Not long ago I bumped into a little book called Structural Fabulation, by Robert Scholes (the Internet Library also has it), subtitled "An Essay On Fiction Of The Future". Scholes wrote it in 1975, when as Fred Pohl and Fred Pohl IV put it in a discussion of SF on film, it was a time when SF was not "out", but still not quite all the way "in". The book is an argument not merely for SF as literature, but for SF as a special kind of literature, one particularly suited to helping us live in our world now that it has been irreversibly transformed by both the scientific and postmodern worldviews. It's something that seems like such a truism now, we don't really talk about what it means anymore, but it seems like high time to dust off the idea and give it another close go-round.
Scholes is most admiring of the late great Ursula K. Le Guin (aren't we all?) both for the artistry of her writing and for the totality and scope of her vision. What Scholes comes back to throughout the book is the idea that by thinking of what-if, we can see here-and-now all the more clearly. With every accomplished work of science fiction, we are in essence playing thought experiments with our world, in the guise of a confabulating romp.
This squares with another conceit Paul Krugman brought up: toy models of the world are useful for figuring out how they work, even if they elide details. They let you play with the whole thing, and that lets your imagination move faster and in wider circles than if you just work with it. We need models of the future — near, far, and immediate — that we can inhabit actively, not passively, the better to have something to take away from them for the sake of the world we must live in now.
Some of this, as I type it, would appear to go against one of my own dictates. I've said many times that I'm not fond of the idea of creating things that are intended for someone to "lie down in and go to sleep", as I put it. What I want to put into the world is something that is meant to be taken back out into the world as well. I know I can't guarantee that, but I can certainly avoid things I feel contribute to that: no sequels, for instance (yes, that again, sigh). My audience is always going to do what they will with my work. I have no more real say in that than a weatherman has a say in which way a hurricane will go. Still, all the same, there are choices I make because I feel they reflect my purpose, and one part of that purpose is to get people to reflect back on the rest of their world through what I do. And that fiction is one of the ways to get people to do that in a way that other things can't do.
Scholes makes this same point:
[The future as depicted in John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up], however plausible, is not inevitable. We can do something about it, now, before it is too late. These two novels of Brunner's are educative as only fictions of the near future can be. They force upon to the consequences of our present behavior with a power which no other form of discourse can hope to equal.
And then there's these two grafs, emphases mine. The easy thing to say about their prescience is that Scholes imagined too well what we are living through now, but the harder thing to say is that we have not done well at all since 1975, and have in fact slid back:
In my first lecture, I spoke of the necessity for future-fiction. Let me reiterate that thought in this context. We human beings in highly technological countries are making decisions now that will have inevitable consequences for our children and grandchildren, if we persist in thinking only in terms of our present needs we will leave to these descendants a veritable hell on earth. But how can we avoid this? How can we think of mankind as extending in space beyond the boundaries of our own national interests and in time beyond the boundaries of our own generation? Our governments seem incapable of breaking the circle of chauvinism that surrounds them. In many cases they are more concerned with their own survival in the seam of power than with the well-being of their people. They can't or won't think beyond the next election or the next party congress. The mass media can tell as only of the present, and of that they can capture only those aspects which its their highly reductive formulae for news and information. If we are to break the circle of indifference and act in accordance with a structural perception of the universe, we shall have to depend on the lonely voices of imaginative human beings to bring home to us the implications of our actions. To live well in the present, to live decently and humanely, we must see into the future. And if the people as a whole are to accept the present sacrifices required to enable a bearable future to exist, then they must be made aware of the living reality of the unbearable futures that we must avoid. Those of us privileged by our education to have any sense of the awfulness of our situation are in the position of [Theodore] Sturgeon's man with the bonsai. We must try to work a slow sculpture on our world. No government can save us if the people do not want to be saved.
I am not very hopeful about our ability to rise above present selfishness and direct our culture toward a decent human future. But if there is any hope at all, it will depend on the ability of our men and women of imagination to make us see and feel the reality of our situation and the consequences of our present actions. Truly, where there is no vision, the people perish.
Man hunger for images, as Werner Herzog put it, and without them he starves. What those images are, and where they come from, is not dictated by anything except who gets to deliver them first to a given audience. We live in a world where something like half of the dreamlife of the populace is being fed by a single corporation, and even those who know and hate this state of affairs still pull out their wallets whenever the next Marvelverse or Star Wars offering comes along. They also line up for Kickstarter creations and itch.io indies, but which of those two holds the commanding heights of the way dreams are transmitted to us all? The side channels gave us delights like RWBY and pretty much the entire popularity of anime and manga in the West as we know it, but they have to fight non-stop against the way our dreaming is conducted top-down. And the Disney machine is very adept at pressing individual voices into its service — Taika Waititi comes to mind — but for the sake of advancing its own collective achivements, not anyone else's individual ones. Those we have to do on our own.
How we dream is as important as what we dream about, and it's never been more important that we dream independently, that we let our dreams enrich each other from across the aisle, instead of from the top of the tower down. We can still enjoy the next round of Marvel films, but they have to be in a context where we can see clearly their status as a product, and not as a vision. I don't doubt the folks in the Mouse House want to inspire people as much as any of the rest of us, but they only do this with the master's tools, and so they can never do it in a way that will allow the master's house to be dismantled.
We have never more urgently needed to dream big, and to make those big dreams as contagious and irresistable as possible. We should not let that job fall to the well-meaning, well-funded, often talented, but ultimately hapless few; we, the many, should get to work/play, do it ourselves, and not wait for anyone else to give us the dream we need. We already have it anyway. We just have to let it out.