In my previous post in this series, What Does the Future Hold?, I talked about the different uses that science fiction can be put to and gave my opinion that the highest form of science fiction is the milieu story, where the author creates a fully realized a future world, rather than merely offering an allegorical lens on our own society or a limited what if story exploring a single speculative idea. In this post, I’d like to talk about the different kinds of societies explored in science fiction, and will offer an exploration of my own.
A lot of science fiction completely ignores the question of social change, focusing instead on the implication of technological change on people who are otherwise very much like us. Dystopian future stories often offer even less, with societies that are mere regressions into the past. While I do enjoy some hard science fiction, like the recent film The Martian, stories that explore the human condition tend to be the ones that stick with me. And yet few writers take on the burden of trying to imagine a new form of human society, and when they do, such efforts are easily still born, stilted, or unbelievable.
Frank Herbert, one of my favorite authors, borrowed heavily on the feudal society of the middle ages, as well as the culture of the nomadic Bedouin, to create the societies in his novel Dune, while mixing in some fantastic elements like the Bene Gesserit program to breed a super human. In The Dosadi Experiment, he imagined a society of superhuman intellects created by an incredibly hostile environment. In my opinion, one of his most believable post human societies came in his novel The Santaroga Barrier, the story of seemingly normal town that turns out to be anything but.
What kind of new societal forms might grow up in a future where the current social orders have fallen, and technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, neural implants, and genetic modification have advanced far beyond where they are now? Such speculation can be interesting in its own right, but using it as a mirror on our own society gives it relevance, bringing us full circle to the use of science fiction as allegory. Below is one possible future society. This story follows on from the one in the previous post:
Ester waited in the comfort of her office, which was on the second floor at the top of the grand staircase. It was rare indeed that she should be meeting with a man who wasn’t a citizen of her great city, but for what he offered, only she, as mayor, had the authority to pay the price he asked. The man, Andros, was a mercenary, a dangerous relic of a war which had raged in the east as the Europeans fought over what was left of their continent. She had dealt with him before; though she felt he was honorable, she wouldn’t be taking any chances.
She heard footsteps crossing the small rotunda, and composed herself. Noel, the youngest of her three husbands, who worked as her secretary, escorted her visitor in. He looked as small as a child as he led the hulking Andros into her office. Noel showed Andros to a chair, then left the room. Evelyn, a large, heavily muscled woman who was one of Ester’s officers and had followed the two men into the room, stood at attention behind the mercenary. She was almost as large as Andros, though her uniform was far less imposing than his armor. Ester pushed these thoughts aside, and focused on the matter at hand.
“Hello again, Mr. Andros,” she said.
“It’s just Andros, your honor,” he replied.
“I hear that you have some valuable salvage you wish to sell to our fair city,” she said.
“Correct,” he replied. “If I may?”
She nodded, and he opened his palm. A hologram, projected in the air above it, showed a dozen warheads. The plutonium in these devices would allow thousands of batteries, each of which could power a consul’s implants for a lifetime, to be constructed in the nuclear facilities in Pasadena. The ban on the production of this rare metal meant that it was becoming ever harder to come by, but the will to legalize old fashioned fission reactors wasn’t there yet.
“You wish to be paid in gold?” she asked.
“I agree to your price, then,” Ester replied. “Noreen will take you down to the treasury when you’re ready to make the exchange. Perhaps you’ll stay with us for a while?”
“I do need a few supplies,” said Andros.
“Very well, then,” said Ester.
She provided him with a letter of intent to purchase his salvaged plutonium, and he took it, stood, thanked her, and left the room. Noreen followed him, staying between Andros and Ester. The mayor got up, followed them out across the small rotunda outside her office, and stood looking across the great rotunda as the two circumnavigated it, heading for the grand staircase on the other side.
Ester hated to part with the city’s precious gold, but she needed its network of consuls. Even now, they chattered away in the background, the part of her mind that was tied to her implant monitoring the communication without thinking, ready to alert her to anything that needed her attention, and as she watched the pair, one such message broke through the background chatter. Turning her back on the great rotunda, she crossed its smaller cousin and reentered her office.
Once seated, Ester activated the screen on the wall across from her desk. The beautiful face of Governor Regina Santos appeared before her.
“Madam Governor,” said Ester.
“Dispense with the formalities, Ester,” Regina snapped. “I want to know why you’re wasting our resources on that man.”
“You’re suggesting we don’t need the plutonium?” asked Ester.
“No, I’m suggesting we don’t need to pay him for it,” Regina replied.
“You underestimate Andros,” said Ester. “He’s not one of the fringe rabble. Do you recall the damage to the Embarcadero ten years ago?”
Regina frowned. Despite this, she looked beautiful.
“That was his doing? Why was he allowed to live?” she demanded.
“The man is cunning,” replied Ester. “When my predecessor attempted to take his salvage without payment, he detonated part of it using a remote.”
The tiny tactical nuke that Andros had exploded had completely destroyed the building, and damaged others for blocks around the site. Thousands had died in the blast, including the mayor.
“He made it clear that he had other devices like it, and that he would use them if he was double crossed,” she continued. “Knowing how much we needed what he was selling, I took it upon myself to make sure he got paid and was allowed to leave the city unmolested.”
Ester was surprised that Regina was unaware of these events. The governor was young, but she could easily have accessed the records and learned all of this for herself.
“I see,” said Regina. “Mayor Marshall misjudged him. Still, I find dealing with a man as dangerous as this most distasteful.”
“Were it not for his unusual talents, I would not,” said Ester.
The governor nodded.
“We must be careful,” she said.
“I have one of my best people escorting him while he’s here,” said Ester.
“Alright,” said Regina. “Remain vigilant.”
“As should we all,” said Ester.
Regina broke the connection.
Ester sat behind her ancient wooden desk, watching all of the feeds that came to her through her implant. The governor was young, but her intuition was unparalleled. A feeling of disquiet fell over Ester, and refused to succumb to her reason. She shook her head, and turned her thoughts to the myriad tasks that needed her attention in order to keep her city running.