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Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Closer to Truth: Is Science Fiction Science?

This mildly interesting set of three interviews with science fiction writers David Brin, Octavia Butler and Michael Crichton done by Robert Kuhn for the PBS Closer To Truth series includes an interesting thought by Brin:

Talk about anti-globalization -- is it a democratic movement?

Karl Marx was the greatest of all science fiction authors because in the East, where he was taken seriously and followed as a prescription, his effects were actually fairly ineffective at changing humanity in positive directions. It was in the West where his work was read as a plausible scenario for a failure mode, but something happened that he never imagined could happen because he felt contempt for the masses. He never imagined that the masses would read his work and then say, 'Ah, interesting, let's reform this scenario away.' And he never imagined that elites like Franklin Delano Roosevelt would say the same thing. That's the point. The young anti-globalization fellows out there, they are assuming that international law will be controlled by these elites, but their own countries are counterexamples. They should be out there in the streets demanding a place at the table, demanding institutions, doing what the Jeffersonians did when Madison and Monroe were writing 'The Federalist Papers,' acting as the counterbalance, demanding that the people have a say. This is a good role they could be playing. They're not doing it.

What's going to be our failure mode, if we have one?

Failure modes are a fascinating topic. Of course, they attract a lot of science fiction because if you can expose a failure mode very vividly as in On the Beach, Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, Soylent Green, 1984 and Das Kapital, then you can create the greatest of all science fiction stories, the self-preventing prophecy, the prophecy that does not come true because people actually paid attention to you because people were smarter than you expected.

There seems to be a method here:

  • Underestimate humanity
  • Feel superior to and contemptuous of them
  • Prophesy doom with precision, clarity and compelling methods of expression

    Those who are in fact dumb will embrace doom and wallow in confusion, but others will work to alter trajectory and so evade that particular problem. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    Transcript (PDF)

    Also see Ken MacLeod's blog The Early Days of a Better Nation where he has recently posted about SF:

    But what SF is fundamentally about is not the Individual versus Society, or Society versus Society, but humanity in the universe.

    SF needn't thereby lose in human relevance and universality, because the situation it posits is both objectively true and universal to the human being, as a knowing subject confronting a knowable object. If SF about that is despised and rejected, rather than criticised and improved in terms of its own project, then both the Individual and Society are, in the long run, in deeper shit than any dystopia.

    And that, comrades, is the real social relevance of SF.

    posted by back40 | 9/24/2003 12:48:00 PM


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