(Art: Prometheus – Theodoor Rombouts)
THE REALITY OF PROGRESS
My first short story was about a psychologist employed at a research facility in Southwestern Colorado. His employer was funded by the government to research ways to manipulate a human’s perceptions of his own reality through drugs and what was known as the Dream Room, basically a 30×30 room with wall to wall 3D screens and interactive 4D holographic images. The patients were put into the room and then shown whatever series of images the researchers thought would work best to manipulate the patients’ perception of reality.
When I created this fictional microcosm, virtual reality was just science fiction. Augmented reality was not a thing yet. I had an idea of what I wanted to try and say through the narrative, but I needed some future tech to paint the picture.
During the holidays, I had the opportunity to put on a VR headset for the first time. Granted, I could only look around the simulation, and not interact with it, but my immediate initial feeling was vindication. Virtual reality has always been, in my lifetime, one of those science fiction plug-ins – a plot device you could drop into the narrative to further the reader’s engagement with the advancement of the plot and revelation of the theme – and here, now, it is reality. It’s no Star Trek holodeck. It’s no Matrix. However, consider this: It’s no Pong either.
We, as an advancing species, take our exponential progress in technology for granted more often than we sit in awe at our achievement. The faster it goes, the less we question it, because our environment demands we keep up with the changes as they happen or be left behind in a world of tin cans and strings. In this fast paced world, where we are so easily distracted by the “realities” of other peoples’ lives, who gives a shit about what DOS did for social media.
Consider, for a moment, a human being born in 1850. This is several decades before transmission of electric power, as it exists today, was even dreamed of. Say that person lived for 100 years. They witnessed wars fought in trenches, in formations, hand to hand, evolve into massive world affairs where death rained from above and man harnessed the atom itself to destroy himself. They saw themselves frozen in time as photography evolved, and then they witnessed life itself captured in video. Our words once moved at a snail’s pace across the continents, and over a very short period of time, they moved faster than we could conceive to another human on the opposite side of the globe. Suddenly, the world, once so foreboding in size and magnitude, became very, very small.
In 100 years, while technology certainly advanced, it did not do so at the same pace it does now. Technological progress increases its own acceleration as each advance has the potential to laterally increase the speed by which another advance in another field is achieved.
Unfortunately, in a digital world of progress, with our analog brains, with our cognitive biases, with our preconceived notions of humanity and its future, we have a tendency to lag behind as our own creations continue to evolve past us.
In a century’s time, we should be a multi-planet species, and we will take every hangup, every fear, every ignorant bias, along with us into that final frontier. That is what Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek was really about. Not aliens, and not space exploration, but humans and the future. That universe is about who we are and who we have the potential to be out there on the horizon. The Vulcans are human. The Cardassians, (not Kardashians, they are not human), the Dominion, the Romulans, the Klingons – they are all just humans given pointy ears, green blood, and spoony heads.
Who would have thought the Ferengi would have a place in Starfleet?
Who would have thought we’d elect a Ferengi President?
Sorry, sorry … I shouldn’t have said that.
But along those lines, haven’t plenty of authors projected the possibility of nefarious persons and organizations rising to power within an advanced society? Orwell did it. Wells did it. Huxley, Bradbury, Bova, Bear, Dick. They didn’t try to predict the future so much as study who we were, consider who we are now, and imagine who we might be in the future. Sometimes they are right. I’m hoping Douglas Adams is right – not in the aliens-destroy-Earth-and-one-Brit-survives sense, but in the maybe-one-day-we-won’t-take-ourselves-so-seriously sense.
We have a healthy fear of change, and arguably it creates a system of checks and balances for our species that puts each advance to the test that is simply, “If we COULD make this happen, SHOULD we make this happen?”
Fortunately for us, we’ve been doing that in more ways that just standing in front of Pandora’s Box and asking the question even as we open it.
That is where science fiction has a role beyond entertainment.
VISION AND VOLITION
Back to my story.
It was garbage. I thought it was brilliant at the time, though. And the last line, “Her smile faded over and over again, forever.” Well, I thought it was gold. I may let you read it sometime.
I took an idea, a vision of something that did not exist in the real world, and I created what was essentially a thought experiment set in dramatic environs. There were no aliens, no spaceships, no lasers, just technology and man. That’s science fiction.
I didn’t think so at the time I wrote this particular piece, but in essence, from the absurdist pantomime to the gritty western, everything I write is science fiction. Everything I write creates a world that does not exist in reality and it places what I believe are representations of the human species into those unrealities to pose and answer philosophical questions that I have about humankind and the universe.
The interesting part is that I could do this solely for myself, and I could write all these words and never publish them, never let another pair of eyes fall upon them. I do not do that. I share these musings, these thought experiments, these visions, with whoever cares to peruse them.
But why sci-fi? Why choose a medium that so many people automatically cringe away from? I can’t explain why some people automatically have a disdain for science fiction and fantasy. I find it interesting that some of these people that rebuke my flavor of fiction are more than eager to pick up a romance novel or a spy thriller that doesn’t pose a question so much as it provides simple entertainment. Why do I choose speculative fiction? Is it a preference? A moral imperative? An uncontrollable urge?
I think it just happens that way because of the way my mind works. My perception and volition are a product of my own cognitive biases. Speculative fiction, and especially science fiction, is the language by which I communicate difficult ideas to people I think may have more difficulty coming to terms with them than I do. Do I think I’m smarter than my readers? Absolutely not, and that’s why I prevent myself from writing some days. I’m afraid my readers are more intelligent than I am.
Consider H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne – all three authors some consider the Founders of Science Fiction. Their works weren’t about the technology presented, it was about humankind and how we would react in the presence of such changes. Would we change? Or would we stagnate and impede the progress of our species? Or worse, would we pull the species back into the troglodytic comforts of the cave.
You should read The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells.
To me, science fiction is not about the setting, the characters, the technology. It’s not robots, aliens, spaceships, lasers. A work, to me, qualifies as science fiction if it poses a question that we have yet to answer as a species; a question that one day we must answer as a species.
TUNNEL VISION AND THE CONTENT TURTLE
The ultimate truth of our present is not in our past, it is in our future. Our worth should not be based on what we have done, but what we have the potential to do. It sounds misguided and ignorant of the achievements of our ancestors, but hear me out.
What I prefer to submit for the layperson’s approval when it comes to what history can provide for our future is that our history as a species is in no way a statute for adherence. Our explorations of our own histories should not be to establish a permanent set of imperatives for our species based on what worked at one point, or what works right now.
Frankly, what I believe is that there is no greater commentary on both our past and present than our possible future. I believe we should look at what we have the ability to achieve through forward progress and change our path as we tread it to shorten the distance to evolution and blaze the trail that least negatively affects all those that will tread it as a species.
I understand the ease of hand-selecting a bevy of morals, traditions, biases, fears that are easy to be content with and understand because they are familiar. That familiarity is comforting. Our species, as social groups, creates its own wombs that we develop in, in parallel to our development within our mother’s womb. We find the presence of other people that view the world the same way that we do comforting. The social womb is vital for a fledgling species like our own. It keeps us safe, it keeps us protected, it makes us feel like we have a purpose on this infinitesimally tiny mote of dust careering through the cosmos. We’re supplied with the same food for thought ingested by our ancestors, our grandfathers and grandmothers, our fathers and mothers, our siblings. We’re given virtual “antibodies” (morals and ideals) developed and perfected by our kinsman to protect us against that most virulent and violent world around us.
In the comfort of that social womb, we inadvertently put on blinders to the past and the future except in instances where acceptances of certain hand-picked truth fits the perpetuity of that womb. In simplest terms, I’m speaking of the “If it ain’t broke, why fix it” philosophy, where standing in the stream of human progress, which never in its existence has ceased to move forward (with minor exception considering the evolution of our civilization in the last 10,000 years), and impeding that natural flow by stagnation of individual growth and using our intelligence to resist it, is preferable to moving with that flow and using our intelligence to guide our species along the safest, most beneficial paths.
Consider the turtle, the chelonian if you must, that in about 220 million years has changed very little. Its hard outer shell protects it from most predators, a defense that has not had reason to become vestigial in all that time – it works. Whether turtle, tortoise, or terrapin, all have exceptional intelligence and longevity. Some centenarian turtles have organs indistinguishable from a juvenile’s. Content in the raging waters of evolution, the chelonian is a stagnant species, and while it survives, it will one day succumb to extinction, whether by environment or the hand of man, a more advanced species.
With the blinders on, we can all see the advantage of finding a comfort zone, a social contentment level, that satisfies us in the present.
But let’s be realistic. 220 million years of solid success for a turtle is not comparable to our comfort with philosophies and ideals that we as a species have only conceived in the last two hundred years or so.
No, we’re much more adaptable, right? We’re so completely different from our ancestors that we might as well be a different species. Right?
Well, let us take those blinders off for just a moment and look at the dawn of civilization.
WAR. WAR NEVER CHANGES.
It’s generally accepted both by scientists and historians that Sumer is most probably the Promethean hearthstone of the modern civilized human. Anthropological evidence suggests that most societies at that time were egalitarian, and it was only after large groups of these civilized humans began to find each other and trade began that equality eroded and autocratic rule and empires were born. Is it so difficult to surmise that greed and xenophobia begat war and conquest?
If you were to take a list of bullet points that defined the 23rd century BCE Akkadian Empire’s successes and ultimate failures, would it be so different than the same list from the British Empire of the early 20th century? I don’t believe so, and I don’t believe some of our greatest authors did either.
Isaac Asimov created his Galactic Empire in the image of the Roman Empire, a massive seemingly indestructible juggernaut of human progress and technological evolution destined to decline and fall and sow chaos in its death throes. Asimov’s Foundation series imagines a group of human scientists and futurists that realize that 10,000 years of dark ages that would almost certainly exist after the fall of such an empire could be reduced to only a thousand years if intelligent humanist and futurist planning were set in motion with the express purpose to maintain forward progress and reduce the impediment of that great empire’s passing.
If only Rome had done the same, we might already be building amphitheatres on Mars watching genetically-enhanced asexual warrior drones manhandle each other for our amusement. Well, that’s speculation on my part.
A more modern and timely example: the Galactic Empire of the Star Wars Universe. Palpatine remains one of my favorite villains in all of fiction. Setting aside the execution of the Prequel trilogies, the story behind the fall of the Old Republic and the rise of the Galactic Empire is
… well, let’s be honest…
It’s fucking scary. Why? Because throughout our own history Palpatines have existed, and they do exist, and they always will. Science fiction isn’t always (yes, okay, sometimes it is) about triple-breasted alien females in skintight jumpsuits, reptilian overlords, ripped starship captains with plasma rifles and robot sidekicks. While Star Wars isn’t the hard sci-fi you might equate with the works of Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, and Poul Anderson, it still, in its own way, poses questions about our future as a species that we can begin to answer now.
THE HUMAN OF TOMORROW
Generally speaking, our society has a propensity to equate success to wealth, power, and fame – not vision, creativity, and imagination.
We waste a great deal of time defending the traditions of generations long past as the road map to our future. We concern ourselves with where we sit in comparison with the rest of the world, and where we came from, when our lives should be dedicated to progress – the forward motion of our species into the frontier that lies just beyond where we’ve become comfortable existing.
We still, after numerous centuries of toppling kings in crowns and replacing them with kings in suits, elevate the autocrat. We hesitate to equate the corporations of today to the empires of yesterday, because admitting that would be realizing and giving tangible form to how difficult that particular revolution might be if we ever had the courage to ignite it.
The human species has an ultimate enemy, and that arch-nemesis is the collective human species we were yesterday.
We have allowed this idea of permanence to pervade and infect our culture, whether social, civil, military, corporate, or spiritual. We find contentment, and then vehemently protest the movement away from that comfort zone.
That … is … stagnation. For the tens of thousands of years our species has existed, and especially in the tangible written history of our species dating back to the first city-states of the Fertile Crescent, we can see that stagnation DOES NOT SERVE US.
We find our cash cow, and then rail against the cash machine. We inherit a prime location, and we won’t part with it for FEAR that we might not find something better.
The Promethean flame evolves, and we must evolve with it, eagle be damned.
In the myth, Prometheus did not give us fire, he gave it back to us. We must remain its stewards and let it ignite the flame within us again and again. It is our future.
That is why sci-fi.