Thursday, September 02, 2004

Consolatory SF

I was thinking today about China Mieville's Locus interview of a couple of years ago, where he made some comment like "The idea of consolatory fantasy makes me want to puke." Now, I'm not as hardcore as China is, because (depending on your definition) I quite like some of what I think he's talking about. But I think it would be tough to argue that there isn't a lot of fantasy that is formulaic and asserts orthodoxy, i.e. sees change in general as bad and the other as dangerous, whether they're called orcs or draconians or what have you. This is more or less a given, although Sturgeon's Law applies and it's not all garbage -- just the usual 90%.

And yet, there's an analogue here. (Honestly, I wasn't thinking about the pun.) Science fiction -- in particular hard sf -- has its offenders as well. Science, I have been arguing for a long time, is a belief system. It's a pretty good one, admittedly, but it doesn't explain everything. It doesn't tie the universe up neatly in a bow, and I happen to think that it never will. Others disagree. They think that the more we understand, given that we are vigilant for those who would abuse knowledge for their own gain or others' expense, the better off we are. The extension of this is that science is the way to a better world. It's an old idea, born out of the early optimism of the Industrial Revolution, but it persists, and I think it's just as problematic as the recurrence of, say, haughty but all-knowing elves.

I'm trying to come up with examples. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series comes to mind. Great books, but I did find the overarching optimism that by using science and the scientific approach any obstacle can be overcome, whether it be overpopulation, nation-building or death itself, a little hard to swallow in the end. Wouldn't it be nice . . . and yet it's so unlikely, because few if any people are scientifically motivated. Many of us are greedy or lazy. Many of us are motivated more by things like love and religion than we are by the greater good and progress of all. Many of us are simply left out of the scientific discourse altogether and find it difficult to grasp priorities or even imperatives that scientists can't even agree upon themselves.

So. Do I sound like a Luddite? Does anyone know what I'm talking about, and want to offer further examples? Anyone care to step outside?


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