Tag Archives: science fiction

Old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky

Always provocative science fiction writer/design guru Bruce Sterling on the future – from his closing keynote at SXSW 2014 

My suspicion is you’re going to see some very severe (not super severe, but increasingly severe) weather disruption events that are just like the ones we’ve already had, only more so. And they’re going to be carried within this cruelty of neo-Liberal global capitalism and the casino economy that we’ve built, our extremely uneven, and outmatched economic structure where the ultra-wealthy can basically buy anything anywhere.

So what will that look like? The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. People often ask, “How could science fiction writers predict the future?” The middle of the 20th Century, from here up to about 2070, 2075… it’s old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.

How do I know that? Well, it’s because demographic change is very obvious — people are gonna get older. And the urban change is very obvious — people have been moving into larger and larger cities for several decades. And climate change is super obvious. People can deny all three of them. You can say, “Oh, well my town will never get bigger.” Okay, Austin’s getting bigger by 100 people a day. Or you could say, “Oh, well I’m never going to get older.” Okay, you are gonna get older. You could get Botox, you can deny it, you can fake it, exercise, take vitamins… you’re gonna get older.

Then there’s the issue of being afraid of the sky, which is mostly a slider bar — you should be afraid of the sky now, but you could be *extremely* afraid of the sky very suddenly for pretty much any unpredictable reason. Once the thing hits— there’s gonna be lots of Katrinas. If it’s a Katrina a year, we could manage it. But if it’s a Katrina a month or if it’s a Katrina a week, we’re in for it. There’s gonna be lots of old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. Demographics, urbanization, fear.


William Gibson does not think our present was anyone’s future

David Wallace-Wells has a long interview with William Gibson on the Art of Fiction in the Paris Review.  The interview concludes

Do you think of your last three books as being science fiction?


No, I think of them as attempts to disprove the distinction or attempts to dissolve the boundary. They are set in a world that meets virtually every criteria of being science fiction, but it happens to be our world, and it’s barely tweaked by the author to make the technology just fractionally imaginary or fantastic. It has, to my mind, the effect of science fiction.

If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of a really clear and simple description of the world today, they’d have read your proposal and said, Well, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense. Granted, you have half a dozen powerful and really excellent plot drivers for that many science-fiction n­ovels, but you can’t have them all in one novel.


What are those major plot drivers?


Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilizing the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.


And you haven’t even gotten to the technology.


You haven’t even gotten to the Internet. By the time you were telling about the Internet, they’d be showing you the door. It’s just too much science fiction.

Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints.

Murakami on fiction for an unreal world

One of the problems with scenario planning is that it requires plausible scenarios, but that reality is behaves in ways that are implausible.  This is another way of describing what Nassim Taleb named Black Swans, significant unexpected events, that change the course of events in unlikely ways.

In an article in the International Herald Tribune magazine, well known Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, author of the Windup Bird Chronicle and many other books, about how he believes that ‘realistic’ fiction is now incapable of capturing the present.  In his article Reality A and Reality B Murakami writes:

Over the past 30 years, I have written fiction in various forms ranging from short stories to full-length novels. The story has always been one of the most fundamental human concepts. While each story is unique, it functions for the most part as something that can be shared and exchanged with others. That is one of the things that gives a story its meaning. Stories change form freely as they inhale the air of each new age. In principle a medium of cultural transmission, stories are highly variable when it comes to the mode of presentation they employ. Like skilled fashion designers, we novelists clothe stories, as they change shape from day to day, in words suited to their figures.

Viewed from such a professional perspective, it would seem that the interface between us and the stories we encounter underwent a greater change than ever before at some point when the world crossed (or began to cross) the millennial threshold. Whether this was a change for the good or a less welcome change, I am in no position to judge. About all I can say is that we can probably never go back to where we started.

Speaking for myself, one of the reasons I feel this so strongly is the fact that the fiction I write is itself undergoing a perceptible transformation. The stories inside me are steadily changing form as they inhale the new atmosphere. I can clearly feel the movement happening inside my body. Also happening at the same time, I can see, is a substantial change in the way readers are receiving the fiction I write.

There has been an especially noteworthy change in the posture of European and American readers. Until now, my novels could be seen in 20th-century terms, that is, to be entering their minds through such doorways as “post-modernism” or “magic realism” or “Orientalism”; but from around the time that people welcomed the new century, they gradually began to remove the framework of such “isms” and accept the worlds of my stories more nearly as-is. I had a strong sense of this shift whenever I visited Europe and America. It seemed to me that people were accepting my stories in toto — stories that are chaotic in many cases, missing logicality at times, and in which the composition of reality has been rearranged. Rather than analyzing the chaos within my stories, they seem to have begun conceiving a new interest in the very task of how best to take them in.

By contrast, general readers in Asian countries never had any need for the doorway of literary theory when they read my fiction. Most Asian people who took it upon themselves to read my works apparently accepted the stories I wrote as relatively “natural” from the outset. First came the acceptance, and then (if necessary) came the analysis. In most cases in the West, however, with some variation, the logical parsing came before the acceptance. Such differences between East and West, however, appear to be fading with the passing years as each influences the other.

We often wonder what it would have been like if 9/11had never happened — or at least if that plan had not succeeded so perfectly. Then the world would have been very different from what it is now. America might have had a different president (a major possibility), and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might never have happened (an even greater possibility).

Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not “chaos”?

What kind of meaning can fiction have in an age like this? What kind of purpose can it serve? In an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?

…In that sense, at the same time that fiction (story) is presently undergoing a severe test, it possesses an unprecedented opportunity. Of course fiction has always been assigned responsibility and questions to deal with in every age, but surely the responsibility and questions are especially great now. Story has a function that it alone can perform, and that is to “turn everything into a story.” To transform the things and events around us into the metaphor of the story form and to suggest the true nature of the situation in the dynamism of that substitution: that is story’s most important function.

Biologist and British science fiction writer Paul McAuley, author of the very good the Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, reflect on how science fiction has largely failed to engage the world Murakami evokes but has the potential to do so in his response to Murakami’s article:

As a science-fiction writer, I find Murakami’s ideas incredibly interesting. And hopeful. Or rather, potentially hopeful. For something similar should have happened to science fiction, shouldn’t it? After all, catastrophes and sudden shifts in perception are part of its stock in trade. But instead of confronting Reality A, the genre has, in the first decade of the 21st century, too often turned to its own comforting version of Reality B: retreating into pleasant little pulpish daydreams in which starships still effortlessly span a galaxy where a guy can turn a profit, or where technology is as controllable as clockwork and the actions of individuals can still make a mark on history. Meanwhile, they grumble, ‘mainstream’ writers are grabbing ideas from the genre and doing terrible things to them without acknowledging the source. As if permission could be somehow given, or withheld.

I prefer the point of view of William Gibson, who has pointed out that the only way to tackle the place we’re in now is to use the science-fiction toolkit – the tropes, images and metaphor developed from the crude flint hammers of pulp by decades of cooperative effort and argument. If other writers are using the science-fiction toolkit to evolve new kinds of stories in the present’s different air, that’s exactly what we should be doing, too. Forget the past. Especially the pasts of all those great glorious science-fiction futures, lost when it all changed. Look again at the future. Embrace change. Let go. If only. If only.

Need for new utopian stories

Following up on the previous post’s William Gibson quote, another science fiction writer with interesting ideas about the future is Scottish writer Charlie Stross.  On his weblog Charlie’s Diary, he writes about something I think is important, the need for new positive visions of the future.  He writes:

It seems to me that one of our besetting problems these days is that there’s a shortage of utopias on offer.

… it seems to me that the post-cold war neoliberal dominated political consensus … is intrinsically inimical to the consideration of utopian ideals. Burkean conservativism tends to be skeptical of change, always asking first, “will it make things worse?” This isn’t a bad question to ask in and of itself, but we’re immured a period of change unprecedented in human history (it kicked off around the 1650s; its end is not yet in sight) and basing your policies on what you can see in your rear-view mirror leaves you open to driving over unforseen pot-holes. To a conservative, the first priority is not to lose track of what’s good about the past, lest the future be worse. But this viewpoint brings with it a cognitive bias towards the simplistic outlook that innovation is always bad.

Which is why I think we badly need more utopian speculation. The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our jobs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can’t stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.

Having said that, we should be able to create a new golden age of utopian visions. A global civilization appears to be emerging for the first time. It’s unstable, unevenly distributed, and blindly fumbling its way forward. But we have unprecedented tools for sharing information; slowly developing theories of behavioural economics, cognitive bias, and communications that move beyond the crudely simplistic (and wrong) 19th century models of perfectly rational market actors: even models of development that seem to be generating sporadic progress in those countries that were hammered down and ruthlessly exploited as colonial assets by the ancien regime and its inheritors.

We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?

Why are there so few positive stories about the future?

Today’s stories about the future seem to be pretty bleak. Recent big apocalyptic novels have been McCarthy’s The Road, Atwood’s Year of the Flood, but I can’t think of many influential positive environmental futures after Ecotopia in the early 1970s.

On Tor.com, science fiction novelist and critic Jo Walton speculates about why there are not more positive futures?:

When I was writing about The Door Into Summer, I kept finding myself thinking what a cheerful positive future it’s set in. I especially noticed because the future is 1970 and 2000. I also noticed because it isn’t a cliche SF future—no flying cars, no space colonies, no aliens, just people on Earth and progress progressing. Why is nobody writing books like this now? …

Why is this?

I don’t think it’s because we live in terrible depressing times. 1957, when Heinlein wrote The Door Into Summer, wasn’t a particularly cheerful … Anyway, people were writing cheerful optimistic stories about the future in the 1930s, when things could not have been blacker. People always want escapism, after all.

First is the looming shadow of the Singularity, that makes many people feel that there is no future, or rather, the future is unknowable. I’ve written about why I think this concept may be inhibiting SF.Another thing may be the failure of manned spaceflight. Most hopeful future-oriented SF includes space colonization and we’re just not doing it. It is cool sending robots to Mars and Jupiter, but it isn’t the same. The problem is people in space doesn’t really seem to make sense, and that puts us in the position where we want to have a moonbase because… because we want to have a moonbase. …

The third thing I see is anthropogenic climate change—far more than the threat of nuclear annihilation this seems to bring with it a puritan yearning for simpler greener life, self-hatred, and a corresponding distrust of science and especially progress. It isn’t the reality of climate change that’s the problem, it’s the mindset that goes with it. If you suggest to some people that small clean modern nuclear reactors are a good way of generating electricity they recoil in horror. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain and sequels have people dealing with the climate change by planetary engineering, but that’s very unusual, mostly it gets into books as something to cower before.

And then there’s the fact that for the most part we don’t understand our technology any more. I know how a CRT monitor works—LCD, not so much. We have a lot of it, it has certainly progressed, but when we take the back off it’s very mysterious. I think this is part of the appeal of steampunk, looking back to a time when tech was comprehensible as well as made of brass. In a similar but related way, maybe progress is moving too fast for optimistic science fiction. … It’s hard to get ahead of that, except with disaster changing everything. Halting State was out of date practically before it was in paperback.

She asks her readers for examples of books that are:

  • Published since 2000
  • Set in our future (or anyway the future of when they were written)
  • With continuing scientific and technological progress
  • That would be nice places to live.

But, on her site people cannot come up with many near future positive stories.

Can any Resilience Science readers suggest novels with positive environmental futures?

Kim Stanley Robinson on writing about Utopias

In an interview with Terry Bisson, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson talks about the importance of writing about utopias:

Terry Bisson: My favorite of that series is Pacific Edge, the utopia of the series. What’s yours? Are there any particular problems in writing a utopia?

Kim Stanley Robinson: My favorite is The Gold Coast, for personal reasons, but I think Pacific Edge is more important to us now. Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard, and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better. Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization.

It’s a slim tradition since [Sir Thomas] More invented the word, but a very interesting one, and at certain points important: the Bellamy clubs after Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward had a big impact on the Progressive movement in American politics, and H.G. Wells’s stubborn persistence in writing utopias over about fifty years (not his big sellers) conveyed the vision that got turned into the postwar order of social security and some kind of government-by-meritocracy.

So utopias have had effects in the real world. More recently I think Ecotopia by [Ernest] Callenbach had a big impact on how the hippie generation tried to live in the years after, building families and communities.

There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection—that they must be boring—are often political attacks, or ignorant repeating of a line, or another way of saying “No expository lumps please, it has to be about me.” The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.

And if we did achieve a just and sustainable world civilization, I’m confident there would still be enough drama, as I tried to show in Pacific Edge. There would still be love lost, there would still be death. That would be enough. The horribleness of unnecessary tragedy may be lessened and the people who like that kind of thing would have to deal with a reduction in their supply of drama.

So, the writing of utopia comes down to figuring out ways of talking about just these issues in an interesting way; how tenuous it would be, how fragile, how much a tightrope walk and a work in progress. That along with the usual science fiction problem of handling exposition. It could be done, and I wish it were being done more often.

The 21st century a FAQ

From Scottish Science Fiction writer Charlie Stross, Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the 21st century:

Q: What can we expect?

A: Pretty much what you read about in New Scientist every week. Climate change, dust bowls caused by over-cultivation necessitated by over-population, resource depletion in obscure and irritatingly mission-critical sectors (never mind oil; we’ve only got 60 years of easily exploitable phosphates left — if we run out of phosphates, our agricultural fertilizer base goes away), the great population overshoot (as developing countries transition to the low population growth model of developed countries) leading to happy fun economic side-effects (deflation, house prices crash, stagnation in cutting-edge research sectors due to not enough workers, aging populations), and general bad-tempered overcrowded primate bickering.

Oh, and the unknown unknowns.

Q: Unknown unknowns? Are you talking about Donald Rumsfeld?

A: No, but I’m stealing his term for unprecedented and unpredictable events (sometimes also known as black swans). From the point of view of an observer in 1909, the modern consumer electronics industry (not to mention computing and internetworking) is a black swan, a radical departure from the then-predictable revolutionary enabling technologies (automobiles and aeroplanes). Planes, trains and automobiles were already present, and progressed remarkably well — and a smart mind in 1909 would have predicted this. But antibiotics, communication satellites, and nuclear weapons were another matter. Some of these items were mentioned, in very approximate form, by 1909-era futurists, but for the most part they took the world by surprise.

We’re certainly going to see unknown unknowns in the 21st century. Possible sources of existential surprise include (but are not limited to) biotechnology, nanotechnology, AI, climate change, supply chain/logistics breakthroughs to rival the shipping container, fork lift pallet, bar code, and RFID chip — and politics. But there’ll be other stuff so weird and strange I can’t even guess at it.

Q: Eh? But what’s the big picture?

A: The big picture is that since around 2005, the human species has — for the first time ever — become a predominantly urban species. Prior to that time, the majority of humans lived in rural/agricultural lifestyles. Since then, just over 50% of us now live in cities; the move to urbanization is accelerating. If it continues at the current pace, then some time after 2100 the human population will tend towards the condition of the UK — in which roughly 99% of the population live in cities or suburbia.

This is going to affect everything.

It’s going to affect epidemiology. It’s going to affect wealth production. It’s going to affect agriculture (possibly for the better, if it means a global shift towards concentrated high-intensity food production, possibly in vertical farms, and a re-wilding/return to nature of depopulated and underutilized former rural areas). It’s going to affect the design and layout of our power, transport, and information grids. It’s going to affect our demographics (urban populations tend to grow by immigration, and tend to feature lower birth rates than agricultural communities).

There’s a gigantic difference between the sustainability of a year 2109 with 6.5 billion humans living a first world standard of living in creative cities, and a year 2109 with 3.3 billion humans living in cities and 3.2 billion humans still practicing slash’n'burn subsistence farming all over the map.

Q: Space colonization?

A: Forget it.

Assuming we avoid a systemic collapse, there’ll probably be a moon base, by and by. Whether it’s American, Chinese, Indian, or Indonesian is anybody’s guess, and probably doesn’t matter as far as the 99.999% of the human species who will never get off the planet are concerned. There’ll probably be a Mars expedition too. But barring fundamental biomedical breakthroughs, or physics/engineering breakthroughs that play hell with the laws of physics as currently understood, canned monkeys aren’t going to Jupiter any time soon, never mind colonizing the universe. (See also Saturn’s Children for a somewhat snarky look at this.)

Pickering on science fiction and cybernetics

Historian of science, Andrew Pickering (who wrote Mangle of Practice) while reviewing How We Became Posthuman by Katherine Hayles (in Technology and Culture 41.2 (2000) 392-395) writes about science fiction and cybernetics:

“Posthumanity” is not necessarily a bad thing. Following Donna Haraway, Hayles sees it as having a positive potential in freeing our imaginations from the hold of old dualisms and associated patterns of domination. But posthumanity can have a dark side, too. Haraway associates this with global capitalism and militarism, but Hayles’s bête noire is Hans Moravec, the computer scientist who talks about downloading consciousness into a computer. This equation of human-ness with disembodied information looks like another male trick to feminists tired of the devaluation of women’s bodily labor (from having babies to all the menial tasks that have traditionally made the “life of the mind” of the male scientist possible).

To put it crudely, then, Hayles wants to promote an embodied posthumanism and to fend off the Moravecian “nightmare” (p. 1). To this end, much of How We Became Posthuman is devoted to discussions of how scientists have struggled with notions of embodiment and information, in three waves, as she calls them, in the history of cybernetics: a first wave associated with the name of Norbert Wiener; a second wave from the 1970s onward, associated with Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s idea of autopoiesis; and a third, 1990s, wave emblematized by work on artificial life. Hayles notes the different conceptions of the body and information that have surfaced in each wave, and seeks to emphasize the costs (intellectual, moral, and political) entailed in editing the body out. As is her wont, interspersed with these discussions are her readings of novels. Without claiming any necessary causation in either direction, she seeks to draw out parallels between fiction and science, coupling Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo with the first wave of cybernetics, Philip K. Dick’s mid-1960s novels with the second, and works by Greg Bear, Cole Perriman, Richard Powers, and Neal Stephenson with the third. I rather resisted these readings at first, but I find that the associations Hayles makes have stuck in my mind. She is certainly right that Limbo (which I had not heard of before) is truly amazing both as a novel and as a document of the early days of cybernetics and the cold war.

Kim Stanley Robinson on nature, architecture, and society

Geoff Manaugh recently interviewed ecological science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson about ecology, architecture and socieities on BLDGBLOG.  Manaugh writes:

Robinson’s books are not only filled with descriptions of landscapes – whole planets, in fact, noted, sensed, and textured down to the chemistry of their soils and the currents in their seas – but they are often about nothing other than vast landscape processes, in the midst of which a few humans stumble along. “Politics,” in these novels, is as much a question of social justice as it is shorthand for learning to live in specific environments.

Robinson responds to a question about the idea that catastrophe can allow new forms of social organization to emerge:

It’s a failure of imagination to think that climate change is going to be an escape from jail – and it’s a failure in a couple of ways.

For one thing, modern civilization, with six billion people on the planet, lives on the tip of a gigantic complex of prosthetic devices – and all those devices have to work. The crash scenario that people think of, in this case, as an escape to freedom would actually be so damaging that it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be an adventure. It would merely be a struggle for food and security, and a permanent high risk of being robbed, beaten, or killed; your ability to feel confident about your own – and your family’s and your children’s – safety would be gone. People who fail to realize that… I’d say their imaginations haven’t fully gotten into this scenario.

It’s easy to imagine people who are bored in the modern techno-surround, as I call it, and they’re bored because they have not fully comprehended that they’re still primates, that their brains grew over a million-year period doing a certain suite of activities, and those activities are still available. Anyone can do them; they’re simple. They have to do with basic life support and basic social activities unboosted by technological means.

And there’s an addictive side to this. People try to do stupid technological replacements for natural primate actions, but it doesn’t quite give them the buzz that they hoped it would. Even though it looks quite magical, the sense of accomplishment is not there. So they do it again, hoping that the activity, like a drug, will somehow satisfy the urge that it’s supposedly meant to satisfy. But it doesn’t. So they do it more and more – and they fall down a rabbit hole, pursuing a destructive and high carbon-burn activity, when they could just go out for a walk, or plant a garden, or sit down at a table with a friend and drink some coffee and talk for an hour. All of these unboosted, straight-forward primate activities are actually intensely satisfying to the totality of the mind-body that we are.

So a little bit of analysis of what we are as primates – how we got here evolutionarily, and what can satisfy us in this world – would help us to imagine activities that are much lower impact on the planet and much more satisfying to the individual at the same time. In general, I’ve been thinking: let’s rate our technologies for how much they help us as primates, rather than how they can put us further into this dream of being powerful gods who stalk around on a planet that doesn’t really matter to us.

Because a lot of these supposed pleasures are really expensive. You pay with your life. You pay with your health. And they don’t satisfy you anyway! You end up taking various kinds of prescription or non-prescription drugs to compensate for your unhappiness and your unhealthiness – and the whole thing comes out of a kind of spiral: if only you could consume more, you’d be happier. But it isn’t true.

I’m advocating a kind of alteration of our imagined relationship to the planet. I think it’d be more fun – and also more sustainable. We’re always thinking that we’re much more powerful than we are, because we’re boosted by technological powers that exert a really, really high cost on the environment – a cost that isn’t calculated and that isn’t put into the price of things. It’s exteriorized from our fake economy. And it’s very profitable for certain elements in our society for us to continue to wander around in this dream-state and be upset about everything.

The hope that, “Oh, if only civilization were to collapse, then I could be happy” – it’s ridiculous. You can simply walk out your front door and get what you want out of that particular fantasy.