On July 8, I wrote about problems in science fiction. I had thought that I was done with that topic, but am I ever done with any topic? Maybe not. Anyway, I had an exchange of email messages with my friend Hlafbrot who is a fan and student of science fiction, and that exchange helped me clarify some of my thoughts. I would like to say thank you to Hlafbrot for putting so much time and thought into his messages to me and for inspiring further thought on this topic of problems in science fiction.
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As I have thought more on it, I see that a distinction can be made between two types of projection, speculation, or extrapolation in science fiction:
First are things that don't change. These are easy to project into the future because what is true today will also be true tomorrow. I'm thinking specifically here of human nature. If you write convincingly about human nature, your story can never be obsolete. Witness the Iliad and the Odyssey, composed nearly three millennia ago and still comprehendible to us today because its people are real. Now, some people believe that human nature is changeable, malleable, or perfectible. This belief in the perfectibility of human beings is what makes the utopian scheme or story seem possible. I think that belief is unfounded, though, as I don't believe that human nature changes, and because of that I see Utopia as an impossibility. It might make for a good story, but it's purely a fantasy, and I think that the characters in a utopian story are unlikely to be recognizable as human beings because of their fully perfected state. (1) Anyway, if you're writing about the people of the future, you can be certain that they will be like us: at the same time angel and devil, noble and base, civilized and savage, loving and murderous, and on and on, just like everybody else throughout history. If you recognize that human beings have an unchanging nature, and you're good with characterization and dialogue, you might write a good story set in the future, regardless of the scientific and technological background of your story. (2)
Second are things that change: science, medicine, technology, culture, government--basically any and every human institution. (The basic principle here might be that anything created by God or Nature is eternal and unchanging, while anything created by human beings exists within Time and is subject to change.) If you try to create a plausible future and you stray towards prediction, I think you're likely to be overwhelmed by the possibility of change. This is what I meant when I wrote that no one can keep up with the many rapid changes going on today or the things that will change even more rapidly in the future. If you try to make predictions, you'll go off course: your story will lose its focus because you're trying to meet the requirements of plausibility instead of the requirements of storytelling. I have been working on a long science fiction story and have completed a first printed draft of it. My story, called "The Shoals of Carillon," is set far in the future when, in actuality, the issues treated in it are issues of today or of the very near future. So I wonder, is my story already obsolete or will it soon be obsolete? Is my story implausible because its projections are likely to prove inaccurate? I hope not. I hope that it's good enough as a story that the reader can ignore its (admittedly) skewed future-chronology.
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In my story, I have reduced the problems treated to just a couple, and I have linked them. As I have already written in this space, I have tried to isolate a certain problem and treat only that problem. I have ignored associated problems, as well as unrelated problems that might logically be a part of this or any future society. One of the problems that I treat is the ever-present danger of the overarching and controlling State. The other is the use by the State of technology to expand and perfect its control over the populace in its grasp. This is, I think, a somewhat conservative idea, but I don't want to hit anybody over the head with it as such. I have tried to keep it subtle and real--a perfect horror not only for the freedom-loving conservative but also for the freedom-loving anybody and everybody. I think the reader will see this problem in the world of today not so much in the threat represented by the State (very often the villain of the conservative-minded person) as in the threat represented by the Corporation (the more likely villain in the eyes of the more liberal- or progressive-minded person). I'm thinking here of the threats--real or imagined--represented by Google (which created and maintains the platform for this blog), Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, and so on. (3) In my story, I have combined the State and the Corporation as an institution called a Unity, which is in control of a fully networked world-society in which there is no separation between the State, the government, the economy, the corporation, the society, and the people as a whole and as individuals. The technological, cultural, and societal mechanisms of tyranny might change in the future, as human inventions and institutions do, but the tyrannical impulse is, I think, a permanent part of human nature, and so I believe it to be unchanging: it will be the same five hundred years from now as it is today. I have built my story around that unchanging impulse and two eternal and unchanging aspects of human nature that will forever be arrayed against it, namely love and the human desire to be free. Ultimately, my story is a love story, and I hope that that fact, if none other, will save it from obsolescence and implausibility.
(1) As I have said before, how does anyone propose to make a perfect society out of imperfect parts? And on those perfect parts, the perfected people of Utopia: Are they not just robots or inhuman monsters? Aren't they really just things that exist beyond and forever separated from us by the uncanny valley?
(2) Some science fiction writers aren't very good at these things. I think, for example, of Isaac Asimov, who seems to have been lacking in the department of characterization. In contrast, Robert A. Heinlein, despite whatever else might have been true of him as a human being, was pretty well guaranteed to write snappy dialogue and to create recognizably human characters.
(3) I recently saw a really terrifying video produced by Google about its plans for what the rest of us could only call Dystopia. And I mean really terrifying. It's called "The Selfish Ledger," and you can watch it on a website called The Verge, accompanied there by an article called "Google's Selfish Ledger Is an Unsettling Vision of Silicon Valley Social Engineering," written by Vlad Savov and dated May 17, 2018, here.
And by the way, Happy Birthday to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who would have been one hundred twenty-nine years old today, had he lived longer than anybody ever (except for maybe some of his characters).
Copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley