Science Fiction Repair Shop: The Future Is A Hodgepodge

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-09-11 21:00:00 No comments

Purchase on Amazon

In Philip K. Dick's Ubik, there is a riotous moment where one of the main characters, whose credit rating is abysmal, has to pay five cents every time he wants to open his apartment door. Low on change and fed up, he grabs a screwdriver and starts to dismantle the door lock. The door threatens to sue him. What's best about this moment is how Dick probably just tossed it out over his shoulder.

That's in line with the way Dick worked generally, since he wasn't big on creating thoroughly thought-out, systematically assembled future visions. His visions were more intuitive and personal, and so his worlds consist of aggregates of these kinds of mini-observations. (See his speech "How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later" for more on this.)

It's similar in spirit, but functionally the opposite, of the likes of Cory Doctorow. He too would have these collections of mini-observations — e.g., children's toys with malfunctioning DRM — but they were more aggressively organized around a systematic worldview and a starting set of observations about what our future was.

Dick's storytelling seems more suited to living in the future than Doctorow's, even if the latter author has individual details that are more spot-on. Doctorow got a lot of things technically right, and continues to do so, but Dick got them emotionally right first, and sometimes technically right as a side effect. He had more to say about how this stuff feels, and how to counter it, than Doctorow seems to ever have to say. I don't think this means Doctorow's work is bad, just that this emotional component in Dick's work — this inward, gut-feeling component — is rare, and I celebrate it whenever it appears. I also think it means Dick's work will age less badly than Doctorow's, because human nature and aspirations change far more slowly than anything else.

I never felt science fiction was really in the business of predicting the future so much as it was in the business of teaching us how to live in the future. The former is about specific details; the latter is about strategies, worldviews, sentiments. The latter may still have specific details, but they're handled in a more colorful, accumulatory way, and that feels more like the world we actually end up with. If there is a "throughline" for our moment in time, it's not something that condenses itself down to the kind of overarching planning found in fiction. Maybe the best representation of that is a fiction that relies less on top-down planning for its vision, and more for intuitive and spontaneous expressions of moment-by-moment experience in that world.

Tags: Cory Doctorow Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Repair Shop science fiction