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Other worlds are possible: science fiction authors roundtable

Leigh Phillips joins authors Gwyneth Jones, Marge Piercy, Ken MacLeod and Kim Stanley Robinson to discuss the role of science fiction in extending the radical horizons of our imaginations

August 5, 2013
15 min read

sf-illoIllustration: Gemma Cotterell

We live in an age of climate chaos in which the worst predictions about the planet’s future sometimes seem to exceed the ecocidal cataclysms of science fiction from decades past. The panoptical technologies that assist our permanent state of exception and pruning of civil liberties – from the ubiquity of CCTV to the coming of ‘predictive policing’ – rhyme with the seminal political dystopias written in the last century.

Even though global economic crisis and food security pressures have thrown up many resistance movements, ‘the utmost radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face,’ as Slavoj Zizek observed. Speaking to the Occupiers of Wall Street a couple of years ago, he noted that: ‘It is easy for us to imagine the end of the world – see numerous apocalyptic films – but not the end of capitalism.’

Where are the utopias that leap over our dystopian times? If they do not lie in the imaginations of the political opposition, perhaps they lie in those of the writers of science fiction?

Red Pepper spoke to four progressive authors of science fiction: Gwyneth Jones, Marge Piercy, Ken MacLeod and Kim Stanley Robinson. They hold widely varying views on the role of their genre within the political imagination, as well as on optimistic and pessimistic attitudes towards science and technology – in the present and in worlds yet to come.

What does science fiction have to say in the era of Occupy and the economic and ecological crisis? Some leading commentators have expressed frustration that the horizon of our imagination has been foreclosed. Can science fiction help prefigure the world to come?

Kim Stanley RobinsonKim Stanley Robinson Yes, it can. The help science fiction can give culture is not a matter of prediction, but rather repeated speculations that help create the habit of historical thinking – which includes the idea that what we do now has consequences later, and that we can plan some things and try to create a sustainable civilisation, which should be the point of human history now.

Prominent examples of influential progressive science fiction include Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward From the Year 2000, which inspired many Bellamy clubs and then the progressive political parties and movements of a century ago; H G Wells’ utopian novels, which gave the people who reconstituted the world order after the second world war their ideas about social safety nets, the welfare state and a technical meritocracy; and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which inspired dissidents worldwide in the turmoils of the late 20th century.

Now science fiction can keep reminding us that the future will be different, that capitalism needs to be replaced and that good alternatives exist. But it is also true that science fiction expresses its culture. So this prefiguring is the task for all of us, not just science fiction authors.

Gwyneth JonesGwyneth Jones The science fiction of protest – a strong tradition, embedded in a recalcitrantly right-wing genre – imagines how change could be achieved: a route to gender equality, a world beyond the collapse of capitalism. But these fictions are not solutions, they are stories about solutions. Plus they all have the problem that Zizek chastised in Occupy. The writer’s ideas are embedded in the dismal present, doomed to be addressing a bad consensus, always making the best of bad material. So maybe no, not directly.

On the other hand, intensely felt fantasies don’t have to be materially effective to open pathways in people’s minds and make the impossible – what we’re told is impossible – seem possible. So I’d say yes. Art has always inspired revolutionary movements, and vice-versa. Why shouldn’t sci-fi, the art of inventing the future, inspire fundamental change?

Ken MacLeodKen MacLeod Zizek has said that it’s become easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. That’s more his fault than that of science fiction. A year or so ago I wandered into Occupy Amsterdam and came across Zizek walking around being interviewed, and I heard him say something to the effect that ‘the first thing we have to admit is that the 20th century was a disaster’. Well no, we don’t, and no, it wasn’t. It was the best and greatest century in the history of humanity, a time of huge advances not just in science and technology but in improvements in human life right across the board.

Just under two billion people went into the 20th century and six billion came out. Most of humanity went in as peasants and colonial or semi-colonial subjects under the domination of a handful of advanced countries, and almost all came out as citizens of independent states and nearly half as urban workers.

We went in with only a minority of extremists preaching universal suffrage and the equality of the races and sexes, to general ridicule, and came out with general agreement on all these – though practice lags, as always, and there’s still much to be done.

What do we mainly have to thank for that? The Russian and Chinese revolutions, that’s what! The Allied victory in the second world war, that’s what! What has made views like Zizek’s so commonplace? The absolute shameless bare-faced robbery of our history, that’s what! Orwell was right about this: ‘Who controls the past controls the future.’

Kids in Britain are taught about colonialism and the Nazis as terrible warnings about human evil, and are never encouraged to identify with the heroic millions – often enough their own parents and grandparents – who brought the empires and the Nazis down. The socialist revolutions are taught as if nothing happened but famines and gulags – which were real enough, and must never be denied, but are very far from the whole story. I don’t mean in the slightest that these experiences should be repeated. I mean the left should stop disavowing them as ‘not real socialism’ or whatever, which means refusing to learn from them and guarantees making the same mistakes again under the delusion that ‘real socialists’ wouldn’t do all these awful or stupid things.

In a less apocalyptic way, the post-war settlement and what it achieved has been hacked back and edited out of our common memory, to the extent that some aspects of the society I grew up in in the 1960s and early 1970s sound today like utopian dreams.

If we’re going to imagine better futures we have first to recover the real past, including the recent past, for ourselves.

Marge PiercyMarge Piercy Science fiction is not really about prefiguring. It’s about getting people to see alternatives now. If we go on this way, this is likely to happen. If we did things this way, wouldn’t things be better? What would it look like if we recognised that gender and sex are not dichotomies but rather continuums, as the research of Fausto-Sterling has revealed? What would happen if we ran out of water?

It’s making possible outcomes concrete and real. It’s creating characters that embody choices for good or bad. It’s using the imagination to say that there are far more futures than we have guessed or assumed.

As for the economic and ecological crisis, I wrote in Body of Glass concerning those issues. The problem with the book is that I set it too far in the future. Climate change has already happened. We are experiencing the droughts, the floods, the fires, the immense storms, the hurricanes and snow hurricanes that climate change has caused. It has happened much faster than I anticipated.

Why is there so much dystopian/apocalypse/end-of-the-world/zombie fiction these days? Left-wing economist and author Doug Henwood recently wrote an essay, ‘Dystopia is for losers’, attacking what he feels is a cynical pessimism and almost gleeful misanthropy in some progressive circles. Neal Stephenson last year issued a challenge to his fellow sci-fi authors, as he put it, to stop being so gloomy and dystopian.

Kim Stanley Robinson Apocalyptic and dystopian fiction appears as an expression of people’s fears. It is an attempt to speak our situation in symbolic terms, and serves mixed purposes – not just warning, but also the thrill of a nightmare we aren’t in yet, a vicarious enjoyment of having it so much better than the poor victims in the stories.

These stories are trying to think about globalisation and the destruction of the planet’s ability to support us, without much political framework for critique or change. Thus vampires are obviously capitalists, zombies are obviously workers, or the precariat, meaning all of us; and yet we don’t have a thriving ‘Vampires versus Zombies’ genre. That absence may indicate the political ignorance of this strain of fiction, but also a general lack in our culture, either of understanding or of political courage.

Probably the writers you are interviewing here should combine and write a Vampires v Zombies series in which the zombies revolt and defeat the vampires, then repair their (our) poor zombie brains and restore themselves to real life, while the vampires are likewise cured of vampirism, and put to manufacturing solar panels or some other good daylight work. In the absence of this collaboration I offer the idea as an exercise for the reader.

Gwyneth Jones I’m tempted to ask, what planet is Stephenson from? Food stress, water stress, state oppression, failure of the rule of law, rocketing social inequality, as we choke on our own emissions in the midst of a mass extinction. Enormous new economies springing up whose rulers have no use for ‘our’ former freedoms. We’re in a bad way. Getting rid of (post) capitalism would be the least of our worries, if the ghastly, un-dead monster that is modern global finance wasn’t the root cause of most of the horror.

No wonder consumers in the ci-devant free world have turned to nightmares as comfort food. And no wonder conventional sci-fi writers, former true believers in everlasting expansion and limitless growth, are getting disillusioned, bitter and plain nasty. Guilt and shame are part of it.

I don’t think toys-out-of-the-pram sci-fi is useful, but nor do I like to see fictions about big fat technological fixes deployed, as if the answer to the present crisis is more of the same planet-wrecking excess. Maybe the best way forward for left-wing sci-fi writers, right now, is to leave the foreseeable future alone. Skip over the chasm of our failures, imagine worlds beyond.

Actually I respect the zombie development. It’s an improvement on alien invasion paranoia, sci-fi’s response to an earlier, cold war threat to all-life-on-earth. I’m impressed that the nightmares are so coherently, so knowingly, related to what’s really going on.

Ken MacLeod I reject any such prescriptions and helpful suggestions about what writers should be writing about. We write about whatever’s bugging us at the time.

It’s the job of progressive activists and thinkers to come up with ideas for not just a better world but how to get there. A few have: David Schweickart and Carl Davidson for a start.

Marge Piercy Utopia and dystopia are linked. Utopia comes out of hunger for what the writer and her or his group lack. Men’s utopias tend to want more order, a preferable hierarchy, while women’s utopias tend to want more freedom, less alienation, more community, less hierarchy.

We are living in catastrophe and had better acknowledge it. We can’t fight for change if we don’t see where we’re headed.

But if you can’t imagine alternatives, all you can want is more of the same: more McDonalds, more malls, more SUVs, ever more intrusive social media.

Progressives have for the last couple of decades had an ambivalent relationship with science and technology. Some green groups have demanded a moratorium on nanotechnology development, while anarchists in Italy, Switzerland and Mexico have taken to attempted bombings of nanotechnology labs.

In a review of James Cameron’s 3-D CGI primitivist epic, Avatar, cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote: ‘What is foreclosed in the opposition between a predatory technologised capitalism and a primitive organicism . . . is the possibility of a modern, technologised anti-capitalism.’ Is his accusation, of the absence of a plausible techno-optimistic anti-capitalism, legitimate? A barrier to the movement?

Ken MacLeod What’s a barrier to the movement isn’t anything in science fiction, but the historic defeats of the working class and the left in the advanced capitalist countries. This and the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet bloc has led far too many on what passes for the left in these countries to reject the idea of progress altogether and to try to imagine a socialism without economic growth – in other words, a catastrophic collapse of civilization.

Many ‘progressives’, in short, are reactionaries about science, industry and progress. Fortunately for us, the rest of the world outside our little bubble has a very different attitude. All over Latin America, Africa and Asia people believe in a better future and are striving for it. Over a billion people live in China, where techno-optimistic socialism is the official doctrine of the state. And, I would argue, the actual practice as well, with all its problems – as any project in the real world has.

Gwyneth Jones Progressives have a right to be cynical about nanotechnology, likewise GM foods and crops, as long as these developments are controlled by ruthless corporate interests. It isn’t about the science; it’s about the tragedy of the commons.

Is the absence of plausible techno-optimistic sci-fi a problem? I’d turn that suggestion on its head. The corporate stranglehold is a problem for plausible techno-optimism. I can write a terrific story about a wonderful, back-bedroom nanotech development, but what’s the use, when progressive readers will just think Facebook, Google, Monsanto are sure to get their lawyers to trash my inventors’ patent, steal the nifty thing and use it to shaft people.

Fear and distrust of science and technology are old enemies, well known to science fiction. Generally the book-burning, lab-torching mobs are portrayed as evil, ignorant and stupid, but that’s simplistic. As long as science serves the rich and powerful, which is obviously the case right now, attacking it will seem a legitimate way to express anger. Plausible techno-green optimism has to break that link.

Marge Piercy I always asked what Marx taught me to ask. For whose benefit will this be done? On whose backs will science and technology be performed? Who pays and who benefits?

We have huge oil companies. We live as if we are the servants of cars and our cities are laid out for these units, not for people. We are not organising our lives around the march of solar technology.

Nothing in sci-fi can possibly be a barrier to any movement since so few people read fiction these days. But all these critics fail to read women’s, feminist science fiction, so they are unaware of the utopias created therein, the pointed critiques of society present in the work of Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin, not to forget me!

Kim Stanley Robinson I would say it is a bad mistake on the left to conflate science and capitalism, as these conjoined twins are actually in a fight for our future, and to reject science and technology is to badly misunderstand the situation. Science is our best effort yet – it is ‘already existing socialism’, but it is not fully in our control, as capitalism tries to own it along with everything else.

Science is now the best hope we have to fight global capitalism; it is the natural locus of leftism. Directing science and technology in humane directions is perhaps the crux of the struggle. Any good futures are going to be intensely technological, because at seven billion and growing we are far past any ‘natural’ moment in human history, and there’s no going back. So it’s a question of taking control of how we direct the work of science.

It would help if people were more scientifically literate. Nanotechnology is just a huckster’s word for chemistry. Chemistry is dangerous, and there are always new dangers in new technologies, but they pale in comparison to the dangers of old political power, now happily wrecking the planet. The resistance should always be to capitalism, not science. De-stranding those two and supporting science in the creation of justice and permaculture should be the progressives’ project now.

Now take a look at our favourite science fiction books.

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