A Sci-Fi Writer’s Responsibility

Posted: August 28, 2014 in The Cyberpunk Chronicles

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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