Once upon a time, back in the dim and distant past – so distant, in fact, that I no longer remember exactly where or when it happened – I served on a Con panel about dystopias. Well, who hasn’t, right? Pretty much all memory of what I or anybody else on that panel had to say is now gone. But I do recall with startling clarity that at one point a stern German woman in the audience raised her hand and commenced upbraiding us all for failing to write futures that would give people hope. She had, we discovered in conversation after the panel wrapped up, been raised in East Germany under the Honnecker regime – a time and place in which artists of all stripes were considered to have a very real social responsibility in practising their art. (Tactfully, no-one commented on how that shit turned out). And she still believed that if you were lucky enough to make a living from imagining the future, you had a duty to do so in a fashion that would encouraged optimism and hope in your readers.
At the time, I cherished the encounter because I thought it rather quaint and antique – like running into some time-travelling Victorian adventuress and having her scold me for not having shaved recently enough. Social responsibilities of the genre writer – I mean, good grief. So I smiled and nodded, nursing a mild hangover, and I never did do much to dispute Lady Bracknell’s exhortations on the matter. Quaint and antique, Richard, fix this in your memory – you’re probably never going to see the like again.
All the things I didn’t say to that East German woman come brimming back to my lips, and this time I’m not even the least bit hungover. But good grief – where to start?
Well, maybe with the point that I have no issue with the fiction of Hieroglyph itself. Elizabeth Bear is one of the contributors, and I know her to be a fine SF writer. Ditto Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow. And while I haven’t read any Stephenson since Cryptonomicon, it’s probably safe to assume his contribution will be pretty solid too. I don’t know any of the other contributors at all, but again, there’s no reason to believe their stories won’t be up to scratch. So from the point of view of the writing, I make no judgement at all. I may well even get round to reading it.
But as to the mission statement –
Okay, first off, let’s look at the evidence. The driving force behind Hieroglyph appears to be coming at least in part from scientists, so you’d think they’d want to apply an evidence-based approach, right? According to that BBC article, the concern is that too much negativity in visions of the future is cramping the ability of people to Dream Big and so come through with genuine scientific innovations in the real world. If we want to have better futures says project director Ed Finn We have to have better dreams. Right – where’s the evidence for this? Dystopian SF as a significant sub-genre has been kicking around since the seventies at least, with a really big uptick around the rise of Cyberpunk in the eighties. Has this, then, resulted in a drastic slowdown in the rate of scientific innovation and invention as all those who grew up with Cyberpunk feel their innate ingenuity crushed by the weight of dystopian future visions?
Uh – no.
In fact, the rate of scientific progress appears to be rising with almost exponential speed. In computing, in communications technology, in medical advances at all levels from molecular up to basic prosthetic, in materials technology of all types, in cosmology – it’s all roaring ahead like a forest fire. So if we take an evidence-based approach, clearly one of two things is true: either dystopian SF is really good for scientific advance, or – more likely, in my humble opinion – there’s no fucking correlation at all, and the type of SF we read, dystopian or otherwise, has absolutely nothing to do with the advance of human science and technology.
So where’s the beef?
Oh, wait up.
Wait just a moment. I get it. Twenty kilometre tall steel towers, citizenship of an innovation hub on a moon of Mars, 3d printers on the Moon….. This is about the bloody space programme again, isn’t it. All that talk about Big Dreams and Better Futures – it’s that old gnawing chagrin that we have’t yet sent a manned mission to Mars. It’s the angst that we aren’t already out there terraforming the Red Planet, mining the asteroids, building O’Neill habitats and generally doing the whole Space Cowboy thing. It’s Interstellar. It’s the terror that if we don’t Answer the Call to the High Frontier and Colonise Space like the rock-ribbed men of the Old West, then we’re doomed to a long fall into decadence, cultural death and extinction.
Never mind the fact that medical technology has lifted life expectancy close to double what it was a century ago. That – for example – the most common age of death in the UK has gone from age 0 in 1964 to age 87 in 2014; that British infant mortality in the first year of life has fallen from one in six in 1900 to one in over two hundred and fifty now. Never mind that we’ve wiped out smallpox globally, more or less eradicated polio and look set to take down malaria in the not too distant future. And that the coming advances in gene therapy are going to make even those achievements all look decidedly small-scale and basic by comparison to the health and longevity genentech will offer. No matter that we carry little slabs of coms tech around in our pockets that make the communicators in the original Star Trek look like something out of a steampunk fantasy. No matter that we can cross oceans in a handful of hours, talk to people from every other culture on the planet as if they were sitting in the same room with us, consume for a few quid healthy and nourishing foods grown on the other side of the world that only a handful of decades ago only the super-rich could permit themselves. No matter that present day cosmologists have a pretty good idea what shape the entire fucking universe is, and that physicists can spend time on the Franco-Swiss border hunting the particles that define existence itself. No, no – none of this matters, none of this means anything at all, if we’re not in space! We’re just not dreaming big enough!
Not dreaming big enough penises maybe.
(Perhaps no coincidence there’s so much excitement about that twenty kilometre tall hard steel tower, eh? Look at the size of that, darling!)
Because, when all is said and done, I suspect that’s what this may be about. This conquer-the-stars schtick is at base very male. It’s about Boldly Going, Ruggedly Enduring, Standing Heroically Tall. It’s about carving out a domain in the wilderness, about Hard Men conquering Hard Terrain and putting their mark upon it.
In short, it’s a Golden-Age-of-SF dream, filled with all the heroic – and erroneous – images of space colonisation the Golden Age gave rise to. And as such, it’s a bust.
The truth, of course, is that we are in space. We just landed on a comet, for fuck’s sake. We have a crew of international astronauts in permanent orbit. There are so many probes on Mars that pretty soon we’re going to have to start allocating parking spaces. We’re out past the gas giants to the edges of the solar system and beyond, we’re cataloguing Earth-type planets around stars at hundreds of light years’ distance. Not dreaming big enough, my arse.
Of course, none of this resembles the Golden Age dream of rocket-ships full of explorers, settlers, traders and rogues criss-crossing the solar system like sailing ships of yore, brave new independent statelets spring up on Mars and Ganymede or, for that matter, space opera dreadnoughts slugging it out between the stars. No, we’re not going ourselves, thank you very much, because the distances are bloody vast, the conditions insanely hostile and our increasingly magnificent space-going ICT is a far better fit for the job. But so what? No-one goes to work on a jet-pack either. That era of SF story-telling got it wrong, is all. Medieval European trade adventurism, Napoleonic naval conflict and the conquest of the Americas turn out not to be very good imaginative templates for how space exploration works. We don’t get to be cowboys/conquistadors/pirates/ranchers/marines or merchant princes in space after all. Boo hoo.
Our vision has moved on. These days, we tend to see with cyberpunk eyes.
The big thing that Cyberpunk did – and that some people still seem unable to forgive – was to invert the telescope and turn the focus inward. Wetware, genentech, cyberspace – suddenly all the interesting stuff was going on at the infra level. Cool SF was inside us now, cutting us open and splicing us up, getting icky and up-close and personal (instead of rock-ribbed and distant and in cool Kirk-like command). It was territory that the New Wave had helped open up, of course, along with a handful of early iconoclast practitioners like Bester and Sheckley and Pohl, but Cyberpunk was the critical mass – the point at which general realisation dawned that we didn’t have to leave the planet to have mind-blowing futurist adventures.
And of course along with this shift, came another lurch toward the internal – politics. The cyberpunk politics of SF, instead of shooting for Imperial Rome among the Stars or the Declaration of Independence on the Moons of Jupiter, suddenly became concerned with a model much less masculinely rousing and much closer to home – neoliberal corporate dominance and the military-industrial complex; the destruction of the social contract and regression into oligarchy via consumer addiction, misinformation and rising proletarian ignorance.
Which, as it turns out, was a much closer fit for the future we’re actually having to deal with right now.
Some might see all this as dystopian or defeatist. Cyberpunk borrows liberally, after all, from the Noir tradition, which is itself infused with a deep (and invaluable) cynicism about human affairs. Damaged, disillusioned men were its luminaries – writers like Hammett and Chandler, who’d seen the face of war up close and the crucifixion of the poor that followed, and were locked in struggle with their own internal demons and disappointments. There was a weariness and a wisdom to their fiction that Cyberpunk co-opted and poured into the new future sensibility. With Cyberpunk, you suddenly didn’t need to worry about encroaching alien menaces, because there weren’t any. Better start worrying instead about nightmarish government agencies and corporate thug squads, because those were the guys who were really going to get you. You don’t get to seek out brave new worlds in Cyberpunk, and colonise them in proud defiance of a distant oppressive overlordship, because the world you already own has been sold out from under your feet while you weren’t looking, and like ninety percent of the human race, you’ve been dumped in the underclass, sonny, where your chances of getting your rocketship pilot’s license is about the same as fucking the movie star of your choice.
Grim? Dystopian? Welcome to the whole fucking point.
The truth is that the sentiments expressed in those linked articles (and in that nice German lady’s thesis) are utterly and fatally flawed in their whole perception of what fiction is and how it works. If someone writes a powerful novel about the slave-owning American south, that doesn’t mean they think slavery is the only viable labour institution for the human race. Fiction about the Holocaust – The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, for example – isn’t written to suggest and celebrate the fact that we are doomed to an eternity of genocide and brutalism. A story about a woman dying of cancer doesn’t imply that there can never be a cure. And dystopian futures aren’t there to tell us that there is no hope.
Does that shit really need saying? Apparently so.
Look, good fiction isn’t a TED lecture or an IKEA assembly manual. It can’t be, it’d be catastrophically anodyne if it were. Good fiction is wild, unrestrained, malcontent and looking for a fight. Good fiction is human – it examines the world and the human condition, turns it restlessly this way and that, sees its flaws and tries to get a handle on them. William Gibson’s early cyberpunk fiction doesn’t celebrate the rise of corporate dominance, the death of the middle class and the hollowing out of society into Haves and HaveNots – it’s an examination of those trends and a warning (and a pretty prescient one too, as it turns out). The whole point of dystopian fiction is that it rings the alarm bells, it points at what’s going to happen if we don’t wake up and pay attention, at what is in fact happening all around us, even now.
And this isn’t a very new thing, either – dystopian warnings have been kicking around in science fiction since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927. They are to a great extent the very lifeblood of SF as a genre. It’s a big part of what we do.
And in connection with this, here’s what I think I find most irritating about Hieroglyph’s mission statement – it takes a wide-eyed and utterly ignorant view of how human society works; it assumes a one-to-one beneficent relationship between a better future and better technology, and this simply isn’t the case. Gibson again - the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed. He was right on the money. We already have the technology, right here and now, to end world hunger, to see that no child dies of simple preventable diseases, and we have not fucking done it. It’s not lack of tech that’s stopping us having a better future, it’s us – humans and the social and political systems we’re hardwired to prefer. Global warming isn’t happening because we don’t have enough technology, it’s happening because we haven’t yet learnt to control the technology we already do have in a sane adult fashion. The Socialist dream didn’t fail because of a lack of technological innovation, it failed because it doesn’t fit the human psyche. The Middle East isn’t on fire because we just haven’t come up with the right scientific advances yet. All the cool technology in the world hasn’t prevented the devastation of the American middle class, the creation of record-breaking levels of wealth inequality in the most developed nation on Earth, and the brutal rolling back of human rights legislation everywhere.
People accuse me of writing dystopian fiction, but to be honest all I do is look around and extrapolate. I look at neo-liberal economics tearing down public health services all over the world, driving down wages and milking national budgets to fight stupid illegal wars, selling cheap and lethal foodstuffs to populations too ill-educated to grasp what’s being done to them, telling people freedom lies in being able to choose which insanely expensive shiny mobile device you mortgage yourself to own and which of the hundred and fifty seven TV channels full of recycled shit you watch, and when I see all that, do I think these problems are going be solved by building a twenty kilometre steel tower, an innovation hub on the Moon and a colony on Mars?
Do I feel the need to write some cheery, upbeat fiction about how future technology’s going to save us all?