing is for sure, the scrutiny and dissection of current political and social systems will affect how readers read near-future fiction.

Finally, there are the authors. Writers are not immune to the disruption around them as we can see from a long list of examples, such as Shakespeare and his quarantine at the beginning of the 17th century and works by Chekhov; the Brontes; Louis Stevenson; and Keats in the nineteenth century when tuberculosis was prevalent and even fashionable.

Covid19 has changed me and my writing and it will continue to do so for years to come, just as it has changed us all in some way through living with the stress, isolation and restrictions on our freedom. My work has always contained implicit references to the effects of mental and physical isolation, but it feels more intense now and I’m way more cautious of assuming what society and the human psyche will become. On one hand this increased uncertainty is debilitating and on the other it is an extremely rich source of inspiration to explore what it will mean to be human over the next fifty years. This is a moment in time when there’s a lot to play for in shaping our future and the lockdown experience is influencing the stories I want to tell and indeed the stories I am able to tell. Self-reflection finds its way into these stories and this has been ratcheted up by several notches. At the same time I am all too aware that while this may feel like a unique experience it’s not, as we can see from past works of fiction.

What is exciting about this precise moment in history is the potential to signpost a new fork in the road to our future. As a result I’m looking forward to some exceptional and challenging science fiction to come and I hope I am able to positively contribute to that body of work.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of Focus, the British Science Fiction Association’s magazine for writers.

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Stephen Oram

Stephen Oram

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Stephen Oram’s near-future sci-fi collections have been praised by publications as diverse as The Morning Star and The Financial Times. www.stephenoram.net