Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Science Fiction: Expanding into the Future

Might future villagers in a fallen world worship the mystical visions of today’s science fiction authors? 

Sayeth Damien Walters in The Guardian's Is Sci Fi a 21st Century Religion?“We’re only a few centuries and a small apocalyptic event away from isolated communities of huddled believers worshipping the gospels of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and Le Guin. If a future society based on the eccentric thinking of sci-fi writers seems outrageous, it’s no stranger than a society founded on Genesis, Exodus and Revelations.” 

Um... Im... not sure I am at all comfortable with that irony...

But here's something to inspire you --

Huzzah to Ursula K. LeGuin for her magnificent (if brief) speech, accepting honors for her life's work at the 2014 National Book Awards. As a former student, I was especially proud of her taking a bold stand-up in defense of the "literature of the imagination."  She was (for that shining moment) our paladin and hero - pointing out that an omphaloskeptic people who hide from the future are not fit to deal with it.

Ray Bradbury's Buoyant Vision of the Future: A brilliant, beautiful paean to the optimism of my friend, Ray Bradbury, who did dystopias very well, but who actually believed in us and in our potential to be better than we are.  Read this. It's brief. And Ray would tell you that it is time to rebel against the merchants of hopelessness and fear.

Oh, to see WHY so many directors, producers and authors are churning out lazy, cliched, cookie cutter dystopias, see my explanation here. Once you understand their reason, you may despise them even more than the fear merchants at Fox.

== More SF'nal News ==

Old Venus will be published in March. Sixteen all-new stories about the sister world of jungles and swamps and wondrous beasts that filled our dreams… till 1962… now about to reappear out of the mists of imagination! "Tales by science fiction’s top talents" (including Mike Reznick, Joe Haldeman, Elizabeth Bear and David Brin) collected by bestselling author George R. R. Martin and editor Gardner Dozois. A follow-up to their successful Old Mars anthology.

And... In January, Elon Musk tweeted that he’s named two of his spaceport drone ships in the most fitting way: after ships from science fiction writer Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. How way cool is that!

Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American science fiction author, born and raised in the US, who just posted a fascinating essay about African SF.  She is author of the Clarke Award-winning novel “Who Fears Death” and the more recent, Nigeria-centered first contact novel, Lagoon.

== SF Expanding around the globe ==

Dreaming 2074, An anthology of French SF, has been released November the 3rd both in French and English (translated by Sheryl Curtis). A free e-version … it was a project of the French luxury industry that decided to explore what the year 2074 could be, and to imagine a possible common utopia. Qu’est-ce que cela se produit ?  OPTIMISTIC French science fiction?  I can’t wait to see this.  See? I predicted a major shift in 2014! Download it for free or find it on Amazon.

Have a look also at AfroSF -- the first anthology of Science Fiction by African writers only that was open to submissions from across Africa and abroad. Combine this with the appearance from Tor Books of the spectacular THREE BODY trilogy, by Chinese author Liu Cixin, and you get the best news for our future as a planet and species.

The spread of our literature of the plausible around the globe... and the mind-broadening return of that favor as science fiction learns from every more cultures -- revealing the richness of human experience that will prepare us for what's to come.

== The Three Body Problem ==

The Three-Body Problem is part one of an award-winning trilogy by Liu Cixin — and is arguably the best Chinese science fiction novel ever translated into English. Liu uses the “three-body problem” of classical mechanics to ask some terrifying questions about human nature and what lies at the core of civilization.

The series explores the world of the Trisolarans, a race that is forced to adapt to harsh life in a triple star system, on a planet whose gravity, heat, and orbit are in constant flux. Facing extinction, the Trisolarans plan to evacuate and conquer the nearest habitable planet, and finally choose a candidate/victim when it intercepts a rashly self-destructive message—from Earth. 

Part Two of the trilogy - The Dark Forest - has just been released. I believe it is the best of the three. The Dark Forest takes you on a wild ride of hope, despair, and then restored determination....and even a note of triumph. 

This last element, triumph at the end, has long been a feature of American SF, and perhaps overused, as many critics in the rest of the world have (somewhat rightfully) dissed the apparent Yankee obsession with happy endings. But it goes both ways. If Liu Cixin's success and spectacular creativity also gives a nod to aspiration and hope, perhaps it will soften the relentless stream of downer endings we see in much of European and Asian fiction.

Special note… The Three Body Problem deals very closely with the issue of SETI and the Fermi Paradox and whether we should shout "yoo-hoo!" into the cosmos  -- a quandary about which I've also written, from time to time.  

(And about which I will speak - in a week - at the AAAS gathering in San Jose, California.)

But the biggest news is this proof of the maturation of Chinese science fiction into the top ranks of thorough and fascinating thought experimentation. I’ve long maintained that the health of an enlightened and progressive society is measured by how vibrant is its science fiction, since that is the greatest font of true self-critique and appraisal and hope. If so, the good news stretches beyond China!

== Trite Dystopias ==

Why is Dystopian Fiction Still So Popular? A young writer in The Guardian ponders the recent tsunami of teen dystopias in both lit and film.  She tries to excuse it by pointing to the increasingly Orwellian world around us… which is utter hogwash.  Yes there are bad trends… and countless good trends.  And things are still well within our grasp. And the stories that would help are stories that portray confident citizens using or repairing their institutions, correcting errors instead of giving  up, and relying on their neighbors, instead of automatically disdaining them.

No, the reason for the dystopia tsunami is much simpler.  It is an effluent of waste product from authorial and directorial LAZINESS.  Pure and exact.  They need to keep heroes in pulse pounding jeopardy for 90 minutes (or 200 pages) and that is done easiest by assuming from the start that all institutions are automatically and deliberately evil and all neighbors are sheep.  Voila!  It writes itself.  A second factor?  Flatter the reader/viewer by telling the same chosen-one, ordained-demigod motif that always works. “Pretend YOU are Harry… or Ender… and you’ve only been bullied because you haven’t found your true friends and true powers yet!  When you do, they all better watch out!”


Hey, I have written dystopia! (e.g. The Postman.) And some dystopias, those with original or stirring messages about frighteningly plausible failure modes — like “1984” and “Soylent Green” can do wondrous good.  Even possibly become Self-Preventing Prophecies. 

But that is different. Please read my essay cited above. The difference is crucial 'cause it is eating at our confidence and at our very souls.

A lovely, personal essay on one author's favorite post apocalyptic novels.  There's a reason I like his list!  But still, it's very good.

And while we’re on Apocalypses!  Here’s another list, from the Geek Dad -- including The Passage, I Am Legend.. and The Postman.  (Hey, it’s not my fault these people have great taste in their favorite end of the world tales!)_

== And Finally ==

Hip-hop sci fi?  Zowee! This song is about The largest structure dedicated to Life Extension it's called The Timeship. Its time to take the HipHop culture to the next Level.

I’m a fan of short-short stories. Written a few.  They can carry efficient “bite.”  Here’s a newcomer’s first foray. With some political-ironic edge to it.  

Author Dan Haight offers a moving missive about how, as a troubled youth, he found inspiration in science fiction to start reshaping his own life.

47 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I've never really enjoyed 'dystopian' or 'apocalyptic' stories. It's one of the reasons I don't like zombie or 'Planet of the Apes' movies.

I did enjoy "Ender's Game" when I was a teen though. I think I can forgive myself for that, since I WAS a teen. But I really enjoyed the Potter series as well, though I never really understood what make Harry so 'great'. Everything seemed forced on him.

Bleyddyn said...

...all institutions are automatically and deliberately evil and all neighbors are sheep.

I'm a bit surprised you haven't written about Guardian's of the Galaxy. The Nova Core seems to be not-evil and at least semi-competent. True, it's the heroes who 'save' the day, but they wouldn't have managed it without a decent civilization's help.

I may well have missed it if you did mention it.

Laurent Weppe said...

"We’re only a few centuries and a small apocalyptic event away from isolated communities of huddled believers worshipping the gospels of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and Le Guin."

Come on: you know Isaacism will eventually become the dominant church.

***

"Elon Musk tweeted that he’s named two of his spaceport drone ships in the most fitting way: after ships from science fiction writer Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels."

Too bad we came up with killer drones before we thought of giving eccentric name to our vessels (I, for one, always thought France should have named its nuclear aircraft carrier the De Fun├Ęs instead of the De Gaulle)

***

"Qu’est-ce que cela se produit ?"

cough: you really need to dust off your French.

***

"Pretend YOU are Harry… or Ender… and you’ve only been bullied because you haven’t found your true friends and true powers yet!  When you do, they all better watch out!"

Tell me about it: I hated Ender's Game precisely because the book assumes that every bullied kid wishes nothing more than retaliating disproportionately against his tormentors. Uuuurk.

Scott said...

This is exactly what made me uncomfortable about Eric Flint's 1632 series. The entire premise is that the protagonist is the only smart person in town and only his brand of conservative common sense will save them in a cruel world. It's utterly unrealistic and hard to suspend disbelief when you're trying to accept a West Virginia town traveling back in time and across the ocean.

Laurent Weppe said...

"The entire premise is that the protagonist is the only smart person in town and only his brand of conservative common sense will save them in a cruel world"

The protagonist is UMWA labor unionist (I'd not call the heirs of Blair Mountains "conservative") and the story's premise is that a late twenty century highschool library holds enough knowledge to completely reshape by its mere presence 17th century's Europe while any reasonably educated modern person can go toe to toe with the greatest minds of yesteryear simply because they've had access to waaaaaaaaaaay more knowledge than them (there's a part in the book when it is stated that any curious late 20 century teenager can know more about the universe than Galileo or more about germ theory than Pasteur). It's hardly an elitist, pro-Great-Men-Theory series.

sociotard said...

I heard of this one dystopian future where all the aliens hated earth because we claimed we were evolved, not uplifted from proto-sophonts. Well, not all the aliens are mean, but the others are so slow to take action they're like sheep. Same guy wrote this post-apoc where the people were getting conquered by an army lead by an evil cyborg. The people thought they were gonna get saved by a supercomputer and a restored US government, but both turned out to have been a lie the whole time.

What kind of hack puts out lazy dystopias like that?

;)

David Brin said...

Bleyddyn thanks. I recall remarking on that, in Guardians... then forgetting to blog mention it. I will, some time.

"Elon Musk tweeted that he’s named two of his spaceport drone ships in the most fitting way: after ships from science fiction writer Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels."

And what am I? Chopped liver?

Huh... in the 1632 series I see the authors bending over backwards to show how smart and adaptable the 17th century "downtimers" are. In fact, I see them adapting there maybe a whole decade faster than they probably would have.

Jumper said...

Who but Brin could make me go to Facebook? (shiver!) Now I find even more must-read links! How am I supposed to get anything done?

Zen Cosmos said...

DB, just learned of a new book by a former astronaut...The Orbital Perspective...since the club of people who have seen the Earth from actual orbit as opposed via pictures or video of same like the rest of us is small I think what the author has to say about human potential and politics should be on your radar...

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin in the main post:

And the stories that would help are stories that portray confident citizens using or repairing their institutions, correcting errors instead of giving up, and relying on their neighbors, instead of automatically disdaining them.


The Hunger Games books actually do have much of that in them. Maybe not so much the first book, which was mostly about teenagers in gladiator fights. But the next two are more about the rebellion against the social system which creates such things, and after seeing the films with my teenaged daughter, I've become (embarrasingly, to her) quite a fan.

("Join! The! Mockingjay!")

LarryHart said...

Laurent Weppe:

Come on: you know Isaacism will eventually become the dominant church.


"Isaac is in heaven now."

:)

LarryHart said...

My problem with "Guradians of the Galaxy" was that, while the heroes did good things, they seemed to do so just because that's what the genre calls for. I don't recall any of them actually demonstrating a motive for their actions.

As a fan of 1970s Marvel Comics, it was also weird because the movie characters were all from different stories, none of which (except for Yondu) was from the comic actually called "Guardians of the Galaxy". Peter Quill, for instance, was from "Star Lord". Gamora (the most dangerous woman in the galaxy) was from "Adam Warlock", and Rocket Raccoon was a throwaway character from a single "Incredible Hulk" story.

Tony Fisk said...

I've been keeping an eye out for 'The Three Body Problem' for a while now. Obviously not looking hard enough.
(Why would an exotic race like the Trisolarians covet our boring old rock? Guess I'll have to find out)

In other news Ex Machina gets several big ticks from neuro-scientist Anil Seth, writing for New Scientist.

Treebeard said...

I doubt science fiction would be a very popular religion in a post-collapse future; it seems more likely that they will look back on it as the poisonous mythology of an evil and deluded civilization, just as we look back on most past civilizations and religions today. They would warn their children about the perils of industry and technology, how it poisoned the earth and destroyed the world in terrible wars, and how the evil priesthood who promoted the science fiction religion were the root cause.

If anything, science fiction is the religion of today, which posits a future golden age of galactic communist utopias, singularities and global overminds, rather than some past golden age of heroes, demigods and noble people. And as in other ages, the science fiction priesthood inspires elites to pursue projects and name them according to their myths. The impulse is precisely the same.

The appeal of “dystopian fiction”, I suspect, has a lot to do with the face that this universe is, at bottom, a rather dystopian place, and no amount of science fictional mythologizing about the future seems likely to change that. The better, more gnostically inclined science fiction writers (e.g. Phil Dick) get that, and enjoy lasting cult popularity. I doubt we can say the same for many of your favorites.

Tim H. said...

Science fiction a religion? Certainly not a respected one, or particularly large. And what if the universe is hostile? Why not aspire to more than a few futile twitches and mumbles, followed by the grave? And who cares if some reactionaries need the contrast of dire poverty to inflate their wealth, we need to build a society that works for the majority, the .01% are resourceful, they'll be alright. Science fiction dreams done well can enable a greener future.

Alfred Differ said...

The 1632 authors have a community that helps them decide what is possible and what isn't. Read the short fiction set in that world and you'll see their community at work. You can also see it adjust to knew information when someone new joins and points out that a particular tech was done the hard way on our timeline, but could be done different with a fresh start. They've done that adjustment more than once and wrote it as down-timers innovation.

The only character that struck me as a little too smart and capable was Rebecca. Otherwise, they do a decent job of avoiding excessive competence among the up-timers. If a reader can't see this, they probably can't see the value-add our Enlightenment culture has spread to all of us.

Their community does like their fiction in soap opera format, though. 8)

David Brin said...

Har! Treebeard describes SF as an unalloyed territory of bright, communist tomorrows...

Name one.

Just one.

Even one.

Let's make it easier... Other than Star Trek, show us ANY optimistic portrayals of the future, communist or otherwise. (And though optimistic overall, Star Trek relentlessly pokes and prods and asks questions about the moral implications of every aspect of its universe.)

Oh, sure, he'll trawl and find a few. Heck *I* tend to be at the "optimistic end'. But the point remains....

... that he and - um the vast majority of cliche-hugging folks like him, on both right and left - bandy a strawman of happy go lucky, uncritical and gee whiz optimistic sci fi that was not even true back in the Golden Age. But they run and hide when asked for examples.

Utter proof of intellectual dishonesty to a degree that beggars even my imagination.

Alfred Differ said...

I think it unlikely our science fiction would offer a useful foundation for a post-apocalypse future. It might work for myth and for confusing a future generation about what was and wasn't possible, but religion fills a deep need in many of us to explain what is and why.

If it gets involved at all, I suspect it will be through heretical groups or as a replacement for 'evil' in some sense. Maybe they will change a few of the names of major demons to match some of our scientists. 8)

I hope we don't have to find out.

Laurent Weppe said...

"Let's make it easier... Other than Star Trek, show us ANY optimistic portrayals of the future, communist or otherwise."

You, yourself quoted the Culture, which is a coalition of anarchist space hippie communes overseen by benevolent godlike communist super computers. Sure, there are plenty of shitty places in the Culture Verse, and the Culturniks themselves are shown to be quite ruthless were provoked enough, but within its territory, the Culture is pretty much enjoying an endless Summer of Love, so I'd say it qualifies.

David Brin said...

Yes, the Culture... but even there the critical pokings continue. UNCRITICAL utopias?

The loony thing about cliches is that silly people cling to them, even when they are diametrically opposite to fact... even when they cannot name a single actual example!

Tony Fisk said...

I'm not entirely sure what the nature of the challenge is.

SF has plenty of utopian civilisations depicted. If one takes a 'utopia' as an environment where Maslowe's hierarchy of needs has been sunk to the level of self-motivation, there's Clarke's Diaspar, Egan's galactic civilisation, stages of Niven's Known Universe (pre-Kzin)...

Uncritical utopias? Well, here's the thing. That self-motivation is used to expand the horizon of awareness until a threat to that utopian idyll is identified, and therein lies a tale or two...

As for [whistle]communist[/whistle] utopias, I'd suggest a scientific treatise: Flannery's 'Here On Earth' briefly postulates a future where humans become increasingly ant-like. (I mean, wake up peoples: some ants *vote*. That's how far we've sunk down that path)*

*Irony is mine, not Flannery's

Jonathan S. said...

There were a couple of incarnations of the Guardians, Larry. They obviously couldn't use my personal favorite, because that takes place in the 31st Century, but I do believe the lineup they used is from an '80s-era version of the Guardians.

Jumper said...

What will help rebuild will be things like diagrams of machine tools, recipes for steel, trigonometry and inorganic chemistry textbooks, etc.

Whatever greater or lesser number of people do that, then I think if they also get hold of "old science fiction" then they will be the ones inspired by it. Other folks not so much. Hey, that's kind of the way it is now.

Steve O said...

Well I think it is going to be tough to find a utopia in any fiction, since a story requires some conflict. Maybe some terrible 1950's pulp short story that no one has ever heard of, or ever should, exists.

Even purported utopias in fiction have something interesting going on: the Eloi had the Morlocks, the Lensman the Eddorians, the Foundation had the Mule, the Ecolitans had extreme ethics, etc. What makes a story readable is not a perfect utopia but critical examination of what a utopia even means and what it costs.

So I don't think there is going to be any decent "galactic communist utopia" science fiction because I don't think there *can* be decent fiction of any sort with that restriction.

Treebeard must not have read much science fiction.

Steve O said...

As far as science fiction as religion - I don't see it. If anything, the authors listed would push some future destroyed civilization towards critical examination, rather than mindless acceptance.

That said, does science fiction cause us to strive for the probably impossible? I say "Yes!" because even though I know the odds are waaaaaaaaayyyyyy against it, I want us to think about things like alien contact and faster than light drive. Because who knows - maybe if we think on it hard enough, there is a way.

Jumper said...

Everyone forgets Einstein's compression. We can experience FTL at 1g, it just takes a few years and then you're gold.

Treebeard said...

Oh I know, there's always villains and conflicts, 'cuz nobody wants to read about Eloi lounging around or Starship captains playing violins. But these dramas often take place against a certain backdrop that may just be a fantasy. Tony Fisk gets what I'm talking about: the idea, deeply rooted in the ethos of the "homo hubriati" that our Enlightenment produces, that man can, will and should master nature via his scientific knowledge, technological mastery, economic systems, social arrangements, etc. and become Masters of the Universe. Once we do that, then we can have our grand morality plays and dramas.

Science fiction writers like Asimov took this ethos to an absurd extreme, writing about a galactic civilization where the idea of a “natural world” outside of human control is never mentioned, psychohistory can predict the future for tens of thousands of years, and almost everything happens within a rather tidy world of technology and abstraction (no doubt reflecting Asimov’s own personality and life experience). Star Trek is similar – the blinding arrogance of 23rd century man as he encounters vastly superior species and natural forces out among the stars is nothing if not a projection of mid-20th century progressive American hubris.

I guess that’s why I prefer writers like Herbert, Lovecraft and Dick – because they didn’t use their fiction as vehicles for morality plays or Enlightenment propaganda, and they were willing to consider the possibility that the future will humble us, nature will defeat us, our progressive story will end, and religion may be necessary to cope with that reality.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

The closest thing I can think of to utopian fiction, apart from Sir Thomas More, who originated the term, is the Smurfs.

Sorry, my students have been coughing and sneezing on me all week. That's about the best I can manage right now.

"The loony thing about cliches is that silly people cling to them, even when they are diametrically opposite to fact... even when they cannot name a single actual example!"
Probably a result of the Fallacy Ad Nauseam. If you say it over and over again, some people are going to believe it.

Treebeard said...

And I should have added to the final sentence: "the universe will prove stranger than we can suppose." The idea of a mysterious, incomprehensible or magical universe may be the thing that Enlightenment science fiction most deprecates and fears.

LarryHart said...

Treebeard:

I doubt science fiction would be a very popular religion in a post-collapse future; it seems more likely that they will look back on it as the poisonous mythology of an evil and deluded civilization, just as we look back on most past civilizations and religions today.


IIRC, you look kindly on past civilizations and religions as having been superior to our own. What makes you think future neo-scios wouldn't do likewise?

David Brin said...

Hah! Notice how he chickened out? I demanded examples of his complaint having EVER actually happened. Indeed, there may be five or six examples, but the trait that he portrayed as the *default* condition of science fiction is - in fact - rarer than hens’ teeth.

Yet, instead of admitting he tried to foist a cliched lie… he points offstage and shouts “squirrel! I like Herbert!”

Um, who doesn’t like a top quality dystopia? That doesn’t change the fact that you foisted a cliche and a lie.

Tony, do try to parse Treebeard’s complaint. That sci fi tends to almost always portray as DESIRABLE utopias that are (from his perspective) despicably homogenizing. In fact, most of the examples you mention portray the lotus eating, homogenized cultures in negative light. Of them all, the one you mentioned that was truly positive, in that a better human society also fostered diversity, contingency and vibrant argument, amid plenty — was Niven’s Known Space universe.

Steve O the need for conflict is one thing. Spreading despair is another. See: http://www.davidbrin.com/idiotplot.html

Alfred Differ said...

'Homo hubriati' produced by the Enlightenment? Hmm... Sounds like a limited (continental) perspective on what the Enlightenment was all about. Try the Scots flavor on for size and you'll see a definite concern for our inclination toward hubris. They (and a couple of folks on the continent) approached things empirically with frank admission of the potential to err and the need to correct.

Be wary of the French and German versions. They tended to argue for the dismissal of tradition if it could not be explained as rational behavior. They did a lot of damage when people tossed out hard-earned social lessons.

Alex Tolley said...

Let's make it easier... Other than Star Trek, show us ANY optimistic portrayals of the future, communist or otherwise.

KSRs Pacific Edge, The Mars trilogy

Rick Callenbach's Ecotopia.

Utopias can be as problematic as dystopias. I prefer stories that are neither.

Alex Tolley said...

I would also add "The Martian" as a positive, "can do" future. It certain;y isn't a dystopia.

Alex Tolley said...

I read "Old Mars". It was very mixed in quality with a number of authors just writing a Burroughs or Bradbury type story. I was disappointed.

I hope the editors did a better job with this new "Old Vrnus" collection.

Tony Fisk said...

If Treebeard was suggesting was the intent of SF stories was to promote an homogenous nirvana where nothing happens to write stories about, then it is a ridiculous notion.

The point I was making in the examples I gave is that SF writers will find challenges in even the most comfortable of utopias.

The stories that are told using utopias as a backdrop may either use them as a launching pad (as in Egan's case) or to examine the nature of those utopias, and ask questions like 'how did we get to be like this?', and 'is this a desirable state?'

If religion is about answers then SF is not it.

Steve O said...

" Spreading despair is another. "

Oh, agreed. Titan by Baxter was terribly depressing for me, and met my definition of dystopia even if it was intended to be a "self-preventing prophecy". Hmm, False Dawn by Yarbro was another one. I read that in the 80s and I still have brain scars.

Perhaps a contributing factor to the dystopia fascination is the increasing value of the self at the expense of the value of society. The individual is elevated to hero surviving the zombie plague or whatever and the hero is the reader. It is pernicious since it devalues everything about the society that precedes it.

I see this in higher ed as well - no one wants to pay taxes to support universities since "them damn smartypants are the ones who are going to get the good jobs so they should pay for it" completely devaluing the benefit of having those same smartypants paying higher amounts of taxes to support other aspects of our civilization so that doofus doesn't have to.

Midboss57 said...

I think Dystopias are popular in media for several reasons. The first is, as David pointed out, media laziness. That's what's selling right now so everyone tries to cash in. Happened with WW2 game/movies, World of Warcraft clones, endless streams of zombie movies/series/games.... Eventually people will be bored of them due to over saturation and move on to the next fad.
I think also the next factor is recent history. Every generation has its defining historical moments both good and awful. WW2, moon landing, Cuba Missile Crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall... Our history can basically be summed up in two phases: People succeed in performing a great accomplishment or preventing a great evil etc... and the "And then they **** it up" phase. Examples: End of WW1: good, humiliation of Germany afterwards leading to WW2: "and then they **** it up". Defeat of this Axis: good, birth of the cold war realpolitik sleaziness: "and then they **** it up". Fall of Berlin wall and end of Cold War: good, Fall of Russia to robber barons and then rise of Putin: "and then they **** it up".
See how it goes ? over all these two phases tend to balance on the long term.
The current generation of teens are born either just before or after 2000. Unfortunately, in terms of high profile historical moments so far for this third millennium it's been pretty awful. 9/11, Iraq, the credit crunch and possibly, depending on how thing evolve, Ukraine. We are pretty much in the "And then they **** it up" era of history right now. But eventually, if this cycle continues as it did, we should be soon approaching our next major great accomplishment that would hopefully rekindle a bit of much needed hope if not at least some historical perspective.

Anonymous said...

Here's the irony, IMO: the "Glowing Utopia of Progress" thing that reactionaries like Treebeard like to joust against didn't come from science fiction, it came from marketing. Things like GM's Parade of Progress, or those "documentaries" from the 1950's and early '60's about how awesome it was going to be to drive atomic-powered cars on ginormous freeway clover leafs, while the "little lady" got to have a push-button kitchen, etc..

But of course, reactionaries generally like the Glow-rious Titans of American Capitalism, so SF writers get the blame instead, whenever they write something that isn't about scrabbling amongst the ruins for the last can of beans.

KevinC

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Wow. three really good posts in a row! Steve, making the point about the balance between individual and society that is a fundamental feature of human existence. I have long argued that American culture has, in the past half century or so, shifted too far toward individual rights while ignoring individual responsibilities. Midboss57 with noting the pendular swing in popularity between utopian and dystopian fiction and their historical drivers. Then KevinC's point about the role marketing and big business has played in painting these pictures, and how science fiction can be used as a red herring.

While dystopian fiction seems to be all over, I'm not sure how we should even define utopian fiction - especially given the actual meaning of the word (think Greek roots). Would, say, Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels count as utopian? I haven't read them since I was in school, but they were basically about a lost colony that had degenerated technologically over many centuries but were beginning to rediscover their galactic roots. There was plenty of conflict and struggle, though little open warfare. The one really utopian thing about the series was the absence of religion. There were no heresies, holy wars, no one was burned at the stake or boiled in oil. Many people thought this was supremely unrealistic, though unsurprising, given that the author hailed from a nation torn by sectarian strife for centuries. Of course they had a dire common enemy to unite society, so it wasn't exactly hippy dippy. smurfy peace and love stuff. Neither was it the toughest, most brutal bastard gets the dog food tin. There is room between the extremes.

David Brin said...

SteveO: "Perhaps a contributing factor to the dystopia fascination is the increasing value of the self at the expense of the value of society. The individual is elevated to hero surviving the zombie plague or whatever and the hero is the reader. It is pernicious since it devalues everything about the society that precedes it." Right on.

Midboss, very interesting. Alas, I would give 1:3 odds that the simplest explanation for US history, the last 20 years, is that bad GOP governance and Fox stirring civil war have been totally deliberate. Literally deliberate.

Paul, SteveO's point goes even deeper. Indeed, to the core hypocrisy of much religious thought, that our sole focus should be on our individual souls.

Hey, I am an egotist -- fine. Yes it is blatantly obvious that I am much less important than our shared projects -- humanity, a upfull and +ve sum civilization, a galaxy to save.

Let me shine light on the clearest example. Sainthood. (What follows is an except from my religion book.

Sure, saints have grit to withstand an hour or so of agony,,, in exchange for eternal bliss and influence. But one wonders how admirably it represents genuine self-sacrifice. If a saint, possessed of grit and determination, truly believes that immolation, upon a pyre, will send her soul hurtling heavenward -- perhaps with a final "I am so outta here, suckas!" -- then just how impressive is her sacrifice, in the deepest moral sense?
Indeed, let's try a simple thought experiment, attempting to envision a more consummately estimable deed. Suppose a kindly person were to give up all hope of heavenly rewards, in order to perform an act of supreme generosity and purpose. Let’s imagine that such an individual led an exemplary life, and perhaps even achieved complete absolution through last rites. Next stop, heavenly reward…
...at which point, she then deliberately performs a single, calibrated act of mortal sin! One perpetrated not at all for its own sake, nor out of any base motive, but with a single, clearcut goal. In order to be sentenced to Hell.
Whereupon she might then commence her self-chosen mission. The titanic task of ministering to the damned.

There is precedent in the Christian tradition. Jesus is said to have -- in his first act after full deification -- taken on the task of harrowing hell, walking its paths and redeeming/removing all those who had led virtuous lives before his own ritual sacrifice washed away Original Sin. (For some). Hence, what better role model could there be for a super-saint who chose, without any clear promise of success or recompense, to plunge into the very worst place, bringing, if nothing else, at least some solace and compassion to the damned?
And perhaps even delivering the greatest human gift of all -- hope?
How could any of the regular saints -- propelled into Heaven by a clearly-promised, self-interested business deal -- hold their heads up, knowing that even one such genuine hero ever lived? Realizing that someone else took on such a thankless, unrewarded, but ultimately magnificent task?

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr.Brin,

That's a hypocrisy I saw in the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition at a very young age. I was the kind of kid who asked the kind of questions that good church-going people don't even want to think about, much less answer. Believe it or not, there is a name for what you are talking about, but in an Eastern tradition. Buddhists speak of "spiritual materialism" which is the desire to get a spiritual status. In Buddhist thought, all those martyrs who blow themselves up thinking they will go to paradise get nothing of the kind. I don't know if this has anything to do with why the history of East Asia is relatively light on holy wars. I don't know if this concept is used in Hinduism, as I don't know a whole lot about Hinduism. This is not to say that East Asia has less bloodshed in its history, just that religion wasn't often used as an excuse for war.

LarryHart said...

Treebeard:

Science fiction writers like Asimov took this ethos to an absurd extreme, writing about a galactic civilization where the idea of a “natural world” outside of human control is never mentioned,...


To me, the Foundation universe wasn't Asimov's prediction of where human civilization was really headed. It was a setting on a grand scale for his stories. A galaxy of inhabited planets as an allegory for a world of inhabited countries. Trantor as New York City writ large.


I guess that’s why I prefer writers like Herbert, Lovecraft and Dick – because they didn’t use their fiction as vehicles for morality plays or Enlightenment propaganda, and they were willing to consider the possibility that the future will humble us, nature will defeat us, our progressive story will end,...


Well, even up-tempo science fiction such as Clarke's "Imperial Earth" hint at dangers lurking out there as we move away from the inner solar system. Likewise Star Trek TNG with the first "Borg" episode.


and religion may be necessary to cope with that reality.


I'm not sure I understand those words in that order. To me, you might as well say "and large quantities of alcohol and marijuana may be necessary to cope with that reality."

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

...at which point, she then deliberately performs a single, calibrated act of mortal sin! One perpetrated not at all for its own sake, nor out of any base motive, but with a single, clearcut goal. In order to be sentenced to Hell.
Whereupon she might then commence her self-chosen mission. The titanic task of ministering to the damned.


But what if God knows your motive is pure, so He doesn't condemn you for the sin? Could be a Catch-22.

:)

Look, I'm no Christian and I'm pretty down on religion in general, but I think I can make the case that the saint willing to be burned alive for Jesus's sake is not simply selfish. His reward is for his trust in God, which has to be pretty darned unshakeable to survive the duration in which he's unspeakably tortured to death. "A small price to pay" for eternal reward only if he trusts the word of God or Jesus that eternal reward is actually in the cards. It's the faith that he's being rewarded for, not the suffering.

David Brin said...

LarryHart, later in that same chapter I write:

Sure, there are ways that a clever theologian could answer this quandary, for example by positing that God would never damn either Huck or our super-saint, nor allow her into hell, no matter how clever or noble her plan, or how mortal her final, voluntary sin. That nobility of intention will over-ride the prim book-keeping of mortal sin.
Or one might swivel the other way and go with damnation, by calling her real sin the crime of arrogance, meriting punishment forever, since it is no mere human's right to interfere with a spiritual order that is beyond our ken.
Other religious thinkers might be willing to stretch their minds along this thought-experiment. C.S. Lewis danced along the edges by offering his fascinated readership sincere efforts to compare secular/altruistic “unselfishness” vs. traditional Christian “love.” I like to think – (perhaps because he was a fellow science fiction author) – that Lewis would have found the notion of a “super-saint” attractive. Indeed, how do we know that it hasn’t happened already, indeed many times? Perhaps legions of such voluntary missionaries – the finest products of religion – are even now wandering through hell, ministering to the damned, gradually wreaking changes that never appear in holy books…

Alas, all such rationalizations miss the central point, which is --
Why should egocentric self-concern be elevated to the highest of all human virtues? The most saintly person, who does good works and prays incessantly -- or the Buddhist who meditates with profound intensity -- all do so with their own personal spiritual achievement as a central goal. But when you get right down to it...
What am I? And why should I consider my soul's condition so much more important than a hundred thousand other things that are clearly so much bigger than my miserable self? Like truth? The planet? My species? Posterity? Fairness?

David Brin said...

LarryHart, later in that same chapter I write:

Sure, there are ways that a clever theologian could answer this quandary, for example by positing that God would never damn either Huck or our super-saint, nor allow her into hell, no matter how clever or noble her plan, or how mortal her final, voluntary sin. That nobility of intention will over-ride the prim book-keeping of mortal sin.
Or one might swivel the other way and go with damnation, by calling her real sin the crime of arrogance, meriting punishment forever, since it is no mere human's right to interfere with a spiritual order that is beyond our ken.
Other religious thinkers might be willing to stretch their minds along this thought-experiment. C.S. Lewis danced along the edges by offering his fascinated readership sincere efforts to compare secular/altruistic “unselfishness” vs. traditional Christian “love.” I like to think – (perhaps because he was a fellow science fiction author) – that Lewis would have found the notion of a “super-saint” attractive. Indeed, how do we know that it hasn’t happened already, indeed many times? Perhaps legions of such voluntary missionaries – the finest products of religion – are even now wandering through hell, ministering to the damned, gradually wreaking changes that never appear in holy books…

Alas, all such rationalizations miss the central point, which is --
Why should egocentric self-concern be elevated to the highest of all human virtues? The most saintly person, who does good works and prays incessantly -- or the Buddhist who meditates with profound intensity -- all do so with their own personal spiritual achievement as a central goal. But when you get right down to it...
What am I? And why should I consider my soul's condition so much more important than a hundred thousand other things that are clearly so much bigger than my miserable self? Like truth? The planet? My species? Posterity? Fairness?

David Brin said...

onward