the forgotten power of science fiction

the forgotten power of science fiction

We live in a world science fiction and dreams built. Then we let the worst among us turn it into a nightmare.

Sci-fi nerds of the world, rejoice! In consolation of living through a pandemic dragged on by ignorance and spite, Apple has picked up the tab to adapt the nearly millennium-spanning stories of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, and Denis Villeneuve appears to have finally done Frank Herbert’s Dune justice if the early reviews are anything to go by. Yes, that’s right, after many years and failed attempts, two of the most complex and culturally revered science fiction universes will hit the screens within a month of each other. In both cases, it seems that technology and budgets have finally caught up to the grand scope of the authors’ visions to give them shots at definitive and proper adaptations as full-blown franchises.

And what scope they had. As already noted, The Foundation encompasses a thousand years of key events across an entire galaxy. Dune’s timeline is longer by a factor of five and covered by jumps of 3,500 years between the events of Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune, then a millennium and a half before Heretics of Dune picks up the pieces left by the Tyrant Worm — on second thought, maybe I shouldn’t throw out any spoilers. Such grandiose works can be difficult to follow when you have two hours or ten episodes, and since their focus is on conveying ideas about the future of humanity and its condition rather than visually gratifying content, attempts to adapt them run the risk of becoming long and plodding.

Yet these big ideas and basing events around characters’ reactions to them are exactly what’s so attractive about these works and made them so successful and widely read. We can argue about their pacing and the accuracy of said ideas, but we can’t dispute that The Foundation is wrestling with how to manage undercurrents of ignorance that lead to Dark Ages — a topic on which Asimov is often quoted — and whether it’s possible to predict them, while Dune dives heavily into our dependence on charismatic figureheads and how taking them too literally can easily lead to cruelty and war. Both series are difficult to read as anything other than scathing rebukes of reactionary statism, colonialism, and monocultural mediocrity.

In fact, the Dune saga is just as relevant today as it was when it was written, with every major character violently rebelling against weaponized nostalgia, which favors entrenched elites and crusading fascists, with every fiber of their being. Its prescient oracles and shadow government manipulators are presented again and again as papier mâché giants, their grand plans always requiring fear, death, and subservience for the sake of maintaining order with which they’re comfortable only for it all to explode in their faces. Foundation is a bit less topical but warns that the price of ignorance and complacency are civilization-shaking violence and grief. And they’re far from unique in espousing these particular philosophies.

Science fiction is a genre rich with meditations on modern problems in a setting where we can appreciate their absurdities or fundamental cores without the burdensome context of existing politics, worldviews, and prejudices that weigh us down. And this is a great thing because sci-fi novels and stories inspired real world inventions and adventures. Without Jules Verne and his tales of space exploration, the space race could’ve been a purely military exercise in delivering nuclear warheads and building bases on other worlds, nuclear warheads whose development sci-fi legend H.G. Wells may have sped up. In short, a lot of famous and popular science fiction tends to nurture introspection, creativity, and long-term thinking.

Now, imagine growing up devouring tome after tome of musings about the future and what it might have in store for humanity while presented with grand plans to return to the Moon, to explore Mars, and venture into the outer solar system with solar sails while we mine asteroids for near-infinite resources. Scientists are cloning sheep, researchers are talking about cyborgs and how one day we may be more machine than human, and everyone you meet can’t shut up about the need for more scientists and astronauts. You feel like your generation is groomed to make all those grand dreams and adventures a reality. Then you watch 3,000 people die on TV in real time and all those dreams you were spoon fed suddenly evaporate.

It’s made abundantly clear to you that none of the people in charge and their loyal voters gave any shits about those future plans they showed you as a kid and they couldn’t wait to slash all the relevant budgets to the bone for selfish gain. You still end up going into research, science, technology, or medicine because that’s what you were groomed and trained to do in the first place, and then watch people insist that the Earth is flat, that a pandemic killing millions across the world is a false flag because a YouTube video said so, and using software you might have worked on to make themselves and their friends dumber, meaner, and more paranoid every day while lashing out at those trying to bring them back to reality.

And while we coddle anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, countless pundits tell us to be nice to foaming at the mouth suburbanites espousing unabashed, brain-melting idiocy while demanding respect and validation from those they abuse, those of us working on keeping the world moving forward or holding things together enough for that to happen during a global crisis are beyond exhausted and burnt out. Doctors fantasize about quitting as their ever more unhinged, self-destructive patients hurl abuse at medical professionals from their literal death beds. Techies are disgusted that platforms meant to connect and educate are now being used to sicken and harass. And scientists feel like they’re screaming into the void.

retrofuturistic mars

Just imagine if you landed on a planet which has enough resources and knowhow to create a post-scarcity society in which the necessities of life are extremely affordable and poverty as we know it no longer exists, but refuses to do it. Instead, it’s ruled by myopic gerontocracies whose ignorance of the current state of science and technology can only be described as profound. An avaricious confederation of oligarchs so drunk on money and power they can no longer relate to mere mortals plays those decrepit gerontocrats and their amoral acolytes like fiddles. Most critical day to day decisions are being made by inscrutable software algorithms. And billions are so desperate to stay afloat, they try to monetize their every activity, even sex.

Confronted with such a summary, you’d probably ask in what sci-fi dystopia you managed to accidentally land and anticipating being told that it’s a mashup of Idiocracy and Bladerunner, with a healthy dash of Ghost In The Shell-inspired cyberpunk thrown in for good measure. But at this point, we all know this is our world today. We’re facing political turmoil, refugee crises, climate catastrophes, a looming socioeconomic correction, and access to technology for which we’re woefully not ready, all of them closely related in complex networks of cause and effect, and this massive, globe-spanning clusterfuck is being managed and exacerbated by the exact wrong people for the job in the absolute worst places for them to be right now.

What led us to this sad state of affairs? Well, a lot of things because a perfect storm requires more than one ingredient. However, if we were to pinpoint some underlying root causes, we would find lawless, intractable greed, and such a pathological failure of the imagination that it borders on the criminal. Despite having no shortage of ideas and solutions of society’s most vexing problems, we haven’t just given up on solving what ails us, we’ve taken to effectively shouting down any ideas for improvement. We lament aging infrastructures and soul-sucking jobs but every idea offering real change is instantly dismissed as reckless utopianism so we can wallow in our misery. Nowhere is all this more obvious than climate change.

One of the most difficult concepts for the human mind to grasp is that of deep time. What will happen in a thousand, or ten, or a hundred thousand years? Since we’re not around that long, we frequently disregard the question of what happens next until we’re truly forced to think on the subject. While it seems like global warming and climate change suddenly snuck up on us to the casual observer, it’s only because they haven’t been paying attention. In reality, some of the first warnings about the impact of burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale date back two centuries ago, to a theoretical paper from 1824. By 1912, scientists were sounding the alarm and warning that so much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere would alter it.

In other words, if we wanted to prevent climate change and significantly lower pollution that’s now making humans less fertile and will leave a geological record, we had nearly a century to study the subject matter and another century to prevent it, investing in things with an eye on long term sustainability instead of short term profit. Obviously, we know which approach we chose, why, and just how careless, flagrant, and destructive those who deliberately put us on the wrong track were and remain. This approach is very much the definition of a failure to try new ideas or imagine a world in which we didn’t have to rely on fossil fuels or used them as a transition to something else, not as reactionary culture war fodder for the next election.

Because we didn’t want to think about anything other than the bank account balance of those involved in the fossil fuel industry, millions will die and nations where governments have a very precarious grip on power will descend into civil war under the additional stress of coping with a harsher climate, leading to more terrorism and floods of refugees no one is prepared to rescue. And as a punditocracy cashing in six and seven figure checks declares that any effort to prevent these problems is either impossible utopianism even if its’ already been successfully tried in a pilot study, or a conspiracy by tyrannical leftists to impose a New World Order, we continue to do less than the bare minimum on the subject.

If this is how the powers that be and those who shape discourse act when it comes to critical, world-threatening problems, imagine just how little of a shit they give about individuals. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the world, they quite literally told us that if we drop dead for their stock prices to keep going up, so be it. This is why you may be stuck in a job you hate and spend ten hours a day doing things you’re pretty sure are just useless busywork for what seems like less and less gain. Welcome to the absurdist comedy of work in the 21st century: work for the sake of work in a race against exponentially improving automation because some Calvinists tied the concept of work to the value of our existence, therefore you have to create that TPS report your boss doesn’t read because what else would you be doing, right?

Of course, there are plenty of jobs requiring long hours and strenuous effort, jobs we need to keep functioning as a civilization, but even those jobs are due for useful upgrades and should be delegated to machinery working under human supervision at least in part, freeing the humans doing them to pursue creative and innovative pursuits no computer will ever truly match. Why have truck drivers spend their weeks on the road when automated convoys in special lanes on new roads can be supervised by experienced humans working in shifts that allow them to stay healthy, get plenty of quality sleep, and be there for their families? Again, we only have failure of imagination to blame for not investing in lucrative, transformative megaprojects.

journey desert ruins

And this brings us right back to the world of science fiction and the urgent need to daydream and imagine instead of toil just because #ThankGodItsMonday hustle culture agitprop tells us to do so. If we want to make the world a better place and find a way to spend our energies more productively, we need fodder to both warn us of what can happen if we go too far with an idea that has the potential to go haywire or show us what benefits certain technologies can bring if we push them in the right directions. Our world might never be a utopia and no matter what we do, a gaggle of sociopathic, deranged nihilists who just want to watch the world burn and others to suffer will try to make life miserable for us. But we can’t let them stop us.

Make no mistake, the nihilists are currently winning as we’ve embraced a sort of “freedumb of speech,” the notion that not only is it important to allow people to speak whatever’s on their minds, no matter how extreme, or dangerous, or just plain wrong, but the very act of voicing an opinion is so sacrosanct that even criticism of the opinion or refusal to help propagate is should be taboo. To drive that home, hordes of pontificators ready to tell us how we must tenderly coddle our most malicious and retrograde morons, letting them hang from society’s necks like a rotting, maggot-infested albatross dipped in concrete to their hearts’ content because “it’s their right,” otherwise, we’re all guilty of “cancel culture.”

Now, the right course of action is to cordially invite these pundits to dine on an industrial sized bag of phalluses, take time to crack open some fuel for the imagination with acclaimed works of science fiction focusing on both near and far future, and imagine a world where we didn’t have to coddle our worst citizens, elect our worst, most inept politicians, and work for sociopaths in whose mind the 2000s should be the 1300s with internet and germ theory, and what that world should look like. Is there a useful metric we could adopt from one of those fictional universes to improve ours? Is there an imaginary megaproject that inspired real proposals by engineers and scientists that would generate countless jobs and put our skills to good use?

But just reading sci-fi and letting yourself imagine a different, better way to exist isn’t enough. We have to put these plans into action. We have to show up at the ballot box and show all our current leaders that they’ll be held accountable if they fail to movie us forward, that knuckle-dragging ignoramuses will not be tolerated, and that we’re done entertaining the nonsense of the aforementioned sociopaths who demand we allow them to hold on to their neo-feudalist dystopia even if that means misery and death for all of us. On top of that, we have to reward and encourage truly innovative ideas that improve our quality of life and advance technology while making the world a better place and push human frontiers.

This is why it’s so important for us to consume media and ideas that expand our minds. It lets us question the world order and ask why we can’t do better or differently, refusing to accept some purple prose version of “the septuagenarians that rule you are uncomfortable with big changes and like money” or “people who hate you just really want you to suffer instead, and you should let them do that because it’s mean not to” as viable reasons. This is the kind of big picture freethinking Western society doesn’t like to tolerate outside of pop culture, mostly because it costs money, involves real, structural changes, and challenges the worldviews of a ruling class which has been getting a real taste for authoritarianism and neo-feudalism.

For Canadians, Americans, the French, and Brazilians, the next few elections are already utterly exhausting because it feels as if the only purpose of showing up at the polls isn’t to fix problems but prevent dangerous, delusional troglodytes who reject the very premise of civilized society from wrecking things even more. We’re fighting just to keep standing still as an increasingly unhinged minority shrieking like banshees in gastrointestinal distress try to drag us backwards with all their might. It would be so nice be able to go out to vote for something other than just keeping the status quo because the only alternative we’re given is quite literally disease, death, and domestic terrorism.

It would be even better to once again look forward to something actually positive and feel like you’re not stuck spinning your wheels. Ultimately, the let-it-burn generations will pass, much like rotten gas station sushi, and those who watched them torch the planet, protest outside of hospitals for daring to treat patients, assault service workers for adhering to pandemic safety protocol, and pick fights with flight attendants, will take over the reins of power. We’ll see a very quick reversal once we reach a critical mass of younger, more civilized politicians, leaders, and voters, but until then, we’ve ended up on permanent damage control duty. It’s a nasty and frustrating job, but it desperately needs to be done.

So, as we try to limit the harm to the future, why not try to imagine the kind of world we’ll want to build once we finally get the chance, learn how to advocate for it, and inspire new leaders or those who still can be reasoned with to debate and adopt these new paradigms? We’re seeing what happens when we decide our dreams are unrealistic and should be forgotten. Just like we were warned by The Foundation, our complacency led to misery and woe, creating societies bent of self-destruction, filled with people who embrace blind and vicious contrarianism as a personality, and believe that pathological ODD is a national identity. It’s time for something different. It’s time to dream again and insist on making those dreams true.

# education // denialism / innovation / scifi


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