Just happened to turn on Blade the TV series, and there was a character who looked just like Hillary Clinton, in intensive care, which seemed oddly apt. Anyway, that’s enough reading American political commentary from random pulp gleanings; instead, I’m going to turn to reading the future from random SFnal conversations, which I suspect will be more rewarding.
Or rather, not so much reading the future as – having spent Saturday at the very stimulating and really most excellent PicoCon – pondering why science fiction’s utopian ways can actually be read as working against any sort of future (or at least, cultural survival) at all.
SF is a literature of ideas, granted – but those ideas are for the most part expressed in things. Scientific principle does not good drama make; but scientific principle expressed through giant shiny space ships, galaxy spanning comms technology, nifty hi-tech gizmos, groovy talking robots, astonishing weapons of all shapes and sizes, consciousness capturing silver tubes and so on rocks – I think many will agree – like an out of control battleship.
And that’s problematic, because it opens a profoundly consumerist trap which SF all too often falls into. Narrative advancement happens when things are acquired or used – so, characters go on an odd kind of galactic shopping trip to assemble the scientific-theory expressing things they need to advance to the next level.
Let’s take a random selection of different SF stories, and see how they look read in that way. Star Wars? Luke gets mature by acquiring his own spaceship, coming across like a suburban teenager spinning around in his first car (in that context, ‘reach out with your feelings’ becomes one of the greatest chat up lines in history, a precursor to the magnificent sperm-and-egg meeting sequence that is the torpedoing of the Death Star; Luke heading home afterwards bathed in a post-orgasm glow much like his suburban self after a fantastic snog at an all night party in someone else’s holidaying parents’ house – ‘I can’t remember her name, but MY GOD THE HEAVENS EXPLODED!’)
Or, at the more serious end of things – Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last and First Men’. Unstoppably cosmic in both aim and execution, and the work of one of the very few dazzlingly authentic visionaries to grace either SF itself or (in fact) 20th Century fiction in general, it does however still define future versions of man largely in terms of the *things* they make and use, and the problems they have making and using those things.
Well, I’m not going to carry on, because it’s late and I’m tired. And, reading back over the Star Wars bit, staying up too late last night to watch ‘Conan The Destroyer’ until the Bit With The Animated Ghost Pteranodon has clearly done odd things to my understanding of SF. And, of course, two examples do not a thesis – or even a trend – make.
But nonetheless I think the argument’s an interesting one to ponder. Stated simply, it would be: Science Fiction is a literature of technology. Technology is incarnate in useful things, made to achieve certain clearly defined goals. So, the acquisition and manipulation of such things to achieve personal advantage will be key to the action of many SF plots.
That’s very close to the consumerist worldview – ‘buy this thing, and your world will improve through its agency’ – and it’s also the point that makes me wonder how constructive a role SF as it currently works can play in the great world saving debates of the years to come.
Beyond politics, we’re facing a species crisis; global warming. That crisis has come about largely because we like making and using things. Not content with an un-utilised world, we’ve instrumentalised everything we can lay our hands on and – a direct result of our great technological prowess – completely buggered up the world.
In this context, how useful is a fiction largely predicated on – er – making and using things? Not such a positive presence, I would suspect, but that very negativity opens up fascinating possibilities for the future of scientific fiction.
Far from being a propaganda of triumphal instrumentalisation, an eco-conscious scientific fiction could come to embody a kind of instrumental minimalism, showing how we can create viable futures rooted in a use of less, rather than more, to achieve our ends – and with that could come a corresponding re-definition of what those ends could be.