Smithsonian on SF
There's an article by Eileen Gunn on The Smithsonian's website making the rounds today. It's worth talking about in some detail. She sure quotes the heavies. What say you, Ursula LeGuin?:
"Writers may find the future appealing precisely because it can’t be known, a black box where “anything at all can be said to happen without fear of contradiction from a native,” says the renowned novelist and poet Ursula K. Le Guin. “The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in,” she tells Smithsonian, “a means of thinking about reality, a method.”"
Ursula, whom we love very much, uses an unfortunate choice of words as "sterility" in the art world tends to mean cut off from emotion. But I think there are two important aspects to what she says: a laboratory has two two distinct qualities 1) effort has been taken to eliminate contaminating factors and 2) the lab is set up so that several different environments and circumstances can be replicated.
SF has both of these. The sterility is imparted because future fiction most often omits the narrative events that bridge the fictional future with our nominal present, or if these events are included they are summarized. In any events these intervening events are imagined and as such the SF writer is free to create any future they want. One cool thing about the genre is that sometimes these futures don't have to make sense, they can be like dreams - illogical, but firing at an emotional register that makes us stand up and take notice. So the sterility is provided by future fiction's isolation from the present. And since writers are free to imagine any kind of intervening event (from nuclear war, to environmental apocalypse, to resource-scare overcrowding, to a galaxy's slow heat death) they are likewise free to create any future, which, of course, is the product of the intervening events and humanity's reaction to the events. So, we are free to wonder, what if mankind becomes increasingly competitive? What if machines make us obsolete? What if everything changes, but somehow being a human stays basically the same (this is what my money's riding on)?
What say you, Cory Doctorow?:
“I really like design fiction or prototyping fiction,” says novelist Cory Doctorow, whose clients have included Disney and Tesco. “There is nothing weird about a company doing this—commissioning a story about people using a technology to decide if the technology is worth following through on. It’s like an architect creating a virtual fly-through of a building.” Doctorow, who worked in the software industry, has seen both sides of the development process. “I’ve been in engineering discussions in which the argument turned on what it would be like to use the product, and fiction can be a way of getting at that experience.”
OK. Now we're getting into disputed lands. While, technically, Doctorow is right, there's nothing "weird" about a company hiring an artist to see if more money can be fleeced from the public in some novel way or another, there's certainly nothing to be proud of here, either. I mean a company that has to look outside itself (to SF writers!) for ideas about the future is not a company I'd take stock in. And an artist who uses his art to advance commerce is a hack (not that I'd turn down the offer to write a space opera for Kellogg's or Google). There's no art here, and, in fact, a quick search reveals the word "art" is conspicuously absent from the article.
Kim Stanley Robinson has the correctly pessimistic (and suitably pissed off) take on the subject:
“Science fiction represents how people in the present feel about the future,” Robinson says. “That’s why ‘big ideas’ were prevalent in the 1930s, ’40s and partly in the ’50s. People felt the future would be better, one way or another. Now it doesn’t feel that way. Rich people take nine-tenths of everything and force the rest of us to fight over the remaining tenth, and if we object to that, we are told we are espousing class warfare and are crushed. They toy with us for their entertainment, and they live in ridiculous luxury while we starve and fight each other. This is what The Hunger Games embodies in a narrative, and so the response to it has been tremendous, as it should be.”
We get this from future pants himself, Bill Gibson:
“I’ve only ever wanted to be naturalistic,” he says. “I assumed I was being less than dystopian in the 1980s, because I was writing about a world that had gotten out of the cold war intact. That actually seemed unrealistic to many intelligent people at the time.”
Stylized naturalism, you seem to be forgetting how important style is to your whole schtick, Bill.
Which brings us to Neal Stephenson:
"In 2012, Stephenson partnered with the Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) at Arizona State University to create Project Hieroglyph, a web-based project that provides, in its words, “a space for writers, scientists, artists and engineers to collaborate on creative, ambitious visions of our near future.” The first fruit will be an anthology, Hieroglyph: Stories and Blueprints for a Better Future, to be published this September by HarperCollins. It will include stories by both established and newer writers who have been encouraged to “step outside their comfort zone,” as Ed Finn, the director of CSI, puts it. The same goes for readers. Finn sees the core audience for Hieroglyph as people who have never thought about the issues these authors address. “I want them to place themselves in these futures,” he says."
Perhaps potential scientists aren't inspired by science because science is engaged in a pissing match (seriously, a steel tower?!) while very real, human needs are going unmet (you know, like hunger, poverty, and the wealth gap...).
Samuel Delaney closes out the article with a great quote:
“The variety of worlds science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is training for thinking about the actual changes—sometimes catastrophic, often confusing—that the real world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob-smacked.”
This gets to the core of the discussion. Delaney's not saying that when they finally invent the empathy box that we'll say, "Oh, I remember those from a science fiction novel" and that this will somehow banish our fear and trepidation. But rather that SF works internally, that by running lots of different scenarios, one after the other, each with its own rules, ethical ramifications, and authority systems, SF prepares us to deal with change.
But the emphasis of the article tells me we're still on the wrong track. Art is not charged with changing the outside world, but instead changing (hopefully improving) the inside world. Think about how fondly our culture thinks about the early astronauts, and how we as a culture often disparage the works of the pioneers who traveled inwards (Freud, McKenna, etc etc). I think that tells you everything you need to know about our failures.