1968. A ten-year-old boy picks up a ‘Hobby Buch’ in his local library, expecting a ‘Boys Own’ treat of exciting snippets of information about rocketry, technology, geography, plants and animals, as well as games, puzzles and sundry tips to while away an afternoon on a rainy day in a small town in Northern Germany. Instead, he is confronted with a massive dose of Zukunftsoptimismus (optimism in the future): Signale vom Jupitermond, written by Robert Brenner (1931-). The book features a garish cover, and an optimistic narrative purporting to extrapolate social and technological developments and presenting them in a state of happy conclusion. On the cover, there is also a stamp that reads: “Zukunftsroman – wissenschaftlich geprüft” (a novel of the future – checked by scientists). The book contains interviews with three Germans who are supposed to know about the future: Werner von Braun, the director of the American rocket research facility, Ossip K. Flechtheim, the ‘founder’ of the new science of the future, and Robert Jungk, philosopher and scientist. While they agree that the future will hold its challenges (population growth, superpower confrontation), they are optimistic about humanity‘s ability to meet them. The ten-year-old cannot wait to grow up to see that brave new world.
2018. A 60-year-old University professor teaches a seminar on German Utopian Thought in Fiction and Film to a group of British students in the fourth and final year of their undergraduate programme. They are idealistic and sincere, but they hold very little hope for the future. They live in a world where pretty much everything that was predicted in Signale vom Jupitermond has become a reality: manual labour has been delegated to robots, food is plentiful, entertainments are shared globally, people travel across continents for jobs and leisure, and intelligent machines help us make evidence-based decisions. While we do not yet have a World Government, we are on a trajectory to a global society, with vast multicultural cities, global news networks, tech firms that rival nations in terms of resources and influence, an intricately woven net of trade and transport routes, and a growing collective awareness of each other’s motivations, needs and values.
The students have access to technology that enables them to communicate with every human being on the planet, and to research every question or problem they might take an interest in. They are well travelled and almost guaranteed to get a job. And yet, in contrast to a small minority who believe social change is possible on the fringes of mainstream society, most of them do not believe in any utopian project. As they see it, while Brunner’s depiction of the future has become a ‘science-fictional’ reality on the technological side, the dream of a united humanity has run into the buffer of experience, causing widespread disillusionment.
Some of the reasons for this are obvious: worries about repaying student loans, Brexit, migration, terrorism, civil wars, fear of another financial crash, concern about the environment (climate change, plastic in the ocean), the impact of the Corona virus, in short: an acute awareness of the fragility and complexity of life on Earth for 7.5 billion people has been with them all of their short adult lives. They cannot imagine that their future will be bright.
Somewhere over the last 50 years, we seem to have lost the belief in our ability to create a better world, a better future. For every idealistic imagination of a positive future, we can find a hundred depictions of our world going to pieces around us. Dystopian imaginaries abound in political discourse and on social media, in literature and multiplexes.
What happened? Are we incapable of imagining a positive outcome, that we can be the masters of our own destiny? Why are we so addicted to the masochistic pleasure of seeing our homes go up in flames? And why are we so afraid of the future if, to any objective observer and compared to fifty years ago, we now live in a much safer world, a world where the threat of mutually assured destruction through nuclear war has receded, and in which we have almost promethean powers to manipulate and alter our environment and ourselves? Who benefits from such a gloomy worldview and why are writers and film directors so easily complicit in creating dystopian visions of the future?
To find out, we need to go back to a moment in time when the future still seemed bright, and to identify the key moments that changed the grand narrative of the future. As the future we imagined becomes the present and eventually a future of the past, what can German Science Fiction, so attuned to the Faustian pact that comes with our pursuit of knowledge and power, tell us about our lost dreams?
This guest post was written by Ingo Cornils, Professor of German Studies at the University of Leeds.