>The end of the world – news?

>Sat up late watching programmes in BBC 4’s Science Fiction Britannia/the Martians and Us series hoping for a bit of entertainment and ended up instead getting a joltingly interesting watch which led me straight back to politics.

Science fiction has, of course, always been less a means reflecting about the future and other planets than the condition of society in the here and now. What I had never realized was how British SF had a dystopian and pessimistic streak which tracked (anxieties about) the decline of the British Empire and our post-imperial condition. A conservative preoccupation with the fragility of modern civilization not present in more optimistic, technology oriented SF (think Star Trek).


Interestingly, current debates about the political and social impact of climate change (after alien invasion, always a favoured mechanism for destroying the world the catastrophist ‘day after’ genre of British SF and US disaster movies) seem closely to echo this preoccupation.
According to The Times James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia thesis, predicts a parched earth by 2100 capable of supporting only 500 million people in which one of the few habitable places is… Yes, very much a la John Wyndham, the British Isles, a target for millions of migrating climate refugees – says Lovelock – likely to be much more overcrowded island than ever before, filled with high rise estates and an government rationing precious food resources very carefully (shades of 1960s Sci Fci classic When the Grass Died).

So, are such concerns just drawing on the well established paradigms of Sci Fi and a deeper vein of cultural pessimism, as various born again anti-ecological ex-Trotskyists such as Frank Furudi, Claire Fox and others from the Revolutionary Communist Party diaspora like to tell us? I suppose you could say that fears of social collapse are some kind of ancestral memory. As Jared Diamond’s book Collapse shows numerous pre-modern societies succumbed to ecological self-destruction and we could probably find many examples of more directly politically or economically induced breakdowns – decline and fall of the Roman Empire etc.

On the other hand, even if he may unconsciously draw on some literary archetypes, Lovelock, is a reasonably serious thinker, whose advocacy of nuclear power as a response to global warming (‘global heating’ as he calls it) show a tough mindedness I admired, even if I was sceptical of his rather sweeping conclusions.

Deep seated preoccupation with civilizational breakdown – or at least the breakdown of liberal institutions – probably reflects the fact we have the capacity to fulfil all the grimmest presentiments of SF writers. And occasionally, of course, we actually do… There was little demand for catastrophist or dystopian science fantasy during Somme, high Stalinism or shattered post-war Europe – because it was already (briefly) a social reality.

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