Back in May, Carl and I sat on a panel at the AIAA Annual Technical Symposium in Houston. The panel was given a future scenario in advance, describing a number of technological and economic elements fifty years from now, just as Mars settlement is about to begin. During the luncheon, we were asked to consider a half-dozen questions relating to how Mars settlement might play out under the given scenario. In addition, there were 3-4 questions from the audience – regrettably, the camcorder battery ran out in the middle of my response to what I thought was the best question of the bunch.
It’s five clips, about an hour and a half in total.
Over at Slate, author Bruce Sterling shares some thoughts on “design fiction“, the use of (science) fiction to imagine and explore new technology:
Slate: What’s one design fiction that people might be familiar with? Sterling:In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the guy’s holding what’s clearly an iPad. It just really looks like one, right? This actually showed up in the recent lawsuits between Samsung and Apple. That’s kind of a successful design fiction in the sense that it’s a diegetic prototype. You see an iPad in this movie and your response is not just, “Oh, what’s that’s that?” But “That would be cool if it existed.”
Yes, yes, it’s all very interesting, but this sort of thing has been one of the roles of science fiction at least since Heinlein’s first story, Lifeline. What’s really interesting here is this video…note the cameo appearance of MAs, scroll screens, and wall screens, almost exactly as we envisioned them in In the Shadow of Ares.
I’d agree with his assessment, except I think the problem is actually much worse:
One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’
The original article is behind the firewall at the New Yorker, so I only have this quote to build on, but if hackneyed War on Terror allegories are all that has him upset about the current state of science fiction he might be in for a surprise if he picks up a copy of, say, Analog.
One of the reasons Carl and I decided to write In the Shadow of Areswas the dearth of positive visions of the future in modern science fiction. Over the past twenty years (if not longer), there has been a shift in tone towards an anti-technology, anti-capitalist, anti-human perspective:
By “anti-technology”, I mean a perspective in which science and its applications are regarded as intrinsically suspect if not dangerous. Plots involving a new discovery, innovation, or application frequently put significant if not sole emphasis on its negative consequences. One of the great things about science fiction traditionally has been the useful or interesting speculative exploration of the potential for misuse of such things, but this perspective instead reflects a deeper pessimism which devalues or dismisses the positive benefits instead of making a balanced assessment of tradeoffs.
By “anti-capitalist”, I mean a perspective in which business, the profit model, free markets, etc. are the enemies of all good and decent things. If a corporation of some sort figures into a story, it’s almost certain to be portrayed as greedy, oppressive, irresponsible, reactionary, rapacious, short-sighted, callous, etc., an intangible sentient entity possessing a collective and inexplicably (or unexplainedly) malevolent will of its own. “Portrayed” is probably a generous way to put it, given that these things are not crafted as the corporation’s attributes so much as mix-and-matched from a pouch of stock-villain tropes with little thought or creativity involved. There seems to be little acknowledgement that there are business entities other than Big Evil Galactic Mega-Conglomerates™, or that as seen in the real world business, profits, markets, etc. are far more likely to be positive agents and influences. There are certainly interesting science fiction stories to be told involving bad businessmen, but I’d hazard a guess that each of them has by now been told many hundreds of times.
By “anti-human”, I mean a perspective in which it is taken for granted that humans are by default corrupt, greedy, bigoted, abusive, violent, intolerant, militaristic, or otherwise by their inescapable nature a threat to non-humans or to the natural world. Non-human entities — whether alien, artificial, or non-sentient — are held to be morally superior to humans due to nothing more than their non-human nature, and are portrayed as endangered by humans due to our aforementioned moral defects. When non-humans are absent, humans are still portrayed as intrinsically morally negative, being (for example) willing to use a new technology to harm or oppress others for no other reason than that that’s what humans are apparently wired to do. Again, this is not to say that there aren’t bad humans to be found, or that humans behaving badly can’t be fodder for an interesting story; the problem is with the self-loathing default assumption that humans are inherently bad, augmented by the corollary assumption that non-humans are inherently good.
This is not to say that these problems are universal, merely pervasive. I gave up on Analog in 2008 after 25 years as a subscriber because of this pervasiveness – there were still occasional human-positive, business-positive, technology-positive stories in the magazine, but there was a clear drift in the opposite direction (and increasing numbers of borderline-fantasy woo-woo stories) over several years.
I think the broader point underlying both Thiel’s criticism and my own is that where science fiction used to be predominantly optimistic, it has for years (decades?) descended into an ugly dominant pessimism. And when the people whose job is imagining possible futures see only doom and gloom ahead, is it any wonder that the people actually responsible for building the future may be less enthusiastic about doing so?