Science Fiction Repair Shop: Future Schlock, Pt. 2

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-04-01 21:00:00 No comments

Last couple of months I've touched on the idea that SF's main purpose isn't to predict the coming of specific things, but to understand how we might respond to them whatever they are.

One of the books I read over the last month or so that reinforced my feelings on this issue was Karl Popper's The Poverty Of Historicism, a prelude of sorts to The Open Society And Its Enemies. Historicism was a compressed version of the same argument: making prophetic claims about the course of human history, especially by way of claims to inevitability or destiny, is bad science and bad history. We don't know exactly what's going to happen, and even if we did, we don't know what kind of people we'll be when we run up against it.

Some time back I came across a blog post that saw Silicon Valley techno-utopianism as being precisely the kind of thing Popper warned us about. Actually, even before that, there was Patrick Farley's wonderful webcomic The Guy I Almost Was, where a hapless twentysomething realizes all his OMNI-magazine-fueled anticipation for a future where nobody works and everything is cyberboticized was a ghastly delusion -- and that his biggest mistake was in assuming he wouldn't have to do anything to bring it on, just survive long enough to inhabit it. I had a lot of this myself when I was younger, but it was always tinged with the sense that even if it did come to pass, I would probably never be able to afford it.

Most of the SF or near-SF I've seen that tries to extrapolate Silicon Valley utopianism tends to revolve around a couple of basic points of view: This Is Inevitable And Terrible (Super Sad True Love Story; The Circle), or This Must All Be Burned Down (pretty much everything by Cory Doctorow). I'm not crazy about either approach, because they both seem more interested in these problems as pop sociology or politics, rather than fiction. They make for good polemics, but bad storytelling. (I blame some of that on the impoverished state of modern fiction generally, where the mere inclusion of an idea is somehow regarded as a discussion of it.)

If we are told that a commercial surveillance state that we joined willingly is bad, or that the future we've been promised is not the future we're going to get, that's one thing, but how we deal with that as people is going to be entirely another. Nineteen Eighty-Four worked because it gave us Winston Smith and Julia as specific cases, not just the general case of Big Brother or Airstrip One.

Tags: Karl Popper Science Fiction Repair Shop history science fiction