Sci-Fi Stories: Visions of “The Future” as Verdicts on “The Now”

A red light blinked repeatedly in the lower left portion of Talia’s field of vision. This was meant to be scary and was, as was the fact that she couldn’t order the voice accompanying it to go mute and to stop saying, “You are not currently authorized or authenticated.”

Acknowledging the alert would give her 20 minutes to turn herself in to a policing unit. That would buy her some time, at least. Failure to acknowledge the alert wasn’t an option. The drones would be on her in 3 minutes, top, and the red threat level meant that lethal force had been approved. She would have to go dark.

Typical, she thought, this badly formulated bureaucratic language, for “You are not currently authorized or authenticated” was ambiguous. It required additional world knowledge to understand that the phrase meant not simply “You will be denied access” but “This entity–You–is unauthorized and will be reconfigured or terminated.” The use of the term “authorized” was ironic, of course, because Talia was the “author” of her Self, and that was a non-negotiable item in her creed. And, of course, the expression “You are not currently authorized” only appeared to be in the active voice, with the “You” as subject. It was really a passive construction, the active voice form of which was, “X has not authorized you.” In the typical language of bureaucracies, the real agent was unidentified, as in “Mistakes were made.”

Of course, it’s typical of me, she thought, that I have less than 3 minutes and I’m spending a portion of that time thinking about bad grammar. Understandable. Bad grammar and bad politics were two sides of the one filthy coin of the realm. “Coin of the realm.” Sadly, almost no one, now, would get that historical reference. The coin part they would, but the realm part, no, even though the Sentient Species Protective Order (SSPO) was like some ancient monarchy in having absolute power and in making all beings into vassals. Protective. There’s an irony, she thought. I’m about the be “protected” out of existence.

Time. That was key to her survival now. She would have to put the world into slo-mo, which would be taxing to her system, for that, too, was a misnomer. It wouldn’t be the world that went into slo-mo but she who went into emergency accelerated mode (EAM), which could be sustained for 2-3 minutes at most, world-time. It’s in the interest of bureaucracies to confuse agents and the acted upon, to call the later “Users” instead of “The Used,” she thought. But there was no other option. First, accelerated mode. Then dark. It was a declaration of war that would up the threat level assigned to her to black. Black, black, no going back. It was almost a nursery rhyme.


That’s an opening for a bit of dystopian fiction. Such fictions are being turned out, now, at an astonishing rate. Just type the search term “dystopian” into Netflix or Amazon Prime. The futures that people see coming are almost never, of course, the future that WILL come but, rather, reveal people’s anxieties about or approval of the world as they are currently experiencing it. It doesn’t require a PhD in literary criticism to figure out why, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese made Godzilla, about a radiation-induced monster stomping about a city and destroying its inhabitants.

So, what verdict does the current deluge of dystopian films render on the present? Well, clearly, people feel that they are losing control of their own lives, that they are under increasing surveillance but have decreased security, that the institutions created to protect them are indifferent or actively hostile, and that everything can and possibly will blow up in a matter of moments. This isn’t the future that was envisioned in Disney’s “Tomorrowland” (1955)–one in which personal jet packs gave people the freedom to go anywhere and automation gave them prosperity, comfort, and leisure. In the 1960s, popular magazines frequently ran articles about how in The Coming Century or The World of Tomorrow, we would all have four-day work weeks and never have to clean a room again. Meanwhile, Steven Hawking left us with the parting thought that our AIs will soon take over and possibly eliminate us, so we’d better establish colonies off-planet as a hedge against our extinction.

In short, even the remaining members of the Middle Class, those who are too busy earning a living, mowing the lawn, and taking care of the kids to be political or to think about The Future or The Fate of the Planet, are scared, and this is true even though, by some objective measures (crime rates, homicide rates, personal income, food security, access to technology), the world as a whole is safer and more prosperous than ever before. Among our “public intellectuals,” neoliberal types like Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell–those well-compensated court singers for the leaders of the New Feudal Order–keep pointing these advances out. Things are better, they keep telling us, than ever before. Don’t worry. Be happy. It’s all being taken care of (passive voice). So, why is everyone so worried, so insecure? Why are people sleeping less and having less sex?

For other essays (and cartoons!) by Bob Shepherd on philosophical subjects, go here:


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing, Time, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sci-Fi Stories: Visions of “The Future” as Verdicts on “The Now”

  1. Pingback: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Notes Introducing a Debate Unit on Transformative Technologies | Bob Shepherd | Praxis

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