Sunday, May 24, 2020

The State of Science Fiction

"If science fiction is concerned with the future, and our only future now lies within the ever-changing world around us, one can indeed write about the present and consider the results science fiction." Gary Westfahl, from his book William Gibson.

One of the great difficulties of pushing science fiction in 2020 is information fatigue. You can also call it future fatigue, a problem where the oddities and fears we all used to relegate to the future keep piling up in present reality.

In a society with a dearth of technological advances, science fiction is absolutely needed. Consider that the golden age of SF in the US came during the lead up and beginnings of the atomic age and the space age. But when science fiction is reality, what do you do then? You want to return to nature, breathe in some rarefied air, gain the perspective you can only get when you turn off all the devices for a weekend and spend time looking in the glowing embers of a fire. The last thing you probably want to do is pick up a good technothriller about a killer virus from Wuhan that causes already distressed relations between the US and Chinese superpowers to boil over.

I mean, couldn't you use a break from our globalized, pandemicked, and hyper-surveilled world? Sure you could. This is a great time to read fantasy, take a trip to Middle Earth or Lev Grossman's Brakebills school for magic.

Science Fiction sometimes feels like the literature of anxiety or the literature of paranoia. All of the sleek and exciting developments in science and technology, though offering an easier life or a longer life have also made the word a much scarier place. Sure you can get anywhere you want rapidly. Go by plane. Go by speeding automobile. But you're burning holes in the ozone layer as you go. Yes, you can salute the flag and feel pride over our near-infinite nuclear arsenal, our unrivaled military capability by sea, by land, by air, and by space, but military readiness is a promise of war and, indeed, the US has been in multiple ongoing wars since 2001. War is a political and economic necessity in our present science fictional reality.

So, when you sit down to read science fiction, the daily headlines in the news are already ahead of you. From Hong Kong hackers fighting for the rights of the people to a corrupt American political system using media outlets as a platform for broadcasting ideology, the end of history has already arrived. The challenge in science fiction now is to foretell what happens after the end.

Williams Gibson's Agency, Cory Doctorow's Walkaway, and Bruce Stering's Holy Fire and Distraction are worth considering what science fiction can do now. These novels posit the creation of new types of communities that either parasitize the resources lying forgotten and fallow in the margins; or they leave society entirely to create societies that don't function on capital, competition, or commerce; or they consider elaborate new checks and balances on our political and economic systems.

The last is from Gibson is almost entirely in response to Trump, Brexit, and the recent rise of nationalism and hate groups worldwide. But even that system wouldn't really work. The environmental crisis that is coming and that is already upon us is just one of the factors pushing us toward a larger global crisis and great social upheavals. Gibson's system of checks to ensure that a new Hitler doesn't rise to power offers a needed release from the insanity of the Trump years, but when you read the last page and close the cover, you're right back in a world that is not maximizing its resources to safeguard itself for the future. No, the reality of science is that it is polluting our world, it's pushing species out of their natural habitats and introducing new, dangerous viruses to the global village.

Here's a metaphor for human progress. Consider the spaceship, our curvilinear vision of progress, NASA written on the side in worm font, lifting up into outer space. It's a marvel to watch. At first the thing comes off the ground like an old man struggling to rise out of his chair, but then smoke obscures all and energy goes to work. Soon, the shuttle is hurtling away from the earth at 7 miles a second. But it takes 30,000 gallons of fuel to get there. I live in Kentucky, where it takes nearly five million people a month to buy and consume 30,000 gallons of fuel. So, there's your image. Human progress is the ability to release five million people's carbon use in one month into the atmosphere in the space of the 8 or so minutes it takes for a rocket to reach outer space.

We are accelerating, moving faster and faster and we're leaving our world behind us even though we haven't really left it.

I could end here, but I don't want to come off as a doomsday prophet or an angry guy. My whole point is that SF currently has a tough competitor with reality. It's merely unfortunate that the reality we're dealing with involves humanity heading toward rapid self destruction. I imagine that if we were able to solve our energy and pollution problems, solve problems of global competition and artificial resource scarcity, solve problems of racism, discrimination, and xenophobia, solve the problems of greed and exploitation, and escape the pressures of maintaining economic and political power, well, then maybe science fiction wouldn't rebound all the sudden. Maybe there'd be nothing left for SF to discuss because all the conflict would have disappeared.

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