The revolution will not be realism

We live in times of immense change. Technology is a tool of change, but it’s the lives and desires of all seven billion humans on the planet really driving change. And, whether you welcome the change or not (I’m among those greeting it with open arms) you can’t doubt that it is very real.

But to shape our changing world we must have ways of envisioning what the world we are entering will look like. In my essay Rebuilding the World for The Ascender magazine I argue that science fiction – as the meeting point of science and art – is among the most powerful tools of planetary imagination we have. And I’m not alone in that perspective.

I write about science fiction primarily as a way of finding the other like minds who share my view that it has great potential. But there are two very different constituencies engaged with science fiction. One is a naturally liberal and progressive community who believe in the genre as a powerful tool for imagining – and hence building – a better world. The other is a community that is naturally socially, and often also politically, conservative. Science fiction for them is primarily entertainment and escapism. The second constituency is larger, but the former is more influential in shaping the genre and guiding its development.

The increasingly frequent arguments about race, gender, sexuality and other forms of representation in science fiction (I put forward this increasing frequency as a good thing, to be clear) arise at the faultlines where the two constituencies of science fiction meet. For the more liberal camp, science fiction is directly about reimagining our world and challenging injustices built in to its current structures. Science fiction is innately political. For the more conservative camp, science fiction is about escaping the problems of the real world, and reinforcing their comfortable preconceptions of how the world is. For this camp, science fiction is innately apolitical, and the protests of more liberal readers about issues of representation are seen as a politicisation of a much loved hobby which fans want kept separate from stressful political arguments.

The two groups will never be fully reconciled. My sympathies lie firmly with the more liberal camp, although I can appreciate some people just want to watch Star Trek without worrying about the worrying racial connotations of the Federation. But if science fiction is to be more than idle entertainment, these are important issues, especially for those who seek to create it.

Because beyond fans of science fiction, we’re still caught in a paradigm of discussing our world as it is, rather than as it could be. Worse, the world as it is, is only the world as we have made it, and we have made it imperfectly and in ways that are often deeply unjust. Realist literature quickly reaches limits in its ability to imagine other worlds that we could create, limits that science fiction is able to transcend. That makes science fiction, at this time at least, a far more potentially revolutionary literature than its realist cousins.

Read Rebuilding the World ; can science fiction help build a better world? At The Ascender.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

3 thoughts on “The revolution will not be realism

  1. The cybernetic revolution is changing the planet with the distribution of information. But the technology does not determine importance and accuracy of the information. Curiously accounting was one of the first things done with computers by corporations in the 50s and 60s. But double-entry accounting is 700 years old.

    Why isn’t it mandatory in our high schools so everyone can do it with their computers now? What would that do to the economy? But who even talks about the planned obsolescence of computer software? In actuality software does not wear out so it could be used for decades.



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