Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Lack of Vision

In an article about science fiction the-future-probably/  the radical writer Laurie Penny gives science fiction writers generally a long overdue and well deserved slap. For her they (we) are just not thinking radically enough.

Of course, as Penny points out, in the SF writers defence they are not always trying to predict the future, more often merly extrapolating the present. For example, the SF writers of the 1950s alone dared to suggest that life after a nuclear war, even if it was survivable, wouldn't be worth it. It was science fiction that brought this dissenting vision into view while the US and British governments of the time sought to promote the idea that a nuclear war was survivable. Duck_and_cover

Eventually the nuclear holocaust vision of a future world became so totally accepted it was embodied in trope and cliché in mainstream movies such as Terminator.

But, as the Slovenian philosopher-scholar Slavoj Žižek, puts it, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Many visions of the world of the far future, Star Trek etc, just sidestep the question of how economic and social life is organised.  By staying on board the starship, which is organised on traditional military lines, they avoid questions of how the ordinary  denizens of planet Earth spend their time. The matter of how a plausible society might be organised, with the technolgies of the replicator and endless renewable energy available, would, had they been examined in the Star Trek heyday of the 1960's, have been seen as dangerously subversive challenges to capitalism.

Now, also according to Žižek,  " In mid-April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited from TV, films, and novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel." The only legally permitted vision of the future in the totalitarian capitalist state of China is as an extension of the present. One wonders why they've even bothered to make such an edict? When western SF writers, fettered only by their imaginations, struggle to come up with anything that much different from the contemporary world.

But, without commerce, shortages and conflict, our lives become virtually unrecognisable. The 'timeless' professions of warrior and trader and the conditions of rich man and poor man are too inherent in our society to be easily eliminated, without them we lose too many of our conflicts and plots, regardless of how fabulous the background technology may be.

And it may be asking just too much. We don't expect every SF story featuring faster than light travel to come accompanied by a plausible  working FTL physical theory, we just assume that somehow the technology got there. So maybe that's the way to go, gloss over the details: the environmental meltdown, the regression to poverty and the tyranny of warlords, the painstakingly slow  recovery of technology and democracy. Cutting straight to the final evolution of a new society based, not on trade and profit, but on unlimited resources and freedom.

Here's musician Donald Fagen (with his tongue slightly in his cheek), from 1982, to sketch in that future in very broad strokes.

"On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
(More leisure for artists everywhere)
A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We'll be clean when their work is done
We'll be eternally free yes and eternally young"


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