The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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What We Could Be If We Tried

I got a lot of good feedback from friends/colleagues regarding my last post on defending the literary and humanistic elements of science fiction. The discussion led me to an important point which got left out of that post.  While using a speculative setting and premise to examine human element is certainly what I personally like best about the science fiction that I read and write, there is also another important role that the genre plays (or should play): to inspire and advocate for new ways of thinking, understanding, and living. As I wrote before, all art both reflects and influences the society in which it finds itself. For science fiction, examining the human condition is the reflection part; imagining the future is the influencing part. There seem to be a variety of opinions as to what the balance between the two should be however.

Neil Stephenson’s article in the World Policy Journal, Innovation Starvation has been creating quite the kerfuffle in the science fiction community for the past few months. In it, Stephenson argues that the genre has come to be dominated by inward-looking, dystopian, and cynical renderings of humanity and its near future. Perhaps this is not surprising considering the times… I certainly sense widespread disaffection with the world and its institutions at the moment, and just as certainly have little confidence myself that these institutions are capable of seriously addressing the grave problems facing our nation, world, and species. But I think Stephenson’s point is that especially in uncertain times, it is incumbent on a genre like science fiction to imagine a way out:

Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects. This seems foolish now that we find ourselves saddled with technologies like Japan’s ramshackle 1960’s-vintage reactors at Fukushima when we have the possibility of clean nuclear fusion on the horizon. The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.

There is obviously a valid point to be made here. I don’t think anyone who has talked to a group of scientists and engineers can deny that science fiction has influenced many (though certainly not all) of our best and brightest on the front lines of innovation and discovery. I absolutely agree that the sheer amount of pessimism out there does get to be a drag sometimes when getting through the latest issues of the mags. And our society in general does seem to have lost the capacity to think long term, to dream about what could be, and to consider anything beyond what affects them immediately and directly.

However, I think what irks me about Stephenson’s rant is that it seems to imply at least two notions which I find disingenuous:

  1. The only “good” science fiction is that which is centered on speculation about the future.
  2. A cynical viewpoint about the future expressed in science fiction is “bad” because it doesn’t spur the imagination and innovation needed to get to a better future.

With respect to implication 1, I have to insist that science fiction as a genre does not necessarily have to include future at all. It certainly can, and often does. But to me, all that is required is a premise that rationally speculates on some aspect of science. Steampunk is the perfect example of this: its works imagine a world in which steam and mechanical technology evolved more rapidly than electronics. Most aren’t set in the future at all, but often go into the past. Yet the stories rely on rigorous speculation about how science would work under different circumstances. (For the record, I have other issues with Steampunk, but that’s a post for another day.)

Also with respect to implication 1, I have to also insist that imagining what could be in terms of our own society and humanity is at best only half of the function of any art form; examining who we are now is perfectly legitimate, and moreover just as vital. This is the proverbial “holding up the mirror” to society that has been a mainstay role of the arts since ancient times.

Science fiction writer Charles Stross put it well:

We’re living in the frickin’ 21st century. Killer robot drones are assassinating people in the hills of Afghanistan. Our civilisation has been invaded and conquered by the hive intelligences of multinational corporations, directed by the new aristocracy of the 0.1%. There are space probes in orbit around Saturn and en route to Pluto. Surgeons are carrying out face transplants. I have more computing power and data storage in my office than probably the entire world had in 1980. (Definitely than in 1970.) We’re carrying out this Mind Meld via the internet, and if that isn’t a 1980s cyberpunk vision that’s imploded into the present, warts and all, I don’t know what is. Seriously: to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF.

This brings me to implication 2. So here we are, in some respects living the dystopia that the science fiction of yesteryear feared and loathed. Yes, putting more optimistic work out there is one great way to counter all the negativity and nihilism in the world right now. But it’s not the only way. Dystopia can inspire positive progress as well. As futurism blogger Mike Labossiere writes on io9:

On one hand, such works could provide ideas which would inspire later innovation. For example, a dystopian work could still include descriptions of interesting technologies or innovations that latter engineers of scientists might duplicate. There is also the possibility that such works could provide an inspiration in a negative way. That is, by portraying a horrific future a writer could inspire people to try to avoid that possible future. […] That is, the bad can be inspirational — provided that there is a strong element of the possibility of the good.

So where does that leave us? I’m not sure. For me, the debate has definitely made me look at my own writing. Sure enough, the two short stories I have in submission circulation right now are fairly pessimistic about our near-term future (though both feature protagonists who struggle to create positive meaning and identity in those dark futures… I’m a Hemingway fan). Maybe I should take a look at what else I could bring to the table.

It’s not that I don’t have optimistic ideas about the future; indeed, I’m often labeled a stubborn idealist. I guess I discard these ideas as subjects of my writing often because it’s a lot harder to bring in good character conflict when everything is fine. I, for one, CAN’T STAND the science fiction that goes on for pages about describing some technology or system or society, but nothing much happens to the PEOPLE. I want a story dammit, not an engineering manual… I read enough of the latter at work. I also don’t want a psychology textbook or a cultural anthropologist’s field report. To be sure, those can be the seeds of good worldbuilding, but the output of your worldbuilding is not a story in and of itself.

I will amend my argument, and hopefully arrive at a compromise, with the following: I know there are fundamental human conflicts, mostly of the inner variety, that aren’t going to go away, no matter what our future holds. Love. Identity. Belonging. Isolation. Mortality. Hope. Perhaps the challenge I need to set for myself as a still-forming science fiction writer is to blend these with a positive vision of what we could be if we tried… Sounds lovely actually, if hard. Maybe I’ll give it a shot.



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