Charlie Stross on the sorry state of science fictional worldbuilding

Charlie Stross explains that he's more-or-less stopped reading science fiction, no longer capable of stomaching the paper-thin worldbuilding that refuses to contemplate the profound ways in which technology changes human relations and motivations.

He describes the "incredibly hard work" of projecting "internally consistent" social arrangements in a world where things like space-travel are a given. Much of his critique is about filmic science fiction (which I would argue is trying for a world that is visually consistent, not one that is logically consistent), but it's clear that he's also thinking about a top-to-bottom rethink of the conventions of space opera and much of the rest of sf (shades of the mundane sf movement).

Ultimately, Charlie asks sf writers to consider an end to capitalism itself as a way of challenging our assumptions about the so-called eternal verities of human behavior.

It's quite a Strossian barn-burner of an essay, and it's also practically a mission-statement for the kind of sf that Ada Palmer is writing -- and no surprise, because Palmer is a tenured, eminent Renaissance historian at a major university whose rallying cry is that "the past is a different place," and whose explicit mission in her ongoing teratology is to use that historian's lens to show how our present will some day be an alien world to the people who come later.

Similar to the sad baggage surrounding space battles and asteroid belts, we carry real world baggage with us into SF. It happens whenever we fail to question our assumptions. Next time you read a a work of SF ask yourself whether the protagonists have a healthy work/life balance. No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity interplanetary future? Why is this side-effect of carbon energy economics clogging up my post-climate-change world? Where does the concept of a paid occupation whereby individuals auction some portion of their lifespan to third parties as labour in return for money come from historically? What is the social structure of a posthuman lifespan? What are the medical and demographic constraints upon what we do at different ages if our average life expectancy is 200? Why is gender? Where is the world of childhood?

Some of these things may feel like constants, but they're really not. Humans are social organisms, our technologies are part of our cultures, and the way we live is largely determined by this stuff. Alienated labour as we know it today, distinct from identity, didn't exist in its current form before the industrial revolution. Look back two centuries, to before the germ theory of disease brought vaccination and medical hygeine: about 50% of children died before reaching maturity and up to 10% of pregnancies ended in maternal death—childbearing killed a significant minority of women and consumed huge amounts of labour, just to maintain a stable population, at gigantic and horrible social cost. Energy economics depended on static power sources (windmills and water wheels: sails on boats), or on muscle power. To an English writer of the 18th century, these must have looked like inevitable constraints on the shape of any conceivable future—but they weren't.

Similarly, if I was to choose a candidate for the great clomping foot of nerdism afflicting fiction today, I'd pick late-period capitalism, the piss-polluted sea we fish are doomed to swim in. It seems inevitable but it's a relatively recent development in historic terms, and it's clearly not sustainable in the long term. However, trying to visualize a world without it is surprisingly difficult. Take a random grab-bag of concepts and try to imagine the following without capitalism: "advertising", "trophy wife", "health insurance", "jaywalking", "passport", "police", "teen-ager", "television".

Why I barely read SF these days [Charlie Stross/Antipope]

(Image: Ryan Summa, CC-BY)

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