05 December 2013

The Fatal Conceit of Science Fiction

It has been interesting watching SF wrestle with the question of the ongoing IT revolution of the last few decades, especially since society as a whole has not yet figured out how to deal with the Internet. If you read older science fiction, the computers of the future were supposed to be the computer from STAR TREK, Wintermute, and Tron-style virtual reality. No one anticipated the banal reality of YouTube, Hulu, Internet pornography, and people Instagramming pictures of their breakfast toast. All of a sudden, science fiction novels have to wrestle with a future containing smartphones and the Internet, and this book does a good job of grafting the IT revolution onto a space-opera framework. [Emphasis added.]

Well of course no one in science fiction anticipated banal reality.  Why would misanthropic, ill-adjusted, highly intelligent, anti-social nerds be able to anticipate the banality of 99%?  The people most drawn to reading and writing science fiction are most likely completely unable to relate to Mass-Man.  Of course, this may be projection, but it still seems a little far-fetched to think that people who are more interested in science and technology than in actual real-life human nature would be able to anticipate just how banal technology usage would turn out to be.

Most people, as Vox is fond of noting, are idiots.  This, incidentally, is by design.  Most people are not going to be interested in using their free time to do nerdy, intellectually challenging things.  Most people are not adventurous.  Most people, at the end of a long day of work, chores, and menial labor simply want to have fun and relax.  Hence YouTube.  Hence Hulu.  Hence internet porn.  Technology is the new pipeline for entertaining diversions and games because ultimately most people are content with living a simple life of work and entertainment.  The masses truly need only bread and circuses.

Thus, the fatal conceit of Sci-Fi is that it generally rests on the intrinsically Progressive (which is not actually progressive) assumption that Human Nature is not intractable but moldable, and thus the only thing holding humanity back from achieving impressive feats is simply a lack of technology and human resources.  Sci-Fi assumed that technology would ameliorate Human Nature, but now that technology has come to pass, the score reads Human Nature: 1, Technology: 0.

Technology—indeed every natural resource—will always be used predominately for rather banal ends because human nature remains completely and totally fixed and immovable.  The technological utopia envisioned by some writers will simply never come to pass because humanity does not want utopia; indeed, it is content with far less.  Or perhaps humanity believes that utopia is reserved for another life.

Thus, Sci-Fi, like all other genres, will only ever be a template for story-telling.  The best stories are those that probe at the depths of the human condition.  They transcend their genre, and are memorable not for the setting but for the story.  Setting is important—it makes the story possible—but it is only ever window dressing.  Those who look to Sci-Fi to advance the cause of science are about as misguided as those who look to detective stories to advance the cause of crime-solving.  This is not to say that it can’t be done; rather, it is to merely observe that there are better ways of going about this.

Ultimately, those who get caught up in window dressing are going to miss the real point of writing, which is to illuminate some truth about humanity’s perpetual condition.  There are certainly some well-dressed windows in the world of Sci-Fi, and other genres as well.  But the mannequins are a poor substitute for character.