Sci-Fi: Future Shock Proofing

Can science fiction make the world a better place?

As I’ve discussed before, SF can have a demonstrable impact on the real world in terms of inspiring scientists to develop new technologies. But part of that previous discussion included the potential costs and negative effects of that technology—something SF lit explores in often frightening detail.

Damien G Walter has written a thoughtful and compelling piece for The Ascender Magazine on the way SF serves as a forum for building a better world through imaginative explorations, as, in his words: “…imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world.”

In the overview to The Ascender article on his blog, Mr. Walters describes the two basic audiences for SF as liberal and conservative constituencies, each approaching reading SF with different aims: world-building and escapism, respectively.*

“The increasingly frequent arguments about race, gender, sexuality and other forms of representation in science fiction (I put forward this increasing frequency as a good thing, to be clear) arise at the faultlines where the two constituencies of science fiction meet.”

It’s this social futurism that is often neglected when discussing the predictive aspects of SF writing. Mr. Walters cites excellent examples of progressive SF writers who address sociopolitical issues directly, such as Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is still one of the benchmarks for literature about gender and The Dispossessed made me seriously consider for the first time if an anarchist state might be possible. But there are just as many wacky libertarian-conservative imagined futures like Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistressline marriage anyone?

But I think Mr. Walters really gets at the core of an important idea when he writes about SF as the literature of the imagination:

“The wider message of science fiction isn’t necessarily the content, but rather, the medium itself. If science fiction is the great product of the modern imagination, then it is to the imagination that it directs our attention.”

The individual quirks of a given vision of the future are less important than the act of trying to imagine one. Gay marriage seems downright prosaic once you’ve spent time inhabiting an imaginary line marriage. Star Trek showed the first interracial kiss on television. John Christopher’s The Death of Grass made us confront the possibility of ecological disaster as early as 1956. Beyond predicting the next cool gadget, SF has long helped those of us who embrace the genre adapt to the ever increasing pace of technological and social evolution.

One of the principle benefits of reading a lot of SF is the protection it affords the reader from future shock. If you have imagined—with the help of a good writer—a wide range of possible futures, you’re less likely to be alarmed by new technologies or new social norms.

Vernor Vinge‘s Rainbows End is a great example of near future world-building that examines both the practical and social impacts of emerging technologies. Reading the novel, I shuddered at the (largely metaphoric) book scanning device that devoured whole libraries; felt pangs of sympathy for a character struggling with the displacing effects of anti-aging tech (a possible social cost of looking younger that had never occurred to me before), and vicariously reveled in the potential applications of wearable computing.

Despite the potential downsides of Vinge’s future, I’d be ready for it tomorrow. Bring on the wearable computing and constantly wired life, I’m ready to Google everything I see.

Can SF make the world a better place? The cumulative effect of all these imagined futures on the real world is probably equally dark as light—as many drugged-out cyber terrorists as social progressives might have been inspired by a given piece of SF. But change is indeed the only constant and SF is the only literature that has ever fully engaged with change at all levels.

*Although I would argue that the line he draws between these two goals is blurry at best, isn’t world-building just a different kind of escapism? —maybe a more progressive kind, but still.