Today’s meaty read is Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future by Jonathan McCalmont.
He’s bitching. Ooo, he’s bitching, that science fiction has decided the future will be infinitely complex and therefore no-one can tell stories about it without dirtying their hands with the fantastic, that capitalism has decided that nothing is sacred and therefore no-one can tell stories about the sacred, and that postmodern culture is just imperialistic cultural theft made acceptable by irony and therefore every story is a western story, no matter what cultural clothing it happens to have pulled off the Ikea customisable module storage unit this morning.
I disagree. Or rather, these features are symptoms of a larger problem, which currently has no solution and we’re mostly arguing about whether there is, or could be, a solution.
(Although to be fair to McCalmont, I wish I could write a put-down like: “genre writers spend their days like performing dolphins… occasionally, a particularly well-trained dolphin receives a celebratory bucket of fish heads in the ballroom of a beige mid-Western hotel.”)
This comes down to rates of change, both now and accelerating into the future. The rates of change we face are unprecedented. I’ve described this before as “post-normal everything” – for a new normality to be created takes time. For a particular set of cultural, economic, social or climatic values to bed themselves down, become a new background and be implicitly and unconsciously accepted as normal requires those values to persist and there simply isn’t time. By the point that a decent fraction of the population accepts a particular set of changed social values as normal, we’re on to another set.
Currently, it seems that capitalism is the only ideology that functions under such rates of change. The particularly US form of capitalism seems to be ahead of the pack when it comes to self-justification, self-strengthening and creating conditions of positive feedback for itself that lead to expansive mode-locking. Equally, the harsh and accelerating rate of change of everything is doing strange things to science fiction – the cultural tool that we have for understanding the change of everything.
When rates of change head towards infinity, then it makes sense for humans to treat the results as fantastic, simply because religion, fantasy, and irrationality are the mental tools that we have for dealing with beings and events far beyond our everyday reality. Sci-fi’s uglier step-sister fantasy gets stick for copping-out and abrogating sci-fi’s responsibility to explore only the possibilities that are grounded in evolutions of this world, but I think that stick is a mistake. Fantastic elements already exist in this world – from the point of view of your stereotyped goat-herder, there’s no functional difference between lightning from Heaven or a drone strike. Equally, the strategic response of said goat-herder to either situation has similarities – engagement with a complex system that has to be engaged with on its own terms and not that of the goat-herder. Hence fantasy works as a tool for exploring the impacts of such rates of change.
At this point I could just go “blah blah Latour blah blah” and take it as read that there are a plurality of different ontological communities, orders, sets of knowledge practices, and institutions. Sadly, that just leads to the singular position that there is no meaning, or rather that that there are a multiplicity of equally-valid stories to be told about the world. That multiplicity leads to a particularly Western ambiguity of choice, an ambiguity that’s perpetual and all-encompassing. It’s an Imperialist stance that denies any meaning by resisting disambiguation down to a singular meaning. Or I could ask: is that ambiguity simply a direct result of commercial pressure to maximise the size of the potential audience by refusing to rule out any ontological position and thus any audience segment?
Fucked if I know.
[TL;DR Summary: SF reviewer thinks that SF is boring because authors are cowardly, lazy, and overly ironic; I think SF is either a confused response to an ever-more rapidly changing world, or ham-strung by Western capitalism’s need to justify itself, or both at the same time.]