Sitting here in an airport lounge at LAX watching the planes take off is probably an apt time to contemplate the way we take for granted our ability to travel, to viist other places and to do it quickly, hopping on a plane an being on the other side of the world in less than a day. It is interesting too that, despite damage to the environment and the fact that the key requirement of air travel – oil – is a finite resource, we do not general question the fact that in 10, 20 or 30 years time we will still be able to jump on a plane and see the world. Although this ability is a very recent one in historical terms – routine air travel overseas has only been around for 50 or so years in a manner affordable to the average citizen – it is now completely ingrained in our expectations about the world. This does not mean that everyyone has done it, but we all know it is a possibility. Even at the moments when I figure that perhaps oil won’t last for ever, those nagging doubts are replaced buy the thought that technology will have advanced, that we will have found something to replace jet fuel when we need to.
It is interesting then that two of the books I have read this year contemplate a future in which this kind of travel is no longer routine, and potentially not even possible. In Player One by Douglas Coupland, a sharp sudden oil shock sometime in the approximate present suddenly grounds planes, leaving people stranded. While the cause is not explained, the major change in perspective is considered. Meanwhile in The Windup Girl the future seems to have run out of oil and people travel long distances on boats or dirigibles.
It clearly says something about the strength of environmental concerns that speculative fiction is now considering an energy poor future. In general much of the speculative fiction of the three decades that I have read (and I am not trying to argue that is comprehensive) have seen alternative technologies, often fusion, in the future. Or it hasn’t contemplated energy use. Future fiction, like historical fiction, does however reflect the concerns of the present in which it is created and thus oil shortages and the grounding of planes may become an increasing theme.
What would it be like to not fly routinely again? To find oneself grounded far from home, stranded in a foreign city? How would it be if we couldn’t visit friends or family who live on the other side of the world? What would it do to our cultures and economies to lose that ability? There is plenty of fodder in those ideas for many many works of fiction.