I was on the periphery of a group of trad sf/fantasy authors discussing what effect the Covid-19 pandemic would have on authors. You might think ‘none’. After all, with the exceptions of the Hollywood-type authors who write great novels on their laptops in coffee-shops… we’re a precursor of the isolation dress-code. Sweat-pants may well be the height of sartorial elegance for 2020 (or at least the most worn item of clothing), but we were wearing them to work long before everyone else.
Still, it has fairly well devastated New York Publishing, wrecked bookstore releases and tours and may well be the middle of the end of brick and mortar bookstores, and possibly paper publication – which is the gateway trad publishing still controls. So there is that change.
And of course there is vast change in the readers’ weltanschauung. (More German-loanwords. That’s English for you, culturally appropriating the concepts of unsuspecting languages.) Anyway, as I understand it, it’s more just world-view, it’s the world’s worldview. Which has changed and can never quite go back. The pendulum will swing – but it can’t swing back to the same place, because that place is gone. So many books which resonated with the broader worldview of yesteryear – or at least enough of it to sell to NY editors (who live on another planet) are going to throw readers – even NY editors, right out. A lot of assumptions – a world government, the megalopolis as the natural habitat of choice of humans, the death of ethnicity (or at least certain ethnicities: Europeans, except as throwback villains) – these may have to join the idea of a fax machine and dail-up phone in every home. As these are a given in much ‘nearish-future’ of the darlings of Trad publishing, as well as the issues that these lashed their wagons to… interesting times, for them, anyway.
As a general comment: I don’t think it had dawned on them they are yesterday’s people and ‘inclusive’ was the probably not one of the big buzzwords of the future.
A thing I do see coming out of this is a vast increase in surveillance. Government and those in power have always liked any excuse to spy and pry, and thereby to control and wield power over the general populace. George Orwell, they believe, was writing an instruction manual not a grim warning. Australia just tried – and was knocked back – to install a compulsory tracker on every phone. Of course governments would never stretch that, never get given an inch and take a thousand miles. No, politicians never (well, hardly ever) do that. And of course that data will be secure. Because no government organ has ever lost data or leaked, and if, heaven forbid, this happens the heads of those parts of government are always harshly dealt with and end up rotting in jail.
Okay, I think my sarcometer just broke. Fortunately, this time anyway, here, that inch was withheld. But I believe the post Wu-flu world will constantly pushed towards it. For your own good and safety of course. It, and evading it, will be a big part of any sf-novel of the near-future. I’m wondering what happens when facial recognition hits masks, who wins and what happens?
Secondly – as an aspect of that – and equally beloved of governments, cash transactions have been very limited during the lockdown. ‘Cash may be a vector.’ Oddly, NO part of any government – not even the party that vehemently oppose anyone having to have ID to vote, object to electronic banking. Because it makes crime easier to track, (it doesn’t of course. Criminals are experts at evading surveillance. Joe Sixpack – who, with the statue-books so broad and huge to make Lavrentiy Beria dance with glee – is going to fall foul of them). It’s never as a way to inescapably tax the sheep… people. As a reaction to the above – and indeed, quite prevalent during the lockdown, and probably more common after, if we get the hyperinflation which seems likely – barter will play a much bigger role than it did – particularly on the fringes of society – geographically and socially. Guess what: we often draw heavily on those fringes for our writing.
Globalism, the core of just about every near-future sf novel (and certainly a central tenet of faith of the Hugo and Nebula crowd. Inclusive)… if it ain’t dead, it is on life-support in an induced coma. Like those Just-In-Time networks… the pandemic has cruelly exposed the flaws in that. Maybe just as well – it is – as pandemics and global scale disasters go, relatively mild (not that the economy or those who lost loved ones will agree), but dispassionately viewed it hasn’t been THE LAST CENTURION. But when we needed an attitude of the brotherhood of man – The Chinese Communist Party led the way in showing that there was sadly no such animal, and if they were going to suffer social and economic devastation so would the world. They covered up and exported the disease, when a citizen of the world would have tried to contain it. And then the reliance on the CCP and India for the world’s pharmaceutical and medical supplies… is certainly going to lead to pressure to bring these at least to one’s own country. Medical and scientific research in one’s own country are going to become fashionable and a thing of national pride again.
In scary times – the herd bunches. And they kick out or exclude those that ain’t like them. Nations are back, probably for at least 50 years, if not far longer.
With this comes borders, and the end of easy migration. When your unemployment is high, migrants – not of your herd or tribe, especially visibly different, are going to be as welcome a beefsteak at a vegan dinner. It’s over. If you can migrate (if you are someone another country needs, for example) then fitting in fast becomes of paramount importance. So the diversity and ‘inclusion’ multiculturalism of yesterday’s books is a sure road to unpopularity. Not all books have to be in tune with the zeitgeist, but you’re going to have to handle the ‘showpiece’ of another culture/race/ethnicity character very differently. I will probably – as usual – have these characters, and – as usual – focus on what we have in common. But that’s very different to the focus in recent trad published sf which is on what sets people apart.
The city, particularly the large densely packed city have been core to the view of the future – hell, since way back – Kornbluth’s MARCHING MORONS -1951, was the grim view of it, but many authors assumed humans would concentrate into high-rise dense various megalopolises. And the assumption – especially recently, as more and more trad authors came from megalopolises, was that, generally they were a good thing with the variety and resources that smaller settlements or, heaven forbid, rural peasants, could not enjoy.
And then came a pandemic that showed that dense… is dense. That a lot of people don’t have to work in big cities. The large cities sort of parasitic autophagous monster, which survive by inertia and leaching the produce of a vast (indeed global) area, and devouring those who are attracted to the supposed advantages. (As far as I am concerned they’re an ecological disaster area, a concentration of toxins which the biome can’t deal with in those concentrations. But that’s just my view). The death toll and infection rates in the ‘dream cities’ of sf, may spread people into a lot of smaller settlements – which, with rare exceptions, can offer 90% of what the megalopolis could, without the disease risk, thanks to technology. And Kornbluth was wrong, BTW. Human Population growth is slowing and may well reverse.
The key feature of the megalopolis is of course… mass transit. It’s been a mantra for environmental activists and big-city supporters for decades. Parking and traffic (and pollution) make individual transport and large cities mutually exclusive. Individual transport bad, subway good… And as it proved just about perfect for spreading disease. Which individual transport was also bad at.
The easy, fast travel we assumed was the future… may take a long while to get back to where it was. Air travel was a major vector, and easy border sped it up. And we’re going to lose a lot of airlines. Not that it is likely that the economy will support much for a while.
And that’s another big change coming to sf. A lot of people may find out what real poverty is. It’s not living paycheck to paycheck – but living quite well. It is going to change everything from families to the way we view food and holidays. My depression-era parents were shaped for life by that. Our society and those living it will be too. Prepping will move from ‘weirdos’ to be sneered at to something desirable partners do. So too will having ‘essential’ jobs. The change in social status is going to be interesting – especially if you weren’t deemed ‘essential’, but were high-status before.
That leads into the death of colleges and universities as we know them today. Firstly, these are funded, in large part, by people seeking social status and the benefits of that (parents what their kids to have it, Kids want it among themselves.) And that’s before we look at the discovery many are making that the vast debt to attend a tertiary education facility… doesn’t give them a whole lot they can’t do online, barring the partying. And that in itself will take many young impressionable minds out of socio-political indoctrination and enormous peer pressure. Imagine: they might have to think for themselves. And also find a degree in Gender Studies – once a route into being a diversity officer in some government job – isn’t ‘essential’ and ‘diversity’ may become less of magic word when the nation-state wants ‘unity’.
I suspect social distancing – to some extent anyway – is here for at least the medium term. It works badly in cities. It also works badly on social animals, like humans. I predict more nutbars going nuts as a result. It’s not good for our mental health.
More suspicion will be a part of our once high trust world (not least because of more surveillance, and as an economic result, more crime) partly because people have been encouraged to snitch. The promulgation of many laws that blind Freddy could see made no biological sense, and the often heavy-handed enforcement of the same has undermined the respect for the law and law-enforcement. Badly thought out kneejerk and often unenforceable laws tend make people take the falso in uno, falso in omnibus attitude. And once that gets going… that particular omnibus is unstoppable.
And of course – as this pandemic showed us… many more people deciding to arm themselves as a result of this and the fear generated by the media – who are busy trying to capitalize on it… and may end losing what credibility they still have. Wanting to be armed is a natural human reaction to being insecure. Maybe someone should have explained that to the anti-gun media before they started putting the frighteners on people.
But as an eternal optimist I am hoping lots people come out of it reading more.