By Luther Blissett and J. F. Sebastian of Arkesoul
A few years ago, Neal Stephenson wrote a widely-shared article called Innovation Starvation for the World Policy Institute. He began the piece lamenting our inability to fulfill the hopes and dreams of mid-20th century mainstream American society. Looking back at the majority of sci-fi visions of the era, it’s clear many thought we’d be living in a utopian golden age and exploring other planets by now. In reality, the speed of technological innovation has seemingly declined compared to the first half of the 20th century which saw the creation of cars, airplanes, electronic computers, etc. Stephenson also mentions the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Fukushima disasters as examples of how we’ve collectively lost our ability to “execute on the big stuff”.
Stephenson’s explanation for this predicament is two-fold; outdated bureaucratic structures which discourage risk-taking and innovation, and the failure of cultural creatives to provide “big visions” which dispute the notion that we have all the technology we’ll ever need. While there’s much to be said about archaic, inefficient (and corrupt) bureaucracies, there’s also a compelling argument invoked over the cultural importance of storytelling and art and how best to utilize it. One of the solutions offered by Stephenson, in this regard, is Project Hieroglyph which he describes as “an effort to produce an anthology of new SF that will be in some ways a conscious throwback to the practical techno-optimism of the Golden Age.”
While Project Hieroglyph may be a noble endeavor, one could argue that it’s based on a flawed premise. The role of science fiction has never been just about supplying grand visions for a better future, but to make sense of the present. There seems to be an assumption that the optimistic Golden Age had a causal relationship with a perceived technological golden age when it may have simply been a reflection of it— just as dystopian sci-fi reflects and strongly resonates with the world today. Stephenson may be correct in his view that much SF today is written in a “generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone”, but this more nuanced perspective does not necessarily signify the belief that “we have all the technology we’ll ever need”. Rather, it reflects decades of collective experience and knowledge of unforeseen and cumulative effects of technologies. Nor does such fiction focus only on destructive effects of technology, as large a component of the narrative it may be simply because it makes for better drama and the subtext is often intended as a critique rather than celebration. For example, the archetypal hacker protagonists of technocratic cyberpunk dystopias employ technology for more positive ends (though some question whether good SF, as in speculative fiction, needs to involve new technology at all).
A particularly positive function for dystopian sci-fi is its use as rhetorical shorthand. It’s increasingly common in public discourse on major issues of the day to invoke dystopian references. Disastrous social effects of peak oil or post-collapse are often characterized as Mad Max scenarios. Various negative aspects of genetic modification and pharmaceutical development conjure Brave New World. Anxiety over out-of-control AI and resultant devaluing of human life brings to mind films as varied as Blade Runner, The Matrix and Terminator films. The expanding police/surveillance state is reminiscent of 1984 and numerous classics which have followed in its footsteps including V for Vendetta and Brazil. General fears of duplicitous, psychopathic power elites and social manipulation have elevated They Live from relatively obscure b-movie to cult classic. The entry of the term “zombie apocalypse” into the popular lexicon may in part stem from fear (and uncomfortable recognition) of images of viral social disintegration and martial law-enforced containment efforts depicted throughout various media. The burgeoning omnipotence of multinational corporations and hackers in Mr. Robot may have been the stuff of cyberpunk dystopias such as Neuromancer and Max Headroom 30 years ago, yet, it still has much to contribute to the public discourse as contemporary drama. Such visions may not prevent (or have not prevented) the scenarios they warn us of but have provided a vocabulary and framework for understanding such problems, and who’s to say how much worse it could be had such cautionary memes never existed?
The prophetic nature of storytelling, inasmuch as it derives from the minds of authors, artists and commentators that coexist with tensions and contexts particular to their epochs, resonate with the oughts, ifs, and whats inherent to our daily lives. As it were, the cautionary element of narrative is a natural product of the human mind, and the premium of what involves sharing our mental reserves to the world. To creatively dwelve and concoct problems and solutions from experience, is an axiom analogous to that of the categorical imperative—purely, and in abstract terms of what rationality involves. Yet, often times, we find material that is in favor of cultural malaise; of all things pathological in our society, such as censorship, conformity, bureaucracy, authoritarianism, militarism, and capital marketing; things which underpin issues that, if left untouched, can engulf the real brilliance of our spirit.
Stephenson fails to see this point. SF, as any form of intelligent culture, denounces and opposes systems of oppression, and even shows us the how, when, and why—the frameworks, the makings of apparent utopias into dystopias. Dystopian storytelling can serve the efforts of downtrodden creators with utopian ideals as effectively as utopian stories can reframe a societal trajectory led by beneficiaries of real world dystopia (though it may be experienced as utopia for a privileged few). SF does not only conjure visions of better futures. They lend us vocabularies and syntaxes to understand, and impede the fallenness of a confused, and ever increasingly isolated humanity. They are languages that pervade our interiorities, and that allow the exterior to change.
At the core, SF is prophecy through reasoned extrapolation and artistic intuition. This is what SF stands for when properly aligned with the subjectivities of the oppressed, and not with the voices of oppression: true testaments of a space and a time; visions of the future that carefully partake in not committing the mistakes of the past; and tools for our personal and collective flourishing.