The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Fantastic grow the evening gowns. Agents of the fisc pursue

Jo Walton recently wrote about how the future, and particularly the future we can imagine ourselves or our children living into, has darkened or is avoided in current SF. Along the way she linked to an earlier piece, on the dystopian future Earths, over-populated and over-regulated, that backdropped so many of Robert A. Heinlein's novels for young readers. She points out that we don't usually see these futures as dystopias, wonders why not, and asks:
No individual one of these would be particularly noticeable, especially as they’re just background, but sitting here adding them up doesn’t make a pretty picture. What’s with all these dystopias? How is it that we don’t see them that way? Is it really that the message is all about “Earth sucks, better get into space fast”? And if so, is that really a sensible message to be giving young people? Did Heinlein really mean it? And did we really buy into it?
Well, I bought into it. It wasn't just Heinlein, and it wasn't just juveniles (as SF for young readers was called before YA, a category that has a whole 'nother passel of problems, as Farah Mendlesohn will tell you). A hefty proportion of the SF I read in my teens had dystopia or disaster as default for the fairly near future, say the first decade or two of the 21st century. It gave me the impression that the world I was going to grow up in was doomed to something like The Fall of Rome.

A bad influence on the young, I'm sure you'll agree, and no preparation for the challenges of real life in a world that is making fitful, unevenly distributed, but nevertheless significant progress.

Today in the Sunday Herald there's an opinion piece by Ian MacWhirter about the ongoing financial crisis, and a column by Trevor Royle, the paper's diplomatic editor, on the ongoing confrontation of the US and Israel with Iran.

MacWhirter suggests that if a Eurozone state (Spain, to pluck an example from the air) defaults or otherwise goes bust, UK (and other) banks might be so exposed that the only way to keep them functioning would be outright nationalization of the financial system, 'this time for keeps'.

Royle's article assumes without evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon - but never mind that, the point is that he discusses the prospect of an attack on Iran by the US or Israel within the next year or so. Russia and China, he says in passing, would not stand idly by. We've heard all this before, of course, and I've sometimes been too quick to take such talk seriously.

What strikes me, however, is how strange normality has become. I don't expect to see, next Sunday, a single letter telling the paper's editors that two of their respected writers have lost the plot. The crisis has become the spectacle. We've all got used to a situation where we don't know, from day to day, if the world we know will be here in the morning. We could wake up and find the ATM doesn't work, and be living by lunch-time in a West gone redder than China. Or we could turn on the weather forecast to find ourselves looking in disbelief at fallout patterns from wrecked nuclear reactors.

There's no question that either of these (or both) would be a bit of a downer. Twitter would be in meltdown, I'll tell you that for nothing, all OMG #banks or Holy Shit #Iran #Russia. What not enough people appreciate, however, is the suffering these possibilities are causing right now. How many, reflecting on how war and crisis have become always-imminent, spare a moment's thought for science fiction writers?

It's all very well for those of us writing all that talking squids in outer space rubbish. What if you're trying to write realistic, socially relevant, near-future SF? I'm working on a novel whose back-story starts, oh, a few years from now, and one of the key points in that back-story is a moment where, as an emergency measure to deal pragmatically with economic collapse, the financial systems of the West get nationalised almost overnight. I came up with that bold idea a year ago. Now I have to consider it possible that something like it might actually happen before I've finished the first draft.

If I could write a novel that centred on that problem, the problem of the radical uncertainty of the near future, I'd be getting somewhere.

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I suppose this begs the question; out of all the things you've predicted over the years, which would you like to come true, and which would you really rather did not come true?

I came up with that bold idea a year ago. Now I have to consider it possible that something like it might actually happen before I've finished the first draft.

I resemble that remark!

(I'm gearing up to start a new near-future novel in a couple of months and, well, yes -- the entire global political economy has assumed the same roiling fogbank of opacity that was the future of the computing industry in the 90s, where projecting 3 years out was "blue sky long-term planning". It's really disconcerting ...!)

(heh, I was about to make a reference to Charlie's work as well, it seems greater minds think alike :)

phuzz - life-extension treatment on the NHS (or whatever's left of it), yes please; collapse of civilization, no thanks.

What's wrong with talking squids? I quite liked that story and it might even be where we are headed. At least humans will have a better use then ;)

On a more serious note I think Neal Asher also said something to the same effect, but focused more on how fast science is advancing. A manuscript dealing with near-future settings can go from science fiction to reality before it even comes out.

Ken: how about life-extension treatment on the NHS causing the nationalization of the financial sector (think what it does to the market for pensions)?

I have an urban fantasy novel out next year where the villain happened to be a London banker, plucked out of the air at the time a few years back when I sold the proposal to a publisher. I did not know I was making predictions.

The Western World is in crisis, but then the Western World is always in crisis. I am a little surprised that so much near future SF still seems to see electronics as the key advance that will change society. The really fast moving science is molecular biology. I would apply for a grant and receive resistance because the proposed methodology. By the time we carried out the research the technique was standard practice, and it was obsolete by the time the results were published.

Molecular biology is going to throw up ethical questions like free will that were never an issue with electronic technology.

John Lambshead

Arguably, we've already had a crisis requiring a government takeover of the financial sector (as happened in Sweden and Iceland under similar circumstances), but the regulators wimped out spectacularly. Citigroup, for example, got $25 billion in bailout money at a time when it's market value was about $20.5 billion --- and another $20 billion not long after that. Yet the transaction was structured so that the government did *not* get a majority stake, as they would have if it had just bought newly issued shares at market price.

(Which isn't the only example of favoritism for the banksters, nor the most outrageous. Treasury acted consistently to make sure that employees of insolvent financial firms would keep their multimillion dollar bonuses, explaining that these were required by legally binding contracts. But the Treasury officials bailing out Chrysler and GM voided contracts for union line workers to cut their compensation. If you asked, I imagine they'd explain that the auto bailouts involved bankruptcy, which can void contracts, and the financial bailouts didn't. But that, too, is a choice...)

There's no way for me to comment on this without being that cranky comment box guy, but most older SF is now unreadable for me not so much because of the assumption of a dystopian future Earth, but for the moral assumptions about what would be justified in response. In particular, nearly every SF work of a particular era seems to lead up to a justification for genocide, whether gleeful or sad-but-necessary or just inevitable. This is why SF fans should strap themselves down, ClockWork Orange style, and force themselves to read through Spinrad's The Iron Dream.

One of the achievements of cyberpunk was to envision a broken-down society in which there wasn't necessarily mass death and in which someone didn't need to messianically solve the problem for the good of humanity.

Charlie - yes, you do resemble that remark, because you've been grappling with this and writing about it for quite some time, and I've learned a lot from that.

Rich: nearly every SF work of a particular era seems to lead up to a justification for genocide

What era and works do you have in mind?

Ken, I think all we can do is try for plausibility. Don't overestimate change in the short term, don't underestimate change in the long term, and remember the present we live in is embedded in the future. Oh, and that anything we write today will be pointed and laughed at in five years time. (I find it mildly irritating to stumble across reviews of "Halting State" written in 2012 that say "this isn't SF, this stuff is already happening", without reference to the 2007 copyright date ... but the flip side is that it means my work is done.)

Well, I knew that I was overgeneralizing even as I wrote that. But I was thinking of the U.S. "Golden Age" most specifically.

I'll bracket the whole thing with the earliest and latest examples that I can remember offhand. Earliest example is E.E. "Doc" Smith's "The Skylark of Space" series, from the Pulp era. That one I remember because it features ethically-advanced aliens who of course are too civilized to push the button that will destroy billions of planets settled by an inimical species, but it "has to be done", so they bring in a member of a less-developed species just to push the button.

Latest example might as well be the execrable _Ender's Game_ by Orson Scott Card, 1985. This one features a lot of emo "but I didn't mean to do it!" around its genocide, so adolescents who read it get to have their megadeath cake and eat it too. The early part of this book features government agents watching a boy kick a bully to death -- because that's just part of his necessary development as a defender of Earth.

In between, there's a huge number of books about overpopulation and the over-regulated society that refers back to (in the U.S. context) the U.S. New Deal. And they generally come back to the ideas of "got to kill people off before they destroy everything" or "oh well, we've got to let those unadventurous (i.e. poor) people die." Or some do-gooder tries to do something, and inevitably it doesn't work.

Well, I agree about Ender's Game (superbly dissected by John Kessel) and I haven't read Doc Smith (yet). It's the huge number in between that I'm struggling to think of.

It's definitely revealing that three of the oft-voted top short stories of that era are 'The Marching Morons', 'Nightfall', and 'The Cold Equations' - all of which pander to the class anxieties and sense of superiority of people who wear glasses and had a hard time at high school. (They sure hit the spot for me.)

The cosy catastophe is another version of the trope.

But outright genocide and fascism - no, I'm still not seeing it.

Well, in an attempt not to threadjack this too badly, I'll bring it back to Heinlein. The Jo Walton post that you refer to at the beginning has someone commenting on the Heinlein quote "The cowards never started and the weaklings died on the way" -- which sparked your own "Hey, this is Europe" quote. The Heinlein quote posits that the well-off people are well-off because they are or are descended from people who were adventurous and strong; the not-well-off people are genetically or culturally descended from cowards. So of course it's pointless to do anything about their situation, even if it's not necessary to actively kill them. Their situation is about them and their failure to thrive.

That's the background of most of Heinlein's books. "Heinlein is fascist!" is the Godwin's Law of SF discussions... but that's what this one started about, so it's hard to avoid. Very few SF writers have been active advocates of the genocide of groups of human beings within their books, and if that's what it takes to qualify, then of course very few do. But many of them wrote from this implicit position in which the gleeful genocides were saved for bug-eyed monsters, and the sad-but-necessary or inevitable ones for human beings.

"We've all got used to a situation where we don't know, from day to day, if the world we know will be here in the morning. We could wake up and find the ATM doesn't work, and be living by lunch-time in a West gone redder than China."

It's only odd if you take your baseline from 1990-2000. Most of the 20th century was just as uncertain, much of it more so. You had genuine uncertainty between a capitalist, communist or fascist future, continent-wide wars and later the threat of nuclear armageddon.

I lived 46 years in the 20th century, I wrote 5 SF novels in the 20th century, and I can assure you it wasn't like this

To expand that a bit - I see your point, but apart from moments of crisis there wasn't this sense of instability from day to day.

Rich - I certianly must have picked up some such vibe, given that one of the first sf stories I wrote for English composition in high school was about a final solution to the supposed population problem, called 'Genghis Malthus'.

I wrote others, on different tropes (psi powers, cyborgs) even more embarrassing to recall. They got very good marks, though.

"I lived 46 years in the 20th century, I wrote 5 SF novels in the 20th century, and I can assure you it wasn't like this"

What about the 1980's in the UK? Financial crisis, radical right wing government in the UK,riots and the miners strike,an armed insurrection in NI, with terrorism reaching the heart of the state, and a backdrop of panic over cruise missiles and nuclear incidents. Oh, and a super power trying to occupy Afghanistan.

Maybe I was just younger and more excitable, but I went through much of the 1980's expecting that great convulsions of one sort or another were just around the corner.

I'm struggling to see that things are more uncertain now than any other time.

I do think we've got crisis crowding which feels worse than in a while (ecological, economical, resource, distribution and logistics, religious, etc etc) but there have always been these problems it's just that even up until the late nineties information distribution wasn't at the current capacity - we weren't aware of the scope and scale of crises, now we are.

JTK: I went through much of the 1980's expecting that great convulsions of one sort or another were just around the corner.

And you were right!

Mat D (and JTK) - I'm not saying today's crises are objectively worse. The 1973 Middle East war had a moment when US nuclear bombers were ready on the runways. There were moments in the 80s when we came closer to acidental nuclear war than is comfortable to contemplate. I remember feeling so tense in April 1986, what with Libya and Chernobyl, that I got a pain in the back of my neck. And so on.

Maybe the sense of uncertainty presses on me because I'm trying to write near-future SF!

It's a tough burden but someone has to carry it!

The crisis is not uniform though. Europe and the US are in crisis, but Asia seems to be forging on. Australia has avoided the GFC and subsequent crises, compared to most Western economies, on the back of Asian (primarily Indian and Chinese) economic development.
A significant proportion of the crisis is the feeling that the West has somehow turned a corner and will now decline or even collapse in comparison to the new/old upstarts in the East and developing world. A lot of future and near future SF is now set in what is now the developing world (Paolo Bacigalupi and Alastair Reynolds to name only two).
So while it seems all consuming and urgent to Europeans and Americans - the rest of the world may see it differently - not as a disaster but as an opportunity?

Chris - I agree the crisis is not uniform, but an economic decline or collapse in the West would hit Chinese and Indian exports quite hard.

However, what I'm getting at is the level of short-term uncertainty and instability in (especially) Europe and the US.

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