There is no consensus on what constitutes a better future or how to cultivate one – such nebulous concepts can really only be interpreted through the prism of personal situation. Clean energy, universal access to medical services and education, being well clothed, well fed and having basic rights are some of the essentials any civilised individual would ask for before branching off into their own wish list.
Right now, in the midst of lockdown, the overriding drive is, understandably, for a return to normality and the stability it brings. But there is a growing awareness that things cannot carry on as before. We are more mindful of the natural world and the effect we’ve had on it, conscious of how other people matter to us, and awake to consumerism’s unearned dominance in our lives. We need to examine the potential for more enduring and sustainable futures. And science fiction certainly spends plenty of time looking for future paradises, even if we don’t always get there.
My latest series, The Salvation Sequence, is set in the far future after a catastrophe has scattered the human race across the stars, and sees us hunted. The story follows a single goal that everyone shares, to defeat our enemy – which will finally allow us to reunite and live the life we once had. This quest for an ordinary existence is regarded as a destiny that’s worth fighting for.
Here then are 10 stories of remaking the future that contain hope – or at least stability.
1. The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke
One of the strongest classics of science fiction, which because of its subject matter and the way it was written has aged well. It tells of Diaspar, the last city left on Earth, a place where immortals live their pointless lives without ever changing. Into this insular stasis comes Alvin, the first new human to be created in aeons. His curiosity drives him to leave Diaspar and explore the desert world that Earth has become. He finds the only other place humans live, and from there starts to learn why the planet and its people have retreated to such a passive state.
2. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
A very powerful debut from North, with an excellent new take on time travel. Harry North is born in 1919, a time-traveller with a difference. When he dies he is always reborn in 1919, but now he has all his memories from his previous lives. There aren’t many like Harry, but their lives overlap, allowing them to carry messages between eras which help to hold history as we know it together, ensuring that our timeline is the best it can be. Then things start to change, with advanced technology appearing early, altering events. With Harry’s fellow travellers being assassinated it’s down to him to find out which of them is doing this, and why. Maintaining the stability of what we have becomes his raison d’être.
3. Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
Something of a departure for Reynolds, who usually writes hard SF. Set in the very far future, Revenger has Reynolds’ pragmatism applied to an exotic setting where the solar system has been dismantled and rebuilt; instead of the nine classic planets we have now, there are tens of thousands of worldlets orbiting the sun. Civilisation has fallen several times over the millennia but in tribute to our resilience, new societies have always risen again even in these bizarre circumstances. Travel between the worldlets is by lightsail. And where you have sail you have pirates. The story follows two sisters who run away from home and join the crew of a lightsail ship.
4. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The human fascination for a fresh start on a new world is given a new twist in Tchaikovsky’s trademark other-view style. The exoplanet in question is terraformed by a project that accidently goes … horribly right? We get to see a world with one of the most definitive alien civilisations that’s been written about, growing from the humblest of origins into a world that humans want for themselves. The conflict arising from this paradise-denied set-up is decided with imaginative non-human resolution.
5. Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh
Another fresh-start world story. This time told through the eyes of teenagers who have been sold a dream that, if not impossible to achieve, will require sacrifices they are not prepared for. Oh blends some of the hard science and cramped confines of realistic space travel with all too human failings as the youngsters finally realise what it costs to make dreams come true.
6. Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks
I include this as an introduction to the excellent series of Banks novels that feature the Culture. An intensive literary examination of a civilisation that was the first to fully flesh out the concept of ‘post-scarcity’. Taken together these novels explore what it would really be like to live in a universe which is as physically close to our ancient interpretations of heaven as possible. With every citizen supplied with practically everything they want, there’s very little which can go wrong. But when it does, the Culture’s special circumstances division steps in. Told with Banks’s distinctive humour and insight.
7. Natural History by Justina Robson
Robson’s thoughtful and composed vision of a world where people’s bodies are now forged rather than born, leaving them capable of living in any environment. When a habitable alien planet is found, these new beings believe it is their right to claim it for themselves.
8. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
A multi-award-winning book, another far-future story where stability is achieved by empire and enforced by AIs. Planets live in harmony once they have been subjugated, but at huge cost. Leckie follows the story of one such warship of the empire that was destroyed, its AI mind now occupying a human body without understanding what being human really is.
9. Way Station by Clifford D Simak
Written and set in the early 1960s, this novel is very much a product of its time. Only one man on Earth has any knowledge of a vast and benevolent civilisation among the stars. Meanwhile around him he sees the cold war starting to unravel. If Earth was to be incorporated within this civilisation, almost all of our political and social problems would be over, but at the cost of independence. Does he alone have the right to make that decision? A small, quiet novel from Simak, who writes pastoral SF.
10. News from Gardenia by Robert Llewellyn
An intriguing, well-defined book about Gavin Meckler, a man from today who is accidentally sent 200 years into the future. He finds himself on a transformed Earth that has adopted the most progressive of our current green ambitions, producing a society that’s almost Amish but with modern, non-polluting technology. Llewellyn’s heart and optimism infuses the story.