Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Future of Science Fiction

Clive Thompson wrote an article for Wired (a publication I normally avoid as assiduously as The Economist) on why he says that ""Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas." To the Best of Our Knowledge (which I do listen to) dedicated an episode to exploring that question, talking to Ursula K. LeGuin and George R.R. Martin. I enjoyed that discussion, and it reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson's stirring and thought-provoking introduction to the anthology of ecotopian fiction he edited, Future Primitive.

"Science fiction is a collection of thought experiments that propose scenarios of the future. All science fiction stories carry within them implicit histories connecting their futures back to our present. They are historical simulations, which start at the present and then state if we do this we will reach here, or if we do that we will reach there. It's a mode of thought that is utopian in its very operating principle, for it assumes that differences in our actions now will lead to real and somewhat predictable consequences later on—which means that what we do now matters. Science fiction is play that helps teach us how to act, like the wrestling of tiger cubs.

"This, at any rate, is the utopian view. Science fiction also expresses the hopes and fears of its writers and readers, who have mostly been inhabitants of the urban industrial nations. Thus science fiction has presented us with countless images of urban industrial futures: Trantors and Metropolises and spaceships, those cities cast loose in space. All these images, endlessly reiterated, have come to form in our imagination a kind of consensus vision of our future. Poets are unacknowledged legislators of the world, and to a very surprising degree what we have been legislating with our poetry is existence in great industrial city-machines, with people as the last organic units in a denatured, metallic, clean, and artificial world.

"We are beginning to understand that this imagined future is impossible to enact, and is an artifact of an earlier moment in history. The megacities currently on Earth today serve not as models for development but as demonstrations of a dysfunctional social order. A whole range of sciences now emphasize how inextricably we are part of a larger biosphere, enmeshed in our world like jellyfish in the sea, taking it in with every breath and every meal. The biosphere is our extended body, and we can no more live without it than we could live without our kidneys or our bones. The old paradigm of the world as a machine is being replaced, in modern science and in the culture at large, by a more accurate and sophisticated paradigm of the world as a vast organism, complexly interpenetrative in ways not previously imagined. The world is not a machine we can use and the replace; it is our extended body. If we try to cut it away we will die.

"And there is no reason why we should want to lever ourselves out of nature into machines, even if we could. Over the millions of years of our evolution, we grew bodies and minds that crave certain kinds of experiences—walking, throwing things, contemplating fire, dancing, sex, talking, spending most of every day outdoors, etc., etc. Only in the last part of our long history have we shifted away from lives that gave us these satisfactions, and the "sublimated" pleasures of industrial existence cannot replace them.

"Worse, industrial existence cannot save us from the coming environmental crisis; indeed, is is part of the problem. In all likelihood we have already overshot our environment's carrying capacity, yet the world population will double before it stabilizes, while many vital resources are already being depleted. At the same time, however, our technological ability is expanding tremendously, as is our understanding of how social institutions affect our problems. We are gaining great powers at the very moment that our destruction of our environment is becoming ruinous. We are in a race to invent and practice a sustainable mode of life before catastrophes strike us.

"So we are in the process of rethinking the future, of inventing a new consensus vision of what it might be. This is happening all across contemporary culture, in a great variety of forms, with names like the environmental movement, green political parties, deep ecology, the land ethic, landscape restoration, sociobiology, sustainable agriculture, ecofeminism, social ecology, bioregionalism, animal liberation, steady-state economics. All these movements contain efforts to reimagine a sustainable human society.

"Science fiction is part of this work. Of course there are many science fiction stories which still invoke the mechanistic world view, using the old futures like tired stage sets. But the science fiction responding to the latest advances in contemporary science is beginning to look different, less "hi tech," more various. All manner of alternative futures are now being imagined, and many of them invoke the wilderness, and moments of our distant past, envisioning futures that from the viewpoint of the industrial model look "primitive." It's not that they advocate a simple return to nature, or a rejection of technology, which given our current situation would be nothing more than another kind of ecologic impossibility. Rather, they attempt to imagine sophisticated new technologies combined with habits saved or reinvented from our deep past, with the notion that prehistoric cultures were critical in making us what we are, and knew things about our relationship to the world that we should not forget. These science fictions reject the inevitability of the machine future, and ask again the old questions, What is the healthiest way to live? What is the most beautiful? Their answers cobble together aspects of the post-modern world and the paleolithic, asserting that we might for very good reasons choose to live in ways that resemble in part the ways of our ancestors and of the primitives that still inhabit corners of our planet. These visions are utopian statements of desire, full og joy and hope and danger, re-opening our notion of the future to a whole range of wild possibilities."

In the episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge I linked to above, Steve Paulson asks George R.R. Martin about the problems besetting science fiction today. He said, "What happened, I think, that social changes of the last fifty years has made the future something that we no longer want to go visit the way we did when I was a kid." I agree, up to a point. I think, on some level, no one really buys the old, urban, industrial "consensus future" that Robinson writes about here—for the same reasons he outlines. I disagree that we no longer want a vision of the future. I think people want a vision like that more than ever. But we want, in the words of artist Michael Green, a vision of "a future that works," not endless repetitions of the same technophilic fantasies. We want to visit a future that puts us back in touch with our humanity and a more-than-human world, not indulging pathetic "transhumanist" fantasies about some pseudo-religious Singularity. We want a future we can believe in and look forward to.

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