Which Future Are We Heading Towards: Mad Max Or Star Trek?

Illustration for article titled Which Future Are We Heading Towards: Mad Max Or Star Trek?

“As the 21st century unfolds, science fiction increasingly comes to seem like a realist rather than a speculative genre,” says one essay/book review in the L.A. Review of Books. It’s just one of a few great pieces up at the LARB site right now, about the choice of futures we face: Mad Max versus Star Trek.


The quote above comes from a great review of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, written by Sherryl Vint, who talks about the challenges of our current environmental collapse and the danger of upcoming water wars. Bacigalupi’s novel offers “at times a dystopian warning of the future we might face, and at others a stern reminder that the apocalypse has already begun.” But as Vint points out, science fiction is our perfect guide to this nightmarish world, and to the kind of choices that we might have to make to survive it.

Picking up this theme, another review looks at Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Gerry Canavan says that both books look at just how difficult it will be for humans to survive in space: “In both novels, the reintroduction of actual physics into narratives about human beings in outer space seems to slide away from happy fantasy toward something that looks more like gruesome survival horror. These novels are closer to The Walking Dead than Star Trek.

But as Canavan says, both Robinson and Stephenson wind up being optimistic: “What both Aurora and Seveneves examine is that new value alternatively called adaptability or sustainability or resilience — the capacity of human societies to survive what would otherwise appear to be insurmountable disasters, whether through their willingness to murder other people to get ahead (call that one bad resilience) or else through the happy intersection of ingenuity, solidarity, and hope.... disaster is an opportunity for inspiring nobility, for a coming together.”

Which leads us to the third awesome piece that you really ought to read in LARB right now. Tom Streithorst looks at “The Economics of Mad Max and Star Trek,” and takes apart these two very different views of our future. (Although it’s worth mentioning that Star Trek always says we have to go through a period of Mad Max before getting to the utopian Federation.)

And Streithorst grapples with the two sides of our current situation. On the one hand, droughts are becoming more common and the Sahara desert is growing. But meanwhile, solar power is getting cheaper and technology is letting us eliminate all kinds of horrible drudgery. He concludes somewhat hopefully, “I suspect Star Trek is more likely than Mad Max. We have never yet failed to become richer; as a species, our lives have always gotten better.” But at the same time, you could have a Star Trek world in which most people are incredibly poor, because there’s no demand for their labor.

Which brings us back to the central idea of the essay about Aurora and Seveneves: That we need not just ingenuity, but coming together to make something better. [LARB]