Printed: 2020-07-09

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Science Fiction and our Dreams of the Future

David Brin

October 12, 2014

An essay in Wired: Is Dystopian Sci Fi Making us Fear Technology? ponders the pandemic plague of cheap dystopias and apocalypses and feudal fantasties that have metastacized and infected science fiction. Michael Solana muses that a certain amount of dire warnings can be a tonic, but it becomes poisonous in the kind of excess that we are now seeing, in which the fundamental rule seems to be “never show any possibility of a better world.”

​“Fiction is capable of charting our human potential—with science fiction the most natural and forward form of this—so anything less than a push toward good through the medium is not only overdone at this point, but an incredible opportunity squandered. Every fiction is an illusion, of course. The very real danger here is man’s tendency to look to his illusion for inspiration, which is the foundation on which we build society."
I make essentially the same point in a dozen places, across the last 20 years, but especially here, where I describe why modern film directors and authors are inflicting a tsunami of despairing tales upon us… not because any but a few of them actually believe it, but out of storytelling laziness, pure and simple. The “idiot plot” syndrome, in which it is just a lot easier to put your characters in dramatic jeopardy if you start with the assumption the civilization is useless and all our neighbors are foolish sheep.
Solana approaches the whole problem from more of an artistic plaint. But he concludes: “Our dystopian obsession has grown up in our nightmares as a true monster, which can only be countered by something truly beautiful. Simply, we need a hero. Our fears are demons in our fiction placing our utopia at risk, but we must not run from them. We must stand up and defeat them.”

Or, as Nick Bilton writes in the New York Times, perhaps "we need to imagine the nightmare so it doesn't become real." Certainly Orwell's 1984 and other science fiction novels offered us the self-preventing prophecy -- warning us away from their dark visions.  As Ramaz Naam reminds us -- In Defense of Dystopian Science Fiction -- “Dystopian fiction has also helped us pass down important mores about the freedoms we find central, and helped rally people against injustice."

The argument over what I have called a “plague of dystopias” in fiction - especially science fiction - is taken a step forward in this philosophical musing my my young friend, the New York artist John Powers, who counters Solana: "..the problems we face as a society today are problems that require us to act as a society," not by a "hero facing his fears." Powers goes on, "But dystopias are allowing our powers of problem-solving imagination to go flabby."

Powers concludes, "The project is to imagine a future society with problems, but not a future in which society is the problem." 

Indeed, nothing says "hope" better than expressing a belief in our ability to solve problems.

Alternate Visions of the Future

Can we imagine a brighter future? Science Fiction has frequently tried to do so...

And now, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future is an anthology that brings together "twenty of today’s leading thinkers, writers, and visionaries—among them Cory Doctorow, Gregory Benford, Elizabeth Bear, Bruce Sterling, Geoff Landis and Neal Stephenson (not to mention me)—to contribute works of “techno-optimism” that challenge us to dream and do Big Stuff. Engaging, mind-bending, provocative, and imaginative, Hieroglyph offers a forward-thinking approach to the intersection of art and technology that has the power to change our world. " 
Sample a free excerpt on Scribd.
I've spoken elsewhere of the tedious obsession with dystopia that allows so many writers of producer/directors to be plot lazy.  It also spreads a poison, undermining our confidence that dystopia can be avoided, through hard work, good will and innovation. Well, Hieroglyph brings back that can-do spirit that once filled science fiction with a sense of adventure and wonder!
How did writers of the past imagine the future? "The Machine Stops" is a science fiction short story (12,300 words) by E. M. Forster. (November 1909) The story describes a world in which most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual now lives in isolation below ground in a standard 'cell', with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which people conduct their only activity, the sharing of ideas and what passes for knowledge. Read it here:
In a brilliantly cogent essay, the wondrous Nancy Kress explains why her novels so often deal with genetic engineering. And why she almost never does the reflex tech-loathing thing, but tries to show both the good and bad possibilities that have come from every technology since fire.
Which SF books have had the most impact today? io9 offers one reviewer’s list of “21 of the most influential science fiction and fantasy books.
Another list: Ten (Potentially) Great Movies that Failed...with The Postman at the top!
This Kickstarter aims at creating an anthology of age appropriate stories that all kids can identify with. “We have great stories, from a wide range of writers and a diverse set of characters – girls, boys, robots… everyone belongs here! Of the stories we've accepted so far, 80% have female main characters. We don't have girls who are prizes to be won, or waiting to be rescued. All of our heroines and heroes are on their own adventure, not a side note in someone else’s.”
My story “Chrysalis” has appeared in the latest issue of ANALOG Magazine. It portrays a pair of Nobel winning biologists — once upon a time they had been married — exploring the “hidden genome” to find a bizarre discovery… traits that the ancestors of all mammals gave up - possibly for good reason (!) - 300 million years ago.
If I had the self-copier from Kiln People, I would definitely play Civilization V and its coming new offshoot, Civilization: Beyond Earth! See the review on io9. Alas, limited lifespan! So, get thee behind me, Satan…
Plug: For that long summer drive. The audio version of EXISTENCE used Audible’s three best narrators! I helped assign roles and transitions. It is one of the best audio books out there.
Have you heard about Amazon's new e-book subscription service? If you subscribe, be sure to turn at least 10% of the pages of every book you get so that the author gets a royalty. Please SHARE to benefit your favorite writers! — (Passed along from Ransom Stephens)
The 'Rebel' Genre
Here’s a fascinating interview about the underpinnings of science fiction as a literary form. During George Slusser‘s 25-year curatorship, the Eaton Collection at the University of California, Riverside, became the greatest archive of science fiction and fantasy in the world. It contains more than 100,000 volumes, ranging from the 1517 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia to the most recently published titles in all languages. The collection also includes journals, comic books, and 300,000 fanzines.
This interview elucidates many ways that SF remains a “rebel” genre in the halls of academia. Indeed, even in those places where SF is studied and appraised by scholars, it seems that just a few authors - maybe a dozen - are deemed acceptable.
(Aside: at one point George suggests that “…writers like David Brin, Gregory Benford, Robert A. Heinlein are rejected on “politically correct” grounds.” Which I find amusing, since I have probably canceled Greg’s vote in sixteen out of the last twenty elections! (For the last few, Greg has seen the light and now rails against the party of Fox-n-Bush.) Indeed, my politics and overall zeitgeist coincide roughly with those of Kim Stanley Robinson! Though yes, I admit I throw in a Heinleinian libertarian zig and an anti-PC zag or two. As a contrarian, I don’t like polemical prescribers of any ilk. So yeah. That probably accounts for it.)
If literary SF matters do interest you, and you feel centers of excellence like the Eaton Collection are important, then you might read with dismay what SF-author Nalo Hopkinson says about recent attempts to undermine the Eaton and possibly eliminate it.
SF and the Military
All three of the US Army’s competing prototypes for the replacement of the Humvee (the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle) bear striking resemblance to the design that our team came up with in one of the pilot episodes for the 48 hour design challenge show The Architechs… a great program that the History Channel gave a pass on, during their ill-fated transition to becoming the Bigfoot Channel.
I wish you could see the “Humvee Episode” but that one never aired! (Perhaps some brash person will post it anyway — in this case, no one’s economic interests will be harmed.) Four star general Paul Kern (ret) took the episode with him, though, and I hear it was watched closely by all three current design teams.
Our other pilot — coming up with a dozen new ways in and out of burning buildings, was even better!
Ah, but the Army is already thinking science fiction for the next generation. They need … The Architechs!
Space is also for dreams
A lot of the stuff on Daily Kos is — well — left-wing tendentious. But this story - if true - is worrisome: “Teacher Incarcerated For Writing Science Fiction.”  Okay, his self-published novel was about a school shooting, 900 years from now. And the Kos story tells us nothing about the details: e.g. whether the scenes might be perverted enough to indicate an unbalanced mind. Still, on the face of it, this sure sounds like something truly silly is going on.
​I’ve written many varieties of super-short stories, e.g. those that are precisely 250 words. My six-worder was the lead story in WIRED’s spread of 6 word tales. (It had three scenes, action, conversation and pathos!)
Now see a site offering chilling Two Sentence Horror Stories! 
(Here are the six-worders:
Watch out next year for DARK ORBIT by the up and coming talent Carolyn Ives Gilman.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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