Word reached my ears recently of a new anthology, Hieroglyph, in which a whole gaggle of SF authors have been called upon to produce bright, shiny, optimistic, smiley-faced visions of the future instead of the dystopian grimdark gloomndoom nowayout stuff crowding the shelves. The way they put it is "optimistic, technically-grounded science fiction stories depicting futures achievable within the next 50 years":
"Why do we end up with the technologies we do? Why are people working on, for example, invisibility cloaks? Well, it's Harry Potter, right? That's where they saw it," he says. "Why are people interested in hand-held devices that allow you to diagnose diseases anywhere in the world? Well, that's what Mr Spock can do. Why can't we?"
The first thing I notice about this whole endeavor is the emphasis on the technical and the technological. Well, that's SF for you, right? Yes, but only in part.
1. There are, two my mind, two modes of SF possible vis-a-vis technology: the techno-positivist model, and the techno-skeptic model. The former is about how great things will be if we only had this or that technology; the latter is about how even if we do have this or that technology, human beings being what they are, will find a way to continue being human and flawed. The former, for all of its good intentions, willfully ignores the complexity of human experience, and sees human existence as being primarily a technical endeavor. I will not say "scientific", because science and technology are not the same things, and I see far more possibility of being humane via science (a mode of understanding) than via technology (a mode of execution).
2. I have grown all the more skeptical of the techno-positivist model as of late because of the way it has been co-opted by a Silicon Valley startup culture that wants to convince us there's an app for everything and that every human problem can be solved in a technical fashion -- e.g., that the way to make money no longer be the root of all evil is to adopt Bitcoin. This kind of thinking is beneath contempt, but it's easy to ignore how foolish it really is when it's being pitched to you in the guise of something shiny.
(Side note: The fact they have Cory Doctorow in the lineup is a dead giveaway as to the politics of the whole matter: who wants to lay odds his story is about a bunch of brave open source-erers fighting evil big gubmit & monolithic corporations? News flash: running Linux and buying 3D printers only puts you in the pocket of a different set of plutocratic overlords. The new boss is worse than the old boss, because you never get around to noticing how bad they really are until it's too late.)
This is why I miss the older guard of SF authors that maintained sharp skepticism about the technological, even when it looked like a good deal -- the Theodore Sturgeons, Philip José Farmers, Philip K. Dicks, and so on. (I'd throw in Kurt Vonnegut as well, even if he might resent the guilt-by-association.) They had lived through entirely too much of that kind of technocratic bull for their own good, and were rightfully suspicious of anyone, no matter how well-intentioned, trying to sell them the future on a silver platter. The way to a better future is not through a better gadget but a better human being, and while the gadgets can be tools to enable that process, they hardly seem like a prerequisite.
The alternative to being bleak, if realistic, is not the naïve optimism of the 1939 World's Fair. But I would rather have the bleak realism of the past than the naïve optimism we have now -- if it comes down to picking one. Not that I believe I have to do that, either, mind you.
Other Lives Of The Mind