In science fiction, it’s a common theme (maybe even a cliché!) for the future world to be greatly influenced by East Asian culture. This is a reasonable assumption for writers to make, given the enormous economic and demographic expansion that East Asia has undergone in the past half-century. However, as East Asia’s economy stagnates and its population begins one of the sharpest declines in world history, it’s becoming clear that this cliché is outdated. The future planet will be proportionally more African, South Asian, and Islamic than it is today. People interested in depicting future societies might want to turn away from East Asia and pay more attention to these under-appreciated societies.
In the next section I created some data visualizations to demonstrate the planet’s changing demographic composition. In the section after that, I reflect on how this information might inform speculative fiction.
The United Nations Population Division has projected1 that the world’s population will likely rise to more than 11 billion by the end of this century. While most countries will experience population growth, some will experience more growth than others. Niger is expected to grow from a population of 24 million in 2020 to around 200 million in 2100. Countries such as Botswana will grow close to the world’s average rate of 145%. On the other hand, Moldova’s population will decrease from four million to less than two million: the greatest decline of any country. The map below2 shows the population of countries in 2100 as a percentage of their population in 2020.
Population growth can also be considered in relation to other countries. Any country with a population that grows more than 145% between 2020 and 2100 will constitute a greater share of the human race than it did in 2020. The pie charts below shows how each region’s3 share of the total human population will change over the next eighty years (population is measured in billions).
The next map shows the population density (people/km2) of countries in 2100. In 2020, many of the most densely-populated large countries will be in South Asia (India, Bangladesh), East Asia (South Korea, Japan), and Europe (Belgium, the Netherlands). While these countries will still be densely populated in 2100, they will be joined by African nations such as Uganda, Malawi, and Nigeria.
The maps and chart above show that the future of the world will be dominated by Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, while the historically large populations of Europe and East Asia will shrink. One of the few popular Western science fiction novels that tries to depict a future Islamic society is George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails, a cyberpunk novel set in a future Middle Eastern society.
I think that it’s important for writers of speculative fiction to understand the demographic transition that the world is going through and reflect this in their writing. The East Asian cliché that gets depicted in novels like Neuromancer and movies like Bladerunner is certainly an improvement over 1960’s sci-fi, where future humanity tends to be blue-eyed and blond-haired (in Fred Hoyle’s novel The Black Cloud a gas cloud conveniently eliminates only the “equatorial” peoples, leaving the future planet with a demographic composition more agreeable to the author). But it’s time that we moved past the East Asian cliché as well: writers should begin reflecting up-to-date population projections in their novels.