Sci-fi as a prescriptive genre

2009-07-25

in Books and literature, Daily updates, Geek stuff, Politics, Science

Evey Hornbeck at Raw Sugar

Science fiction may be the most prescriptive fictional genre. Firstly, it forces people to consider the consequences of actions and choices across a long timespan. Secondly, it helps to reveal the core ethical values people have: it presents both our aspirations and things that inspire fear, disgust, and outrage. Finally, it makes statements about contemporary ideologies by presenting them with false hindsight.

As such, though sci-fi has a sometimes deserved reputation as an escapist genre, it can also be among the most directly ethically and politically engaged. It also serves a historically valuable purpose, by revealing how those in the past imagined the future. For instance, look at Asimov’s projection that everything would be nuclear-powered in the distant future, even small toys for children. It is no surprise that today’s sci-fi has ecology as a key focus. It would be fascinating to know how it will be read in a century.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan July 25, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Sci-fi book reviews:

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake.

Gibson, William. Spook Country.

Lem, Stanislaw. Mortal Engines.

Leyner, Mark. The Tetherballs of Bougainville.

Shepard, Jim. Love and Hydrogen.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five.

R.K. July 25, 2009 at 8:05 pm

Nice portrait

Emily July 26, 2009 at 1:47 pm

I think we underestimate the degree to which what we describe as ‘entertaining fiction’ shapes our imagination when we start mapping out the future.

Reading ‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson especially highlighted this for me. He envisioned and coined ‘cyberspace’, a term that is used to describe a similar reality that we now experience every day.

I think science fiction can both be clever forewarning, as well as a kind of pioneer future-shaping.

Though I do think that there is a disturbing emphasis and repetition of the ‘apocalypse’ theme in science fiction. I think it is important to carve out an imaginary future that doesn’t end in lasers and mass death. Star Trek does a good job of offering up a future not headed straight into oblivion.

Ecologically focused science fiction would do well, I think, to highlight the possibilities for human adaptation in the scenario of disastrous global warming, rather than simply repeating the subconsciously Christianized idealization of the future that includes a total apocalypse.

La Canadienne July 27, 2009 at 11:54 pm

I have always loved and feared science fiction, particularly the “speculative fiction” style because it’s so engaged the way you described. It gets a bad rap for no good reason. I would like to see anyone “escape” while reason some Atwood. Oryx and Crake scared the pants off of me when I read it, and I had pigoon nightmares for weeks.

As well, nice picture! What a skillful photographer you are.

. November 4, 2009 at 11:27 am

Science fiction as a predictor of the present
By Cory Doctorow on science fiction

Tin House, a literary magazine, asked me to introduce the current science fiction issue with an overview of the field. I wrote them an essay called “Radical Presentism,” about the way that science fiction reflects the present more than the future.

“Mary Shelley wasn’t worried about reanimated corpses stalking Europe, but by casting a technological innovation in the starring role of Frankenstein, she was able to tap into present-day fears about technology overpowering its masters and the hubris of the inventor. Orwell didn’t worry about a future dominated by the view-screens from 1984, he worried about a present in which technology was changing the balance of power, creating opportunities for the state to enforce its power over individuals at ever-more-granular levels.

Now, it’s true that some writers will tell you they’re extrapolating a future based on rigor and science, but they’re just wrong. Karel Čapek coined the word robotto talk about the automation and dehumanization of the workplace. Asimov’s robots were not supposed to be metaphors, but they sure acted like them, revealing the great writer’s belief in a world where careful regulation could create positive outcomes for society. (How else to explain his idea that all robots would comply with the “three laws” for thousands of years? Or, in the Foundation series, the existence of a secret society that knows exactly how to exert its leverage to steer the course of human civilization for millennia?)

For some years now, science fiction has been in the grips of a conceit called the “Singularity”–the moment at which human and machine intelligence merge, creating a break with history beyond which the future cannot be predicted, because the post-humans who live there will be utterly unrecognizable to us in their emotions and motivations. Read one way, it’s a sober prediction of the curve of history spiking infinity-ward in the near future (and many futurists will solemnly assure you that this is the case); read another way, it’s just the anxiety of a generation of winners in the technology wars, now confronted by a new generation whose fluidity with technology is so awe-inspiring that it appears we have been out-evolved by our own progeny. “

. November 23, 2009 at 10:54 am

In a 1993 interview, Gibson himself told me: “I think my world looks dystopian if you’re a middle class white guy doing reasonably well in 1993… There are so many places in the world today that are so much crappier than anything I’m writing about.”‘

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