Warren Ellis on life in the science fiction condition

Warren Ellis has posted a transcript of "How To See The Future," they keynote he gave at the Improving Reality conference in Brighton, England this week. Ellis works his way through McLuhan's statement that "We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future." He's onto something -- our world is a strange admixture of the mundane and the fantastic, and as usual, Ellis's acerbic wit and vision is a bracing tonic that wakes us from our perambulatory slumber:

Imagine living in a Martian culture for a moment, where this thing is a presence in the existence of an entire sentient species. A mountain that you cannot see the top of, because it’s a small world and the summit wraps behind the horizon. Imagine settlements creeping up the side of Olympus Mons. Imagine battles fought over sections of slope. Generations upon generations of explorers dying further and further up its height, technologies iterated and expended upon being able to walk to within leaping distance of orbital space. Manufactured normalcy would suggest that, if we were the Martians, we would find this completely dull within ten years and bitch about not being able to simply fart our way into space.

Now imagine a world where space travel to other worlds is an antique curiosity. Imagine reading the words “vintage space.” Can you even consider being part of a culture that could go to space and then stopped?

If the future is dead, then today we must summon it and learn how to see it properly.

How To See The Future


  1. This speech / essay reminded me a lot of the speech / essays that Bruce Sterling churned out in his ass-kicking-the-future prime* . . . as transcribed in his CATSCAN column in Science Fiction Eye.

    Warren’s essay is a sort of meta-futurism, much more useful than tedious gadget-wanking which passes  for futurism in the mass media.

    * Not that Sterling doesn’t still kick ass . . . it’s just in a different circle of interests.

  2. ” Can you even consider being part of a culture that could go to space and then stopped?”

    Yes. Consider Italy that tried to expand over the available world (AKA the Roman Republic and Empire) but produced a far greater explosion of art and culture after they gave up the territorial empire and turned their energies inward to projects other than physical distance.

    They traveled as far as their technology could take them, but there were diminishing returns with those farther reaches. There were greater returns to be had at home.

    When they started dreaming of empire again in the 20th Century they became culturally ordinary again.

    The space travel of sci-fi would be great, but the space travel of the real universe will have diminishing returns as it attempts to extend farther out.

  3. well I just think we should take care of all of the problems we have at Olympus Mons base camp before we go trekking up the slopes to the top. ;p

  4. “Captain Kirk had to tune his fucking communicator and it couldn’t text or take a photo that he could stick a nice Polaroid filter on.”

    Well, duh! That’s what the tricorder is for!

  5. “Can you even consider being part of a culture that could go to space and then stopped”

    Don’t need to imagine it. We’re living in that culture, at least for manned space flight. 40 years ago America had the capability of sending men to the moon. Now they can’t even send them into orbit, and don’t seem to particularly care about it. 

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