Over the past week I've been watching the police crisis in Ferguson Missouri horror. From the very beginning, when an officer shot an unarmed boy six times in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, the authorities have reacted with overwhelming force; their actions better characterized by blind rage than any concern for public safety. It's a bit like watching keystone cops who have been issued body armor and sniper rifles. In the midst this outbreak of real world distopia, Michael Solana's posted an anti-dystopian screed that is as muddled-headed as it is badly timed. (I say muddled, because Solana wrongly equates dystopias with an anti-technology sentiment - he needs to familiarize himself with utopian Luddites.) In response to Solana's essay, Brian Merchant posted a defense of dystopias. But while I felt Merchant's rebuttal was smart, I agree with Solana conclusion, if not his reasoning. We need to get back in the habit of telling stories about the future that are not dystopian.
Dystopias are on my mind, not only because of Ferguson. I've been working on a collaborative project with my fellow artist Greg Borenstein called 2H2K. The title refers to the second half of the twenty first century. The project is an artwork, but is not intended to fit nicely inside of what one might expect from a sculptor; call it vernacular design fiction. The premise of the 2H2K stories is that the future will be more densely urban; that by the year 2050 the population of the globe will have swollen to 9.5 billion people. There is no doubt that that another 2.5 billion of us will put terrible strains on the natural world; fisheries will be lost, habitat for flora and fauna destroyed, and there are some dire possibilities for our own species. But rather than imagine the trends in global warming, income inequality, and political decline progressing into dystopias, the project is consciously not dystopian. Unlike Solana however, my premise isn't anti-dystopian - more "anti-anti-dystopian", with Jean-Paul Sartre and Fredric Jameson. The project is to imagine a future society with problems, but not a future in which society is the problem.
It is just a lot easier to put your characters in dramatic jeopardy if you start with the assumption the civilization is useless and all our neighbors are foolish sheep.
In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that the Humanitarian Revolution of the late 18th century may have been sparked by the popularity of "epistolary novels":
In this genre the story unfolds in a character's own words, exposing the character's thoughts and feelings in real time rather than describing them from the distancing perspective of a disembodied narrator.19th century novels have helped us become more empathetic... Cinema and television reached even larger audiences and offered experiences that were even more immediate. There experiments that confirm that fictional narratives can evoke people's empathy and prick them to action. Whether or not novels in general, or epistolary novels in particular, were the critical genre in expanding empathy, the explosion of reading may have contributed to the Humanitarian Revolution by getting people into the habit of straying from their parochial vantage points.
Americans like heroes.
But dystopias are allowing our powers of problem solving imagination to go flabby. Of course Merchant is right, it is important to show a world that has problems that need to be overcome, but it is also important to imagine a future that has solutions besides a lone hero shooting everyone. One of the things that make me feel that Solana's take on dystopias is muddle headed, is his complaint that they don't provide readers with sufficiently heroic narratives:
Simply, we need a hero. Our fears are demons in our fiction placing our utopia at risk, but we must not run from them. We must stand up and defeat them.Seriously? Has this guy ever seen a movie? The problem with dystopias, that Solana totally misses, but that Merchant misses too, but that David Brin totally gets, is that the problems we face as a society today are problems that require us to act as a society. Global warming is not going to be solved by a hero facing his fears, its going to be solved by a well functioning an robust bureaucracy of dedicated civil servants. Ebola isn't going to be cured by Brad Pitt armed with a Lobo, its going to take rigorous laboratory work, carefully observed quarantine protocols, and profoundly courageous public health workers. The same goes for the police riots in Ferguson Missouri. As charismatic and wonderful as Officer Ron Johnson is, St. Louis County's civil authorities have shown themselves to be dangerously out of touch and abusive, and in desperate need of systematic reform. We need more scifi like Contagion, less like Elysium.
I'm no luddite. But science fiction seems like one of the few ways we can still be publicly critical about progress before it's too late.I'd like to give Solana the benefit of the doubt, I get that he sees scifi delivering hope in the form of prediction new technologies. Like Clarke predicting communication satellites. But he never mentions Kim Stanley Robinson (a self-described "accidental-utopian"), a generous reader might assume he means technologies in the broadest sense, to include new ways of being, alternative political systems, social relations, racial, ethnic and sexual identities. Glancing through Solana's twitter feed however, the generous reading, doesn't hold up:
— Tim Maughan (@timmaughan) August 17, 2014
"Please take your cis-human bigotry elsewhere" is a thing i read on the internet todayFor someone pushing a turn away from dystopia, this sneer is absurd. From Charles Fourier's proto socialist Phalanx, to Robert Heinlein's libertarian Loonies, to KSR's full on communist Martians, all utopians have given pride of place for difference. I'm with Tim, I'm no Luddite, but Solana's brand of progress makes me flappy rage (I think - I don't really know what flappy rage is).
— Michael Solana (@micsolana) August 15, 2014
All is Full of Love (1997)