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Science fiction and the myth of technological progress

I was thinking the other day about a few science fiction books that I finished recently. They were pretty good, although they all fall more toward the “hard SF” end of the spectrum than most of the stuff I tend to read.

That got me thinking about the whole notion of Hard SF, which I generally find to be a made-up concept invented by a certain subset of nerds (mostly white dudes) to help themselves feel superior about the particular brand of fantasy they prefer.

And then I ran across this piece by Jake Casella Brookins:

The issue is not, or not just, that SF authors have invented the torment nexus and then had their cautionary tale misappropriated by thintelligent kleptocrats. The issue is that science fiction—and I’m talking fairly narrowly here about the harder, more technologically-oriented kind of science fiction—is intertwined with the entire cultural project of the anthropocene, with our philosophies of dominion and exploitation and their consequences. Call it capitalism, or neoliberalism—though those are probably too specific. Science fiction has been one mode, a prominent one, by which popular artistic consciousness makes known humanity’s relationship to the world, to technology, to each other. Those relationships have given us some very cool stuff, and they have, spoiler warning, set us on a course to self-destruct the biosphere; they’ve enabled a world of astonishing advances that’s also marked by horrific forever wars, a world in which a billion-plus people are locked in immiserated poverty.

Like Brookins, I am no small fan of comfort reading but I will admit that the whole enterprise (as it were) of mainstream science fiction and the role it tends to claim for itself within our culture and history troubles me.

I don’t mean to pick on Star Trek—I generally like Star Trek!—but I think it is a great example of this aspect of sci-fi. The franchise and its fans like to go on about its role in promoting gender and cultural inclusion, as well as its influence on science and technology. Aspects of these claims are probably true, but I feel like the franchise also bears no small amount of responsibility for the notion that science and technology will always progress and that, at the end of the day, that stuff will make life better.

In Star Trek’s defense, it does project the path for its utopian vision of humanity’s future as having gone through a horribly destructive third world war and nuclear holocaust on Earth before the invention of the warp drive and humanity’s first encounter with the Vulcans. I will note, however, that for a series that now spans more than ten films and nearly that many TV series—each of which ran for multiple seasons—that part of its fictional history is hardly ever mentioned, much less shown or explored.

For the most part, the stories the franchise tells fast-forward past all of that to a future where humans have moved away from money and profit (except when the plot depends on some humans still being really into money and profit) and have built a society based on promoting the common good and the flourishing of creativity and individual expression. That is all possible because of something something dilithium crystals somehing warp drive something, i.e., a bunch of hand-wavey magical solutions invented to eliminate the need to address underlying the scarcity and inequities that drive injustice and suffering in the real world.

I think the general answer to this point is that the franchise—and others like it—provide an inspiring and optimistic view of the future. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that in specific instances. Broadly, however, it ends us up in a place where the answer to every problem is—to borrow an amusing phrase from a terrible book/movie—to science the shit out of it.

Beyond that, the sort of techno-optimism promoted by this brand of science fiction strengthens the myth of the inevitability of technological progress.

Going back to the Brookins piece, I think he is right about science fiction’s—especially so-called “hard” SF’s—pretentions of cultural importance. If the genre and its fans want to suggest that it has some sort of inherent prestige or seriousness, they cannot simultaneously claim that it is just escapist entertainment or comfort reading.

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