If I didn't feel before like I was living in a science fiction novel, this year sure clinched that feeling. But not for the reasons you might think.
This isn't likely to come as a massive surprise to anyone, but if I didn't feel before like I was living in a science fiction novel, this year sure clinched that feeling. Not merely because of the pandemic, but because of all the things the pandemic force-multiplied -- the corrosive effects of capital on public spaces; the way we've blithely swapped technology for human potential and come up immeasureably poorer as a result; the way we have all these toys and so few things that actually work. 2020 didn't so much throw us into a dystopian SF novel as it revealed we'd been living in one for quite some time, and only now could we no longer ignore it.
What really got me, though, was the exposure of the distance between the life we were supposed to be leading, and the life we are leading. And with that, I took a good hard look at that feeling: where was it written that things in 2020 were supposed to have been better than this? Who promised us that?
"How come it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a modest change in our economic order?" Let me take a crack at this, including how it relates to SF.
Here's a line you may have heard floating around recently (I think it's from the movie The Pervert's Guide To Ideology): "How come it is easier for us to imagine the end of all life on earth – an asteroid hitting the planet – than a modest change in our economic order?" Let me take a crack at this, including how it relates to SF.
When we can't think our way out of it, that is.
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.
A blueprint for how to do the impossible -- namely, follow up a classic: give it to another artist of vision and stand back.
There was, to my mind, no earthly reason to make a sequel to Blade Runner, any more than there was a reason to make a sequel to 2001: a space odyssey. But they did in fact make 2010: The Year We Make Contact with Arthur C. Clarke, if not with Stanley Kubrick, and it was good although short of great.
And they did in fact make Blade Runner 2049, with screenwriter Hampton Fancher, if not original author Philip K. Dick, and with original director Ridley Scott as producer and Denis Villeneuve in the director's chair. What they delivered stands so comfortably next to the original, and yet with so much of its own to offer, that it suggests a blueprint for how to do such an impossible thing: just give it to another artist of vision, assuming you can find one, and stand back.
How to seek out stories that intelligently confront the moral complexity of the 21st century.
Good essay, great closing lines:
Narrative is not the power to choose outcomes, but it is often the power to tip the scales when someone is hovering between action and despair. You can find hundreds of images of protest signs with lines from Orwell, but a few years ago when Japan hosted a world peace summit, the organizers hung a very different sign in the main hall: “We Must Make a Future That Would Not Make Astro Boy Cry.” So many tools that galvanize resistance come from fantasy and science fiction. We who, with Tezuka and with Le Guin, explore imagined worlds, alternatives, and other ways of being must not narrow that larger reality, not when it has so much power to shape action, hope, or surrender. So let’s keep broadening our broader reality, so we can also broaden the possibilities of this one.
And how we might be able to write about it.
From the afterword to The Late Mattia Pascal, which you really should read:
Life's absurdities don't have to seem believable, because they are real. As opposed to art's absurdities which, to seem real, have to be believable. Then, when they are believable, they are no longer absurd. An event in life may be absurd; a work of art, if it is a work of art, cannot be. It therefore follows that to criticize, in the name of life, a work of art for being absurd and unbelievable is sheer stupidity. In the name of art, yes. But not in the name of life.
-- Luigi Pirandello
Given how absurd things have become, maybe the term "literature of the absurd" is now best seen as a mistaken one. So much about our moment in time makes little sense until you look closely, and realize how the seeds of all that is happening were simply waiting for the right soil to land in.
More on how 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.
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.
This page contains an archive of posts in the category Science Fiction Repair Shop.
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