Science fiction

I was already going to write a follow-up post on science fiction when KF recommended Steven Shaviro, who, I see, argues that the world “is increasingly being transformed in ways, and by devices, that seem to come out of the pages of science fiction [with the result that] science fiction provides the most useful social theory.” It’s kind of true.

My recent thoughts on the question were sparked by a piece in this week’s TLS. In the course of a review of Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choices, Niall Ferguson reminds us that one of the ways historiography has changed in the last 60 years is by the introduction of “counterfactual history.” Broadly, the counterfactual historians ask what would have followed if x had happened instead of y. It sounds unrigorous and sensationalistic, doesn’t it, titillation along the lines of What If Hitler Had Conquered the World? But really the counterfactual historians are trying to redress traditional historiography’s bias toward fatalism. To a traditional historian it looks like what happened had to happen, because it happened. But obviously at the time it didn’t have to happen, and the counterfactual approach tries to take us back to that point. Kershaw, dismissing counterfactual history, writes that “in the real world of Hitler, rather than the counterfactual world of fantasy and imagination, it seems clear that no chance was missed in 1940.” Ferguson is at his best when he comments dryly that “what Kershaw means by ‘the real world of Hitler’ is of course the world of Hitler’s own fantasy and imagination.” If the ‘reality’ you’re looking for is the reality of someone’s fantasy, how can you dismiss counterfactual history?

Science fiction is like counterfactual history. Most of it is titillating, sensationalistic crap: some guy indulging his desire for cool gadgets and hot babes, and thoughtlessly breaking the rules of the literary world he’s constructed whenever it suits him to do so. But lots of it is completely different: superb social commentary, and very often social commentary that deals with technology in a healthily paranoid way. The genre involves predicting a future. But the goal is not to get it right. This point can’t be stressed too much: the goal is not to prognosticate the details of the future world, and the people who jeered at Orwell when 1984 came and went without global totalitarianism are idiots. The goal, on the contrary, is to think through the possibilities that are already here, in contemporary life, by exaggerating certain features or focusing in on certain aspects: the projected future explores an already present disposition or world-track with a close lens. If counterfactual history is a “what if?” that allows us to get into Hitler’s crazy head, good sci fi is a “what if?” that allows us to get into our own.

So now I’m thinking about sci fi that illustrates the three patterns I listed in the last post. The Matrix tries to do #s 2 and 3, but doesn’t do either well because of the triumph of the machines motif, as if an almost supernatural force were necessary to make us into brains-in-vats (or, once we get out of the vat, into paranoids) rather than this happening subtly and willingly (as it is in reality). However, since there’s lots of sci fi that in one way or another takes up these themes, I’m going to focus on theme #1, the medium is the message.

I can’t remember the author or title of the first story (help!) but what happens is that aliens come to earth, and they have all these great gadgets and instant-cure pills and etc, and the earth scientists think they must be tremendously advanced, but it gradually emerges that they don’t know how any of the stuff works because as their society got more advanced they had to think less and less and now everyone in their world relies on stuff without understanding it, and they’re actually completely stupid, and in the last lines an earthling takes them out and sells them the Brooklyn Bridge.

The second story is “A Time to Teach A Time to Learn” by Noel Loomis, written in 1970, in which a history professor is forced by the administration to put all his courses on video tape, interspersed with re-enactments, the result of which is that he renders himself redundant and the content of his courses becomes stupid and jingoistic.



3 thoughts on “Science fiction

  1. Remember Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of science fiction is crud, but then 90% of everything is crud.

    I highly recommend RAINBOWS END, a 2006 SF novel by Vernor Vinge. It won the 2007 Hugo for Best Novel. Vinge’s a retired comp sci prof at UCSD and an excellent novelist. His last two novels were set far in the future, but this one is set around 2025. It’s set on the cusp of the technological singularity, and is partly about the changes that technology is bringing to society and people. If you can find his 1980s novella TRUE NAMES, read that. It’s one of the SF stories that determined much of how the Internet works now.

    For other writers, check out Neal Stephenson (such as CRYPTONOMICON), one of my favourite writers of all; perhaps SPOOK COUNTRY, the new one by William Gibson, which is so futuristic it’s set last year; Rudy Rucker, such as MATHEMATICIANS IN LOVE which is about all three points you listed; and Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow. Wikipedia has entries on them all and links to their web sites and blogs. Most of them are very available by e-mail, too.

  2. All good, and I know none of it. My acquaintance with sci fi is all old: I was picking up the stuff my mother was reading in the 1970s. I’ll get these.

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