By Michael Solana | 29 May 2015
The news is bleak. With Ebola on U.S. soil, we are one infected monkey away from the plot of Outbreak. Russia is threatening to invade the Ukraine. We are blowing things up in Iraq again, where starving children are being massacred. There is overpopulation, and climate change; there is peak oil; there is a truly alarming spike in the diagnosis of autism. We are a society faced with many problems. Things, to put it mildly, could be better. Technology, for its natural inclination toward radical change, is perhaps the only thing that can make them better in a major, scalable way. But in the 21st Century, the average American is overwhelmingly afraid of artificial intelligence, NASA has abandoned its shuttle program, and the tech industry is the new darling villain of journalists across the nation. While innovation has improved our lives in almost every way imaginable, people are more frightened of the future than they have ever been. And after Battlestar Galactica, can you really blame them?
Obviously science fiction is not the cause of the current mess we’re in. But for their capacity to change the way people think and feel about technology, the stories we tell ourselves can save us — if we can just escape the cool veneer of our dystopian house of horrors.
The very real danger here is man’s tendency to look to his illusion for inspiration, which is the foundation upon which we build society.
Science fiction has always built our culture powerful frameworks for thinking about the future. Computer sensors, “electronic paper,” digital newspapers, biological cloning, interactive television, robots, remote operation, and even the Walkman each appeared in fiction before they breached our physical reality. Has there been any major technological advancement that wasn’t dreamt up first in man’s imagination? Simon Lake — American mechanical engineer, naval architect, and perhaps the most important mind behind the development of the submarine — said of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, “Jules Verne was in a sense the director-general of my life.” This was a man who created space travel in the pages of fiction decades before Sputnik, while Arthur C. Clarke imagined satellite communication into existence in 1945, a full 12 years before the Russians fired the first shots of the Space Race. Who invented the cell phone, Martin Cooper or Gene Roddenberry? Who invented the earliest iteration of the computer, Charles Babbage or Jonathan Swift? And the list goes on. Either art is imitating life, or science fiction writers have been pointing to the future for over a century.
So what the hell are we supposed to make of the Hunger Games?
Certainly dystopia has appeared in science fiction from the genre’s inception, but the past decade has observed an unprecedented rise in its authorship. Once a literary niche within a niche, mankind is now destroyed with clockwork regularity by nuclear weapons, computers gone rogue, nanotechnology, and man-made viruses in the pages of what was once our true north; we have plague and we have zombies and we have zombie plague.
People fear that technologies like #ArtificialIntelligence will control us. The reality is that we control and shape the technologies through public investments, regulations and values. We must demonstrate this so that we better connect citizens to science. #ParisPeaceForum pic.twitter.com/BhoEXkFSy8
— Carlos Moedas (@Moedas) November 12, 2018
Ever more disturbing than the critique of technology in these stories is the casual assault on the nature of Man himself. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was people walking through a black and white hellscape eating each other for 287 pages and it won the Pulitzer. Oprah loved it. Where the ethos of punk is rooted in its subversion of the mainstream, famed cyberpunk William Gibson’s Neuromancer is no longer the flagbearer of gritty, edgy, counter-cultural fiction; ‘life will suck and then we’ll die’ is now a truism, and we have thousands of authors prophesying our doom with attitude, as if they’re all alone out there in tinfoil hats shouting at the top of their lungs what nobody else will. Yet they are legion. In the Twenty-first Century, the most punk rock thing that you can be is happy, or — and this is really crazy — “happy ever after.”
To our science fiction novelists in particular, we ask, “What next?”
“One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind,” runs the wisdom of Clarke, as quoted in The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, ironic in that central to Kubrick’s adaptation of 2001 is the story of a homicidal artificial intelligence let loose on a crew of archetypical American Hero astronauts. (But this is Hollywood. Historically, we haven’t expected much from our filmmakers by way of moral substance — which has actually allowed them to surprise us with some regularity. A world without Steven Spielberg, for example, is an undeniably darker place, and J.J. Abrams Star Trek has reinvigorated one of the most powerfully positive stories about the future that has ever been told.) Yet from literature — despite the collapse of publishing, despite the 100-year-perennial argument that “people aren’t reading” — we continue to look for the height of our potential. To our science fiction novelists in particular, we ask, “What next?”
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.
On this road toward Hell we’ve marched for decades now, as if to our doom by the Sirens’ song, there exists another story just beside us, more exciting and new. 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. Artificial intelligence, longevity therapy, biotechnology, nuclear energy — it is in our power to create a brilliant world, but we must tell ourselves a story where our tools empower us to do it. To every young writer out there obsessed with genre, consider our slowly coalescing counterculture, and wonder what side of this you’re standing on. Luddites have challenged progress at every crux point in human history. The only thing new is now they’re in vogue, and all our icons are iconoclasts. So it follows here that optimism is the new subversion. It’s daring to care. The time is fit for us to dream again.
Originally published at www.wired.com on August 14, 2014.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
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