environment & politics genre stuff

The Cult Of SF

A couple of interesting debates going on across the blogosphere about the value of science fiction to science. First at Damien Walter’s blog, who challenges us to discuss.

SF doesn’t just show us possible futures, it trains us to anticipate new technology, model how it will impact our lives and exploit that insight.

Second at Cheryl Morgan’s blog:

The Chinese had got the idea that they needed innovation as well as manufacturing expertise, and they had noticed that young engineers in places like Silicon Valley were all science fiction readers. Consequently they decided that SF needed to be encouraged.

But I want to pick out a particularly interesting example in Cheryl’s blog regarding Climate Change:

While I was tweeting about the panel a link came through for this Guardian article about British scientists creating an “artificial volcano” to test out ideas for combating climate change. I showed it to Rachel afterwards, and she was all over it, but I can just imagine what a committed environmentalist like Mark Charan Newton would make of the idea.

I’ll get to that bit!

Not that either Damien or Cheryl were talking about this subject specifically, as I think they both make many agreeable points about the subject.

But it certainly got me thinking about the way SF is discussed, and what I like to call the Cult of SF – that is, the faith in dreaming up Big Ideas. I can understand the need to stress the importance of Big Ideas. It’s what the genre is about, no? But in some cases – such as climate change, as mentioned in the post – this is where your future dreaming will get the world in trouble. A reliance on such visions in this particular example is a terrible thing. To paraphrase what I said in the comments:

There’s so little time to hold back anthropogenic climate change (assuming you accept the unequivocal science in the first place). Leave it too long, and it will be too late to bring back CO2 concentrations to the necessary levels, causing a huge variety of issues that I’ve gone on about many times before. Dreaming up science fiction, Big Ideas, will not address the actual problems of dumping huge amounts of greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere in the first place. Moreover, this SF is diverting attention, political and financial resources away from urgent action. What this also does is play right into the hands of corporate lobbyists who will use it as an argument to delay such urgent action even further, usually to the benefit of [insert polluting organisation here].

Blind faith in science as a solution to our ills, or as some remarkable future dreamscape, can be a dangerous thing. Also, it’s not as though our wonderful Big Ideas don’t come at a cost, such as the monopolising of the food chain. The application of science through reckless corporatism, or by not recognising the practicalities of the real world in the first place, can be devastating. I should also say that what I’ve said above is no more anti-science than being against chemical weapons is anti-chemistry, and nor does it suggest we should put a limit on our ability to imagine. Science fiction is again a wonderful thing; but if we bring it into our culture, I just don’t think we should treat it like a cult of wonder.

The best science fiction, for me, actually realises this; it has a healthy scepticism for the cult of wonder. I guess that is why, for me, M. John Harrison’s or J.G. Ballard’s bleak future visions are among the best SF stories out there. (I especially like the way MJH analysis’s the commercial exploitation of science.) It recognises the corrupting influence of humans.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

12 replies on “The Cult Of SF”

Great post!

I’ve always thought blind faith in “tech will sort us out” is suspiciously engrained in classic right wing political beliefs. Don’t worry about taking care of the now, because sooner or later some (privately funded) genius will sort it out with TECHNOLOGY. (Peak oil, poverty, climate change, etc.)

Anyway, following that, there’s something really interesting about the resurgence of ‘soft’ SF that uses the freedom of genre fiction to explore the social concerns of the now (e.g. Zoo City, anything by China Miéville, Ballard, etc.), as opposed to the long tradition of ‘hard’ SF that uses genre fiction to explore the engineering concerns of the future.

Golden Age stuff is pretty fun to look back at, especially when it treats social problems as engineering ones. Like in Foundation, when Asimov’s generations of interchangeably-named scientific protagonists rebuild civilised society through algorithms.

Hey Jared,

Yeah, absolutely. It’s part and parcel of libertarian thinking, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, n’all that jazz. The *wonders* of the market; only, these days we’re incredibly aware (well, most of the political spectrum is) that there are huge limitations to this of thinking, which is why it seems even more inappropriate for hard SF to continue in that way.

I think I’ve always preferred social SF for just these points. It’s one of the reasons I loved writers such as Michael Coney, who was very good at handling an original concept through a sociological lens. (Recommend his books, btw.)

Growing environmental awareness was, I think, one of the reasons I stopped reading SF after the first flush of cyberpunk – the shine had gone off the rocket ships and robots, leaving only a grim future of corporate exploitation that looked all too believable. I also think it’s one of the reasons for the rise of fantasy, which fulfills our yearning for a simpler time when the environment wasn’t wrecked!

I’m not saying fantasy is any more our saviour than SF (I’m as guilty as any when it comes to nostalgia!), but if Tolkien could fire up the 60s generation with his love of trees and nature, maybe there’s still room in the SFF genre for something that neither glorifies The Big Idea nor encourages us to hide our heads in the sand?

Hi Anne,

Thanks for sharing. That’s a very interesting reason for why you lost interest in the genre. I wonder if it’s the same for other readers. I also agree with what you say there about fantasy readers yearning for a pre-industrial, bucolic aesthetic.

I guess that’s the challenge of SF these days, but I’ve not read a huge number of modern authors to really speak on this front. As Jared points out, it could well be sociological SF – SF with conscience and more cultural awareness – that has to accept the challenge.

Whilst I’m intrigued by the argument, I’m still trying to get my head around the first paragraph … The Chinese government saw a cause and effect relation between SciFi and technological innovation.

The Chinese (already) own most of the world (guess where all the debt we’ve built up ended up), have floods of their (very bright) students infesting technology UK and US universities. My guess is that MIT is a lot like Imperial College London and 30-40% Chinese intake on all the hardcore courses.

Maybe the Chinese powers saw all those red shirts on Startrek and thought, “Well this works!” And not surprising, an intergalactic undemocratic system with resources for all, the abolition of ‘bourgeois’ acquisition and the aspiration to higher goals … oh crap.

On a more serious note, as Maureen McHugh predicted in 1992, we are looking at the end of the start of the next ascendency, with China replacing the US, who replaced the British Empire as a global power.

As has been noted, the English language is already changing its usage under the influence of the far East and near East. The majority of English speakers in India and China will shortly dwarf our contribution from the west – making us the parochial originators of the language (something us Brits have been struggling with for years).

As to the environment, it is not Science Fiction that inspires me, but Science fact. 75 years ago, in the course of 9 years mankind revolutionised its ability to massacre each other from the biplane to the atom bomb. Faced with a similar crisis, our ability to innovate is incredible.

But can we innovate a solution, or are we doomed to create destruction?

Thanks, Graham! Agreed.

Thanks for the comment, Chris. Very interesting points on China and, yes, I’ve been fascinated to watch US debt transfer over to China over the past decade; much in the same way as the US tried to influence the South Asian boom economies, I believe.

I’m not as optimistic about science, however; I mean, we’ve just out-sourced wars these days (i.e. in the Congo), so while we still can’t see it, doesn’t mean the badness is still going on. Sure, there’s no one big SF weapon being used, but that’s more the success of international diplomacy than science, surely?

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