Karl Schroeder on Science Fiction’s Prediction Skills (w/ a Side of Pinker)

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Over at Tor.com, Karl Schroeder, author of the Virga series, has taken a stab at SF’s failures to predict or imagine the future.  Specifically, Schroeder takes issue with the genre’s penchant for imagining technological and/or sociological change (in isolation), but not for imagining changes in factors like government and/or violence.  He uses as his basis for his argument Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, a book I have not had the pleasure to read, but which I understand to be not only one of the most important non-fiction works of our time, but also an illuminating work.  You can read the full argument here, but I’d like to open this post with this:

I said I was accusing society in the above quote (“…Our technological society’s one big blind spot is that we can imagine everything about ourselves and our world changing except how we make decisions.”), but actually the people I was accusing of being most vulnerable to this blind spot were science fiction writers. It’s true there are plenty of Utopian futures in SF, but the vast majority of books within the sub-genres of cyberpunk, space opera and hard SF contain regressive or static visions of human conflict in the future. We’ve given them license to break the barrier of lightspeed, but not to imagine that some other organizing principle could replace bureaucracy or—even worse—to imagine that we could without tyranny reduce human conflict down to a level of ignorable background noise.

I think the problem with Schroeder’s argument is that it relies on a flawed logic about the purpose of SF (or, rather, the function of SF) that I’ve brought up a number of times before:  namely, that SF is, by its nature, about predicting or imagining fully realized (read:  totalized) potential futures
(read:  prediction).  Unfortunately, futurism tends to get confused with science fiction, and for good reason.  After all, both share the same impulses, the same internal logics, and so on.  But SF is not futurism.  And by extension, it is not about the future.  SF is, by its very design, always already about the author’s present.*

We can take as gospel the historical and scientific truth of Pinker’s book, but that doesn’t change the fact that so much science fiction never has to take it seriously.  True, public policy and social organization will be different in 200 years, but the alienation of that absolute difference limits the generic potential of SF.  What Schroeder seems to call for is a return to the utopian genre — particularly, totalized works like those of Thomas More (Utopia), B. F. Skinner (Walden Two), William Morris (New From Nowhere), or Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward).  But reading these works now only alienates the ignorant, as many of the “new” social structures found in these works have been tried (most have failed).

But SF isn’t technically utopia, or vice versa.**  It isn’t meant to be totalized in terms of predictive qualities.  Rather, it is supposed to look at our current world and to do two things (both/either/or):  1) think through “problems,” and 2) explore such problems through allegory, metaphor, and estrangement.  That is why SF is about the present, not the future.  That is why SF is set in the future, but is not necessarily about it.  The setting is coincidental for the SF author, whether he or she acknowledges it or not.  What separates the various forms of fantasy from SF isn’t the setting, but the method/way/style/approach the author takes to explore his or her present.  Fantasy need not be about a real world problem; it can stand on its own as a journey.  But SF in its pure and actual form is always about the real world transplanted into a different frame, one which relies on the foundations of scientific exploration, even to the limits of the fantastic.  So while SF has done a fabulous job playing out the possibilities of technological advancement, singular social change, and so on, it has and must be, by its nature, utterly terrible at predicting actual worlds.  Another way to think about this might be to say that SF has more in common with the modernist literary movement than with the late 19th and early 20th century realists, though it certainly takes a few pages from the real.

Having said all of this, I should note that I don’t disagree with Schroeder about the desire to see SF deal more intelligently with the knowledge found in Pinker’s book (or other forms of knowledge, as the case may be).  And there is a certain importance in applying the cognitively estranging effect of SF in its proper “futuristic” form to social organization (government, etc.).  Perhaps we’ll see that, but it will be in isolated pockets, not as an SF trend or purpose.

Before ending this post, here’s one last complication Schroeder does adds:

In order to write a credible violent future, you’re going to have to show me how these break down. And because the steadiness of the historical trend shows that these reinforcing circles are not vulnerable to the obvious disruptions described above, that’s not going to be an easy task.

He’s right, in a way, but I can’t help thinking that this won’t matter much to the general readership.  Convincing Schroeder only matters if he represents the genre as a whole.  I’m not convinced, however, that this is true, or that enough SF readers are familiar with Pinker’s book.  I’m waiting to be proven wrong.


*By “SF” I mean a particular generic form that shares more in common with Darko Suvin’s cognitive estrangement than Pulp Era science fantasy.  I make the assumption that Schroeder shares this definition, even if he does not put it in the same terms.

**I like to think that utopia is a subgenre of SF, but this would be historically inaccurate, as the utopian genre existed far before the SF genre (i.e., as generic traditions).

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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