Science fiction

Self-preventing prophecies

Nice explanation by David Brin of the role science fiction can play in preventing dystopia:

Previsions Episode 8: David Brin

The phenomenon of the self-preventing prophecy helps keep stories like 1984 and Soylent Green works of fiction. Author David Brin explains.

Posted by XPRIZE on Saturday, July 8, 2017

More good “Previsions” episodes here.

Digital despair

Neal Stephenson identifies the paradox of a tech-centered society that is attracted to visions of technology failing:

At the mass-market consumer level, we have a strange state of affairs in which people are eager to vote with their dollars, pounds and Euros for the latest tech but they flock to movies depicting a relentlessly depressing view of the future, and resist any tech deployed on a large scale, in a centralized way, such as wind turbine farms.

Previously: The impact of the future

The impact of the future

I recently read an article bemoaning the recent spate of dystopian and utopian movies; arguing that by visualizing dire fictional situations and how those characters get out of them, we dull our responses to the real-world dangers all around us. Rather than learning helpful attitudes and strategies, we learn to be spectators.

At least that’s what I think it said, because I couldn’t find the article again when looking for it. I did find several other interesting pieces referencing this topic, however, that are worth noting.

Todd Mitchell writes that “post-apocalyptic books offer us an escape from denial“–specifically, the denial of deep-seated problems in our society, environment, and selves. He views it as a starting point for action:

In some ways this is similar to the Greek notion of catharsis, but it’s not quite the same thing. Where catharsis offers an audience a way to release emotion (and blow off some steam), dystopian and post-apocalyptic books offer us a way to escape the constant cultural need to deny the underlying problems of our society.

Noah Berlatsky uses Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (on my nightstand now) to argue that dystopias, to the utopian protagonists, are not “not a nightmare of the future, but a nightmare that there is a future at all—and a past, and a series of exciting events connecting the two. To be in history is to be in a dystopic narrative illusion.” To those who imagine a better world, a dynamic system is terrible–far better to get to a perfect place and never change a thing.

Claire Evans writes that what we need isn’t more far-future utopias or dystopias–rather, we need “something new: a form of science fiction that tackles the radical changes of our pressing and strange reality.”

But purely apocalyptic stories don’t help us reckon with reality’s slower, but equally devastating, emergencies – forests that vanish acre by acre, sea levels that rise a few millimeters each year, demand for consumer goods that gradually leech the planet’s resources…

The point is to show them not just how the story ends but how we might get through the middle – while we still have a shot at changing it.

In response to the newest installments of Star Trek and Mad Max, Brogan Morris writes that dystopias and utopias face different challenges in impacting society. Utopias can give us a free pass to sit back and let problems inevitably solve themselves:

Glorious utopian visions like Star Trek’s, though, all too often fail to address contemporary issues. Such optimism tends to ignore problems by implying the future is rosy regardless of our actions today…

Interstellar’s conclusion is troublingly cheerful, though: when an advanced, spacetime-manipulating future race comes to the rescue at the eleventh hour, humanity is saved. A sideswiping twist, to be sure, but one based in impossible pseudo-science, offering hope that’s totally out of our reach. It suggests our survival as a species is inevitable, if only we sit back and wait for something other than ourselves to save us.

While dystopias can leave us too depressed to act:

In Fury Road, what’s left of the human race continues to wage war and wring the Earth dry of fossil fuels, even though the planet is already a desert as a consequence of man’s actions (and simultaneous inaction)…its subtext couldn’t be more serious: we either divest and disarm, or lose the world to more chaos, more hardship, more despair.

The best approach seems to be providing hope without a free pass; challenge without despair; a thread of possibility leading out of the darkness:

It’s difficult to measure the impact of dystopian fiction on film. We know 1983’s speculative nuclear holocaust drama The Day After so depressed Ronald Reagan that it convinced him to rethink his ideas on nuclear proliferation…Such concrete examples of dystopian cinema having a direct meaningful influence, however, are rare. The best dystopian films instead tend to contribute to ongoing discussions or create indelible images of our fears of tomorrow.

In Stuart Candy’s 2010 thesis The Futures of Everyday Life, he notes that there isn’t yet a great framework for measuring the impact of futures work (especially the experiential kind he practices):

To discuss such seemingly disparate configurations in terms of their experiential features and impact enables a perspective which has X-ray glasses with respect to conventional boundaries of discipline, medium and setting; boundaries that hide their fundamental comparability…

A valuable next step in the research agenda suggested by this would be to design and implement more systematic evaluations, such as ethnographic observation or post-intervention questionnaires of participants across different conditions.

Futurist pioneer Fred Polak noted in The Image of the Future that in order to imagine a different world, we must mentally separate ourselves into the real and “The Other”:

Man is only able to conceive of the existence of The Other, the something which is basically different from the here and now, because his mental structure has a dividing property built into it. … It is the capacity for mental division which enables man to be a citizen of two worlds, this world and an imagined world.

Does imagining the “other” living in a different world cause us to draw closer to it, or to give up our hope of reaching that place? The key seems to be connecting our real selves to that imagined place, perhaps through experiences of the type Candy designs.

The Kony 2012 phenomenon gives new insight into these issues. As Dinaw Mengestu writes, Joseph Kony turned out to be more than “a click away”:

The most common defense of Kony 2012 is that it raises awareness. This is the new activist model – to raise awareness through the power of our celebrities…[But] no one denies that Kony should be brought to justice. Millions of Americans may not have known that before, but millions of Africans have, and thousands of people have been working valiantly for years to do just that.

Change has never come with a click, or a tweet; lives are not saved by bracelets. We all want solutions, but why should we think or expect an easy one exists for a twenty-year-old conflict in Uganda when we have none for the wars we’re engaged in now…

If we care, then we should care enough to say that we need to know more, that we don’t have an easy answer, but that we’re going to stay and work until we find one. You can’t put that on a t-shirt or a poster. You can’t tweet that, but you can live by it.

At the end of the day, there is change that you feel, and change that you live. We need to find ways to create more of the latter.

Five years ago this would be in a science fiction movie

The FAA has made a PSA about drones at the Super Bowl.

Lying about the future

“Lying about the future produces history” – Umberto Eco, describing his book Baudolino

Utopia and its discontents

I’m a huge fan of Neal Stephenson, and also of his newest project Hieroglyph, which aims to inspire future scientific breakthroughs with optimistic near-future science fiction. But I found two critiques of the approach quite compelling this week.

First, Virginia Postrel (whose writing on design I’ve enjoyed in the past), writes that “Peter Thiel Is Wrong About the Future” (I’m reading his book as well), and mentions Hieroglyph as similarly misled:

The dystopian science fiction Stephenson’s Project Hieroglyph aims to counter isn’t the cause of our cultural malaise. It’s a symptom. The obstacle to more technological ambitions isn’t our idea of the future. It’s how we think about the present and the past…

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel…People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief.

It’s the same ambivalence toward today’s progress that Louis CK rails about, and that many science fiction writers and futurists recognize. We do live in amazing times, yet the dominant cultural reaction is frustration and dissatisfaction. We don’t often celebrate the incredible progress we’ve achieved. As David Brooks once wrote, “Americans have always been united less by a shared past than by the shared dream of a better future.”

The Guardian also confronts the Hieroglyph collection, calling the stories “built on willful ignorance”:

But there is also a deliberate naivety to Project Hieroglyph. Stories such as Cory Doctorow’s The Man Who Sold the Moon are a veritable hymn to the culture of Silicon Valley and tech start-ups, but deftly wave away the part these cultures play in today’s corporate capitalism and all the inequalities that come with it.

I agree with their assessment of the best stories:

The best contributions to Hieroglyph are the least optimistic, and the best attuned to the human reality that technology so often obscures. Entanglement by Vandana Singh and Madeline Ashby’s By the Time We Get to Arizona both look at the impact of new technologies in developing nations and among the world’s poorest people. They also tackle the obvious problem of technological innovation, the looming menace of climate change, environmental degradation and resource depletion that go hand in hand with new technologies.

I still believe there is a role for optimistic science fiction in changing the world. However it’s always good to be mindful of the present and past when thinking about the future, and to include messy and uncomfortable situations in even the most polished vision. The real future will be both based in today’s world and include a lot of today’s problems, and people are wise enough to recognize when those aspects are missing from stories about the future.

The boring future

One of the defining challenges of writing science fiction is explaining to the audience the amazing new things in this world while respecting the fact that the characters already live in that world… For you, this future is cool, but for them it’s just another day with the same old problems.

See also Jamais Cascio, “Your Posthumanism Is Boring Me” and “Fifteen Minutes Into the Future“, and Stuart Candy, “Amazing=Mundane“.

Science Fiction and Social Fiction

We have science fiction, and science follows it. We imagine it, and it comes true. Yet we don’t have social fiction, so nothing changes. – Muhammad Yunus

A nice quote, and a good motivator, though I do think we have a couple types of social fiction.

Types of stories

All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. – Leo Tolstoy

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. – Joseph Campbell

Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth – Christopher Booker

Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and the Man-Who-Learns-Better – Robert Heinlein

And many, MANY more

Futurism vs fiction

In science fiction, the imagined world supports the story; in futurism, the story supports the imagined world.

It’s a simple but crucial difference, and one that too many casual followers of foresight work miss. If a futurist scenario reads like bad science fiction, it’s because it is bad science fiction, in the sense that it’s not offering the narrative arc that most good pieces of literature rely upon. And if the future presented in a science fiction story is weak futurism, that’s not a surprise either — as long as the future history helps to make the story compelling, it’s done its job.

Futurists and science fiction writers often “talk shop” when they get together — but fundamentally, their jobs are very, very different. – Jamais Cascio