A few weeks ago, Wired‘s Michael Solana wrote a half-whimsical, half-serious polemic about how Writers of Science Fiction were leaving a bad taste of Dystopia in everyone’s mouths. Two days later, Devon Maloney offered a quick rebuttal, about how Dystopia was more important than ever today. I’m following up on that argument with an even more pointed response.

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As Science Fiction Writers, our job isn’t to write propaganda. We don’t write things that are peachy, or create rosy pictures for people to look forward to. Gene Roddenberry already did that with Star Trek. Well, here in the second decade of the 21st Century, barely any of those optimistic predictions have come true. Wars are still ongoing. We haven’t found a cure for cancer yet. Heck, we don’t even have flying cars, for Christ’s sake. That’s not something you can blame on us now, can you?

What we write, ultimately, is our business. Each writer is responsible for his or her own content. But if something stirs us, bothers us enough, that we have to write about it, put it down on print or e-Book… then we will. It just so happens that our present outlook on society is pessimistic, at best; downright bleak, at worst. Don’t tell us what we can or can’t write, or that it won’t be popular. We don’t care. We are the modern-day Cassandras that hypothesize, speculate, predict, extrapolate. We look at the state of current affairs, then wonder an infinite permutation of  “What If’s.” We ponder the possibilities. We write about them. Between several thousands of writers, we each have a unique (more-or-less) vision of what could happen, given the way things are. A talented, prolific few have endless versions. Whatever your reasons, you may have meant the original article as lighthearted fare. But writers of every stripe, not just Sci-Fi, take this calling seriously. We don’t necessarily write for your pleasure. Mainstream publishing might think they have a pulse on what sells or not. But in this age of Internet free-for-all, certain ideas will catch the masses like wildfire.

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Science Fiction isn’t just about technology. It’s not just about the cool new gadgets that we hope will enable us. It’s more than space opera. Sci-Fi is about people. Cultures. Entire civilizations that rise or fall, with whatever trends take us there. Ray Bradbury showed us a future where books, the symbolic carriers of knowledge, were burned. Suzanne Collins brought us to a world where children fought to the death, to entertain and contain the masses. Philip K. Dick pondered about the evolution of sentient artificial intelligence, in an increasingly marginalized world. Many of what they’ve predicted have come to pass. But perhaps just as equally important is that a lot of them haven’t. One could argue that when people knew what to expect, after such predictive works, they hearkened the words of caution. And yet one more bleak possibility never came to be. That is not such a bad thing. It’s as if we’d just prevented a catastrophic storm from happening — simply by steering clear of its path.

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Dystopian fantasy thrillers are but a symptom. We live in an age of unprecedentedly plenty, if not equality. We have many more challenges ahead of us — any of which could end badly. But even as the world is rife with upheaval, it is a somewhat self-contained mechanism; things have a way of fixing themselves. Citizens in Tunisia overthrow their government in a peaceful rally, triggering the Arab Spring. Anonymous’ legion of hackers do a DDoS on the servers of a corrupt industry, to keep it in check. Bitcoin circulates around the globe like wildfire, revolutionizing the way we do business. Things look promising enough, such that the world will flatten out. But what about those Black Swans? The things we’ve overlooked, that could be game-changers? What if the next incarnation of a techno-monolith (such as Microsoft or Google) had nefarious intentions, and infected our way of living like a virus? What if everything that mattered in the world today, that we held dear, was snatched away or rendered insignificant? That’s when we come in. We are the doomsayers and soothsayers, who will always remind you about everything that will possibly go wrong. We are the slaves that accompanied the proud Roman generals in their chariots on their triumphs, whispering “Sic transit gloria” — Nothing good lasts forever. If you want to live in denial about the risks of technology, its potential to ruin us over the long run, then that’s your deal. When Skynet takes over the world, though, don’t say we didn’t warn you. Technology is a Promethean Gift for which we will pay a steep price, if we ignore the other edge of that metaphorical sword.

For better or for worse, Dystopian fiction is here to stay. Deal with it. Or heed its lessons well, and make sure those alternate futures never happen.

Copyright © 2014 The Anabases

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The Daily Prompt: Breaking the Ice

The internet has recently been swept up by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Is there a cause — social, political, cultural, or other — you passionately believe in? Tell us how you got involved — or why you don’t get involved.

It’s admirable that the ALS Association started a viral campaign that has raised awareness of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Just as it’s great that year in and year out, Revlon hosts a 5K/Walk-a-thon to raise awareness of breast cancer. “Movember” – Mustache November — raises awareness of prostate cancer. Jerry Lewis hosts a telethon for muscular dystrophy. There are a gazillion causes out there, and yet the ALS Challenge is the one that currently grabs everyone’s attention. I don’t quite get how one gets sucked into this whole “viral” thing. Is it peer pressure? Coercion? A mob effect? For all its good intentions, the message of ALS might have gotten lost on the wayside, by and large. Not on me, however. Lou Gehrig’s disease is a debilitating disease that many of us are already aware of. Stephen Hawking is perhaps its most famous living spokesperson. Many others aren’t so lucky to be in such a position. I lost a friend who suffered from ALS. I don’t need a cute viral campaign to remind me.

There’s more to my aloofness. It’s not so much that I’m being a rebel. In a certain context that would be a sort of attention-grabbing posturing. I certainly don’t need any more than what I get on a daily basis. Call it skepticism, for lack of a better word. There’s really nothing wrong with having a little fun, dousing your friends in ice water, especially on a hot summer day. Nothing wrong with going viral with it. But in the bigger scheme of things, when the things that draw 90% of the world’s attention are ice-bucket challenges and vainglorious selfies, when there are riots, wars, and beheadings going on…  then something is fundamentally wrong with our society. It’s understandable that in today’s world, rife with problems, people tend to gravitate towards what gives them some sort of happiness. Making light of a debilitating disease like ALS, by dousing others with ice, seems to come close. We like the fun part; never mind what the cause was all about, or how the activity may be in poor taste.

So yeah, I’ll shy away from any causes with flashy events — but I’m not being a contrarian for contrary’s sake. My head’s already involved in so many causes around the world, I’m at the point of overload. The things I espouse are commonplace, yet important. I value equality and social justice, above all else. Education. Literacy. Affordable health care.  LGBT rights.  Women’s rights. World peace. Space travel. These are my causes, among so many others. They are legion. An ice-bucket challenge is nice. So is a 5K race. But what about the rest of them? Do we do a “Best Selfie” campaign to raise awareness for victims of rape? Or another massive concert like the 1980’s Band Aid, which raised some awareness about famine in Africa, yet still ultimately failed? We tend to get worked up about causes that are dramatic. People start movements, but mostly as a reaction to a predicament. Yet hardly any of us give a thought about what a boring cause like affordable healthcare or education would do, to avoid such things in the first place. And that, Friends, is where I’ll leave you at: Instead of being reactive, passively following the lemming-like nature of trends and viral fads… why don’t we be proactive and think about the things that are near and dear to your hearts? Don’t get mindlessly drawn into distractions. Go out and find your own individual causes. Or all of them. Stick to them, devote as much (or as little) as you can. Be a Citizen of the World, always involved and aware and on your own terms.. Don’t wait for the fads; go start one. Remember, we’re not just spectators. Every single one of us have something that attaches us to this World, and to others, something that moves us. Go find that something.

Copyright © 2014 The Anabases

The Arabs brought us Arabic numerals, without which we would not have developed all these wonderful creations in science, business, and technology. The Chinese developed gunpowder, which would irrevocably revolutionize the means of destruction on this planet. Centuries later, German physicists at the University of Gottingen formed the intellectual core of quantum mechanics, which gave us transistor radios, television, computers, and the Internet. So what do all of these cultures have in common?

Each of these milestones came from civilizations that went through periods of dramatic upheaval, at some point or another.  The Islamic Empire of the Arabs crumbled into several nation-states, reverting back to their tribal sensibilities. This feudal mentality persists today, as seen in intermittent conflict in the Middle East. China morphed from Empire to Democracy, then Totalitarianism, all in less than a generation. Germany brought itself to the brink of annihilation after two catastrophic World Wars. Yet Germans managed to recover from their horrific past and evolve into a state of unprecedented prosperity, armed with nothing more than moxie and a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of intellectual capital (with a little help from America and the other Western powers, of course). Even China, after a failed attempt to renounce Capitalism, realized the prudence of allowing free markets to sustain a rapidly-growing economy. In terms of creativity, China still lags behind the US, Japan and Europe. However, it’s only a matter of time before it rediscovers its intellectual potential, without relying on espionage and piracy.

The Arabs have not been as fortunate. Overly reliant on oil for geopolitical influence, Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Middle East have not developed any intellectual or technological breakthroughs since the 16th Century, preferring instead to concentrate knowledge (and power) to a handful of influential elites. There have been no cultural breakthroughs since the destruction of the Turkish polymath Taqi ad-Din’s observatory in 1577. From that point on, extremism triumphed over reason in the Muslim World. Though occasional sparks of brilliance shine, Arabs have contributed little in terms of modern culture. Many have argued, rightly so, that fundamentalist elements have squelched that intellectual curiosity which blossomed at the height of the Islamic Empire’s Golden Age.

Before we as Americans get too smug in our own sense of enlightened entitlement, be warned: It could happen here, too. In fact, it has already begun. We’ve seen our share of hysteria (religious and otherwise). Indeed, Religious freedom has been one of our most cherished Constitutional rights, since the founding of the United States. But what about Scientific freedom? When do we let Reason take over, when Religion fails to provide the answers? Or place limits on religious zeal, when it starts hurting rather than helping society? We’ve made huge strides in health and welfare, that have vastly improved our standard of living. In terms of education, we are probably the most well-informed generation of our time (if not exactly the brightest). However, there is a tendency for anyone in general to take all this knowledge for granted. If we aren’t careful, we as a people will become mentally lazy. We will relegate our powers of logic to mundane cognitive tasks, and instead rely on superstitions, conspiracies, and shady authority figures to steer us towards a dark path. So far, we’ve been lucky that the forces of Reason have been able to hold ignorance and superstition at bay. Carl Sagan said as much in A Demon-Haunted World.

Think it won’t happen here? Think again. After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, superstition and fear ruled supreme.  Hypatia, a pagan mathematician of Alexandria, was murdered by a Christian mob, effectively ending of the Intellectual Era in Ancient World. Not long after, much of the scientific knowledge amassed in the great Library of Alexandria, would be burned and lost forever. Most of Europe entered the Dark Ages. It would be nearly a thousand years before the seeds of the Renaissance and the Age of Reason were sown. Thinkers such as Erasmus, Thomas More, Francis Bacon and others, laid the groundwork that would lead to Galileo and Newton’s scientific breakthroughs. The Muslims had their own equivalents, such as Al-Khwarizmi and Alhazen, both pioneers in math and science. [Ironically, it was the early Muslims who helped preserve some of the lost knowledge of the Ancients.] In the 20th Century, a combination of economic futility, despair — and one could argue, intellectual laziness — led to the rise of Hitler, and threatened to return the World to a new Dark Age. We were fortunate enough to have the numbers on our side to end the madness. If we are to prevent any more such catastrophes, we as an intelligent species much continue to exert — not just exercise — Reason, above all else. We must always remain vigilant. If we continue to preach, to live the virtues of Logic, Knowledge, and Wisdom, then fear and superstition will have no place in this world. Reason will prevail.

Copyright © 2014 The Anabases