What to expect in 2023, according to science fiction

For the last few years I’ve done a post looking at the science fiction set in each year, written twenty years or more in the past. I’m a bit late this time, but it’s still 1 January.

I wasn’t able to find a single film set in 2023 which was more than twenty years old. I did find eight novels, one video game, and two Japanese anime series (and a third set in 2023 but missing my twenty-years-before deadline as it was made in 2004). To start with the anime:

The 1988-89 series Gunbuster, known in Japan as Top o Nerae! (トップをねらえ!, “Shoot for the Top!”), concerns the adventures of young Noriko who is training to be a space pilot in Okinawa, six years after her father went missing in the first battles with the alien invaders. (You remember those battles with the alien invaders back in 2015, yeah?) There are only six episodes and I may give it a try. Here are the opening titles.

Ten years later, in 1998, the TV adaptation of the manga Silent Möbius (サイレントメビウス, Sairento Mebiusu) started with an episode set in 2023, explaining how the central character, Rally Cheyenne, recruits women with paranormal powers to Tokyo’s Attacked Mystification Police (AMP) to fight off the Lucifer Hawks from the world of Nemesis. (The original manga seems to be set in 2024.) 26 episodes altogether, and here are the opening titles.

Made a year too late for my usual count, as mentioned previously, the anime series Burn-Up Scramble is about a police woman in the secretive Warriors unit of the Tokyo police, looking for romance and finding crime action instead.

I’m also not counting the 1986 Twilight Zone episode Quarantine, in which the protagonist enters cryogenic sleep in 2023 but all the action comes after he wakes up in 2347.

The one video game set in 2023 is Perfect Dark, originally released by Nintendo in 2000 but remastered since and still on the market, about special agent Emma Dark heading off an alien-led conspiracy to Take Over The World. The trailer is visually impressive if the script is a bit cringe (“the only person man enough to handle the job … is a woman!”)

Over on Playstation, State of Emergency, released in 2002 (so just before my deadline), has a back-story where The Corporation overthrows the federal US government in 2023 and starts to oppress people; players get to take turns overthrowing it. But the action is set in 2035.

So, that leaves the eight novels. Taking them from most to least obscure, we start with one from almost exactly two hundred years ago, Revelations of the Dead-alive (later republished as London and Its Eccentricities in the Year 2023), by John Banim, published in 1824. The book is actually a satirical comedy targeting the London world of writing and art in the early 1820s, in excessive detail. But some changes have happened over the last 200 years. Kensington has become built up, while Fulham has returned to pastureland. Automatic cutlery feeds people at meals. Automated brooms sweep the pavements. Freight wagons are drawn by camels rather than by horses. And Austria and Russia go to war over the colonisation of the Moon (that is, the bits that the British didn’t get to first). You can get it here or here.

Published in 1890, Looking Further Backward, by Arthur Dudley Vinton, is a sequel and riposte to Edward Bellamy’s famously utopian Looking Backward. In fact only the framing narrative is set in 2023, where a Chinese history professor lectures his American students about the events of three years before, when China successfully invaded a weak socialist America in 2020. You can get it here.

The great French graphic artist Enki Bilal first hit the scene in 1980 with La Foire aux immortels (The Bedlam of Immortals), the opener of his Nikopol Trilogy. The other two volumes are set two years later, but the story starts in 2023 when disgraced former astronaut Alcide Nikopol returns to Earth after thirty years in cryogenic sleep, and makes common cause with the Egyptian god Horus both to overthrow the corrupt and near-Fascist government in Paris and to repel the other Egyptian gods who have been hovering around in a pyramidal spaceship. I think that’s a fair summary. You can get it here in English and here in the original French.

The most recent of the novels is The Free Lunch by Spider Robinson, published in 2001, and set in a Disney-like theme park which is troubled by time-travelling dwarfs from the future. Our twelve-year-old hero needs to evade the surveillance systems and thuggish human enforcers of 2023, and gain the confidence of the time travellers to ensure that history goes on the right track. (I think.) You can get it here.

The Turing Option, co-written by sf author Harry Harrrison and artificial intelligence theorist Marvin Minsky, and published in 1992, starts on 8 February 2023 with the protagonist getting seriously injured in an assassination attempt. The book itself stretches into 2024 with lots of global action, but the 2023 bits are mostly about the pioneering neurosurgery techniques that get our hero back on his feet again, with lots of discussion of computer theory and rather bogus reminiscences of his Irish childhood. You can get it here.

From a little earlier, Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, by Matt Ruff was published in 1997 and is another satire, channeling the sprits of Neal Stephenson’s early work and the Illuminatus! trilogy. It’s set in October and November 2023, focussed on New York. The Empire State Building was destroyed in 2006 when a Boeing 747 accidentally crashed into it, but the Twin Towers are still standing. Donald Trump died in 2013 when the spaceship in which he planned to travel to Mars blew up on the launchpad, but Queen Elizabeth II is still alive and well, and personally directing military strikes against her enemies. There’s a mutant great white shark in the sewers, and Ayn Rand resurrected as an AI personality. It doesn’t really hit the mark for me, but you can get it here.

In Killing Time (2000), mainstream novelist and historian Caleb Carr tries to write science fiction and does not really succeed. There was a global financial crisis in 2007, the USA is at war with Afghanistan because of a terrorist attack, and the whole world is recovering from the effects of a global pandemic. A shadowy group of people are undermining democratic political systems in the West by spreading false information and conspiracy theories on the Internet. Unfortunately they are the heroes, and our protagonist joins their mission, but it does not work out smoothly. You can get it here.

Finally, and on a high note, Bruce Sterling‘s Islands in the Net from 1988 has the USA and Soviet Union maintaining the peace in 2023, but with growing challenges from small states like Grenada and Luxembourg who provide data havens which undermine the position of Big Business. Everyone has wearable computers in their watches. South Africa has achieved majority rule. (In 1987, Nelson Mandela had three more years in prison ahead of him.) It’s all a bit utopian from thirty-some years on, but there’s some interesting discussions to have about why the world worked out as it did and not as Sterling imagined it. You can get it here.

I think this is the fourth or fifth roundup I’ve done of science fiction set in the year to come, and honestly, apart from Islands in the Net, this time it’s a disappointing crop. Don’t worry though; there’s some much more interesting stuff lined up for 2024.

Books set in 2023:
Revelations of the Dead-alive (aka London and Its Eccentricities in the Year 2023), by John Banim (1824)
Looking Further Backward, by Arthur Dudley Vinton (1890)
The Bedlam of Immortals, by Enki Bilal (1980)
Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling (1988)
The Turing Option, by Harry Harrison with Marvin Minsky (1992)
Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, by Matt Ruff (1997)
Killing Time, by Caleb Carr (2000)
The Free Lunch, by Spider Robinson (2001)

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