I think everyone should be writing a science fiction novel. I don’t mean this in the same way you would say, “everyone should eat yogurt” or “why didn’t more people watch The Wire?” (though, if you haven’t, you should stop reading this, and go watch the first season… no, really, go now.) I mean very literally, as a matter of social and political necessity, everyone should be working on a novel about the future.
So it’s always a wonder when I mention to others that I’m doing just this that they give me that “aw, isn’t that nice” look one gives to a child that burped. Or they get a wistful look in their eye, and talk about how they used to love reading science fiction novels. Used to. When they were really young.
I guess I’m just taken aback, since I thought we’d progressed from the whole “scifi isn’t real literature” debate of past decades. Hasn’t anyone read Neuromancer for crying out loud!? Some Philip K. Dick!? Freaking China Mieville!? (okay, granted the latter is not a scifi writer in the traditional sense, but I’ll get to that below)
Now, I’m not trying to argue scifi should be included amongst the world’s compendium of great literary forms. That’s not what I’m saying at all.
I’m saying scifi is THE literary form of the 21st Century.
I have my reasons.
Or Should I Say Spec Fic
Before I get into that, though, I should qualify my above remarks. The thing is I’m not actually writing a science fiction novel. Sure it takes place in the future. There are aliens. There are technological advances. Unfortunately, I don’t have the kind of science geek cred needed to churn out what most diehard scifi fans these days would call “hard scifi.” Think Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or, my personal favorite, Stanislaw Lem. These guys were practicing scientists who paid careful attention to the technological details of their work, and let their stories develop from that wellspring of knowledge. I’m lucky if I can figure out where the on switch is on my computer. My brain is a not an encyclopaedia of weird factoids about new tech or the strange things that happen when you whozamacallit a quark with a thingamajiggy. For those generous and much loved few of you who have read my previous posts you might’ve noticed I’m more interested in the politics of a thing rather than its technological specifications.
What I’m writing is more specifically a “speculative fiction” novel, so the title of this article should be “Why Spec Fic is the Future,” but then I would need a footnote attached explaining to those not in the know that spec fic is a larger category encompassing everything from scifi to fantasy to magical realism to all that crap about vampires. Problem is, I don’t know how to do that on this blog platform (see paragraph above about my skills with tech), and, honestly, “Why Scifi is the Future” has better punch to it.
The term “spec fic” came into circulation after writers really started to fuck with the line separating the real and the imaginary. They began to mix genres like historical fiction and scifi (think steampunk), fantasy and the contemporary (urban fantasy), and everything else (China Mieville). Iconic cyberpunk figures like William Gibson started writing scifi about the present; Neal Stephenson took his acute sense of the absurd and fantastic, and focused it on the past; meanwhile literature moved and shifted under the powerful presence of the magical realists – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Saramago, and the ever difficult to categorize, Murakami Haruki.
Writing the future has no longer become just about projecting our technological fantasies a thousand years ahead. With the tech revolution, and biogenetic advancements, all our science fiction dreams of the past seem to be coming true. Anyone who has taken a walk down Yasukuni dori in Shinjuku has seen for themselves that our former images of the future live with us in the present. If you try to think of scifi in terms of its content and its look, then it becomes hard to distinguish scifi from some of the more cutting edge contemporary fiction novels. Of course, writers are doing this on purpose, because where’s the fun if you can’t screw with reader expectations?
This fading line between images of the present and those of the future should indicate to us that scifi and now spec fic were never fundamentally about the content – weird tech toys, spaceship chases, and battles with aliens. Science fiction was always all about the form of a very particular desire.
A colleague of mine, Dr. Baryon Posadas, working at the University of Minnesota, does research on science fiction. He said something about the genre at a conference a few years back that has stuck with me ever since. To paraphrase a much more complicated and compelling argument, science fiction is not just about flights of fancy and technological speculation; the writing of science fiction itself, Dr. Posadas told a crowded room, speaks to the form of a desire:
The desire to think the future.
This is what speculative fiction is all about, and why I think everyone should be writing a scifi or spec fic or cyberpunk or whatever novel. Because right now the speculative registers in all other fields – economics, politics, law – have turned bankrupt; we’re just rehashing old tunes over again ad nauseum. Spec fic writers seem the only ones left still fanning the fires of a belief that the future is not yet written.
But that flame is dying out.
A Short History of Imaginary Speculation
Our speculative desires are being asphyxiated under the weight of contemporary global imaginings, to the extent that we it seems necessary to replace our “post-modernism” and “post-structuralism” monikers attached to the last few decades with a much simpler name: call it the Age of Cynicism. Our futuristic imaginings have turned us all into nutjobs toting sandwich boards announcing that the end of the world is nigh. As Slovenian pop-philosopher Slavoj Zizek has written, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – ecological collapse, economic imbalance, biogenetic revolution, and exploding social divisions – have arrived. We can’t seem to imagine the future without them. Our only hope seems necessarily to involve a violent journey through global collapse, but even the hope at the end of that tunnel seems desolate if you take your cue from the post-apocalyptic mumbo jumbo coming down the Young Adult pipe these days. Not that scifi hasn’t always had a bleak view of the future. From Mary Shelley’s gothic tale of the dangers of biological experimentation in Frankenstein to H.G. Wells’s tale of a future violently divided between the haves and havenots in The Time Machine, early science fiction has always treated technological advancement with a fair degree of skepticism.
So what’s different today? You know what I’m going to say…
It’s all about the politics, baby. All about the politics.
The Birth of Scifi here and elsewhere
19th Century writers wrote visions of the future with a sense of horror and surprise towards the possibilities that technological advancement held, but they did so as counterpoint to an emergent realism that was just as fascinating and disturbing to behold. The antagonist of these early speculations was always a too laudatory belief in the emancipatory powers of the enlightenment’s rationalist principles. Frankenstein reads like a critique of the vulgar rationalisms of its time. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth weaves a consistent critique of scientific dogma, while The Time Machine provides a horrifying vision of the future in which market rationalizations eventually transform a subjugated proletarian class into a cannibalistic, subhuman mob.
In every one of these early stories, the hero returns home with a new-found sense of responsibility towards the future. The message was clear: these fates were not inevitable.
The apocalypse could be avoided, because the future wasn’t written in stone.
We can understand why a sense of the future was experienced as such in the 19th Century. This was a time of experimentation in all intellectual fields. Market logic and capital were still new toys for the powerful to play with (usually at expense to colonial subjects). Nationalisms were in their developmental stage having yet to settle themselves in the wake of what historian Eric Hobsbawm has called the “Age of Revolution.” Meanwhile, capitalism would find itself under consistent attack by its most ferocious enemies, Marx, Dickens, Wallace, Proudhon, etc. New dreams of the future would not only emerge from these critiques, but these dreams were suffused with the potential to become real, practiced social and political forms. Our socialisms and communisms came from a real sense of the political and economic possibility born from the imagination, because the world was still a place in which its future was not yet given.
Speculating about the future wasn’t just about going on a flight of the imagination. It involved embarking on an adventure whose risks were real, because thought and ideas at the time had the habit of turning into real practices.
Then came the Wars
So what happened to this time of real political potential? Nationalisms became fascisms, and technological experimentation gave birth to violent war. So came the age of militarism. Our contemplations about the future ended their experimental stage with a series of violent global upheavals. Suddenly, the what ifs of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, along with the Amazing Stories of Hugo Gernsback were transformed into tales of intergalactic war and battles with alien races. In the aftermath of world wars, there was little left but anger and regret to fuel the next generation of writers. Joe Haldeman, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, and Brian Aldiss lead the field in the post-war age with new tales of a future defined by militaristic regimes that only knew how to deal with other alien races through violence. The Utods, Taurons, Bugs and Buggers confronted us with allegories of our violent colonial and militaristic pasts. Yet still, there was the hope that something could be learned from these tales. The critique of war was thought to be enough to shake us from repeating the mistakes of our shared and imagined futures. The desire to think the future held strong.
Then the wall came down, and all hope was lost.
The Rise of Cynicism
1989. Communism fails. Socialism becomes the baby with the bathwater of the communist project, and capitalism overcodes the globe with its profit driven ideology. This didn’t seem such a bad thing if you were a white collar worker in a developed country, and for a moment everyone seemed on their way to becoming part of that growing middle class. Who needed an alternative to capitalism if we could all get rich quick together?
Unfortunately, if you were from one of those “other countries” or a blue collar worker looking for your next shift, you were basically fucked. That was okay, though, because these voter categories didn’t have the numbers to win elections. Then those weird tales about holes in the sky, and strange chemicals in our aerosols just wouldn’t go away. Suddenly all the factory work was shipped to some dingy warehouse in otherwhere that had looser labor laws. But what did we care? We were too preoccupied in our fascination with the tech revolution, the rise of celebrity deities, and failure porn.
There was an energy crisis. A crash here. A market downturn there. Japan struggled to wipe the gunk off its lapels from its burst bubble, but we knew they’d turn things around. They’d done it before. And who needed that Chinese wall between investment and commercial banking, anyway? Deregulating the banks would introduce who new levels of liquidity into the markets, and we’d all get even richer than before. Well, some of us did. Roughly, one percent of us.
If only it hadn’t been for that second Bush. We could’ve recovered from one. But two? If Harry Seldon from the Foundation trilogy had tried to write his psycho-history around the Bush years, he would’ve tossed up his hands in despair. No one could’ve predicted their way around that level of incompetence and demagoguery. By the time the dust settled, it was too late. We realized the honeymoon phase of our monogamous marriage to capitalism had ended a while back without our noticing, and those pics we would sometimes bring out to remember the good old days had faded to yellow squares of blank, sickly despair.
We were trapped in a present we’d forgotten how to escape. “Yes, we can” became another rhetorical device to get one more Wall Street mouthpiece elected. We woke up from our dreams of riches to discover that capitalism was everywhere, and it didn’t like most of us. Meanwhile, there was no longer any outside to which we could aim our dreams and hopes for an alternative future. Somewhere along the way we’d lost the path to that playground of our political desires and imaginings.
In scifi and spec fic the absence of an outside has become pronounced. Where once we wrote about bleak futures so we could return to a present that wished for its alternatives, now we start in bleakness – in dystopic misery or post-apocalyptic horror or worse, middle American bourgeois hell! – and the only returns allowed are normally the paltry ideological return to old archetypes: Christian love (Twilight), liberalism (The Hunger Games), or a stable market economy (everything else). The problem is so bad and pronounced, it’s now the running joke amongst intellectuals that it’s easier for everyone to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capital. Look at any post-apocalyptic novel, film, whatever of the last decade or so. You’ll always find a market driven economy in there somewhere. What you will not find is a legitimate alternative to the present.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, what did we get from our best and brightest economists? Reformism reformism reformism. “We just need to fix capitalism,” they told us, “We just need a kinder capitalism, an eco-capitalism, techno-capitalism, a return to well-regulated capitalism.” If anyone didn’t believe that old nugget that capitalism had no outside, the reaction to the 2008 financial crisis proved it without a doubt.
Meanwhile, in the absence of alternatives, the wolves are running the streets quite content to implement their “solution” to whatever problem anyone wants to put forward.
Because the truth was no one has any idea what to do, because we’ve lost our ability to think radical political, social, and economic alternatives. Global capitalism robbed us of our ability to think the future by giving us desire itself. We were free to buy, free to love, free to desire, and in all that freedom, we forgot the most important freedom of all. The freedom that is the future.
Yet all is not lost. Though in content we may have lost our ability to imagine a new destiny, the desire still remains. And that desire, the form that gives expression to that desire is all we need.
That form is called speculative fiction.
As much as I may cringe or get frustrated reading the Suzanne Collinses and the Veronica Roths of the literary world, I still do it with a level of respect, because at least they are putting their money where their mouth is. They’re not bogging themselves down with theoretical timidity. They may be trapped in the old ideologies of liberalism, religious zealotry, or straight out vulgar objectivism, but their desires are aimed in the right direction.
Besides, when there is no outside, none of us can escape the hold of ideology. The point is to create a form to desire that will constantly look to exceed us and our tendency to cling to older forms.
The New Explorers
What we need right now are brave adventurers willing to explore the future as a complete unknown despite all the inherent risks that the journey might involve. We need people who are willing to take that gambler’s leap from the comfort of the now into the chaos of the “to come” with the hope that something unthinkable will return with us from that trip.
Science and speculative fiction writers, despite the current plague of cynicism that infects the genre, make that adventure into danger and hope their milieu, but right now they’re not enough. We need to turn speculation into a movement. We need to mobilize a generation, a population of thinkers willing to risk it all for the chance to make the future their playground once again. Otherwise, it means accepting the future as our communal graveyard.
So that is why I am writing a speculative fiction novel. Not because I think I can change anything, but because I feel I have no choice in the matter.
Because thinking is wishing, and what we need right now is the wish to escape the violence of our apocalyptic dreams.
What we need pure and simple is the future, and we need to start rewriting that future right now.
Sean Callaghan received his doctoral degree from the University of Toronto, and now spends his time in Vancouver with his wife, duaghter and guinea pig working the 9 to 5, reading crap he actually wants to read, writing in his off time, and planning for the new world… one book at a time.
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