Damien Walter writes on technology, culture and scifi for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches Advanced Scifi & Fantasy : writing the 21st century myth
“Are you not entertained?” Roars a muscular Russell Crowe at the crowd being entertained by murder in a provincial Roman gladiatorial arena.
Maximus Decimus is a soldier. To kill men is his profession. He’s better at it than any gladiator. But as a slave he is now reduced to killing for the lowest reason – entertainment.
Even murder can be entertaining. And even murder can be a high moral act. Maximus Decimus commits murder as both in Gladiator. Any human act can be lowered to cheap entertainment, or raised up to great art.
Now look at science fiction.
There’s something more than a little Orwellian about the naming of the entertainment industry. Just like the Ministry of Truth did not exist to tell the truth, the entertainment industry isn’t just about entertaining you.
The tv shows, movies, books and other stories produced by a handful of corporations control most of what can be said in our culture. All of this power, influence and control is hidden in plain sight as “entertainment”.
In recent decades, science fiction has become one of the main products of the entertainment industry. For most of its audience “Scifi” is just fun escapism, often laced with a good portions of sex and violence, to lose yourself in after a hard day.
Is science fiction just here to entertain you? Or does it have a higher purpose?
“Yvgeny Zamyatin’s We was seen as so dangerous to the Soviet state that it had to be smuggled between readers in hand written copies.”
The early innovators of science fiction had little to no interest in entertainment. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – political radical, philosopher and feminist – wrote Frankenstein as a challenge to scientific materialism as it came to popularity in the 1800s.
H G Wells was driven to pen one formative work of science fiction after another to express his deeply held beliefs in social utopianism, and then in his later life, the collapse of those beliefs. Yvgeny Zamyatin’s We was seen as so dangerous to the Soviet state that it had to be smuggled between readers in hand written copies.
In fact science fiction had been slumming it and getting into street fights for over a century before it occurred to anyone that this strange outsider art, this innately political form of storytelling, this radicalised experiment in narrative philosophy, might also be the stuff of respectable mainstream mass entertainment.
A 21st century Glass Bead Game
Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game is science fiction to its bones. But because it’s very much not mass entertainment, it’s rare to find it on the lists of great science fiction storytelling. Which is ironic, as it’s also a story about what science fiction – at its best – can be.
The Glass Bead Game is the highest art form of Hesse’s imagined future world. Through the system of glass beads, any idea from any discipline of knowledge can be made part of the game. A mathematical equation, a political ideology and a musical melody can all be manipulated in the pattern of glass beads.
The Glass Bead Game is about many things. Not least the emergence of computational science, which it prefigures by some decades.
As Octavia Butler often argued, science fiction gives the freedom to combine any and all areas of human knowledge without limitation. That’s why a great SF author like Frank Herbert was as comfortable with physics as with sociology, with psychedelics as with psychology.
It’s notable that in a culture increasingly built on specialisation, where people are often only heard in very narrow areas of expertise, and knowledge is derived almost entirely from analysis, science fiction is a uniquely powerful art of synthesis.
Beware! Science Fiction.
“Beware artists, They mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous.” Said the British monarch Queen Victoria. If that was true of artists in the class bound society of the 1800s, it seems doubly true of science fiction in the intellectually ossified society of the 2000s.
“If people who fear a better world took science fiction more seriously, they world fear its dangerous visions.”
The great problems of the 21st century all grow from an inability to see how our world could be different. How we could rebuild industry without fossil fuels. How we might reshape society without poverty. How we could reinstitute our institutions without racism, bigotry and structural injustice.
It’s impossible to think about a better future without imagination, and wherever you do find imaginative visions of a better world, you find science fiction. If people who fear a better world took science fiction more seriously, they world fear its dangerous visions.
Nobody takes science fiction seriously, except people who do. And when you map out who takes science fiction seriously, you get a picture of just how dangerous science fiction really is. Walk into any Silicon Valley tech giant, any AI startup, any physics or mathematics department, any political think tank or public relations agency, you’ll find ideas birthed in science fiction are the lingua franca of the enterprise.
Science fiction writers have become the hidden prophets of the 21st century. And the stories they tell are the secret logic of the new world emerging as the century progresses.
Use the entertainment industry, don’t get used by it
It’s only by popularising them as mass entertainment that the speculative visions of science fiction make it out into the world. The cerebral political allegories of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga, modelling the rise and fall of human civilisations, could only become beloved by billions in the very simplified form that Star Wars reduced them to.
And when it comes to getting paid, it’s always a bonus if your works of genius also contain some popular hooks, like an archetypal Hero’s Journey, or some soap opera character stuff.
But if you’re setting out to create science fiction only as an entertainment, you’re like a chef whose highest ambition is only to fry up a Big Mac. You will find it’s quite easy, as a consequence the market is flooded, and even if the masses do choose your fast food joint over all the others, you’ll still only be a burger flipper.
The science fiction writers who win the Michelin stars, the Frank Herberts and Octavia Butlers, the Margaret Atoods and Samuel Delanys, cook up stories from a need much deeper than entertainment. They’re striving to find an understanding of the vast mysteries of life and the universe, and tell us about it in the form of story.
If years, decades or even millenia later, some of us find their art entertaining, as the latest reboot flickers over the silver screen.
Well. That’s nice.
But it’s not the point.
Advanced SciFi & Fantasy
Writing the 21st century myth
Damien Walter, writer on sci-fi and geek culture for The Guardian, BBC, WIRED and graduate of the Clarion writers workshop, leads a journey into scifi and fantasy storytelling.
When high-falutin people talk about sci-fi you’ll often hear them use words like novum and the like. Critic and academic Darko Suvin came up with novum to describe the…thing…at the heart of every sci-fi story that makes it sci-fi. Androids hiding as humans! A world populated by talking apes! A portal that leads to everyContinue reading “Write better sci-fi stories with this simple idea”
Corporations love to take cool things and turn them to trash to make money. In the early 80s black artists took DJ music loops, rapped radical political lyrics over them, and invented hip-hop. Corporations took hip-hop and degraded it into “gangsta rap”, perpetuating stereotypes of black male violence to sell hip-hop to the masses. CorporationsContinue reading “Science fiction sold out. Let’s take it back.”
“Stanley wanted to create a myth. And I think he succeeded. He wanted to make the proverbial “good science fiction movie”, implying there hadn’t been any good ones before then. I didn’t agree.” Arthur C Clarke 2001 : A Space Odyssey is widely considered the greatest science fiction story ever told. It’s creator, auteur movieContinue reading “How Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey rewrote science fiction”
When did the science fiction community start using “genre” as a proper noun? “It’s a common thing in Genre.” As though “Genre” is a city you can visit. Or a distinct community unified by being “Genre”. It’s one of those linguistic ticks that arise on the internet. But for science fiction it’s also symbolic ofContinue reading “Genre fiction is the worst thing that ever happened to science fiction”
M John Harrison is one of the all time greats, a “science fiction writer’s science fiction writer”, a creator of weird tales in the horror tradition, and a powerful weaver of fantasy. The Viriconium stories defined political fantasy in the 80’s, as the Light trilogy redefined literary SF in the 00s. As editor of NewContinue reading “How does M John Harrison enter a story?”
When life takes an unexpected left turn I do four things – tidy my room, go running, take 72 hours away from anything stressful…and read a good book. This time around I landed on Neuromancer by William Gibson. I first read this book when I was 14, I suspect I read it at least sevenContinue reading “Neuromancer…still the best science fiction novel ever written”
Is Europe welcoming desperate refugees, or being invaded by economic migrants? Is Donald Trump a serious President, or a clownish attention seeker? The Man In The High Castle reveals the most basic truths about our era of competing narratives. * In 1947 the forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan swept to victory over Europe andContinue reading “How Philip K Dick’s 1960’s masterpiece nailed politics in the 2020’s”
Neal Stephenson – legendary author of speculative fiction – on Elon Musk and geek culture, the NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, how negative cultural narratives are killing big science – and the upbringing that made him the writer he is. IN LATE 2013 I had the opportunity to interview the author Neal Stephenson. Some Remarks,Continue reading “The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview”