Future Primitive

the-lost-futureA particular kind of science fiction converges with green aspirations in ‘future primitive’ visions of a future society less dominated by technology. There are positive and negative versions of this kind of future – and positive and negative pathways to get there.

In coining the term ‘future primitive’, Kim Stanley Robinson espoused a green society in which the back-to-nature good life coexists with restrained use of some advanced technology. But his anthology Future Primitive includes some less appealing scenarios as well.

My latest encounters with future primitive were the film The Lost Future (pictured) and William Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere. The Lost Future is a doubly negative scenario: the future is violent and frightening, though not without the beauty of a renascent natural world; the pathway to it involved a catastrophic collapse of civilisation. News from Nowhere (1891), by contrast, presents an idealised Arts and Crafts future England in which the grim industrial cities of the nineteenth century have been replaced by a pastoral ecotopia of voluntary toil, fine craftwork, and healthy tanned people. Morris calls his society ‘Communist’, but you can forget the Soviet connotations of that word today; News from Nowhere is truly a utopia without a totalitarian impulse. There’s no government and no army; it might be better described as anarchist.

The one thing that disappointed me about News from Nowhere is that the pathway to the future does involve violent revolution and civil war. It seems that Morris couldn’t imagine any other way that society could break free from the power of capitalism. In fact, it’s common in science fiction for even the most positive visions of the future to have arisen from the aftermath of catastrophe. For example, Ursula Le Guin’s beautiful feminist ecotopia in Always Coming Home appears to have come into being after a nuclear war.

Even Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic Mars Trilogy, in narrating blow by blow the development of a green-socialist utopia on Mars, includes a war in which the settlers have to shake off the determination of corporate forces from Earth to export business as usual to this new world. The transition to a greener world will inevitably involve struggle, but violent struggle will surely be self-defeating, as we saw in Russia in the twentieth century. I think the great challenge facing science fiction and green thinking today is to imagine not just desirable future scenarios but a peaceful positive trajectory, whose outcomes will be emergent, not predetermined – and always provisional as the world continues to change.

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