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I wonder what it's like to be a super hero . . .
I wonder where I'd go if I could fly around downtown . . .
I wish the real world would just stop hasslin' me. . . .

--"Real World," matchbox twenty

When I was a young science fiction and fantasy fan, I was fairly secure in the knowledge -- arrogance, really -- that I was part of an elite group of visionaries. The "mundanes" were out there and we, "fandom," were in here, dreaming futures that no one else could imagine. We knew what tomorrow's world of superscience would be, or at least we argued strenuously over whose predictions were most accurate. The swords, spells, and mithril of our fantasies were more vivid than any Stallone movie. We were misunderstood, but that was all right. We knew the secrets.

Later, I grew away from organized fandom. My interests were drawn toward academics, athletic events, parties, finding a job, and other "mundane" trappings. Fortunately, the growth of the Internet made it possible to find my way back to Tolkien, Gaiman, Brin, and Straczynski. Easy access to fans and resources around the world helped reawaken my addiction to speculative fiction.

Even while I was "away" from fandom, I still dreamed about the future. Until a month ago, I still figured that speculative fiction aficionados were the only ones who did.

Then a friend pointed me toward Global Trends 2015: A Dialogue About the Future With Nongovernment Experts, hosted at the Central Intelligence Agency's Web site and authored by the National Intelligence Council, a "small center of strategic thinking in the US Intelligence Community." The naivete was knocked right out of me:

Discoveries in nanotechnology will lead to unprecedented understanding and control over the fundamental building blocks of all physical things. Developments in this emerging field are likely to change the way almost everything -- from vaccines to computers to automobile tires to objects not yet imagined -- is designed and made. Self-assembled nanomaterials, such as semiconductor "quantum dots," could by 2015 revolutionize chemical labeling and enable rapid processing for drug discovery, blood content analysis, genetic analysis, and other biological applications.

. . .

By 2015, Christianity and Islam, the two largest religious groupings, will have grown significantly. Both are widely dispersed in several continents, already use information technologies to "spread the faith," and draw on adherents to fund numerous nonprofit groups and political causes. Activist components of these and other religious groupings will emerge to contest such issues as genetic manipulation, women's rights, and the income gap between rich and poor. A wider religious or spiritual movement also may emerge, possibly linked to environmental values.

These are just two examples of a fascinating, sometimes frightening projection of the future by people who may read speculative fiction, but certainly do think about what our tomorrows might be. The report is full of indications that we won't have to wait for the 23rd century to experience a strange new world. It's coming in the next couple of decades. This makes sense -- have you ever had trouble explaining your laptop computer to an elderly relative? The only constant is change, and the rate of change is increasing.

Reading the NIC report is a reminder of the hazards of complacency. The people who made the predictions in Global Trends 2015 are, without exception, in positions that can affect the outcomes of these changes. The future is shaped by people such as them.

It is also shaped by people such as us.

Without arguing the politics of a particular regime or agency, where there is a democratic government the responsibility over that government rests not only with the "experts" but with the "regular" people as well. We share in the building of a culture, through our votes and civic involvement. When we retreat from that responsibility, we take the chance that the others who will fill the void will not act in our best interests.

J. Michael Straczynski, creator and executive producer of Babylon 5, said it best in a Usenet message on April 6, 1996:

We have an obligation to one another, responsibilities and trusts. That does not mean we must be pigeons, that we must be exploited. But it does mean that we should look out for one another when and as much as we can; and that we have a personal responsibility for our behavior; and that our behavior has consequences of a very real and profound nature. We are not powerless. We have tremendous potential for good or ill. How we choose to use that power is up to us; but first we must choose to use it. We're told every day, "You can't change the world."

But the world is changing every day. Only question is . . . who's doing it? You or somebody else? Will you choose to lead, or be led by others?

Too often, fans of science fiction and fantasy stay within their comfort zones, by making their interests a private affair, if not shunning the "mundane" world altogether. We sign onto mailing lists, chat on bulletin boards, surf websites, and (occasionally) gather at conventions. Comparatively few of us write letters to the editor about the space program or help unemployed people learn the skills they need to survive the information economy.

A good overview of Putnam's research can be found in two brief NPR interviews (RealAudio Player required): May 31, 2000 ("Going Bowling") and December 19, 2000 ("Community Alienation Solution").

Putnam and the BetterTogether initiative of Harvard's Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America have produced a free report in Acrobat PDF format that reviews the findings and offers solutions.

This is not "fandom's" exclusive problem, by any means. People in general have become more disconnected from civic life and even our own friends and families. Robert D. Putnam's groundbreaking study, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, suggests that Americans are 45 percent less likely to invite friends over than they were just 25 years ago! We're losing touch with each other, fan and non-fan alike, and losing our grasp of what strengthens a community. We're also abandoning the institutions -- non-profit, political, and religious -- that make it easier for the average citizen to get involved.

For many fans it's doubly damning: why spend so much time dreaming of the worlds we'd like to live in? If we want to be led like sheep, all we have to do is either (1) never think about the future or (2) think about it without doing anything. There are plenty of people and organizations out there willing to make those choices for us.

As R Michael Harman put it in our February 5 editorial, democracy depends on our ability to understand the world around us and to think through the consequences of our actions. I like his idea of encouraging school boards to include more speculative fiction in grade school! We need to promote more skepticism, inquiry, and (most importantly) dreaming about possibilities. However, that's only part of the equation. We also need to pound the pavement ourselves.

There are a couple of things that we can do.

First, we need to share our own visions of the future, both within organized fandom and out in the "real world." Our dreams are of limited value if we hide them from others. Sharing them helps us refine our ideas through the give-and-take of argument, inquiry, and simple curiosity. For those of us interested in science fiction and fantasy, there is a fertile ground for taking the first step.

If you have never been to a science fiction or fantasy convention before, then go thou and register! You'll have a more interesting experience at a local, fan-run convention than a commercial media showcase. Find a panel or an author that challenges your perceptions, and then start swapping ideas. Fandom is hardly monolithic. Convention-goers cross all political spectrums, sexual preferences, economic classes, and entertainment interests. Amid the diversity of humanity that visits a convention is a single commonality that runs from hardcore role-playing gamers to fantasy poets: the desire to dream.

Afterward, find a friend or co-worker outside fandom and continue the conversation. Speak, listen, and learn. If the muse speaks to you, create music, art, or literature that brings your ideas to a whole new audience. Encourage imagination. Gradually, you may find yourself developing a personal philosophy fed by the artists you admire and tested by your own explorations.

Second, we need to work in the "real world" to make our visions come true. Write that letter to the editor. If certain themes and concepts resonate in the fiction you enjoy, then join organizations that promote them. (For example, if you're drawn to the issues of freedom of religion in Katherine Kurtz's fiction, you may find like-minded people defending that freedom within your state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.) Defend your issues at the ballot box. Most importantly, find the time to help someone, whether it's a stranger on the street or a companion needing a sympathetic ear. Inviting a friend to dinner can change the world, however slightly. (Your friend won't consider it insignificant.)

Rob Thomas' lyrics in matchbox twenty's "Real World" capture the world many of us live in: we're in our heads, enjoying our fantasies, wishing reality didn't have to intrude. If our fiction has any meaning, however, it has to inspire us to do more. We have to bring our magic with us, and use it in a world that desperately needs it.

Fantasy and science fiction teach us to imagine possibilities. We can leave it to government futurists to plan for those possibilities on our behalf. Alternatively, we can share what we dream with each other, "mundanes" and "fans" alike, and try to build something better.

Let's choose the latter.


Reader Comments

Chip Sudderth is a Copy Editor for Strange Horizons.

Bio to come.
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17 Jan 2022

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