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From Issue #57 December 4, 2014

Dashing Utopian Yarns

The future arrived when we weren’t looking.

By Eileen Gunn Twitter icon 

Science fiction and the science on which it’s based have long had a dynamic relationship — sometimes nurturing, sometimes oppositional. “Where are our flying cars?” became a plaintive cry of disappointment as the millennium arrived, reflecting the prevailing mood that science and technology had failed to live up to the most fanciful promises of early 20th-century science fiction.

Stories set in the future are often taken for being about the future, and, if they are sufficiently dire or wondrous, are considered warnings or predictions. SF novels that examine our present ethical concerns about human progress and regress — ubiquitous computing, genetic manipulation, climate control — will be judged, as time passes, merely on whether they “came true” or not.

Science fiction’s predictive score is not particularly high, and depends more on its sheer multiplicity of ideas than on carefully extrapolated technological marvels. Sometimes the most startlingly contrarian ideas are the ones that come true: it is difficult now to understand how wild and paranoid Philip K. Dick’s visions of the future seemed 50 or 60 years ago, before reality bent and assumed their shape.

But it is not the task of science fiction to predict the future. Rather, SF gives us a way of thinking about humanity as a work in progress and contemplating what we might become. Science fiction proposes and examines possible futures, it extrapolates from contemporary problems and trends, but what it illuminates is the present.

Why do creative writers — writers whose objective is to explore the human heart in conflict — set stories in the future? And why do readers want predictions? I asked a few influential science-fiction writers and educators to consider those questions and more.1

Whose reality is it, anyway?

SF writer William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace” — and will never be allowed to forget it — explains why people want to judge science fiction on its predictive capability. “I take it for granted, both as a reader and a writer of SF, that one aspect of the potential pleasure of the text may be pretending to believe the future as presented is a likely outcome. This might be more generally true with extremely negative outcomes, as we seem to produce more dystopias than utopias. We don’t have much of a cultural expectation of dashing utopian yarns.”

Ursula K. Le Guin suggests that the future is a laboratory for thought experiments. She says, “The future is, factually speaking, a completely empty region, where anything at all can be said to happen without fear of contradiction from a native. The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in.”

Le Guin points out that a lot of stories marketed as science fiction are not about science. “Much SF involves no extrapolation of scientific or technical ideas at all; it is a means of thinking about reality, a method. The method of the storyteller is a good deal older than the scientific method. They co-exist in perfect harmony, but even in SF they overlap only to a very small degree.”

Ted Chiang, perhaps the most purely philosophical writer working in the field today, says that science fiction is especially well suited to “asking philosophical questions; questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how do we know the things that we think we know. When philosophers propose thought experiments as a way of analyzing certain questions, their thought experiments often sound a lot like science fiction.”

There is no denying, however, a connection between technology and science fiction. We’re still waiting for our laser-powered space elevator and our light-driven intergalactic spaceship, but these are projects that technologists take very seriously. Jordin Kare, an astrophysicist at the Seattle-based company LaserMotive, who has done important practical and theoretical work on lasers, space elevators, and light-sail propulsion, cheerfully acknowledges the effect science fiction has had on his life and career: “I went into astrophysics because I was interested in the large-scale functions of the universe, but I went to MIT because the hero of Robert Heinlein’s novel Have Spacesuit, Will Travel went to MIT.” Kare, an active science-fiction fan, adds, “Some of the people who are doing the most exploratory thinking in science have a connection to the science-fiction world.”

Over the past few decades, a trend has grown among technologists and educators to invite science fiction writers to come speak to them as futurists. Microsoft, Google, Apple, and other high-tech firms sponsor lecture series in which SF writers give talks to employees and then meet privately with developers and research departments. Scientists sometimes seek to collaborate with writers to explore ideas and to predict possible pitfalls in large-scale adoption of new technologies.

Corporations now regularly hire SF writers to create fictional prototypes, thought experiments, and what-if stories about potentially marketable products. Novelist Cory Doctorow, who has created these design fictions for such clients as Disney and Tesco, says, “I really like design fiction, prototyping fiction. There is nothing weird about a company doing this — commissioning a story about people using a technology to decide if the technology is worth following through on. It’s like an architect creating a virtual fly-through of a building.” Doctorow, who previously worked in the software industry, has seen both sides of the development process. “I’ve been in engineering discussions in which the argument turned on what it would be like to use the product, and fiction can be a way of getting at that experience.”

Le Guin, however, holds that fiction, as a creative endeavor, necessarily sets limits in how it depicts reality. “All art consists of limitation and exclusion as well as invention and creation. To a writer, ‘the future’ is not only a laboratory but a blank canvas on which to paint possibilities, non-existent but possible or plausible realities, contained within the limits of the canvas (the metaphor).”

And reality itself sets some limits: Le Guin warns against taking science fiction and its metaphors too literally. “I think it a mistake to assume that SF is all about ideas. To reduce SF to the presentation of problems and solutions, or to confuse imagination with extrapolation, is grotesquely reductive.” Fiction, she says, has its own rules, and they are not necessarily scientific. “Fiction isn’t an external ornament applied to make an idea attractive, to ‘deliver a message.’ On the contrary, it often exploits an idea to generate a story. Where the scientist and engineer think literally, the writer thinks metaphorically, and to take metaphor literally is both naive and dangerous.”

Building dystopia from the normal

Science fiction sometimes seems more surreal than extrapolative. Philip K. Dick’s work, in which daily life becomes very strange, is probably the best-known example; Rudy Rucker calls his related mode of altered reality transrealism. In this kind of SF, strangeness infuses the normal, and transforms it. When you finish the story, you take a bit of its strangeness with you, and the normal is never quite normal again.

One of the joys of reading science fiction is that we are tossed into an incomprehensible world that eventually resolves into meaning. It’s a microcosm of the human experience, except that you can figure it out and resolve your adventure within a few hundred pages. Even what’s now called “dystopian” fiction, such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, in which the world is measurably less pleasant than middle-class American life, generally narrates a story in which the protagonist struggles within its grim world but eventually triumphs. American science fiction is an optimistic genre: hard work and suffering tend to pay off, at least for the protagonist.

Science fiction, dystopian or not, can prepare its readers for change and for the shock of the new. Change is a human condition: individual lives hold the possibility of sudden, hugely disruptive events: wars, floods, volcanoes; deaths and births. Civilizations change more slowly, but they too change. As William Gibson famously put it: “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

In the far-reaching novels of the late Octavia E. Butler, which have earned an audience well beyond the genre, future humans are changed permanently, irreparably, by forces beyond their control. In Essence magazine in 2000, Butler directly addressed the issue of science-fiction that is too predictable.

How many combinations of unintended consequences and human reactions to them does it take to detour us into a future that seems to defy any obvious trend? Not many. That’s why predicting the future accurately is so difficult.

Some of the most mistaken predictions I’ve seen are of the straight-line variety — that’s the kind that ignores the inevitability of unintended consequences, ignores our often less-than-logical reactions to them, and says simply, ‘In the future, we will have more and more of whatever’s holding our attention right now.’

Butler, who died in 2006, never took the easy way out of a prediction: the strangeness of her vision and the willingness of her protagonists to deal with inevitable, generally dystopian, change are both terrifying and comforting.

Stories help us make sense out of the world — they give it order, and a sense of causality: one thing leads to another. Certainly one of the things that science fiction does best (and, sometimes, worst) is tackle big problems and suggest big solutions, while telling a briskly paced story. By examining in detail imminent problems such as climate change, overpopulation, and ubiquitous surveillance, a narrative — a novel or a story — can suggest ways in which those problems can be dealt with.

Author Kim Stanley Robinson has consistently taken on big science-fictional topics: alternate worlds, alternate history, utopia, dystopia, nuclear war, ecological disaster, climate change, the future, the past, terraforming Mars, daily life in the inner planets, longevity, and what it means to be human. Robinson does not succumb to the sin of despair, and he works his solutions out in complex, realistic, well-researched scientific detail. His novels address important problems that are here now and will get much worse in the future if we don’t deal with them, but I wouldn’t call his work dystopian, and neither would Robinson.

Use the word utopian. That’s the obvious opposite of dystopian. This ‘big idea’ semi-synonym for ‘utopia’ is an attempt to dodge politics, and say that the solutions could be all technological ‘big ideas.’ Like what? Rockets? Fusion power? No. It’s really a political and economic problem we’re facing, and novels that portray positive future political and economic situations are called utopias. Don’t dodge this term.

It’s actually capitalism as now practiced that is destroying the biosphere, using tech of all kinds, so if we don’t start describing post-capitalisms, we will never escape the problem. That’s the BIG IDEA — the big idea is post-capitalism, but it’s too big to say without scaring ourselves.

But about dystopias: The Hunger Games is great SF. What SF is for is to represent how people in the present feel about the future. That’s why ‘big ideas’ were prevalent in the ’30s, ’40s, and partly the ’50s — people felt the future would be better, one way or another. Now it doesn’t feel that way.

Rich people take nine-tenths of everything and force the rest of us to fight over the remaining tenth, and if we object to that, we are told we are espousing class warfare and are crushed. They toy with us for their entertainment, and they live in ridiculous luxury while we starve and fight each other. This is what The Hunger Games embodies in a narrative, and so the response to it has been tremendous, as it should be.

Overcoming darkness

In the early part of the 20th century, American pulp science fiction tended to present a positive image of a future in which scientific progress made the world better. By mid-century, after several horrific wars, the invention of the atomic bomb, and its deployment twice against a civilian population, the mood of science fiction had changed. The stories grew dark, nuclear holocaust was a threat that grew worse with “mutually assured destruction,” and science was no longer necessarily the hero.

In the 46 years since the first moon landing, American SF has grown even darker, as the country has been drawn into many additional wars and seen economic power concentrated in the hands of the few. The cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s is generally regarded as dystopian, although William Gibson says, rather ruefully, “I’ve only ever wanted to be naturalistic.”

Dystopian/utopian has always struck me as a pointless dichotomy. I assumed I was being less than dystopian in the 1980s, because I was writing about a world that had gotten out of the Cold War intact. That actually seemed unrealistic to many intelligent people at the time. I am probably a bit less optimistic now, because our new Big Looming Problems seem more profoundly systemic, and our organized responses to them more purely crap.

Stories about vampires and zombies have come to dominate fantasy fiction aimed at young adults; SF novels and movies, aside from the Star Trek franchise, also tend to dystopian settings. The eminent critic John Clute considers present-day literary dystopias to be direct commentary on today’s political climate:

Most of them seem to me to derive in part from the aspect of 1984 that addresses means of thought control, Orwell’s savage demonstration (in advance) of the language our owners use today to hide the Disaster; plus an analysis of power based on the internal coups that translated neoliberal models for the privatizing of the world, for the profit of a few, into a genuine imperial tyranny, in increasing control of the information nexus we suck for our daily permission to continue.

Clute is not sanguine about the political uses of science, and he quotes Bertrand Russell’s prophetic words from 1924: “I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy.” Clute says, “The real fear today is that the world we now live in was intended by those who profit from it, as per above.”

Ted Chiang, like Robinson, argues that there is still a good bit of utopian thinking in American SF. “It mostly takes the form of fiction about the singularity and post-scarcity economics,” he says. “Techno-optimists have gone from thinking that cheap nuclear power would solve all our problems to thinking that unlimited computing power will solve all our problems. But fiction about incredibly powerful computers doesn’t inspire people the same way that fiction about large-scale engineering did, because achievements in computing are both more abstract and more mundane.”

Neal Stephenson, author of over a dozen wide-ranging novels dealing with humans interacting with technology, has had enough of dystopias. He has issued a call to action for writers to create more stories that foresee optimistic, achievable futures. Stephenson, who is also a futurist and technology consultant, wants to read more stories with “big ideas” that will inspire young scientists.

People like Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg and Jim Benford, and others have been carrying the torch of optimism. The dystopian/cyberpunk wave was revelatory, and did a huge service for SF by opening up new lines of inquiry. But I think it had an unintended consequence, which is that it was like crack for movie and TV directors. When you talk to movie directors today, a lot of them seem stuck in a 30-year-old mindset, where nothing can be cooler than Blade Runner. That is the thing that we really need to get away from.

In 2012, Stephenson partnered with the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University to create Hieroglyph, an invitational web-based project that provides, in their words, “a space for writers, scientists, artists and engineers to collaborate on creative, ambitious visions of our near future.”

The first fruit is an anthology, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, published in September, 2014 by HarperCollins with a good bit of fanfare and enviably enthusiastic reviews. Edited by CSI Director Ed Finn and World-Fantasy-Award-winning editor Kathryn E. Cramer, it includes stories by both established and newer writers: Stephenson, Doctorow, Gregory Benford, Elizabeth Bear, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, Charlie Jane Anders, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Karl Schroeder, Annalee Newitz, Vandana Singh, Madeline Ashby, and others.

These are writers already comfortable with science and technology, but the Hieroglyph project is charged with inviting both writers and scientists to “step outside their comfort zone,” as Ed Finn puts it. Readers, too: Finn sees the core audience for the Hieroglyph anthology as people who have never thought about the issues the stories address. “I want them to place themselves in these futures,” he says.

Finn says that innovative, cross-disciplinary ASU has been very supportive of the Hieroglyph project, which is especially satisfying during a time of educational cutbacks and reduced budgets. The project itself was the outcome of a challenge to Stephenson by the visionary educator Michael Crow, the President of ASU, to encourage SF writers to supply visions of positive, buildable futures.

In response to the aforementioned concerns about the ethics of science and technology, Finn stresses that social and ethical concerns permeate ASU’s futurist projects. “Kim Stanley Robinson is already one of the exemplars of this mode of thinking, and he came out to visit ASU last year. Ursula Le Guin has written very thoughtfully about SF’s role in getting people to think about themselves differently.”

The effort to bring together scientists and writers to consider the problems humanity faces is a noble one, and it is gaining traction, but will it accomplish anything? Will governments and technologists unite, once again, to develop the projects that big-idea fiction foresees?

Robinson is optimistic. “I think we’re in a situation where science is allied with government in a good way. Attacks on governments are also necessarily attacks on science, and this just isn’t going to fly, because science is the way forward, the way out of our mess of the moment.”

Stephenson himself is more skeptical. “Actually implementing the sorts of ideas we are talking about in the Hieroglyph stories boils down to getting nerds working on them.” But projects need money, and getting money requires the right person to own and focus on the project intensely for years. “Every interesting proto-project that I know of — and I know of many — is stalled because of the lack of such people. Our civilization needs to make more people like that. I wish I knew how to do it.”

Machines of creation

The MIT Media Lab, a cross-disciplinary research laboratory, is, like ASU, deeply concerned with the scientific imagination, but approaches the issues of technology, science fiction, and the future from a different direction. Rather than seeking to transform science-fiction writers through increased contact with science, it seeks to transform scientists and technology through contact with science fiction.

Founded in 1985 to map new territories at the unguarded border where technology meets media and design, the Media Lab has been described as “a hybrid of art and science.” For the past two years, it has offered a course, Science Fiction to Science Fabrication, that integrates reading and discussion of science fiction with the design and fabrication of devices the stories inspired in the students. The students also examine the ethics of the design process and the potential social impact of their designs.

Media Lab instructors Sophia Brueckner and Dan Novy guide students through a rigorous syllabus that includes a substantial number of the major SF novels, films, games, and short stories of the past 70 years. During that process, the students — Media Lab graduates, architects, comparative media scholars, even a robot ethicist — are expected to create functional prototypes of technologies inspired by their readings.

In addition, the class considers the social and ethical contexts of the technologies they are devising and the unplanned uses to which an invention may be put. For a project inspired by a scene in Gibson’s Neuromancer, students built a device that uses electrodes and wireless technology to enable a user, by making a hand gesture, to stimulate the muscles in the hand of a distant second user, creating the same gesture. The young engineers suggested real-world applications for their prototype, such as physical therapists helping stroke victims to recover use of their limbs. In Neuromancer, the technology is used to exploit people sexually, turning them into software-controlled “meat puppets,” so there was deep discussion among the class about the ethical implications of a device that could be so readily abused.

In Gibson’s deftly turned phrase, “the street finds its own uses for things,” and science-fiction plots frequently concern the misuse of technology to dominate and control. But, says Brueckner, “People whose work deals with common SF topics — human augmentation, wearable technologies, augmented reality, etc. — are often unfamiliar with major related science fiction, although authors may have explored the exact topic in incredible depth for decades. Reading SF can be just as important as reading research papers.”

Novy said he was surprised to discover that many MIT students did not already read SF, but he’s not sure why that’s the case. “I could guess it’s because they’re top students from top schools who have been told science fiction is a form of children’s literature, or it isn’t worth their time. They’ve had to compete so much to get where they are. They may simply not have had time to read, beyond required humanities assignments.”

Both Brueckner and Novy agree that such students suffer. “They finally come to a place where they have the means to make tomorrow, but the tank of ideas is a little wanting,” says Novy. “Professors here at MIT actively insist that students start to think bigger or more crazily.” Reading science fiction, he says, jump-starts a student’s imagination.

Brueckner, who holds degrees in both art and engineering, laments that researchers whose work deals with emerging technologies are so often unread in current science fiction. “With the development of new biotech and genetic engineering, you see authors like Margaret Atwood writing about dystopian worlds centered on those technologies,” she says. “Authors have explored these exact topics in incredible depth for decades. There is an unrealized potential to combine the way artists and writers make meaning, create experiences, and tell stories, with the building of functional technologies. Often people do one or the other, and it’s been a personal mission of mine to combine the two in a meaningful way.”

Novy, a cross-disciplinary researcher with a background in theater and visual effects, sees huge creative potential in recombinant science/fiction. “Ideas begin self-generating, and a PhD project that could change the world could be just a book or a discussion away.”

Samuel R. Delany, one of the most wide-ranging and masterful writers in the field, sees science fiction as a countermeasure to the future shock we all experience, which will become more intense as change increases. “The variety of worlds and situations that science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is some of the best training for thinking about the actual changes — sometimes catastrophic, often confusing — that the real world, the World that is the Case, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called it, funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob-smacked by just such changes. It can also help us understand the problems of different kinds of people, too.”

Science fiction, at its best, engenders the sort of flexible thinking that not only inspires us, but compels us to question our view of the world and consider the myriad potential consequences of our actions. The re-integration of SF into the imaginative lives of scientists and technologists may be exactly what is needed to make Neal Stephenson’s vision come true, while addressing Le Guin’s reservations about ethical concerns in implementing technologies.

A shorter form of this essay first appeared in Smithsonian magazine.

Illustration: A couple being driven in a futuristic electric car that drives on the road, flies in the air, and functions as a boat. Screen print from an advertisement by Rodabaugh, 1952. ©GraphicaArtis/Corbis.

  1. All of the interviews in this article are contemporary with the exception of Octavia E. Butler. Her quotes are taken from her essay, “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future,”Essence, 2000, reprinted at Exit the Apple

Eileen Gunn is a short-story writer and editor. Her most recent collection, Questionable Practices, was published in March 2014 by Small Beer Press. Her fiction has received the Nebula Award in the US and the Sense of Gender Award in Japan, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy awards and short-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr., award. Gunn was editor/publisher of the Infinite Matrix webzine, and served for 22 years on the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop.

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