Science fiction sucks at prediction, and that's OK

My latest Locus column, "A Vocabulary for Speaking about the Future," talks about science fiction's uselessness as a predictive medium, and its great utility as a medium for thinking about, attaining, and preventing futures.

But the really interesting thing is how science fiction does its best tricks: through creating the narrative vocabularies by which futures can be debated, discussed, adopted, or discarded.

There are innumerable examples of this, but my favorite is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Before this novel’s rise to prominence, any discussion of intrusive surveillance was singularly bloodless. ‘‘I don’t like how it would feel,’’ you could say, or, ‘‘It would change my behavior, make me self-conscious.’’ These are highly abstract, rather unconvincing arguments, especially when weighed against the technological narrative of surveillance: ‘‘With total information awareness, we will be as gods, our eye upon each sparrow as it falls from the tree. No evil deed will go unobserved and unpunished.’’ After all, it stands to reason that if you can watch everyone, you can see everything, and punish every bad deed.

But a science fiction writer, Orwell, has given us a marvelous and versatile vocabulary word for discussing this: now we can say, ‘‘Your surveillance idea is a bad one because it is Orwellian’’ – we can import all of that novel and its horrors with one compact word. The argument becomes a duel of narratives: the cool, impartial intelligence apparat that catches the bad guys versus the human reality of the corrupting nature of power and the way that our social contract and good behavior are eroded by constant surveillance and a culture of suspicion.

Cory Doctorow: A Vocabulary for Speaking about the Future

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    1. Distance puts the times and concerns of the writer into sharper perspective. The use of the term ‘science’ gives a spurious sense of objectivity. Whether we use any text to prevent or create futures is unpredictable.

  1. Science fiction authors continually fail to take into account a) society’s resistance to change and b) the inability of nations to unite and share technology, etc.

    1. Not so much that society resists, but that it integrates new technology at the pace it replaces its generations. And this is at odds with the pace of development of industrial times. And the second point is a good illustration that, no matter how much we tell ourselves otherwise, we still behave like kindergarten kids once push comes to shove.

      1.  There may be good reason for conservatism, as in resistance to change, because it may give time to refine ideas and save us from stupid mistakes. The only problem is that conservatism doesn’t know when to quit when an idea finally has society-wide support.

    2. I dunno, most of the scifi I read seems to be centred around exactly those two points. The politics of change, technology etc. make for some fantastic plots.

  2. unless you are Isaac Asimov…. really – the verbal shorthand you use when saying something is “orwellian” requires the listener/reader to have read the book and there fore you are not fully expressing your emotional and analytical reaction to the concept to the listener/reader. AND it requires less thinking on your part, which is always a bad thing.

  3. Like any good story, science fiction isn’t about prediction, it’s about people.  The good stuff is about people in a specific situation, or societies and how they might adapt to situations.  Whether the situation (technology, aliens showing up, whatever) actually happens is really not relevant.  What’s important is whether they have something interesting and insightful to say about people or society.

    The really good science fiction is excellent in this regard, even if it completely fails to predict a thing.  That’s why I don’t even care if SF written 50 years ago talking about 1990 is utterly wrong.  It just doesn’t matter.  Unless the whole point of the SF is to predict the future.  That kind of SF is pretty much always crap anyway.

  4. Going back to the lefty songs of the 1940s there’s the lyric:
    “Who’s going to watch the man, the man that’s going to watch the man, the man that’s going to watch me?”
    Whatever sort of government you might propose or whatever program you might propose must take into account the existence of unreasonable people.

  5. So, Cory, what do you think of Damon Knight’s story, “I See You”, which also features a world of total surveillance, except that the far-viewing technology is in the hands of everyone, even children?  Everyone can watch everyone.  Plus the ozo can view the past as well.
    Shortly after the story came out, I was startled to see someone refer to it as “a horror story”.  To me, it was obviously intended to be utopian SF.

    1. Utopian?  are you mad?  Can you imagine a world where anyone could know absolutely everything about you on a whim?  Where no moment of grief or ecstasy or rage was private?  Where no privacy was possible with friend, lover, spouse, therapist or doctor?  Where you could do nothing, say nothing, be nothing that you were not willing to have on display to anyone and everyone in the world?  Where things said in hurt, rage, pain or ignorance were forever on public view?  Where any sociopath or manipulative prick could see all of your weaknesses, triggers and biases on demand?  What else could it be but a horror story?  

      Yes, corruption and evil happen behind closed doors, but so do love, honor, grief, contrition and joy.  A closed door in the hallways of power is dangerous to us all… a closed door on my home, my bedroom, my doctors office is not.  Take away all privacy, and you take away our humanity.  You stunt our capacity to grow and change and learn from our mistakes. 

  6. I think science fiction has been shown to be not so much a predictor (though I think most science fiction if looked at properly has almost always been right in some way)  as a shaper. I like to called it “the prophet’s secret” a la dune;  the prophet is not predicting; they are making, creating the future through their prophecy. Visionary is a an artistic occupation,  speculation is an art.  the trick of the art is surmounting your own limits, beliefs – not how accurate (which reduces science fiction to a Toffleresque parody of itself) but how far?  In this respect science fiction as a literature affirms itself as being the only genre that allows this kind of scope and flexibility. 

  7. I think that Orwell was fairly prophetic, actually. We’re dangerously close to the panopticon society that he described. The use of Newspeak is getting pretty prevalent, “thanks” to people like Frank Luntz, and really, haven’t we always been at war with Eurasia?.

    Phillip K. Dick was also depressingly prophetic, I think.

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