Science fiction, predicting the present, the adjacent possible, and trumpian comic dystopias

In 2010, Steve Almond started work on a Tea Party-inspired novel called Bucky Dunn Is Running, about a racist demagogue businessman who comes within a whisker of the Republican nomination for their presidential candidate; he'd aimed to have it done for the 2016 election season, but then Trump happened, and his satire seemingly caught up with him.

Almond's book never found a publisher, which is a shame, because, judging from the excerpts in his essay reflecting on how he came to write such a prescient book, it was really excellent — a kind of pre-emptive skewering of the trumpian mode of politics.

Almond himself is kind of head-shakingly weirded out about having the satirical product of his imagination converge so firmly with reality, but I think it validates the idea that I've written about before, that science fiction predicts the present.

Sf writers have all kinds of ideas, all the time. John Brunner was writing about "cyberspace" (even if he didn't use that word) decades before William Gibson and the cyberpunks took off with the idea. Writers have varying degress of insight, prejudice, aspirations and fears that they express through their futuristic speculation, in which they draw on the present to create parables about the future.

Many of the ideas in these stories are eternal, or at least cyclic, with writers returning to them over and over, from different angles, with differing degrees of commercial success.

The readers, publishers, critics, booksellers and other people who turn books into success-stories act as a fitness function against this landscape of notional futures, elevating the ones that reflect our broader aspirations, fears, insights and prejudices about technology and society. Looking at which sf stories are resonating at a given moment doesn't necessarily tell you much about the future, but it reveals an awful lot about the present (and since the present is a standing wave in which the past is becoming the future, a better understanding of the present is useful in understanding the future, and in shaping it).

But where do the readers, publishers, critics and so on get their prejudices, fears, aspirations and insights from? That is, what are the forces that produce the selective pressure on these futuristic tales?

To answer that, it's useful to turn to Kevin Kelly's masterful 2010 book, What Technology Wants. Kelly investigates the phenomenon of simultaneous invention: the fact that every "breakthrough" invention seems to have been invented independently, more or less at the same time, by people all over the world. That's why we argue about who invented TV, radio, lightbulbs, heavier-than-air flight, etc.

Kelly points out that these inventions are actually being "invented" (or at least, ideated) all the time, for centuries before they actually emerge in the world. Da Vinci drew helicopters, and others sketched out airplanes, lightbulbs, etc etc, long before the first working models emerged.

Kelly suggests that these ideas are always around, that the inspirations for them (observations of natural phenomena or animals, speculation about how well-understood phenomena might be chained together to do something novel) will occur to someone, once they are in the cultural mix. It may be that only one in a million people can imagine a helicopter from scratch without any precedent, just by observing maple-keys and screws and other related phenomena, but in a world where tens of millions (or billions!) of people are alive and aware of these phenomena, you'd expect several people in every generation to have the "helicopter" insight.

But the ideas can only become reality once the technologies that are "adjacent" to them are perfected — it's one thing to imagine how you'd create a helicopter if you had a compact and efficient fuel source, a mathematics of lift and airfoil, the metallurgy necessary for the materials that are light and strong enough to use in your helicopter. But until all of these adjacencies are filled, you will never make your helicopter.

People have been envisioning Trumpian presidencies for a long, long time, with varying degrees of commercial success. Bruce Sterling's 1999 novel Distraction is one of his very best works; Neal Stephenson's 1998 novel Interface is likewise a standout in a canon with so many excellent works to choose from — both of these novels are incredibly prescient and insightful when applied to Trumpian times, but neither were runaway hits when they came out. We weren't quite ready for that future, because we didn't yet have the adjacent phenomena that made these works so resonant and scary.

A decade later, Warren Ellis gave us Transmetropolitan, whose futuristic, satirical politics are absolutely applicable to today's world, and we had more adjacencies, so Transmet did better than Interface and Distraction, though all three are equally excellent (and you will be amply rewarded if you read them today!).

On the eve of the 2016 election, novels like Christopher Brown's Tropic of Kansas — another absolutely on-point, excellent novel — had the fortune to be in the production pipeline, with a publisher who believed that satirical trumpian dystopias were salient (rather than obsolete) in the present moment (unfortunately for Almond and Bucky Dunn Is Running, it sounds like the publishers he approached felt that the present moment made Trumpian fiction obsolete).

Now, of course, we can expect a lot of Trumpian dystopias to be written, because it's obvious and in the air around us, and the adjacencies are obviously satisfied for making those dystopias believably resonant.

But the question is, how did those "prescient" writers come up with Trumpian politics in 1998 or 1999 or even 2010? The answer is, the idea that the Tea Party (or the GW Bush presidency, or Ross Perot) might hitch themselves to the rise and rise of networks to supercharge demagoguery and racism and corruption, was alighting upon many people from early times (Philip K Dick had inklings of this in the 1960s). That's because the seeds of these phenomena were there for anyone to see if they knew where to look, but only a few of us knew where to look, and so the ideas alighted upon writers who nurtured them into speculative fiction.

Other writers used other seeds to nurture different futures that never emerged, or have not yet emerged, and those futures weren't published, or if they were, they were largely forgotten. They may yet be revived (see Philip K Dick), if a moment arrives in which those seeds germinate, and we may hail them as spookily prescient Leonardos who invented the helicopter centuries before it was helicoptering time. But if we look hard at the works written and the works published, we'll likely find other writers who made those speculations, but timed them wrong, released them into a world with insufficient adjacencies to be commercially successful.

The future isn't "predictable," in the sense of being inevitable. There are forces that act on the future, and we can diagnose those forces and change the way people think about and mitigate or supercharge these forces with the futures we write — with their warnings and inspirations. That's ultimately much more important than mere prediction. Sf writers are (sometimes unwitting) bellwethers, not fortune-tellers.

I roared for raw meat and an unpaid intern brought me raw meat. The studio was crawling with unpaids, young patriots rotated through to earn college credit toward degrees in Televised Communication and True History. They rushed in to re-humanize my skin, to steam iron my lapels, to sniff the musk of their own infant dreams. Tammy. Pammy. Sammy. I wanted to rape all of them.

My underlings scrummed up and I stared at all of them until things were awkward, then I explained how it would happen, enunciating so as to suggest antic grades of fury: B-roll of wetbacks, the headless corpse stuff out of Juarez, day labor sites in groomed suburban areas, a dash of mariachi music played at 78 rpm. Racial panic. How goddamn complex was that?

Stranger Than Fiction [Steve Almond/The Baffler]