Unsettling Futures: Is SF bad at tech skepticism?
The answer will not surprise you!
On the one (six-fingered) hand, you could argue that science fiction is the ultimate tech-skeptical format. If you could poll sci-fi stories as if they were people, you’d probably find they were pretty harsh on the concepts of nuclear deterrence (We’re all gonna die!), cloning and genetic enhancement (eugenics!), even VR (how will you know what’s real, huh?).
On the other poorly-rendered-by-an-AI-art-generator hand, science fiction is terrible at tech skepticism, because by definition, the technology has to work and have a significant impact on individuals and/or society, or it’s not a science fiction story. If you wrote a story about an entrepreneur who promoted a radical new technological innovation, and then it turned out they were full of shit and were scamming their investors, the media, and the wider public, that would be… well, it would be Bad Blood, and it would be a good read, but not exactly SF.
This is a peculiar genre blind spot in our present moment.
We live in the era of overhype, vapourware, endless delays, and full-on techbro BS.
An incomplete list, off the top of my head and without Googling, of failed/late/overextended/scam tech projects over the last decade or so:
• Magic Leap
• Various shaky EV startups/products, including the Cybertruck, Rivian, Canoo, etc.
• Dockless bike/scooter shares
• Self-driving cars
• Flying cars/taxis
Now, some of those will eventually become real products. You’d have to be an incredible skeptic of computing in general to argue that, a hundred or two hundred years from now we still won’t have self-driving cars.
Others are real products, but they’ll stay niche, like Soylent, and I suspect like VR.
For some, there’s nothing wrong with the technology (bikes + GPS to locate them + app to unlock and use them works just fine) it’s a failure to create either a viable business plan, or to understand how humans might actually use or misuse the product (“I shall get a $9.99 a month MoviePass and see 10 movies this month!” “I shall throw this dockless bike into the bay for shits and giggles!”)
So, how does science fiction deal with this? We have a big bag of tools for dealing with technologies that go wrong – there are countless examples. So writing a story about something analogous to the dockless bike share collapse – that I can see. I could probably scrape up a number of examples, especially in short SF. The “technology fad goes wrong and spread like wildfire” was actually a pretty common theme in the 1950s and 1960s, the era of rapid TV adoption and brief fads like the hula hoop.
But the last quarter century has seen skepticism about new technology crushed under a tsunami of techno-optimism, with cheerleading by WIRED and the business pages of just about every major online or traditional publication. It’s not that we’ve lost our ability to see bad futures, but we’ve lost some of our ability to see horseshit when it’s right in front of us.
(Mea culpa: I was so excited about autonomous vehicles. Really convinced it was going to be a sea change in the economy that would rival or eclipse anything else in my lifetime. Right now I’m pretty hyped about microbial foods and single-cell agriculture. Could be a big nothing! Could change everything! Can’t tell! I’m swimming in the same waters as everyone else.)
We’ve also entered an era of peculiar feedback between science fiction and tech. Waaaaay too many modern tech CEOs are citing science fiction novels as inspiration for some of their projects. The fact that there are two major private spaceflight companies aiming for space tourism/lunar landings/deranged Mars colony missions and both are owned by billionaires who made their money in other tech ventures is pretty significant.
Most of us have noticed that the billionaire “make Snow Crash real” team is often missing the point.
I’ve been consuming more tech-skeptical media lately (the podcast Tech Won’t Save Us is pretty good) and also just pondering how poorly we use the technology we already have. I’m less and less convinced every year that we’ll significantly slow or stop climate change in my lifetime. I’m also increasingly dubious about our ability to even mitigate problems – I live in an area that was hit by disastrous floods a year ago. Guess how much we’ve upgraded the substandard dikes in the last 12 months?
I think the answer to tech skepticism in SF comes in two forms.
First, actual SF needs more technology that just kinda sucks. There is some of this already, but we could always use more reminders that our technological experiences are a gauntlet of bugs, glitches, annoyances, and tech support tickets. Sure, you invented a revolutionary AI image-generator, but it draws hands and feet like a drunk Rob Liefeld and can’t consistently write “STOP” on a stop sign.
Second, we ought to expand the science fiction discourse a little. There have been recent books about bad technology, and the experience of living in a world mediated by social media and the internet, but most of them are published as mainstream literary fiction. (I regret to say I have never read either The Circle by Dave Eggers or Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke, because I was busy reading books about spaceships or something. Or wasting my time on Twitter.)
Whether or not it’s published as sci-fi, science fiction criticism ought to treat books like these seriously, as close cousins at the very least, rather than distant relations. We know lit-fic writers have been poaching science fictional plots and themes for years now, we should poach back, especially where it’s something that’s already deeply relevant to the field.
I’m just finishing up The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which has its flaws, but is propulsive and a feat of plotting I’ve seldom seen before. It’s a Groundhog Day plot, but the main character is dropped into eight separate bodies that each experience the actual same day, overlapping, so that his “future” selves are running around with more knowledge than his “past” selves in the same timeframe. The last time I read something this complicated, it was Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. I am sure flowcharts were involved.
After this, I’m diving into Simon Jimenez’s The Spear Cuts Through Water, which I had recommended to me as a fantasy novel with excellent prose. Looking forward to that! Then it’ll be Station Eternity from Mur Lafferty, which, speaking of complicated books, Six Wakes was very good and also deeply imagined and strange the deeper you got into it.
I have also, because I am a huge huge huge nerd who is not fully immunized against nostalgia, bought a pdf of Mutants in the Now, a retromodern tabletop roleplaying game in which you play mutated, anthropomorphic animals. (Like, turtles, say.) It’s a tribute/update to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, the first TTRPG I played significantly as a kid. Later today, there will be dice rolling and random tables and maybe my next ten newsletters will be me Telling You About My Character, because I want to drive away all my subscribers?
Obligatory Self-Promotion Corner
Nothing much going on right now. If you’d like to pay me to write fiction, or non-fiction about science fiction, fantasy, or retro paperback Palladium TTRPGs, I can be reached at ouranosaurus [at] gmail.com.
Remember, you could click one of those suspicious-looking subscribe or share buttons on this post. Shifty fellas, though. Look up to no good, frankly. I wouldn’t trust them. Techbro horseshit, probably.
Guess that won’t be a problem for much longer.