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Fantasy economics

By Valerie Yule - posted Thursday, 8 November 2012


When I was seventeen, I thought it about time that there was fantasy fiction for adults. And lo, now, the sci-fi and dystopias are out-published by fantasies of quests and personified ultimate evil and strange names. Meanwhile, real life is liable to copycat. What some first imagine, others are liable to do.

It's now about time for Fantasy Economics. For imagination to cast ahead of what is immediately practicable to what might be, like Jules Verne, throwing a line ahead, and seeing if it can be reeled in.

Humans are animals that can fear the future, because they have the imagination to do so beyond conditioned responses to stimuli that they have known before. They have also, the imagination to try to do something about it. That has been the evolutionary function of imagination, that put them to the head of the rest. Why then, in the face of so many predicted calamities, don't they?

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Climate change, global warming, nuclear bombs, mutating viruses, world terrorism, monstrous droughts, floods, stock market crashes, secret governments, animal extinctions . . . People dare to think about many of these, for entertainment. Blockbuster films and horror thrillers and dystopic sci-fi rub them into conscious and unconscious minds.

Future fiction has encouraged imagination to think about ways of getting away from it all, in space-ships carrying the remnants of us to the farthest points of the universe, and scientists work on how to divert possible meteors before they hit us. In terms of national defence mechanisms, these could be labelled as projections, displacements and compartmentalisations. When it comes to facing the looming threats s realities in individual lives, the defence mechanisms are denial, suppression, repression, rationalisation, and splitting. Intellectuals make analyses and publish books – when these cannot arouse action, that can be labelled intellectualisation.

I would like to raise the question of why more imagination is not going in to what might be done about these looming crises and calamities, which we now know so much about. The secondary function of imagination in evolutionary terms has been as a way to teaching, a transfer of knowledge through stories, and a third function has been escape, to help make living in the present bearable. But the primary function has been imagination as a means of progress – "What if?' And so people moved out of trees, used fire, planted seeds, rode logs in rivers . . and always what was done was first imagined.

But down through the ages, the common man has more often had to bear with helplessness than had a chance to find a way out. People sat in cities, helplessly watching the enemies arrive that will destroy them, sat watching plagues spread, been forced to build castles with dungeons for the warlords that will use them imprison their protest. They have been unable to leave as pogroms drew the nets tighter.

Every day even the weather is a reminder that although man ascends into the heavens to see beyond galaxies, and manipulates the very makings of life with nanotechnology, gods we are not. Humans can imagine death, but their efforts to prevent it still fail.

And so often, the marvellous things that are achieved are almost immediately countered by their abuse – split the atom and make nuclear bombs, receive information from the uttermost parts of the earth – and soon most of it is spam. Heal, or dig wells, build dams, drain swamps – the next thing it only Seemed a Good Idea at the Time.

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So now here we are, looking over cliffs in every direction and responding according to our own immediate self-interest, whether to deny, to escape, to devise stratagems to continue to accumulate wealth, or to think of doing something so small it will make no difference, or something so big that its failure will be another disaster.

The little green aliens who may land on our planet after it is dead may wonder why no intelligent life managed to prevent the catastrophes.

Consider the motor-car, space shuttle, bionic ear, in vitro fertilisation, cyberspace, cell-phones, skyscrapers and undergrounds. Consider all the inventions that were inconceivable when I was a child.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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