During the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the celebrated science-fiction writer William Gibson did a lot of interviews. In many of these, he answered with affable but increasing bemusement a seemingly endless series of variations on the same question. Its basic theme was as follows: his novels to that point—in the most famous of which, Neuromancer, he had coined the term ‘cyberspace’—had frequently been described as ‘dystopian’. Was this a characterisation the author shared?
At first, Gibson attempted to explain his disagreement by reference to the naturalistic approach he had consciously brought to his work—writing against what he saw as previous American science fiction’s overly slick and undetailed depictions of technology that was employed near-exclusively by characters who tended to be white, male, and stiflingly free of moral depth or complexity. Later, however, he took to answering the dystopia question—which had clearly begun to frustrate him—by pointing out that millions if not billions of people on present-day Earth would likely be happy to move to one of the sprawling, neon-drenched, ultra-urban cityscapes (now a persistent retrofuturistic and corporatized ‘cyberpunk’ cliche) of his early novels, where (the implication went) there was plenty of exotic posthuman crime but no famines or open sewers. On balance, Gibson argued, his depiction of the future was a fairly optimistic one, and besides, he added, the real world consistently tended to generate scenarios and events that would be considered excessively farfetched and on-the-nose if they were dreamed up by some science-fiction writer.
While both those contentions remain true, it’s also true that the future isn’t what it used to be. Or at least, perhaps it wasn’t until recently. You may have encountered the idea that the art and culture of the last thirty-or-so years has been characterized by the effects of a pervasive and insidious ‘slow cancellation of the future’. This phrase was popularised by the cultural theorist Mark Fisher, who identified ‘anachronism and inertia’ in the arts as key characteristics of this cancellation. Zeroing in on the phenomenon, Fisher wrote in 2014 that, while twentieth-century experimental culture ‘was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available,’ the twenty-first century ‘is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion’, dominated by stale pastiche and a dizzying array of modes and flavours of nostalgia.
Then (about fifteen Marvel Cinematic Universe films later) came the pandemic, revealing the gaping cracks in capitalist institutions and assumptions—cracks that had been there all along—and invoking the widespread sentiment, now in the territory of cliché, that time had begun to behave differently, that months had become years and years had become tiny eternities. Time seemed different, and so did the future.
A certain kind of science-fiction writer—if assigned the task of creating in broad daubs what must be referred to only tentatively as ‘our current reality’—might feel tempted to make the past two-and-a-half years the cruel prelude to the actual Bad Thing: the thing that came next, an ironising of history as perceived from the future-past that forms our present. This construction of the now as a past, argues Fredric Jameson, is one of the central purposes of science fiction, which characteristically ‘does not seriously attempt to imagine the “real” future of our social system’. Instead, SF’s ‘multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.’
A more frequently-raised corollary is that SF is always about the present, even when it’s about the distant future. During the first year of what people have begun to call in past-tense tones ‘the pandemic’, it seemed that any attempt to grasp what was happening (culturally, socially, politically, ‘economically’) required the science fictionist’s attempt to cast the strange molten present into an already-narrativized future-history: what will the other side look like? Where is the other side? How will we know when we get there? Arguably, none of these questions have been adequately answered yet.
It turns out that one side effect of living through history in the making is that it makes us nervous all the time. Setting aside specific anxiety inducers (pandemic-driven or otherwise) like precarity, stress, mental illness, and family and health concerns, this is also simply because we have been made unusually aware of the role (if any) that our present will play in the uncertain future-past.
Of course, history is always in the making. We just aren’t generally aware of it. Here is my diagnosis: the slow cancellation of the future is finally itself undergoing cancellation, disappearing from view. This formerly all-pervasive cultural mood has been robbed of its soporific power by the recent intrusion of queasy possibility, the reminder that, as the old song says, anything could happen and it could be right now.
Paraphrasing Deleuze and Guattari in his discussion of capitalist realism, Fisher wrote that capitalism is a system not ‘governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis’. It seems that in the past two years we have witnessed enough of those ad hoc reinstallations to glimpse the totality, the operating system on which they are running. The spell has been broken. History is still happening. Shaken free of old narratives, we are now able to imagine new ones. What we do with this collective feeling—and what potential futures we grow to replace the old ones—will in a very real sense determine the future that will come to pass.
Eight years ago, the same William Gibson who gave us cyberspace concluded a more-or-less realist trilogy chronicling the artistic, political, technocultural, and capitalist developments of the 2000s—developments which turned out to be the foundations on which so much of our present moment is built—and returned to ‘science fiction’ proper, directly addressing the notions of time and history discussed above.
Opening with a tag from HG Wells—‘I have already told you of the sickness and confusion that comes with time travelling’—Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral depicts a pair of futures. One takes place in a London more than a century distant from our present: a future where, in the eighty years preceding the events of the story, an extended ‘ecopolitical catastrophe’ referred to by the characters as ‘the jackpot’ has occurred.
In the second timeline, another set of characters is slowly moving through the jackpot, somewhere in the 2040s. The setting is a hollowed-out rural United States—a future Faulknerland littered with the damaged posthuman veterans of faraway wars. In this dead-mall landscape, the only truly viable sources of employment are the armed forces, the illicit-drugs industry, the 3D-printing chains that are replacing bigbox stores, and a metastasised paramilitary Department of Homeland Security. Globally, capital is entering the final stages of accumulation in the hands of the vanishingly few. The jackpot is happening, and has been for some time, but nobody can see it yet. Most people are just trying to survive.
From what can be pieced together in the diegesis, the jackpot involves the final merger of finance capital and autocratic kleptocracy, climate-driven refugee crises and wars, several smallish pandemics, and the Sixth Extinction in full swing: irreversible damage to ecological systems and the ‘collapse of keystone species’. It also involves the deaths of eighty percent of the world’s human beings. The jackpot is ‘multicausal, with no particular beginning’—its only vaguely positive upside is further acceleration in technical development, especially nano/biotechnology (self-assembling clothes and buildings; ocean and air cleanup, ubiquitous and invisibly small brain-computer interfaces).
In the twenty-second century, those who have lived through or were born after ‘the jackpot’ have the use of technologies like scarily advanced shapeshifting service robots, serious life-extension medicine, and takeout bags that morph and flap back to their restaurants like giant butterflies. Through a shadowy quantum ‘server’, individuals in this future are able to contact and influence (though not travel to) the rural early-jackpot one, which appears as a parallel-universe ‘stub’ of the post-jackpot future. The server and its parallel ‘continua’ become a hobby of the powerful. Multiversal colonialism begins almost immediately—Jameson’s ‘systematic occultation of the colony from metropolis’ made both spatial and temporal, and a murder plot involving both timelines unfolds.
In January 2020, Gibson followed The Peripheral with a sequel, Agency, in which the distant, twenty-second-century future returns, but a new ‘stub’ universe is introduced. This universe is roughly our own, but with a couple of key differences: the winner of the 2016 US presidential election is Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump (though neither are named in the book) and Brexit does not take place. Secondly, in a stab at the type of historical dramatic irony mentioned earlier, the world is on the brink of an actual nuclear war.
Agency struck me—a Gibson superfan since age thirteen—as one of Gibson’s least inspired efforts. Now in his seventies and a writer of consistently engaging, insightful, generative, and aesthetically beautiful fiction for forty years, it seemed Gibson had finally swung and missed. The new characters were thin and the returning ones tired, persisting with their well-meaning quantum-mechanical colonialism. And the less said about the wryly Trumpless universe the better. But it’s clear from the vantage of July 2022—in the bleary wake of a very early-jackpot-esque pandemic, with its stratifying effects, its masked gigworkers, its erratic stock markets and cryptocurrency boom-busts—that the issue hadn’t started with Agency.
The sensibility informing Gibson’s fiction has always been too liberal for the tastes of serious leftists. But he is simultaneously too quietly but firmly critical of what might be termed ‘technocapital’ for the liking of those who would believe technology allows us to develop inexorably towards the greater good of all. Until these novels, Gibson’s futures had (as noted earlier) been relatively optimistic; what’s jarring is the jackpot, the sudden lurch toward apocalypse.
That lurch is what’s relevant now, in the queasy possibility of 2022. The futures we imagine and entertain (or do not entertain) have always been both important and revealing, but they are doubly important now that we have been shaken free of various complacencies. Imagined futures are only stories, but stories run the world, or at minimum lay the tracks for its passage, without which it would move in a different direction entirely.¹ The cultural notion that ‘we’ are hurtling (slowly or not) toward eventual doom is widespread. The scariest part is maybe how common this sentiment is, across the political spectrum. Of course, this was true even before the pandemic, which for many only deepened the feeling (the shorebreak of time has worn into visibility a new historical irony to promotional and review pieces for Agency from January 2020; one begins with the meme-question ‘Is ours the darkest timeline?’ but seems to tie this mainly to Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.)
The word ‘apocalypse’ comes to us from the Greek apokalyptein (‘uncover, disclose, reveal’) and the (church) Latin apocalypsis (‘revelation’). Until the late nineteenth century, its use in English was initially confined to the biblical sense of divine revelation and judgment, then expanded to the sense of any revelation. It is entirely unsurprising that the word’s usage in its current general world-ending cataclysmic sense began with the fin de siècle cultural anxiety of the 1890s and early 1900s. Then, as now, Western preoccupation with decline and fall was widespread, as was the (proto-)fascism this preoccupation shaded into. Now that the ‘cataclysmic end of the world’ meaning is in general use, we might also observe that, when it comes to fiction, ‘apocalypse’ is revelatory in a slightly different sense: in describing an imaginary apocalypse, an author may reveal hidden assumptions at both the personal and cultural levels.
The idea of a jackpot that has already begun is a seductive one, and not just because, once encountered, it works as a sort of instant cognitive trigger for casting our present as some future’s past. At first look, the jackpot makes intuitive sense, no matter whether your inclination is to read it as the negative externalities of inevitable accumulation, as a stage in transition toward some type of creative-destructive techno-singularity, or as Kaczynski’s ‘industrial revolution and its consequences’ writ large.
Actually, in this maybe-not-post-pandemic world, we should reject all those readings, and most variants thereof. We should reject apocalypse, reject the idea of the jackpot itself. A sizeable chunk of all apocalypse narratives are either inherently conservative or contain conservative assumptions. Part of the jackpot’s appeal is that it skirts the trap of (for example) depicting a single grand catastrophic event that upon closer examination simply dramatises deepseated bourgeois fears about loss of power and material wealth. Which is the greater hypothetical tragedy? The preventable loss of billions of lives, or the collapse of the exploitative global systems that currently benefit and serve only a relative few of us? (In narratives like the recent HBO adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s pre-Covid pandemic novel Station Eleven, you could be forgiven for getting the impression the latter is more poignant.)
The jackpot fits nicely with our desire to live with dignity under those same global systems, and its seeming inevitability assuages the guilt attending the certainty that such dignity is impossible and that all is not well. If the jackpot is inevitable, there isn’t much any one person can do. But to draw this conclusion is to forget that, in 2022, history is still in the making. Gibson’s paired futures of the early twenty-first and mid twenty-second centuries are best read not as depictions of new territory but as pixelated reflections of the actual historical twentieth century and our present, respectively. From the perspective of our present, the jackpot-esque chaotic upheavals, wars, colonialisms, and genocides of the twentieth century have both irreversibly altered humanity and profoundly damaged the biosphere, leading to a 2022 in which some of us enjoy the daily use of extremely powerful technologies that emerged as direct products of those upheavals and atrocities, but with an awareness (acknowledged or unacknowledged) of the human and ecological costs at which they come.
One of the many issues with this view of late modernity is its nested assumption that more global upheavals and Malthusian cullings are inevitable. Based on their behaviour, it seems that others of Gibson’s generation and their supporters—who still hold the majority of power in Western militaries and governments—are also operating under this unconscious zero-sum assumption. In terms of geopolitical storytelling, this is the same cancelled-future nostalgia Fisher criticised—a franchise reboot with all the old enemies and backdrops. When the twentieth century is your primary lens, everything looks like one big rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem; there is no other way, such that for years now we have been asked to accept ‘Cold War II’, like some Marvel sequel nobody except the money people really wanted.
Are we ‘back’ to ‘normal’ yet? No one seems to know, which is an answer in itself. But this strange state of affairs could be the perfect soil in which to plant counterfutures. In this time of uncertainty and (marine) heat waves, in the cultural vacuum following the departure of the endless banal cancelled future, it is important to follow Hannah Arendt’s famous demand that we ‘think what we are doing’. It’s difficult to think about the present for long without thinking about the future, and the reverse is also true. As the hidden effects of the pandemic on culture continue to come into view, part of thinking about what we are doing could include considering whether the futures we imagine are genuinely fresh. Are we moving toward the new, or are we running the twentieth century on better hardware? If stories run (or nudge) the world, then even jokes about fighting side by side with our friends in the coming water wars should be rigorously avoided. Above all, when considering fictional futures—whether in the form of novels or jokes and idle speculation—we might ask ourselves whose future we are really imagining, who or what belongs in it, and who might benefit from imagining it that way.
- Gibson is both accustomed to and made uncomfortable by uncritical admiration for the worlds and objects of his imagination, especially ones he considers troubling in their implications. He has good reason to feel this way: by creating ‘cyberspace’ in the same year the domain name server was introduced, he also created the dominant metaphor by which the capital-i Internet of the 1990s and early 2000s was culturally understood and therefore utilized, discussed, and regulated. Thus, in a very real sense, he was directly involved in creating the internet itself. This seems like more supporting evidence for Percy Shelley’s claim that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’, which in the late 1990s the so-called Cybernetic Culture Research Unit reskinned, in gloomy, jargon-laden, capitalist cyberpunk-trenchcoat garb, as ‘hyperstition’.
Image: Le Luxographe