I like sci-fi, but not just any science fiction. I like hard sci-fi, the kind of science fiction that makes me think about our society, our world, and our reality. This is not about Star Trek versus Star Wars, which some call science fantasy because the science isn’t always very scientific. This is about perspectives as diverse as utopian to dystopian to otherwise unimaginable – some of which is happening in our politics, technology, society, and environment. I may be Pretending Not To Panic like many people, but decades of reading sci-fi means I’m surprised as I am disappointed. I’m also inspired enough to begin writing some, too.
Star Trek and Star Wars get most of the attention. Blockbusters make that happen in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look beyond warp drive versus hyperdrive and check out their perspectives.
Star Trek envisions a utopia that we reach by passing through catharsis. Society has abandoned capitalism, eliminated poverty, embraced egalitarianism, and left internal wars behind. All of the nasty bits are left to aliens to introduce for drama. Want to see how we get past dystopia to utopia? Watch the Deep Space Nine episode called Past Tense. Things had to get very bad before they got good.
Star Wars relies on internal conflict with the Rebellion, the Republic, the First Order and a variety of agendas. The Jedi may represent utopia, but they’re eliminated, sort of, maybe – wait for the ninth movie. Some people are driven by ideology, others by power, others by money, and their driving motivations can shift. Nothing is stable. Everything is dramatic. It makes for a good series of stories.
Today’s world, however, is something I see reflected in the stories that best reveal themselves in books. William Gibson and Philip K. Dick describe a near-future on Earth with environmental catastrophe, massive income and wealth inequality, and a power shift from governments to corporations. Some of their books became movies: Johnny Mnemonic and Blade Runner, movies set in a dark tone where people grind through dysfunctional societies trying to carve a niche and secure it against injustice. Like I said, Dark.
The movies are engaging, but the books are useful. When I read the news today, I see echoes of sci-fi stories that explored the various themes that many thought would never arise in American and modern society. Surely we’d never…whatever. A two hour movie can flash the concept onto a screen, but the books behind them delve into motivations and implications. The unexpected consequences that can’t make it to the screen are fascinating and too familiar. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm are good starts to understanding the ease with which authoritarians can rise and rule. My favorites, however, are the authors who take an idea, play what-if, write the book, listen to their personal insights, listen to the readers’ insights, and explore further in the next, and the next, and the next, and maybe invite other authors to play within that realm.
My long time favorite is Larry Niven. He started simply, as most authors do (except for J. K. Rowling) and built on readers’ reactions and his own curiosity. His Known World series is more realistic than movies because his explorations are more complex. Advances in medicine influence finance which influence colonization which influence societal bifurcation which… And then throw in some aliens that are truly alien with alien agendas and perspectives and the stories don’t get old. One story line even spawned a series of PhDs. He wrote about a world that’s a massive ring around a star; Ringworld. It is one of his best sellers because it is a good story, and thought provoking. It provoked so many thoughts that science and engineering students analyzed it, wrote theses about it, and got their degrees because of it. He listened and extended the series with Ringworld Engineers where he gave more life to their insights, and created stories that explored the implications there and all the way back to Earth.
I watch the news now as if each item is a three minute movie that I know has bookcases of complexity behind each report. Lately, I’m seeing more similarities with sci-fi. The technologies are following the courses set out decades ago, but it is the societal implications that resonate disturbingly closely to those dystopian worlds.
A more recent favorite is Dan Simmons. He has fewer books than Larry Niven, but he nicely dives into the blending of the advancement of technology by different factions familiar within our current society. Summarizing a series of books into a movie is tough. Doing so in these few sentences has to fall far shorter, but I can pass along one possibility that dramatically changes society’s path. As technology becomes easier to implement and as governments become less associated with their citizenry, people become more trusting of technology than of their governments. Smart assistants like Alexa are remarkably like the Big Brother devices from 1984. People were startled to learn that they were going to receive a Presidential Alert on their mobile phones, but pay for the privilege of having a computer track their location, activities, health condition, shopping habits, and maybe even help pick a mate. Do we turn over our wars to robots? Do we trust personal defences more than municipal police forces?
Some of my friends are surprised that I’m not more surprised with what’s happening. Thanks to lots of reading, I’ve unfortunately seen most of it before, even the manipulation of the masses through computerized manipulation of their information. Dive into Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series for the work of the fictional character Hari Seldon.
Reading prepares me to act, not just react, and not just watch others take actions that affect me. Reading books help me manage my money and my life choices by witnessing stories before they happen.
I have ideas, too. In addition to my regular gigs and jobs, I’ve been writing a science fiction novel that helps me explore concepts of consciousness, technological backlash against technological omnipresence, and a diaspora. What started as a simple idea is growing. Whether it will grow as well as it has for other authors isn’t as important as the personal exploration that helps me understand the world.
And then, there are those unintended consequences.
Last night a friend and fellow writer (Don Scoby aka @WIBakingCo) and I gave a presentation at one of the local libraries about self-publishing. I’ve given the presentation several times solo, so I gave the general view of the industry and trends while he gave the most current perspective. He is getting ready to publish his first book, a cookbook which is a challenge, within the next week or so. While preparing our presentation we talked about our other books that are in progress. He, too, is working on a sci-fi novel and possible series that has some of the same explorations as mine, but from a different perspective. Taking inspiration from Larry Niven and others, it’s possible to have more than one writer write within the same realm, just like Star Wars and Star Trek.
As a society, we have entered an unexpected world. Authoritarianism is rising. Environmental upsets are happening faster than most expected. Financial systems are potentially destabilizing with inequalties and cryptocurrencies. The pundits and the politicians may not be the ones to listen to for ways to affect change and adapt. It may be the novelists, the dreamers, and the ideological explorers who don’t constrain their message to a three minute news clip, a two hour movie, or even a tweet. This may be the time to read about the future and its possibilities to decide what to do on a personal and sometimes financial level.
PS If you’re interested in our presentation, we’re happy to give it again. In the meantime, here’s a video of the first hour. We livestreamed it to YouTube, a combination of technologies that would’ve seemed magical thirty years ago.
Now, it’s time for me to get back to binge-watching Stargate SG-1. I’ve almost memorized Firefly, and look forward to binge-watching Babylon 5, someday. It’s all good.