Wednesday, December 12, 2012

To Speculate on Progress

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th century.
Lily Sloane: No money? You mean, you don't get paid?
Picard: ...We work to better ourselves.

Star Trek: First Contact (courtesy of IMDb)

What kind of future interests me in my writing? I started writing science fiction because I read the Foundation series, Neuromancer added some complications and then Star Trek went back on air. Those are the three big touchstones of my early writing life. Each of these worlds offer significantly diverging views on how the future might play out. Neuromancer, Gibson's protestations aside, paints a fairly vivid dystopia. Corporations rule the world, vast inhuman forces use people as chess pieces in incomprehensibly baroque intrigues. With Star Trek, the future is a sand-box, a stage from which the great personal dramas of individuals are played out. The moral questions are weighty but the tone is positive. Not every dilemma meets a satisfactory conclusion, but at least the path forward seems clear. The Federation, human beings more specifically, have a kind of secular destiny to reach out to the stars. 

Then there's the Foundation series. I would argue that Asimov paints a very agnostic view of human progress. On one hand, it is clear Asimov views the impact of individuals as important to the story as a whole. The heroes of Foundation master incredible challenges but mostly by standing out of the way of Hari Seldon's psychohistorical schemes. History is depicted as cyclical, inevitable, and, on the whole, rather depressing. An empire spanning the entire galaxy is no more than an oasis between dark ages. Seldon's project doesn't seek to advert a cataclysm but merely shorten its duration.

The books I've read recently reminded me of this old conflict. 

As a clear inheritor of the Gibson/Shirley cyberpunk aesthetic, Peter Watts wields different levels of dystopia like some authors employ characters. His world view wobbles between a vision of the future where the only hope for social misfits and deviants is radical body modification and life at the bottom of the ocean (Rifters) to one where no hope exists at all and the world is destined to be taken over by sociopathic vampires (Blindsight). Not exactly cheery stuff, but effective. Stripped of the cloying pieties of most speculative fiction, Watt's fiction tends give terribly flawed characters a moment where they finally reach something approaching humanity just as they are obliterated by thermonuclear warheads. The interesting thing about these works for me is that the character growth always seems a lot more convincing than the apocalypse.

Then, of course we have Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Red Mars (the focus of a few of my recent posts) and Years of Rice and Salt which I reviewed earlier this fall. Robinson falls into the Gene Roddenberry school of science fiction; centered around individual drama, absolutely committed to the utopian notion that human ingenuity and curiosity can overcome ancient horrors. This theme appears intermittently throughout Red Mars but forcefully in Years of Rice and Salt. To briefly sketch out the final chapters of that alternate history novel: in a world where 99% of Europe dies from the Bubonic Plague civilization still manages to recapitulate the renaissance, industrial revolution, feminism, environmentalism, and finally global democratic institutions. Nightmares abound, but Robinson maintains focus on a gradual and inevitable improvement in the human condition. By the final pages, we have entered a world filled with people able to recognize kinship and connection across the boundaries of culture, background and history. Maybe utopia is too strong a label, but it's still a fairly convincing portrayal of a 'better world.' 

Finally we have Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Mitchell is leagues above Asimov in terms of craft and technique but the perspective he brings to the future is similar. History is cyclical in Cloud Atlas, the mistakes of one generation reappearing in another. Individual characters are capable of reaching moments of epiphany (Frobisher), catharsis (Adam Ewing) and out right victory (Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish) but each episode of history in the book contains the same themes of slavery, cannibalism and exploitation. Moreover, no moment of victory is so overwhelming that it can avoid a future apocalypse. The course of history is inevitable. Yet, somehow Cloud Atlas is not an especially grim novel. Even if the hope expressed in the stories comes in primarily on the individual level, it's still hope. Individual lives matter to the other individuals that they save.

Confronted by these three visions of the future I feel no closer to a preference to any of them. There are times when I wished I had one constant philosophy my writing expressed. But ultimately, I write because I'm trying to work out some episode or character or scenario in my head I can't make sense of any other way. Maybe my idea of the future is a place where the stories themselves push the world forward. Star Trek, a cheesy show from the 60s, suggests a way of life not centered around the blind acquisition of power and wealth. 

There are worse legacies.
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