The August 19, 2019 edition of “High Country News,” the award-winning magazine that has been reporting on the American West since 1970, reported the news for 2068. Conceding that “Global warming is a human-caused phenomenon that exceeds the human capacity for understanding” the editorial staff decided to try an imaginative experiment and publish an issue of “speculative journalism.” For the issue, writers read research papers, interviewed scientists and used the projections of the Fourth National Climate Assessment as a starting point. Each piece imagines what the West would look like 50 years from the release of that climate assessment.
The cover story for the September 23, 2019 issue of “Time Magazine” dedicated to climate change is titled, “Hello From the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different.” In it, Bill McKibben writes a report from the future that suggests a path for hope, but not without significant loss and disruption.
The New York Times has been publishing a series, “Op-Eds From the Future” in its opinion section since May 27, 2019. The editor describes the series as “science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write op-eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years in the future. The challenges they predict are imaginary — for now — but their arguments illuminate the urgent questions of today and prepare us for tomorrow.”
What is up with all this speculation? There seems to be a lot of anxiety about the future, and this speculation parallels the increase in dystopian fiction titles. But this isn’t something entirely new. One of the grandparents of science fiction (and explorer of dystopian and utopian worlds), H.G. Wells, also wrote non-fiction pieces speculating about the effects of technology, the idea of progress and the future of humanity.
Below are some nonfiction books that could be described as speculative nonfiction. Each is an attempt to read the tea leaves. Some are a warning, others a call for change, and a few describe our future with a resigned shrug. They explore themes commonly found in dystopian fiction, making you question how different fantasy might be from reality.
Is The Future Bright?
If you feel conflicted about the future, you might like to read, “Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve And/or Ruin Everything.” A scientist and cartoonist teamed up to create this humorous look at both the promise and potential pitfalls of future technologies.
If you want to worry about the future more, “What Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists up at Night” is the book for you. An impressive collection of contributors write about threats that aren’t often discussed. Probably not good bedtime reading.
Rise of the Machines
Nick Bostrom posits that if we create artificial intelligence that surpasses ours we will become dependent on it. His book, “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies” explores what precautions we can take to ensure that we do not become subservient to our machines.
“Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era” argues that we are already dependent on artificial intelligence, and when AI achieves human-level intelligence it will have a drive for survival that will rival our own. The irony is that governments and corporations are pouring billions into achieving this level of AI.
Big Brother is Watching
We are leaving more and more detailed data trails and predictive modeling is increasingly sophisticated. This makes predicting the future actually seem plausible. “The Naked Future: What Happens in A World That Anticipates your Every Move?” takes a generally upbeat view of these developments without brushing off the staggering implications.
The past and future of aerial surveillance is detailed in “Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All.” Apparently the “Gorgon Stare” is really the name of a current, very powerful, surveillance device. I guess the “Eye of Sauron” was too on the nose.
The Death of Democracy
The books, “How Democracies Die” and “How Democracy Ends” are both concerned with the erosion of democratic norms and increased polarization. The former sees the rise of populism as the primary threat, while the latter book argues Western democracy is in a crisis that could be the catalyst for an improved political system.
In “Storms of My Grandchildren” climate scientist Dr. James Hansen says the planet is hurtling towards a “climatic point of no return” faster than previously acknowledged. The really scary thing is that this book was published a decade ago.
“The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” is essentially a catalog of probable disasters brought on by climate change. It’s frightening, but the author allows that the tools are available for us to stop the worst of it, if the collective will is there to do it.
It’s The End of the World as We Know It
“The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man” explores what life could be like after another mass extinction. The conclusion is that life will continue to evolve, but maybe not human life.
“Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction” has a more optimistic outlook. The conclusion here is that humans can survive, but how will we? Evolutionary adaptation, technological adaptations and colonizing other planets are explored as possibilities.