Dystopian sci-fi is making us fear all new technology (Wired UK)


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The news is bleak. With Ebola on US soil, we are one infected
monkey away from the plot of Outbreak. Russia is
threatening to invade the Ukraine. We are blowing things up in Iraq
again, where starving children are being massacred. There is
overpopulation, and climate change; there is peak oil; there is a
truly alarming spike in the diagnosis of autism. We are a society
faced with many problems. Things, to put it mildly, could be
better. Technology, for its natural inclination toward radical
change, is perhaps the only thing that can make them better in a
major, scalable way. But in the 21st Century, the average American
is overwhelmingly afraid of artificial intelligence, NASA has
abandoned its shuttle program, and the tech industry is the new
darling villain of journalists across the nation. While innovation
has improved our lives in almost every way imaginable, people are
more frightened of the future than they have ever been. And after
Battlestar Galactica, can you really blame them?

Obviously science fiction is not the cause of the current mess
we’re in. But for their capacity to change the way people think and
feel about technology, the stories we tell ourselves can save us –
if we can just escape the cool veneer of our dystopian house of
horrors.

Science fiction has always built our culture powerful frameworks
for thinking about the future. Computer sensors, “electronic
paper,” digital newspapers, biological cloning, interactive
television, robots, remote operation, and even the Walkman each
appeared in fiction before they breached our physical reality. Has
there been any major technological advancement that wasn’t dreamt
up first in man’s imagination? Simon Lake — American mechanical
engineer, naval architect, and perhaps the most important mind
behind the development of the submarine — said of Twenty
Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
, “Jules Verne was in a sense
the director-general of my life.”  This was a man who created
space travel in the pages of fiction decades before Sputnik, while
Arthur C. Clarke imagined satellite communication into existence in
1945, a full 12 years before the Russians fired the first shots of
the Space Race. Who invented the cell phone, Martin Cooper or Gene
Roddenberry? Who invented the earliest iteration of the computer,
Charles Babbage or Jonathan Swift? And the list goes on. Either art
is imitating life, or science fiction writers have been pointing to
the future for over a century.

So what the hell are we supposed to make of the Hunger
Games
?

Certainly dystopia has appeared in science fiction from the
genre’s inception, but the past decade has observed an
unprecedented rise in its authorship. Once a literary niche within
a niche, mankind is now destroyed with clockwork regularity by
nuclear weapons, computers gone rogue, nanotechnology, and man-made
viruses in the pages of what was once our true north; we have
plague and we have zombies and we have zombie plague.

Ever more disturbing than the critique of technology in these
stories is the casual assault on the nature of Man himself. Cormac
McCarthy’s The Road was people walking through a black and
white hellscape eating each other for 287 pages and it won the
Pulitzer. Oprah loved it. Where the ethos of punk is rooted in its
subversion of the mainstream, famed cyberpunk William Gibson’s
Neuromancer is no longer the flagbearer of gritty, edgy,
counter-cultural fiction; ‘life will suck and then we’ll die’ is
now a truism, and we have thousands of authors prophesying our doom
with attitude, as if they’re all alone out there in tinfoil hats
shouting at the top of their lungs what nobody else will. Yet they
are legion. In the Twenty-first Century, the most punk rock thing
that you can be is happy, or — and this is really crazy — “happy
ever after.”

“One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare
people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a
flexibility of mind,” runs the wisdom of Clarke, as quoted in The
Making of Kubrick’s 2001, ironic in that central to
Kubrick’s adaptation of 2001 is the story of a homicidal
artificial intelligence let loose on a crew of archetypical
American Hero astronauts. (But this is Hollywood. Historically, we
haven’t expected much from our filmmakers by way of moral substance
— which has actually allowed them to surprise us with some
regularity. A world without Steven Spielberg, for example, is an
undeniably darker place, and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek
has reinvigorated one of the most powerfully positive stories about
the future that has ever been told.) Yet from literature — despite
the collapse of publishing, despite the 100-year-perennial argument
that “people aren’t reading” — we continue to look for the height
of our potential. To our science fiction novelists in particular,
we ask, “What next?”

Fiction is capable of charting our human potential — with
science fiction the most natural and forward form of this — so
anything less than a push toward good through the medium is not
only overdone at this point, but an incredible opportunity
squandered. Every fiction is an illusion, of course. The very real
danger here is man’s tendency to look to his illusion for
inspiration, which is the foundation on which we build society.
 

On this road toward Hell we’ve marched for decades now, as if to
our doom by the Sirens’ song, there exists another story just
beside us, more exciting and new. Our dystopian obsession has grown
up in our nightmares as a true monster, which can only be countered
by something truly beautiful. 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. Artificial
intelligence, longevity therapy, biotechnology, nuclear energy –
it is in our power to create a brilliant world, but we must tell
ourselves a story where our tools empower us to do it. To every
young writer out there obsessed with genre, consider our slowly
coalescing counterculture, and wonder what side of this you’re
standing on. Luddites have challenged progress at every crux point
in human history. The only thing new is now they’re in vogue, and
all our icons are iconoclasts. So it follows here that optimism is
the new subversion. It’s daring to care. The time is fit for us to
dream again.  

This article originally appeared on Wired.com

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15 August 2014 | 12:41 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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