Is the bold future of our youth being killed by gloomy science fiction? Or has Sci Fi grown more dour as a reflection of our mood? Glenn Reynolds interviews authors Neal Stephenson and Vernor Vinge in a thought-provoking inquiry: Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction: “While books about space exploration and robots once inspired young people to become scientists and engineers—and inspired grownup engineers and scientists to do big things—in recent decades the field has become dominated by escapist fantasies and depressing dystopias.”
(Hey… I’m TRYING, dammit!)
Almost as if deliberately proving the point, TED speaker Paul Gilster rails against techno-optimism in a desperately wrongheaded essay that really should be read in order to understand the problem with today’s well-meaning left. Paul does us all a disservice by conflating a multidimensional landscape with a digital, either-or choice - confusing “optimism” with complacency.
Yes, we all know the types he refers to as techno-optimists - fools who shrug off looming water shortages, energy deficits and climate degradation, blithely assuring us that “humanity and/or science and/or markets and/or God will find a way.” Such people are dolts, often driven by a political wing that has done horrific damage both to the U.S. and the world.
Nevertheless, in taking the reflexive opposite point of view, many folks on the left wind up being very little better. Their sense of urgency to save the world is laudable. But it gets wrongheaded when the message becomes “Let’s do something! And by the way, nothing ever works!”
That was the calamitously awful, guilt-tripping meme conveyed in James Cameron’s otherwise worthy film Avatar. The notion that our society is not only dismally greedy and stupid, but the very worst culture ever. The worst civilization conceivable.
This despite being the very same civilization that paid James Cameron billions to help enthusiastic audiences want to be better. Ah well. Ironies are lost on those steeped in finger-wagging lecture mode. We have experienced waves of such finger-wagging since the sixties, all of it lusciously indignant and satisfying to the finger waggers. But helpful?
Sure, in the beginning, films like Soylent Green used the raw-guilt-trip approach effectively to shake people into awareness. I call such tales - along with Silent Running and Silent Spring - “self-preventing prophecies” in that they roused millions not only to look up (and ahead) but to become actively involved in working against disaster.
Which is, in fact, the point! Doomy-gloomy guilt trips have served their purpose! Everyone who can be recruited into environmentalism (for example) by guilt-tripping already has been! Everybody else is simply repelled by the message. Forced - by either-or logic - into the other camp. At this point, overbearing chiding is completely counterproductive.
Today, we need more sophisticated legends, that show us not only possible failure modes, but humanity buckling down to get things right. Overcoming errors and dastardly-plots? Sure! But balanced by other trends, like a civilization filled with citizens eager to do better. And that - the stunning power of enlightened citizenship - appears to be almost completely absent from Hollywood, these days.
The New Puritans
Solutions are possible. They will require investment, thought, negotiation and endless hard work, just to squeak by. But that’s exactly what we can do. A trait that our parents burst with. Can-do. A can-do spirit that (alas!) dismal reflexes on the left associate only with complacency.
Take Jared Diamond’s fascinating and important book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” By all means get and read it. Diamond overstates (by far) the case that all past civilizations declined for reasons of environmental neglect. But his examples edify and warn, about where we’ll wind up, if we don’t pay heed!
On the other hand, his prescription - renunciatory ecological fascism - is yet another example of the primly dour puritanism of Paul Ehrlich and so many others - the truest heirs of Cotton Mather. Indignation junkies who finger-wag dire proclamations that salvation can only come from retreating to “ancient wisdom” and shivering in the dark.
Anyone for Plan C?
Are these our only choices? Between chiding, prune-faced, lefty-puritans and giddy rightists who proclaim that either God or some vague corporatist market-innovators will save us out of the blue? Will anybody note that both groups are vociferously, fanatically anti-future?
Is it any wonder that can-do science fiction - suggesting that hard work and goodwill and ingenuity and negotiation might achieve wonders - has fallen on hard times?
Our root problem today is not obdurate denialism coming from the right. That insanity is part of Culture War and can only be treated as a mental illness. Blue America must do what it did in every previous phase of the U.S. Civil War. Simply win. Answer the Tea Party’s tricorner hat nonsense with the Union volunteer’s kepi. We will stop resurgent feudalism and know-nothingism. Tell the troglodytes and oligarchs they cannot have our renaissance. Our enlightenment. Our proudly scientific civilization.
No. What I find far more worrisome is the left’s mania to confuse ALL optimism with complacency, proclaiming any zealous, can-do enthusiasm to be part and parcel of the right’s madness.
It is a baseless and dismal reflex, inherently illogical, anti-technological, demoralizing, and - above all - truly destructive of hope, undermining our ability to actively and vigorously save ourselves and the world.