What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.
There is no singular vision of the future. Just as it’s vital for societies to build themselves out of a multitude of perspectives, experiences, cultures, and curiosities, so to must speculation on what’s to come. Science fiction should be personal, but the future needs everyone’s voices.
As part of Polygon’s 2020 Sci-fi Week, we reached out to a number of artists with a question: What does the future look like to you, from where you’re standing now? The artist could consider the prompt on an individual or global scale, render the future with a surreal or realist touch, and go in a any direction, from landscape to portraiture and anything in-between. In the end, we wanted a taste of the endless possibilities.
What connects the images below are the essence of futurist science fiction, and the notion that extrapolating from our current spot on the timeline can both shape the future and reveal something about the present. Along with the art, we’ve asked each artist to include a statement, reflecting their approach to the work.
Urban Landscape is a series of work each inspired by the city I lived in, Seoul, Hanoi, and Shanghai. “Urban Landscape 3” is a picture of fantasy about the future. My childhood memory of Shanghai is imperfect. When I was small I thought I didn’t want to come back to Shanghai when I left for Korea. but I always loved the scenery of the city, especially the evening. When I came back to Shanghai years later, I had time to enjoy the warm weather and neons of the city, and I took pictures of the city and made this image. For me, this work is like reconciling with my memory. The futuristic fantasy contains positive hope.
This piece is part of a series that imagines two young boys living in a house under the sea. When looking forward I often try to search for the hopeful possibilities of the future. In this series I explored what sort of magical adventures might be possible if humans were able to live in and explore this kind of environment in childhood, with the hope that in the future, if I were to have grandkids, they would still have a clean ocean and sea-life to take interest in and explore.
Dion MBD grew up in Indonesia spending his childhood days playing by the farm, river, and small wood near his house. He then moved to Singapore and then the United States for education. Every time he goes back home, he notices that concrete and constructions slowly claim grounds where his natural playground used to be. As a person, Dion is always fascinated by science. One topic he is most interested in is the advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Dion begins to wonder if it is inevitable that humans will industrialize every corner of the world and end up evolving into a machine-based life form.
This is from the End of a Fence, a short book I published in 2015, in which I imagined a society segregated by OKCupidish compatibility algorithms. People with near-perfect matches live together in harmony, agreeing on everything and looking more-or-less the same. Of course things go wrong and everything descends into glitchy violence. I still like the story, and I think it predicted some of the more alarming developments in social media, but I shot myself in the foot by making it far too confusing to follow. I wanted to capture the baffling madness of a future where communication is reduced to ciphers, and to do so I imagined someone from half a century ago given an average twitter feed to read — how completely incomprehensible it would look to them. Over time my writing became far less obscure, hopefully without losing much. I think there’s something optimistic about my recent attempts at clarity — they are attempts to communicate and to reach other people, instead of alienating them through high-concept obfuscation.
It’s hard for me to imagine the future right now, sitting as we are on a fulcrum point in history. So much rides on the election, how we address climate change, how long the pandemic lasts, and maybe most importantly how we rein in technology’s unchecked rampage through every corner of our lives. I worry that there’s a real possibility we have replaced our old Gods with a new God, one that we made, and that we don’t truly understand. As an editorial illustrator my work is often of a collaborative nature: I take author’s words and interpret them, embellish them or add my own thoughts via visual medium. I originally made this piece to accompany an article written by Rose Eveleth that smartly criticizes the myth that technology evolving is inevitable and unstoppable. I immediately thought of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a masterpiece of science fiction but also a cautionary tale of the dark side of enlightenment. It was an easy leap for me to honor that film’s cinematography and swap the monolith for an iPhone, a perfect representation to me of everything I love and hate about technology. Right now, we are the monkeys discovering the monolith, standing before a smooth dark obelisk from the future, from beyond the event horizon of time. We’re at the beginning and at the end. We evolved over thousands of years to reach this point, and either our future is a barren wasteland, or we’ll ascend to the stars, to find a new monolith somewhere out in the vastness of space.
This was a commissioned illustration for a piece for Medium on an article about what happens to older developers working in the tech industry. It encapsulates my fear of aging, my fear of being an older, queer woman in a society that values youth and newness above all things, and my fears of the naivety with which new, untested, dangerous and unethical technology is allowed and even encouraged to run rampant in our society. The more that gets revealed about the outcomes of these technologies, I sincerely hope that in the future we embrace the wisdom and foresight of more vulnerable people.
“Cityscape” was created in the midst of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in April of 2020. Initially a commercial commission, this piece evolved to reflect the social context surrounding the pandemic. “Cityscape” imagines a future where a sense of community is possible despite the physical structures that divide us. Living conditions in urban centers tend to isolate one from others in much more insidious ways than social distancing protocols we know today. Though this remains primarily a surrealistic piece, it serves as a reminder that societies can be organised in ways other than those that we have known to date.
When creating this piece, I tapped back into my childhood and the love I had for space, the future, the unknown. Growing up, I always had a fascination for outer space. Movies such as Star Wars, Alien, Logan’s Run, 2001: A Space Odyssey captured my imagination, and as a child I would always find art as an outlet to showcase the vivid images I had in my head. Fast forward years later, the inspiration behind this piece comes directly from my continued love for ’60s and ’70s science fiction movies and books. My vision for the distant future is optimistic but bleak as well. In my illustration there is a sense of claustrophobia as if things weren’t added in an orderly or planned out manner. With all the lights glowing everywhere, it is clear this city never goes to sleep. While my illustration is just a fictional representation of my imagination, overpopulation, poor city planning, loss of vegetation, proliferation of light pollution are all things that we witness on Earth today. It would be foolish to suggest that these things would never happen in a planet far far away in a distant future. The perfect lines and sharp angles are only matched by the imperfect landscape these buildings create.
The style of art I create is always unique to myself but has been inspired by many through the years. Some of my favorite artists include Syd Mead, H.R. Giger, and Ralph McQuarrie each of whom redefined science fiction and our vision for the future. It has been a journey as an artist to be able to create science fiction-based illustrations myself and I hope to help shape society’s vision for what lies ahead with my illustrations.