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Urban Design

Science fiction urbanism

Science fiction? Urbanism? What are we talking about? This is an urban design blog, not one dedicated to discussions of intergalactic wars of the future. You are probably saying all these things to yourself, but I am really going to try and connect the two.

Science fiction

I am normally not a fan of classifying things and forcibly compartmentalising them into little boxes.  But I am going to do so here in order to relate the vast quantities of science fiction to this article. If we absolutely had to classify science fiction, we could probably say there are two main kinds. The first is a quasi-utopian world (or galaxy, or universe), where many real world problems have been solved by advances in technology, though of course the inhabitants face an entirely different set of problems. Many famous works of science fiction would fall under this category- Asimov’s Foundation series, Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series, a lot of Philip K Dick etc. The second is more pessimistic and usually set in either a dystopian or a post-apocalyptic world. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind as an example of this category.

There are few science fiction novels or movies where human existence has neither been vastly improved by great leaps of technology, nor been dramatically reduced by an apocalyptic event, but instead moves on, humdrum, and fairly recognisable.  Perhaps that is the purpose of any general novel, and not science fiction, though I always thought that science fiction was meant to imagine probable futures. One would presume this included a middle road between tech-utopia and near-self-destruction, living within the limits of what the earth can provide without colonising distant galaxies.

.. and urban problems

Anyway, that was deviating from the main point, about science fiction solving urban problems. In this article, I am going to deal with the first type- the quasi-utopian version, and some of the solutions imagined for all our urban woes.

How did writers think we would go from landing on the moon to colonising galaxies in a few decades? I like to think of the 60s as the golden age of science fiction, and this was the age of space flights and moon landings. For the first time in mankind’s history, we had put people out in space, triggering the romantic imaginings of many writers. The possibilities were limitless. By this time, we should have at least colonised Alpha-Centauri.

But since we haven’t, we continue to struggle on in our ever-more-crowded single planet, trying to find solutions for our urban woes. Just imagine if we had science fictions solutions all ready to hand, just how much better our lives would be.

Overcrowding? No problem. Move people to another planet. Many science fiction novels imagine that the human population has expanded beyond anything the earth can sustain. But by the time this happens, mankind has successfully colonised far-away planets and galaxies. Unfortunately, while Arthur C Clarke imagined that we’d have at least colonised the moon by 2001, and send manned missions to Jupiter, here we are in 2012, thrilled at the pictures an unmanned Mars missions sends us. Nor have we worked out how to travel through wormholes in the space-time continuum to travel faster than light and make intergalactic trade a practical proposition.

Running out of oil? Urban transport and moving goods to people is a problem? The latest engines run either on cryo-technology or nuclear fusion or using ‘dark energy’. Reality check: rockets still run on solid fuel and cars on petrol.  We are trying to promote walking and bicycling, not hover jets.

Climate change? New planet’s atmosphere not favourable? Introducing the planet-wide climate control dome which will enable people in the UK to stop complaining about the bad weather. You can almost see the advertisements showing a bikini-clad woman sunning herself on the warm banks of the Thames.

I just finished the week’s hellish commute by moving slower than a snail while breathing in the equivalent of several cigarette packs of smoke. Bangalore commutes were probably included in Dante’s seven circles of hell. Where are the hover jets we were all promised? The auto drivers here sometimes behave like they’re driving hover jets, but that still does not make an auto a hover jet.

What is your opinion? Do you think science fiction did solve many problems- we only need to sort out the minor technicalities of how to do all those things- colonising galaxies, endless energy and so on. Or are they childish fantasies like the little green men of Mars? Can you think of a futuristic technology to solve any of our current urban problems? Or do you have a favourite fictional one? Do share your thoughts below the line! 


One thought on “Science fiction urbanism

  1. Science Fiction is not very good at predicting the future. If it was; we would all be hopping about with Time Machines, living 20,000 leagues under the sea, or (my personal favorite) flying around strapped to jet packs. Instead; we walk around with little boxes that talk to each other, send letters through the air, pay for things with plastic cards and float through the air in big metal tubes with wings. We live in Science Fiction… Just not ours.

    Posted by Nischal R Buddhavarapu | April 15, 2013, 9:36 pm

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