Science Fiction is not here to entertain you

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 the Rhetoric of Story.

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“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

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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.

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Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.

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