What Happened to our Future?

With themes of virtual reality and technological development being key to her science fiction writing, Pat Cadigan[1. Pat Cadigan, acclaimed by the London Guardian as “The Queen of Cyberpunk”, is an American born science fiction author best known for novels, Mindplayers, Synners and Fools; and three short story collections, Patterns, Home By The Sea, and Dirty Work.

She has won a number of awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1992 and 1995 for her novels Synners and Fools, a World Fantasy Award and the 1988 Locus Award [for her short story ‘Angel’, included in Patterns ], and she has several times been a finalist for the Hugo Award as well as the Nebula. Her first novel, Mindplayers , was nominated for the Philip K.Dick Memorial Award. Patterns , her short fiction collection, won the 1990 Locus Award for best short-story collection, and was nominated for the Bram Stoker and the Thorpe Menn Awards.

Pat Cadigan’s short fiction has appeared in various publications, including Omni and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and in many anthologies. Her work has been translated into French, German, Polish, Japanese and Czech.] is all to familiar with our reliance on technology and our fear of missing out on the next big thing. Her talk at Virtual Futures took the form of a web browsing session, highlighting the changes that have occurred since the original conferences in the 90s.

As a science fiction writer famed for being described as part of the cyberpunk movement, Pat Cadigan is no stranger to thinking of technology and the future in imaginative and original ways. Cyberpunk is a style of science fiction that generally involves computers and virtual reality, frequently in a near-future setting.

Her presentation at Virtual Futures followed a stream of consciousness pattern, mimicking the way we browse on the internet. She covered topics inspired by photos she had taken of London and other city life, with supposition about the virtual future thrown in.

Cadigan highlighted what she calls fomo – fear of missing out, particularly due to social networking – with a photo that says ‘This sign is in Spanish when you’re not looking’. In today’s hectic society where we can check Facebook on our mobiles and tweet from the Virtual Futures conference in real time, there’s a heightened neurosis of missing out on something your friends are up to. “It’s only a short step from fomo to paranoia” states Cadigan. “If it exists someone is neurotic about it.”

The original Virtual Futures conference was in 1994 and Cadigan was one of its speakers. Back then, due to divorce, she was looking forward to an uncertain future. The conference opened her eyes about the possibilities of the near future. “It was the first time I had met people interested in VF who weren’t science fiction writers”. She was invited back in 1995 to another Virtual Futures conference which she said was an “immense monster made of chaos”. Yet despite sessions running over people were enthusiastic.

In her work Cadigan likes to see how close to the future she can get and still be ahead of the art. One thing for sure about the future is that it can’t always be predicted. This point was proved to her when her second novel was republished in the US. It came out on September 11 2001, a date when the world changed due to the terrorist attacks in New York and elsewhere in America.

Back at the 1964 World Fair, which she attended as a child, the world was promised a future of flying cars and holidays on the moon. Cadigan is inspired in her writing to explore what happens when technology goes wrong. 2001, she says, was supposed to be the anti-1984. “The future is supposed to be progressive, but more often you barely get started and then everything blows up”.

We now live in a surveillance society and there’s no going back. We were all so afraid of ending up in 1984 forever.

Since the September 11 atrocities the world has changed forever. “We now live in a surveillance society and there’s no going back. We were all so afraid of ending up in 1984 forever. Big Brother is now a gameshow. ‘Reality’ television is very popular. The surveillance society has triggered everyone’s OCD. Prescription drugs in America very expensive even if you do have health insurance, yet the use of lifestyle drugs such as Viagra and alli (an anti-obesity drug) are on the rise. If you live in a society where a sizeable portion of people are taking drugs to stop them weeping doesn’t it seem that there’s something wrong with society?”

What will the future hold? Cadigan thinks we make the mistake of seeing the future as a straight line in too small dimensions. In our complex world it’s hard to know what the world will look like in 5, 10, 15 or 17 years. Science fiction doesn’t always get it right – she pointed out that almost no science fiction novels included cell phones, because cordless phones in America were thought to be unsafe and it was thought that people wouldn’t want them.

The way to look for answers about the future is to ask questions. “Ask a question no-one’s ever asked before” advises Cadigan. You never know what the answer might be.


Reproduced with the permission of the Knowledge Centre, University of Warwick

Photography by Andy Miah