This week, Futures welcomes back S. R. Algernon with his cautionary tale Trading in futures. Regular readers will undoubtedly have read some of S. R. Algernon’s other pieces for Futures (there’s a full list at the foot of this post). You can catch up with his latest work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.
Writing Trading in futures
I wrote a story several years ago with the same elements of Trading in futures, in which an unscrupulous trader lures colonists to a bad end at the behest of an extraterrestrial species. With recent events – Brexit, climate change, human migration and other crises – in mind, I wanted to revisit the theme, make it more personal and give it a bit more historical context. It is easy for demagogues to promise simple solutions for political problems if they have a narrow base of support and don’t care about or understand the long-term consequences of their actions. In films and history, we often see tyrants from the outside perspective, as maniacal and histrionic in their cruelty – the abusive face that strong leaders use to cow their opposition. I think it bears noting that dystopian futures sometimes arise in quiet, comfortable offices and conference rooms, where people find reasons to take the path of least resistance knowing that their personal future, at least, is secure. I changed the viewpoint in this story to second person to put the reader in the role of a collaborator.
If we view unjust power structures from the outside, we sometimes underestimate how compelling their offer can be. You matter, the people in power assure you. Your needs come first. We won’t let anyone else take them away. The wants and desires of the main character aren’t invalid, any more than Jae’s or Tabby’s. They deserve to self-actualize as much as anyone else. The system itself, including the contract that the main character files away at the end, channels those ambitions to predatory ends. In the protagonist’s case, there is a conscious moral (or immoral) choice, but Jae and Tabby are complicit out of ignorance. That point is a political bone of contention today. How do we judge privileged people who participate in an unjust system without malicious intent? Is it right to claw back the things they have gained through participation in that system? What about their privileged descendants? What about the future victims of oppression not yet born at the time the bargain was struck. Agreements, bargains and conspiracies have far-reaching effects.
I thought about the Hobbesian view of the role of government and the social contract. A social contract is a better alternative to anarchy, but contracts can be unequal, fraudulent and predatory. Is a contract that secures power for a privileged few – signed only by those deemed worthy of a seat at the table – better than no contract at all? A robust democracy is supposed to prevent us from having to make that choice. It is supposed to allow us to preserve our social contract while amending its flaws and constraining leaders who violate its spirit. I hope that the democratic structures around the world today are up to the task.
As I rewrote this story, I recalled the imagery of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. It struck me that the story wasn’t about time travel but about that timeless tendency of humans to settle into roles and identities and lose track of their overarching humanity. We sacrifice others or let ourselves be sacrificed for a system that can turn self-destructive. New advances in politics, technology and cultural exchange will change us, but human drives will find avenues for expression. It is our responsibility to channel them towards a greater good without turning a blind eye to lesser evils.
If we seek a future only for people like us and only in the short term, we diminish that future. If we seek a future big enough for all of us – for rich and poor, for migrants and longstanding members of the community, for sick and healthy, and for the widest scope of humanity and beyond – we will be stronger as a species and less encumbered by the failings of human nature.
Other Futures stories by S. R. Algernon
A time for peace | Planetary defences | Cargo cult | A pocket full of phlogiston | The chains of plenty | Asymmetrical warfare | In a new light | One slow step for man | Genius loci | Legacy admissions | In Cygnus and in Hell | The palimpsest planet | e-PLURIBUS | Home Cygnus | VTE