Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Problem with Science Fiction

The problem with science fiction is that it never shows you how we got where we went. Think about it. All that imagining strange future worlds where everything has changed, for better or worse, but no clue about how we got from where we stand today to that point. Isaac Asimov touched on the journey a little in “Franchise”, a story about how “elections” in a Democracy came to mean quite literally, “one man, one vote”, with computers extrapolating the rest, but for the most part science fiction writers simply present an alternate future without wondering at all how we got there. Don’t get me wrong, I like science fiction. I don’t read a lot of it nowadays, but when I was in grammar and high school I read quite a bit of it.

It would be useful, though, for some science fiction writers to address how we get from Point A (the Present) to Point B (the Future), because history, like the ground when viewed from a high-flying airplane, rarely seems to be changing that much as you live through it moment by moment. We tend to miss the really important points of divergence, or at least underestimate them. Republican Rome did not change to Imperial Rome in a day, and even after Augustus became Emperor, they still had a Senate. Sure, some Senators whined that by giving ultimate power to the Emperor they had crossed an important, dangerous bridge, but did your average Roman-on-the-street really see it?

Societies do not slip from Republics to dictatorships all at once, it’s a process, and I suspect it is a process that feels pretty good to a majority of the citizens at the time. Dictators promise peace and security and safety, and who doesn’t want that? It’s easy enough to see in retrospect where a Society went wrong, but I’ll bet that at the time it was not nearly as obvious, at least to most people. Sure, there are always a few looney tunes who cry that the sky is falling, but since in the normal run of political discourse there are always a few partisan looney tunes wailing that the sky is falling, how is one to tell when it really is? Fear is a great motivator for people to seek safety, and those tiny little baby steps toward security are seductive and easy, and nobody can imagine that any of them will hurt anything very much, right?

Insecurity is always a hard mental place for people to be, at least for any sort of extended period of time. Most people give at least lip service to Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both”, but when faced with such choices on a daily basis, most folks seem to opt for security, at least if they are scared enough, and I suppose that is natural. Unfortunately, every once in a while you get one of those unfortunate conjunctions of extreme events and a group of extreme leaders, and then bad things can happen, especially if those leaders want more power and are willing to use their citizen's fears to get it.

And one awful day we all wake up and wonder how we got where we went.

OK, enough. Tomorrow I write about squirrels.

1 comment:

karen said...

At the expense of not a little heroic effort (well ...), I'm able to speak here.

Not entirely true, is it, that science fiction never shows us how we got where we are.

Samuel Delaney (some) springs to mind, and some others who write not futuristic, but somewhat anthropological, back-reaching stuff. Maybe you'd need to call that fantasy rather than science fiction.

Your point remains. Thinking people have choices they turn their backs on, in cowardice, every day. Not least by choosing to be uninformed about the workings of their own societies. Nuts & bolts. This is how we let it get away from us.