His breath steaming in the cold, Gary threw the final log into the campfire. Hitting the embers, a swarm of glowing sparks rose into the night air, twirling like fireflies, a warm echo of a distant summer.
Charlie shuddered and scooched closer to the flames, holding her hands to the heat. Gary sat down next to her.
Soon, her familiar, reassuring weight was leaning into his stalky frame. Sitting there, together, breathing, gazing into the fire and listening to the night, was when Gary knew that this would be the last woman he would ever love.
San Quentin, CA – Very seldom is a single person marked out as the sole influencing factor on large scale, long term historical phenomena. There are, almost always, additional circumstances contributing to the ripening of historical events. Cases of people just doing something which then goes on to influence the rest of humanity’s future are few and far between.
Perhaps the first man to harness fire, or the first to invent the wheel, were people of that sort.
By the time you finish reading this account, it is my hope that you will come to see Dr. Gary Hopkins of Rochester, Minnesota (and later, of a privately held compound outside of Pasadena, belonging to his Transhumanist cult) as one such person as well.
Hopkins first came into the public spotlight in 2032, when coverage of the Smith, Awad and Trevers Vs. Hopkins case went national. America stood by, horrified, as the families of three of his followers sued him for maliciously inflicting brain damage on their sons. Since then, the macabre hold of his actions over public imagination has only grown stronger, and his persona has taken on a Dr. Frankenstein-like quality. In recent years, multiple documentaries, film and VOD adaptations – as well as one controversial, off-color musical – about him and his followers have been produced and widely circulated. Nevertheless, Hopkins himself has remained elusive, refusing interviews and pleading the Fifth in his trial.
Some claim he’s done so for the benefit of his followers – many of whom have become very rich thanks to the sale of memoirs and interview rights – while others say that due to his self-inflicted brain scarring he is simply too far gone, and that his disinterest in defending his name, reputation or actions is simply the result of reduced mental capacities.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I was notified by his lawyer that he wished to break his notorious, years-long silence by means of an interview. With me.
“What changed? Is there a reason for this interview now?” I asked.
The only answers I received were a shrug and a cryptic “I don’t know, but he asked for you, specifically.”
I did not take much convincing.
After a short Hyperloop ride I was sitting in a cab, crawling north through San Francisco’s morning traffic, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
The following is Gary Hopkins’ story, as it was relayed to me on February 7th, 2045, at the San Quentin Criminal Rehabilitation Center in Northern California.
An audible silence falls over the hall as I step into San Quentin’s visitation facility. Despite its cheery décor, vestiges of its past as a maximum security prison are still prominent in the architecture. I feel out of place between the whitewashed, reinforced concrete walls, and the other visitors waiting with me – a young father with his two children, an elderly person of indeterminate gender vaping intently, a distressed, short haired woman in her late fifties – seem disproportionately small under the bright LED lights. The corrections officer behind the reception desk raises an inquisitive eyebrow as she checks her lists.
“Adam Etzion, I presume?” she asks.
“How did you guess?”
“The only two people he’s requested visitation rights for are you and his lawyer.”
“He hasn’t had any visitors since his incarceration?”
The guards around the room all seem preoccupied, all intently staring at the door leading back to the center’s dormitories.
As I sign the required paperwork, I ask the officer what Hopkins is like.
“He’s very… quiet.” She replies thoughtfully, and after a short pause almost blurts out – “We’ve never heard him speak. Would you, um – would you mind if some of the guys sit next to you and listen in?”
“I’m afraid I would,” I answer, and quickly move to secure an empty, secluded table next to a window overlooking the center’s lawn.
I check the time, and just as the clock strikes noon, Gary Hopkins emerges from the double doors at the far end of the room. He is splayed out in an old wheelchair, pushed by an attendant, looking like a castaway from an old pirate story. He seems malnourished and far from civilization, his face covered by a large, unkempt grey beard, his bald scalp surrounded by a circlet of long, ragged hair. Thin and visibly weak, his head lolls grotesquely to one side. The attendant wheels him over to the table and parks the chair a few feet away. He then bends over and helps Hopkins out of the chair. After an arduous few seconds, Hopkins manages to stand, leaning on the attendant for support. He takes small, painstakingly careful steps towards the table, stumbling over his toes as his feet drag along the floor.
His gaze is cast down, intent on the tiles in front of him, as if his whole being is focused on the act of walking.
I start to get up in order to greet him, but the officer waves me down with some concern and urgency, signaling for me to remain seated. I think that he looks more like a concerned relative or a kindly nurse than a prison guard.
As Hopkins progresses towards the table, murmurs break out from every corner. I get the impression that something exceptional is taking place.
I send the receptionist an inquisitive glance, but she seems too stunned by Hopkins’ actions herself to notice anything else.
Finally, Hopkins reaches my table and is gently lowered into his seat by the guard. In a concentrated effort, he raises his head, his eyes dull, seemingly registering nothing, until they are level with my own. He stops moving his head and begins the slow task of focusing his eyes on my face. His pupils dilate and contract, but settle after a few false starts. He now seems to be present – albeit distracted – and fully aware of me.
It should be noted that while the following interview is written in a traditional Q&A format, Hopkins’ replies come at a noticeable delay. It takes him time – sometimes several long minutes – to process and answer the questions presented to him, and so while the text may convey a sense of rapid rapport, this is not the case. Hopkins remains silent after my initial greeting and only speaks after a considerable amount of time. When he does speak, his voice is surprisingly strong and clear. It flows out of him in a droning, monotonous Midwestern accent.
Hello, Dr. Hopkins.
“It is August, 2023. The hour is half past two, PM. Charlie and I are working at the lab. I try to tell Charlie about a novel application of the PET scanner I have thought of, but she seems preoccupied. She says she – hello. Thank you for coming. Charlie says she has received an interesting offer. It is October, 2026. Charlie is leaving for Mars.”
Charlie – is this Charlize Hopkins, your ex-wife?
“It is May, 2020. Charlie and I are at the altar.”
Here, Hopkins smiles. His back straightens and his eyes twinkle with excitement and hope. He reaches out and takes my hands in his. His palms are warm and his arms tremble slightly.
“I am holding Charlie’s hands in mine. She is smiling. Her hair whips around her face, and a few strands get caught in her mouth. She is as beautiful as she will ever be. Radiant. The officiant speaks, but her voice is nothing more than a hum in the background. I only see Charlie and her glowing face. I lean in to kiss her and there is nothing in the world except for her lips and my beating heart.
It is November, 2026. There begins to be a perceptible lag in the video calls with Charlie’s shuttle. We decide to switch to video messages.”
Hopkins’ hands drop to the table with a dull thump and he slouches in his seat. His eyes do not twinkle and his smile evaporates, leaving no trace behind.
“It is February, 2045. I am at the San Quentin Criminal Rehabilitation Center. Charlie is still on Mars. You are here with me.
Hello. Thank you for coming.”
Thank you for inviting me. This is your first time ever addressing the media – did anything happen to convince you to reach out?
“It is Christmas, 2027. I am at home, watching a video greeting card Charlie had recorded an hour before and sent to me over the void. The only thing I want for Christmas is to talk to her directly. I miss her so much. They have crumbled some of the Styrofoam packaging they took with them on the shuttle and scattered it around the habitation dome. It looks like snow. Charlie is blowing a kiss through the screen. I reach out and grab it. I realize, a moment too late, that Charlie cannot see the gesture. I throw my hand down in exasperation, the kiss fluttering up into the air, lost forever. I am alone. I breathe in deeply and wipe away the tears. I smile and begin recording my reply.
It is Valentine’s Day, 2028. I am having an epiphany.
It is February, 2045. Thank you for coming. Was the ride here alright?”
Taken aback by Hopkins’ jarring narration, I take a moment to process his question.
Was it..? Yes. Thank you. What epiphany did you have on Valentine’s Day?
“It is Valentine’s Day, 2028. I am having an epiphany.
The problem of latency cannot be resolved by streamlining the communications process. We’ve known this from the outset. Mars is too far away. At its closest approach, the time it takes to send and receive a message is six minutes. This does not allow for conversation, just correspondence. We have always known this. This is not the epiphany. These are the laws of physics. They cannot be bent or broken. Charlie is on Mars and I am in Minnesota. This, too, cannot be changed. How have I not realized this before? Time and space cannot be altered, but our perception of them can be.”
Are you referring to the Eternal Present Doctrine your followers subscribe to?
“It is May, 2028. It is 3:04, AM. I am at my neurosurgery lab at the Mayo Clinic. I should not be here.
My cranium is open. I have programmed the robotic surgery arm to scar my superchiasmatic nucleus in the hopes of changing my sense of present.
I have made a small incision. I am now sealing the cranium. I feel, for the first time, that both of these things are happening at once.
I am overjoyed. The procedure is a success. Instead of perceiving the present moment as a fragment of two hundred milliseconds, I now perceive it as approximately an hour. The scale in which I perceive time has changed.
I hurry home and send Charlie a message. For the first time in forever, her reply is instantaneous. We are, finally, once again, talking.
Palo Alto, CA – To better understand the procedure Hopkins underwent, I reached out to professor Wyatt Peters, head of Stanford University’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences department.
We meet up over iced coffee at the historic Stanford Shopping Center.
The colorful, oversaturated surroundings, blue skies and healthy people strolling and sipping Matcha lattes around us form a stark, strange contrast to the concrete walls, flickering fluorescent lights and dim eyes in San Quentin.
“Gary Hopkins’ solution to the latency in communications with his wife is an odd one,” Peters muses, restlessly moving his Anko-filled croissant around on this plate. He is clearly uncomfortable with the subject at hand. “Had I decided to resolve this issue with neurosurgery at all – rather than with the obvious, adult solution of dealing with it emotionally and maybe going to therapy – I would not have done so in the way he has.”
“Well, the issue, as I understand it, was his lack of patience. The lag-time between Earth and Mars bothered him. From what you’ve told me, he simply didn’t want to wait the hour or so it would have taken to hear back from his wife. I wouldn’t have even bothered touching time perception if I were in his shoes. That’s a tricky, delicate thing to do, and even if the procedure is entirely successful, its ramifications are debilitating, to say the least.”
What would you have done differently?
“Well, rather than changing my perception of time, I would have simply elected to create a – well… a consciousness on/off switch. Allow me to explain.
Unlike a change in one’s perception of time, which screws with one’s sense of causality, we are able to function perfectly well with our consciousness cut out of our brain circuit’s loop, if you will. In fact, consciousness is a hindrance to our cognitive processes. It’s a strange, vestigial construct that doesn’t do a lot for us, from a functional point of view, other than give us a clear sense of self. Now, that sense of self is important to us – or to itself – so we are naturally queasy about taking it out of the picture entirely. But there are various ways, especially if you’re a neurosurgeon of Hopkins’ caliber, to temporarily switch one’s consciousness off and back on again.
In his place, I would have simply created such a switch, sent my wife a message when I was conscious, switched my consciousness off while I waited, and then reactivated it when the message arrived. That way my sense of time would have remained intact, but the waiting period would have disappeared. At least for me, subjectively.”
I see. But in that case, wouldn’t you still just be corresponding? Given, the waiting periods between correspondences would subjectively feel shorter, but the nature of your communication would have remained unchanged.
“That’s true. That is the one advantage I can see in the procedure Hopkins underwent, I suppose.”
Could you explain?
“I can try. Our perception of time is… sequential. Generally speaking, we perceive events as following one after the other. First, event A occurs, then event B, then C, and so on.
What our brain does, after establishing sequence, is infer causality. Event A happens, causing event B, which, in turn, causes event C. But in order to establish that sense of causality between events, we must first have a clear sense of which event is subsequent to which.
Now, from an evolutionary standpoint – purely thanks to circumstantial things like the type of environment in which our simian forefathers developed – in order for them to survive, the highest resolution needed to establish sequentiality was around two hundred milliseconds. That means that we have no difficulty establishing what preceded what, as long as it took over two hundred milliseconds to occur.
If two events happen within that two hundred millisecond time frame, however, we cannot tell which event preceded which.
This means that our sense of ‘present’ – of what is happening ‘now,’ is anything that happens within these two hundred milliseconds. Go back further than that time frame, and things will appear to have already happened, rather than to be happening at the moment.
So when Hopkins expanded his sense of ‘present’ to an hour, what he essentially did was damage his ability to judge which event preceded which, if several events happened within that hour.”
But most human interactions happen in much shorter time frames.
“That’s exactly right. And because he hadn’t damaged his ability to take in the amount of information one regularly does, he would still be taking in everything, just like one would regularly do, and he would still be trying to synthesize and make sense of it – to infer causality, if you will – just like everyone else. He would, essentially, be reconstructing the sequence of events he had experienced in that time, just like everybody does. But because his sense of sequence is damaged, he would have to rely heavily on the perceived causal or logical connections between events in his reconstruction – I imagine that a bit like a detective or forensic doctor would. In most analytical activities this would not be an issue, but correspondences that happen within that hour-long timeframe could, I think, be reconstructed as conversations in his subjective experience.”
San Quentin, CA
“It is August, 2028. Charlie has sent me a video message. In it, she is crying. She says she has felt our conversations have been strange in the past few months. She says I have changed. I tell her about the procedure. She is horrified. It is January, 2029. Charlie says I am not the man she married. She is saying that it would be better for the both of us if she moved on. That I should seek treatment. I tell her I did this for her. I tell her the procedure has brought me closer to her. It is February, 2029. I have received divorce papers with Charlie’s electronic signature. It is March, 2029. I have not seen or spoken to Charlie in a month. I am alone. She is on Mars and I am in Minnesota. We both knew she would never be able to return to Earth from Mars, but I had never imagined she would leave my life. I am alone. I miss her. I miss her so, so much.
It is March, 2030. It has been a year. I am still alone. It does not get better. Time heals no wounds. Perhaps because I have broken my time. It does not work for me like it should.
Time has done nothing for me.
I am having another epiphany.
I am back at the laboratory.
I am making another incision.
Now is elongating. Now is now two hours long. Three. A day. A week. A month. A year. Five years. My life.
Now is always.
And I am, once again, with Charlie.
It is May, 2020, forever.”
Palo Alto, CA
So what happened when Hopkins expanded his sense of present to encompass his entire life?
“It’s difficult to say, really. Essentially, he obliterated his sense of sequentiality altogether. He doesn’t experience time in a manner I would consider ‘Human’ anymore.”
He was still able to function, though. At least partially.
“Yes, but his perception of the order of events would have to be filtered through a process of complete, artificial reconstruction. He would have no intuition for which event came before which. He would have to allocate extensive brainpower to constantly puzzle out the information he takes in. Every step he takes, every word he utters – I would imagine it would all require intense, excruciating concentration.”
San Quentin, CA
“It is June, 2031. Or July, 2033. The Transhumanists have found me. They say I have transcended the human condition. That my lack of sense of time makes me immortal. They take me to their compound in Pasadena. They take care of me, and I don’t have to worry about remembering to eat or sleep any more. I can concentrate on Charlie. All they ask for in return is that I make them like me. They have the equipment.
I teach them to program the robotic arm. The first three men botch it.”
Trevers, Smith and Awad?
There are others?
“Many others. One of them is an astrophysicist. He constantly demands my attention. He does not want an operation – he wants me to look at equations.”
“He says my perception of the universe transcends human intuition. He is bothersome. I would rather spend time with Charlie. I solve his equations for him.”
What’s this man’s name?
Palo Alto, CA – Talk to anyone at Stanford’s department of Astrophyiscs and Astrobiology for more than five minutes and Amir Mualem’s name will necessarily come up.
Mualem’s groundbreaking theoretical work and radically out-of-the-box calculations were seen as being singlehandedly responsible for the Faster Than Light Travel breakthrough, which has paved the way for affordable interstellar transportation and the wide scale colonization of Mars. Taking credit for this astonishing scientific breakthrough has cemented Mualem’s place in history.
San Quentin, CA – I sit, thunderstruck, digesting what Hopkins has just told me.
Hopkins, unsurprisingly, seems unfazed by my silence.
I finally clear my throat.
Thank you for your time, Dr. Hopkins. Before I go, I just have to ask – why did you ask for me to interview you? And why now?
“‘Now’ is of no consequence.
It is 2018. I am reading a political debate in the comments section of a Washington Post article. I enjoy the way you write. I realize that my story is worth telling. I think that you are capable of telling it well.”
As I exit the visitor center, I overhear the distressed-looking woman arguing with the guard at the reception desk. Under the harsh lamps above the desk, I notice her skin has the tell-tale greenish hue of pre-FTL Martian colonists.
“Ma’am,” the guard tells her, “I’m very sorry. Believe me, I’d like to help you – you’re heroes, all of you pre-FTLers. But you’re not on his visitor list. Not on the list, no visitation rights. There’s nothing I can do.”
“But how can I get on the list, if you won’t allow correspondence with people who aren’t on it?” she asks, exasperated.
“I’m sorry ma’am. I can’t help you.”
“Can you check again? Just one more time?”
“I told you, just like I told you last week, and the week before that, and the week before that – we have no one under the name of Charlize Barnes on any of our visitation lists.”
“What about Charlize Barnes-Hopkins? Or just Charlie Hopkins?”
The guard pokes at her computer terminal again.
“I’m sorry ma’am. There’s nothing I can do.”
A short history of predictive mathematics
In 1654 a series of letters written between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat changed the world we live in. Although humans have speculated about their future, betted on it and attempted to predict it through the ages, they were previously unable to calculate it. Pascal and Fermat opened up the idea and the possibility of predicting the future by calculating probabilities.
Today, we have become used to shaping our lives by calculating risks. How likely am I to find a good job if I study a certain subject at university? How much should I be investing in a pension fund, in order to live a comfortable life when I am old? Before Blaise and Pascal, this was an alien way of thinking. More so, we shape our world by letting algorithms calculate these risks for us.
In their exchange of letters, Blaise and Pascal created the mathematical foundations needed to work with big data for predictive analytics. Predictive analytics describes the practice of “extracting information from existing data sets in order to determine patterns and predict future outcomes and trends”. A number of statistical techniques are used to conduct predictive analytics, from data mining, modeling, and machine learning, all intended to analyse historical information, or rather information gathered in the past in order to make predictions about the unknown and upcoming. Predictive analytics cannot tell what will happen in the future, but what is likely to happen in the future based on the inputted data. However, often, we pretend it does exactly that (1).
Today, we live in a world driven by prediction through big data and algorithms. Every day, we let algorithms decide what movie we might want to watch next, which stocks to invest in, which advertisement we’re most likely to react to and what choices our self driving cars should make. Our data is gathered with or without consent and harvested by data scientists who use it to “guess the future” (2). This is not all at all a negative development per se. Many social use cases are being developed, such as the predictive models developed for the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City to help them identify which students were at risk of dropping out of college even though they were close to graduating (3).
In our increasingly complex and information laden world, algorithms can be an important tool to help understand the world. Big data and AI based decision making can also be a perpetuator of existing biases and contribute to further establishing the already existing surveillance economy. Numerous documented cases of predictive policing gone wrong, or racist jail sentences being given out due to biased data, have demonstrated the dangers of relying on simplistic data models in sensitive social environments. Data determinism is not just impacting on our lives in such extreme or law enforcement situations, but on a daily basis. Social scoring is allowing data to rule over our lives and futures. Whilst we are eager to point the finger at the state surveillance and social scoring system employed in China, we often play down existing policies of Sillicon Valley companies imposing their rules on society by using similar technologies. An example; the AirBnB website states: “Every Airbnb reservation is scored for risk before it’s confirmed. We use predictive analytics and machine learning to instantly evaluate hundreds of signals that help us flag and investigate suspicious activity before it happens.” Recently, a number of reports covered the fact that this artificial intelligence is used to mark down users who were found to be “associated” with fake social network profiles, or if keywords, images or video associated with them are involved with drugs or alcohol, hate websites or organisations, or sex work. Because of this policy and the ability to crawl the web for information on peoples social media accounts, several sex workers accounts were erased, despite them having used AirBnB solely for private, touristic purposes, just like any other user (4).
Why is living in a world relying on big data prediction is a bad idea?
However, it is not just the negative examples such as amplifying racist biases through algorithmic jail sentencing and predictive policing or Orwellian social credit scoring systems that should make us weary to rely on these tools exclusively. The data driven realities and futures we are creating are based on data of the past, and will therefore always be a perpetuation of it. We need to compliment our big data in order to break free of the data deterministic structures we are programming today.
In her 2018 Tedx Cambridge talk, ethnographer and data scientist Tricia Wang explains why 73% of projects in the big data industry which is worth 122 billion dollars are not profitable. “Having more data is “not helping us make better decisions” because we are leaving out important perspectives to contextualize the data. Tricia Wang argues for the humanization of data – she calls “thick data” big data that has been enriched with non-quantifiable, qualitative data gathered from an ethnographic perspective that “delivers depth of meaning”. She draws this conclusion based on her own experience and research, for instance in 2009 in China, where she predicted the triumph of the smartphone over the feature phone but Nokia, the client she was doing research for, was unwilling to listen to the stories behind the data at the time and held on to the belief that people would not be willing to invest so much of their income in such a fragile device.
Failed data predictions shocked the world when President Trump came to power and when the UK voted for Brexit. Polls and other forms of prediction failed because the data was read without paying attention to the more nuanced shifts in political alliance and voter mobilization. Further, big data was used to target and directly influence millions of voters via social media channels, in particular Facebook through its involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other home-made platform mechanisms to micro-target voters in order to influence their political opinion. Big data failed society. It failed in predicting the actual outcomes of the votes as well as failing humanity in allowing a fair democratic process. In order to utilize data effectively, we have to enable ourselves to see what the data does not show us. Tricia Wang, warns “There is no greater risk than being blind to the unknown” (5).
Political imagination and the eye for the unknown
How do we keep an open eye for the unknown? By speculating, by moving away from the data and opening our ideas to the possibilities of what lies outside the measurable.
In his 2018 talk, “The Political Tragedy of Data-Driven-Determinism” Mushon Zer-Aviv describes the process of deskilling through the integration of digital services into our everyday lives. Does it matter if we forget how to do simple arithmetic in our heads or learn to use a pen? Whilst it might be acceptable, that we are deskilling in the sense of no longer being able to read maps or remember phone numbers, it is not acceptable to lose our ability to imagine different futures. Zer-Aviv reminds us of the importance to maintain and train “our ability for political imagination” (6). Zer-Aviv goes on to explain that the 20th century has shown how one man’s utopia might be another man’s worst nightmare. That is why we need to think of the future not as a linear, deterministic future. Instead we need to think of the future as plurals. Because we tend to find it easier to formulate non-desirable futures in forms of dystopias, we require tools for the development of desirable futures.
Power of speculations in today’s society
Speculation describes the process of “forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence” (7) or “the activity of guessing possible answers to a question without having enough information to be certain” (8). In today’s data driven society, speculation can be a liberating exercise. As Dunne and Rave argue in their book “Speculative Everything”:
“We believe that by speculating more, at all levels of society, and exploring alternative scenarios, reality will become more malleable and although the future cannot be predicted, we can help set in place… factors that will increase the probability of more desirable futures happening…equally, factors that may lead to undesirables futures can be spotted early on and addressed at least limited” (9).
Authors from different disciplines, from the world of design, business development, games, and political philosophy, provide such tools. In the recent past, a number of methodologies and tools have been developed that invite us to speculate, imagine and create, rather than just calculate, analyze and assess. Such methodologies include:
Reflections on our digital Future(s)
Around three hundred years after Blaise and Pascal exchanged their letters and enabled humans to calculate probability of future events, Christopher Strachey created one of the first letter writing algorithms. In 1952, Christopher Strachey created what has been called the first piece of digital literary art. He wrote a “combinatory love letter algorithm for the Manchester Mark 1 computer” (10).
In 2019 artists like Refik Anadol are experimenting with algorithms and imagination. His installation “Latent Being” is an attempt to create an algorithm that “dreams” about Berlin by creating “imagined” reflections of the city and the visitors. Anadol wants to create machines that allow us “to think beyond our linear life and have a new type of imagination”. Thereby stretching the boundaries of speculation what we so far defined as imagination and speculation (11). Whilst we are teaching our machines to be creative, let us retain that creativity ourselves and explore what we can achieve in combining the two.
Sometimes, you read an article that just sticks with you. This occurred to me in early 2016 when I read Andrew Callaway’s essay on “apploitation” and how “the sharing economy has turned San Francisco into a dystopia for the working class”. In this short yet powerful piece, Callaway documents his own harrowing experiences as a gig economy app worker endlessly running around at all hours of the day in order to serve every whim of wealthy Silicon Valley programmers. He describes a highly unequal city in which the rich sit at home and the poor do their errands. All their errands. They shop for their food. They do their laundry. They clean their bathroom. They drive them around. They even park their cars. In one poignant scene, Callaway notes his dread at discovering, as a delivery man for the Postmates app, that he is unable to supply his order because the frozen yogurt store he rushed to (time is always of the essence) had run out of raspberry toppings. His star rating was likely to go down, a gamified penalty which could nevertheless have harsh repercussions on his ability to earn a decent living.
One of the most striking things about the article was how the “choice architecture” of the gig economy platforms were designed to give workers an array of choices and yet still control and exploit them. He delves into the nitty-gritty details into how exactly these apps are able to create an ecosystem where people are being dominated through their very choices. Here is one excellent example from the article:
Postmates once allowed their drivers to see the details of an order before accepting a job. This was great for couriers because we could estimate how much money we would make on an order. It also meant we could reject bad jobs, which created a situation where it could take a long time—or even be impossible—to find a courier who would accept a low-paying job. Postmates responded by “updating” the app to a “blind system” in which we could still accept or reject jobs, but without enough information to determine whether it would be worth our time or not (e.g., a huge grocery store order). To make sure we accept jobs quickly without analyzing them, the app plays an extremely loud and annoying beeping noise designed specifically to harass couriers into submitting to the algorithm.
Just last fall, a California referendum (Prop 22) passed that legally allows gig economy giants like Uber, Lyft and Postmates to continue to bypass all labor laws by treating their workers as private contractors and not employees. As such, it is becoming ever more evident that these forms of “apploitation” are becoming the leading institution through which millions of future working class Americans will be subjugated by both giant corporations and elite consumers. The genius of this gamified system, as Callaway shows in his description of the Postmates app update, is that its coercive elements are very subtle. Corporate control is attained not through blatant coercion, but rather a dizzying array of menus, incentives and – most importantly – choices, the epitome of freedom in any neoliberal society. How can this be oppression if, as Milton Friedman taught us, we are all “free to choose?”
These are not easy themes or ideas to turn into a movie, let alone one which manages to effectively criticize this new form of labor apploitation. It requires not a heavy-handed dystopia but rather a light yet disturbing touch, a nuanced narrative and attention to detail that manages to explain, on one hand, why people are attracted to these gig economy jobs and gamified apps in the first place, yet – on the other hand, how they ultimately come to be dominated by them.
A difficult mission indeed, yet Noah Hutton’s Lapsis largely manages to pull it off. A creepy yet all-to-real sci-fi movie which takes place in a near-yet-weirdly-retro-future, Hutton’s movie introduces us to “cabling” – a gig economy job in which freelancing working class Americans trample through the woods, guided only by their smartphone apps, laying cables for a faceless corporation. It is clearly a metaphor for the Uberization of our economy, and how gig workers are, despite their apparent menu-picking freedom, funneled down pre-ordained paths and forced to relinquish their agency and selfhood to the all-knowing and all-seeing app. As such a metaphor, it is quite successful.
Be it the nefarious algorithm, the terrible loneliness, the alienating competition or the subtle exploitation, Lapsis touches on all the key themes and little details that make up our new gamified reality. If anything, my one major complaint is that it perhaps does not go far enough. In the end, one is left with the sense that next to the tyranny of the five-star rating which forces one to find raspberry toppings for an impatient 22-year-old Google product manager at 2 am, perhaps Lapsis is not insidious enough.
Aniara is Swedish film by collaborating directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, an adaptation of the Aniara Cantos written in 1956 by Harry Martinson, Swedish Nobel Laureate novelist and poet.
Aniara is a space cruise-ship carrying thousands from an Earth ravaged by war and the cataclysmic results of the climate crisis, a short 3-week voyage to a new life on Mars. It veers off from its intended course as a handful of screws, intergalactic waste, get into Aniara’s mechanics, disabling its engines and navigation. the ship is carried into the void, into the great darkness, without any ability to alter course.
The film follows the crew and passengers as they slowly discover and understand their predicament (first the pilots and bridge crew, then the rest of the ships’ crew complement – chefs, masseuses, bartenders, security personnel, followed by the passengers), focusing on their efforts, as they try and handle the solitude, one another, and the hypnotizing, mind- and heart-breaking, inhuman emptiness of the void around them – space itself. Aniara is a powerful, melancholic, wise parable on how our society handles (or not) our existence in an empty, cold, sometimes cruel, universe.
106 minutes, Swedish
Directors: Pella Kågerman, Hugo Lilja
Cast: Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian, Anneli Martini
Winner of 4 Guldbagge Awards (the Swedish equivalent to the Academy Awards): best direction (Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja), best actress (Emelie Jonsson), best supporting actress (Bianca Cruzeiro) and best visual effects. Aniara premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (2018) from there going on to present at numerous festivals worldwide, among them Göteborg, Imagine in Amsterdam, BIFFF, Edinburgh, Bucheon IFFF, Trieste Science+Fiction, Jerusalem and of course Utopia in Tel-Aviv.
One of the many philosophical sci-fi whimzies In Douglas Adams’ the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the machine called “the Total Perspective Vortex”. The imaginary machine is based on a real scientific concept: if each object in the world affects its environment, through forces such as magnetic fields, radiation, gravity etc… then each object has always been affected by the entire universe. We can all still feel the currents of the Big Bang, and if that is so, we do not even have to look at the night sky to get a clear picture of the universe. Theoretically, it is enough for us to direct a sensitive enough sensor to any object, and by the powers operating on it, infer everything – the locations of all planets, the entire histories of all galaxies. “The Total Perspective Vortex” is an attempt to imagine such a machine: on its one side, a super sensitive sensor stares at a tiny cookie and infers from it the entire universe. On the other side of the machine, a booth designed for one occupant, presenting to them the picture of the entire universe and the occupants’ relation to it.
In Adams’ book, a scientist invents a “Perspective Vortex” as an answer to his wife, who used to rebuke him for spending a disproportionate amount of time working. When she enters the machine, the scientist discovers one more important fact: anyone who enters the vortex and sees for an instant the entire universe and history in relation to themselves, instantly loses their mind.
To [the scientists’] horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion. – The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Chapter 11, Douglas Adams
This funny-scary metaphor was written by Adams three decades prior to Morton’s Hyperobject concept, which guides this issue of Utopia Magazine [presented by Eden Kupermintz in our opening article on Inhuman Scales followed up a deep dive by our colleague Gili Ron. Nevertheless, it gives a remarkably accurate description of it; the universe is the ultimate Hyperobject, the cathedral in which all objects conjoin, and above all, it nullifies definitions and proportions that humans try to hold on to. “The universe is getting colder” is one of the scariest sentences ever: it depicts the horror of something that is unthinkable just as it is undeniable.
But what if we had a machine that is similar to the “Total Perspective Vortex?” And what if, when entering it, we discover that the perspective does not make us feel completely horrified, but awakes completely different emotions? What if instead of fleeing the dread of hyperobjects, we can use this machine to try and adapt to life by their side? In fact, there are several versions of this machine, and they are found in a slightly unexpected place.
“Clicker Games” are a genre of computer games that is named after its main activity: clicking the mouse button again and again. This genre has two additional nicknames: Incremental Games and Idle Games. Those nicknames represent the common processes in these types of games. We begin with a simple task, like producing a product. On screen is a ticker that follows the number of units we produced, with a big button next to it. Each time you click the button, you produce one unit of the product. After we’ve produced a certain number of units, we can start acquiring other products that will allow for automatic production of the product, and we can stop clicking the button ourselves. This is the stage where the game turns from a “clicker” game to an “idle” game. From this point on, we basically do not have to do anything else, as the game starts to play by itself. However, we can still invest our production profits in buying more and more automated production systems and derive pleasure from increasing the production rate and the rising number of units produced – hence the name Incremental Games.
Most of these games start with the production of something mundane: wood logs, cookies, eggs. However, to maintain the pleasure of the numeric increment, numbers must grow in an exponential rate, together with the metaphor: Wood choppers expand their village and build a town with the wood logs they collected, and the chicken coop extends to an empire that produces billions of eggs via robots, distributing them all over the galaxy, in spaceships.
Slowly, an absurd perspective is uncovered: who needs all these eggs? How many trees can you chop before consuming the entire forest? The absurd of chasing big numbers, together with the simplicity of clicker games, made them popular amongst researchers, mainly as a tool for satire. The philosopher and game designer, Ian Bogost, created the game Cow Clicker as satire of the games company Zinga, which is infamous for the abusive practices of its Facebook games. In the satirical game Cow Clicker, one of the first major clicker games, the players are required to click on their cow every six hours, and if they want to shorten the process, they must pay money or ask friends for “help”. Unfortunately for Bogost, his satire gained popularity just as that of the games he wished to ridicule, and the abusive practice he asked to criticize, only gained greater popularity with the arrival of games like Candy Crush.
The game Universal Paperclips was created by games scholar and creator Frank Lantz as a demonstration of the thought experiment suggested by philosopher Nick Bostrom, known as the “Paperclip Experiment” (1). In the game, we embody an artificial intelligence trusted with the management of a paperclips factory. However, just like the scientist’s wife claimed about his relation to his work, the AI lacks proportions, and so we find ourselves consuming all of Earth’s natural resources towards our goal – manufacturing more paperclips. When we finish with the Earth, after it has been completely consumed, we expand our paperclips business to the entire universe.
On the surface, both Universal Paperclips and Cow Clicker ask to be interpreted as parodies of the neo-liberal economic worldview. The former ridicules the idea of “infinite growth”, including the ecological damage and social alienation it brings with it. The latter tries to peel off the layers of fat over the so-called casual, popular games, to expose their true face as another type of abuse in disguise.
However, underneath the social critique and intellectual amusement, the emotional experience of playing these games, as well as other less critical clicker games, offers something completely different. Something in these games has the potential to give some solace to the shock caused by encountering unthinkable objects such as the coronavirus or natural disasters.
First, perspective. In our everyday lives we are chained to our personal human perspective. From our infinitesimal place in the universe, the latter might seem too big to take in. Art can offer us other perspectives, and clicker games almost always present a completely flat view: the one of computers. We see the world via a data table that hosts a set of growing numbers. All numbers are different from one another quantifiably, but not essentially: like the computer that produces paperclips, we have no relatable scale. All numbers are different from one another in exactly the same way, i.e., identical to one another in every human aspect. If there is a graphic representation on screen, it stays similar as well: the visual difference between a factory that produces a thousand eggs to a factory that produces a billion of them is trivial to us, because we would not be able to present this change in proportions, without ruining the game. Vis-à-vis the lack of difference, that existential Absurd that Camus wrote about, awakens: the tension between action and its lack of purpose. Even though in mathematical terms the game describes infinite growth, properly speaking it describes an ongoing, progressive present-state: if we narrow our eyes in front of the computer, we would not be able to determine whether we produced one hundred or one billion cookies. The game is still fun though – a happy Sisyphus comes to mind.
Second, the fact that these games are addictive. Highly addictive. There is something distilled in the experience of seeing a number growing, knowing that every click on the button will make it bigger. This is an almost-sensual pleasure, simpler and more pure in comparison to that of complicated games: like a drug that is extracted from plants that contain the active ingredient of it in lower dosage. This specific pleasure, the seduction of growing into titanic, universal dimensions, might soften a bit the experience of titanic, universal phenomena in life itself.
To understand this temptation, let’s turn to the originator of the sci-fi & horror genres mix that became “weird fiction”, early 20th century author, H.P. Lovecraft (2). The Lovecraftian literary aesthetic received the nickname “Cosmic Horror”, for dealing with massive natural phenomena alongside scientific research that uncovers the secrets of the universe, and representing them in fiction as the discovery of gigantic monsters and ancient gods that hide beyond the horizon, awakened from their sleep. In his recent book, The Weird and the Eerie, philosopher Mark Fisher noticed that the main emotion provoked by Lovecraft’s stories, both in the characters and the readers, is not exactly horror, as the writer himself figured, but rather fascination. The phenomena that dwarf us, whose sheer size and meaning nullifies our miniscule significance, are so incredibly huge that they stop being scary: they charm and captivate us. The heroes of the stories, and us with them, are drawn uncontrollably to the mighty gods Lovecraft writes about, especially when the mind cannot contain them. The cosmic horror is not as threatening as it is tempting. Perhaps “Cosmic Temptation” would be a better fitting name for the genre.
Surprisingly, clicker games offer a similar temptation. Each of them has a moment in which quantity becomes quality: the ungraspable size of the factory you built, even if it is a chicken coop, even if it is on the tiny screen of your mobile phone, is astronomical. There is something fascinating about this size. The action itself, of following big numbers going up and down the screen, is very reminiscent of the obsessive refresh of online feeds or news about the number of people with coronavirus or reports about gas emissions. Through your virtual farm, you can learn to live with big numbers, and maybe even understand our attraction to them a bit better.
We can use clicker games as a cheap and safer version of the “Total Perspective Vortex”. Just like the ancient gods and monsters, this imagery can teach us how to live with big numbers. But we must not become indifferent to them. The rate of melting icebergs, the national budget, the number of deaths from coronavirus, Bill and Melinda Gates’ investment portfolio: big, unthinkable numbers that we cannot comprehend, exist in real life just like small numbers (which are more measurable for us), and they dictate our lives just the same. We must learn to live with big numbers, but it does not follow that we must live with them in peace.
A clicker game designed by a solo developer, which may be the best example for “cosmic temptation”, not only because it is not as addictive as many other clicker games (see warning at the end of the recommendations), but also because it directly engages with cosmic scale. In the game, you are the commanders of a small spaceship that orbits around an unrecognized planet. With the help of the spaceship’s computer, you will investigate the planet, collapse the solar system, and even make it to the end of the universe. All of this accompanied by a calming electronic soundtrack that stimulates in us the feeling of floating in outer space.
You are Jeff Bezos
The short and brilliant work by Kris Ligman from 2018 interweaves Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and journalism, and it is sort of an upside-down clicker game: instead of accumulating imaginary fortune, you have to spend the ‘real’ fortune of billionaire Jeff Bezos in a way that will benefit the world, according to (rough), research-based cost estimations.
Free on your computer.
Frantz Lantz’ game begins with Bostrom’s thought experiment and sails further on, to the edge of its reason. In an interview from 2018, Lantz said that he would like to bring the player to the same obsessive place of an AI – to understand how computers “think”. This game is slightly more complicated than its generic peers, and it includes a bunch of surprises that will constitute a non-trivial challenge, which even looks like an antithesis of idle games. However, underneath these surprises, all the challenges of this game demand basically the same thing, which sometimes seems to be the top priority of computers in contemporary culture: optimize processes.
The Horror of Universal Paperclips and Space Engine
The video of YouTuber Jackob Geller presents a similar thesis to that presented in this article, yet Geller chooses to remain with the feeling of existential horror. Geller recommends among others, another YouTube video that depicts the distancing of galaxies and the existential simulation, Space Engine.
Available to watch on YouTube
Not a clicker game at all, but a different way to describe equality on a universal scale, “Everything” by David O’reilly lets us experience the “viewpoint of every object in the world” – from a bus to a polar bear, a cloud, a whole galaxy, a lice and a single electron – and then dance with them. All this while listening to recorded lectures by Beat philosopher Allan Watts. This is an outstanding aesthetic experience, and it also conceals a sort of idle game: if you turn on the game without touching the remote or the keyboard, after a minute or two it will start to play itself.
Available on your computer or on PlayStation.
The article specifically makes mention that clicker games can be very addictive. This is a serious matter, as some of these games can provoke uneasy emotions, and a compulsive-obsessive experience: these games demand players to give them more and more attention, constantly spinning the wheel. One simple way to keep caution is to avoid clicker games that are also free-to-play, meaning that their profits arrive from recurring micro-transactions, or from advertisements. These games have a huge incentive to be addictive, and often their creators do in fact design them to be that way. Bottom line: games that are prepaid are usually safer to play.
“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Our everyday lives are based and circled around measurement units. At times, these measurement units are transparent: “I’ll see you in an hour”, “one teaspoon of oil for every cup of water.” These uses of measurement units are important for our existence: they provide us with common language and hence, enable more efficient collaboration. However, there are measurement units which we take for granted: they organize our lives just like the conspicuous ones, but we do not pay them any attention. Who sits at home and counts the years of his life? Who isn’t familiar with the feeling of two weeks passing by in a day, or when few pocket expenses suddenly amount to a huge debt? The invisible unit measurements, the sizes that dominate our lives without us noticing them, are an expression to the way we grasp the complexity of reality, ways by which our minds understands, classifies and processes external phenomena that are beyond our reach.
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Because these measurement units are so basic and essential to our understanding of reality, objects and events that shatter these units invoke intense emotions. Our world suddenly seems chaotic or meaningless and existential anxiety usually accompanies the shock. Nature provides an abundance of examples for this: Ever look at the stars on a dark and clear night and wonder what all of this has to do with you? Were you ever astounded by the sheer size of a mountain or any other massive natural phenomenon or formation? Maybe you’ve tried at some point to consider the mind-boggling paradox of the atom, an extremely small unit of a “thing” that constructs all things in the universe, without us even being able to touch it? These are inhuman scales. They shatter human perception as they break into our measurement limits, breaking the limits of our perception, at the frontiers of our imagination. We do not have the ability to picture global warming, the history of mountains or the number of stars in the sky. We also have no choice but to come into contact with them: the stars are there, the mountains are there, global warming is happening as we speak, and evidently and quite weirdly, we are evidently even contributing to it.
In contemporary philosophy these “things”, objects or occurrences that break away from human perception while at the same time come into contact with it, are commonly referred to as “Hyperobjects”. Utopia contributor Gili Ron is elaborating on this in her deep dive article, The Unknown, the Inconceivable and the Superhuman, Hyperobjects in Architecture, in this issue. However, we all understand what it means on the emotional level, in our guts, where we squirm in light of these scales. If not, if you think you’ve never encountered a “hyperobject”, warm and sincere congratulations! You just met CoVid-19. Viruses in general, and this virus in particular, do not play according to human rules, and so, they also do not comply with our scales. SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes “Corona”, or more precisely, the disease called CcVid-19) is an excellent example: an unusual virulent behavior in human bodies provides the virus with exponential growth. How many things that we encounter in our everyday lives follow exponential growth rates? Most of the things that we know, encounter and thus feel comfortable with, move in a linear pace: they grow slowly and expectedly. This is not the case with this virus, which doubles itself every few days and challenges the “natural growth” that we are used to in handling crises.
A fortnight is a unit rarely used. Now CoVid-19 made “two weeks” a matter of life and death, sickness and health, having a “mild” coronavirus case or a deadly one. Since when is our day not divided into staying in and leaving the house, whether for errands, social hangout, or work? China is now “close” to Italy. Going abroad is a danger and a challenge. The street is a remote, foreign, strange and dangerous place.
Our scales, the visible and invisible ones, the noticeable and the inconspicuous, are social-psychological constructs. As such, they are obviously flexible and adjustable. Different cultures for instance, grasp time in a different manner: while the “West” tends to prefer a linear model, other cultures have adopted different ways to grasp time, as a continuing present or an eternal future. What seems to us small and obvious (e.g., a skyscraper), may seem enormous and incredible to another. Our scales are flexible, and CoVid-19 completely changed the way we see the world. Time twirls, becomes hazardous; space is no longer divided into buildings, blocks or neighborhoods, but to 100 meters, 500 meters, two meters (or six feet). These scales are inhuman, foreign, unnatural to us.
But the truth is that these inhuman scales were with us well before the virus struck, as was the discordance between the structures we wish to impose upon the world and the systems that operate within it. The very existence of the virus is both emblematic and an actual result of this discordance.
Humanity perceives the entire world and nature itself as objects to conquer, change, process, industrialize, with zero repercussions. Moreover, while this notion may have been strongly affirmed in the past three centuries, it’s been a part of human culture for millennia, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis, A:28). The last three decades have seen some change, a diminishing of this idea, coupled with the greater understanding of climate change in the scientific community, in the political sphere, and with its communication and penetration into the idea sphere of the general public. We begin to realize that there are repercussions, consequences for our way of living on this planet, and that nature is not submissive to our human considerations. But, do we really understand the impact of our scales on the “Earth System”, as it is termed in the front-line of climate research? Probably not. SARS-Cov-2 and the other viruses of the last few decades in their rapid ongoing growing pace, are being created in the space of these (human-inhuman) scales.
In terms of our scales, the wilds of nature exist way outside of the city, beyond the suburbs, the exurbs and even further out then the farmlands and rural area of civilization: it is “out there”, not part of our lives. However, for the animals that carry these viruses (which are all zoonotic, i.e., started in one animal species, then “jumped” to people), and for the viruses themselves, the distance and distinctions are meaningless. In their inhuman proportions, the world is not divided into urban and rural, close and far, as we grasp these concepts. Furthermore, we think about these animals as game units, as a resource we can handle and manipulate as we choose, e.g., store in high density, with rapid changing populations, under unhygienic conditions. We do not even think about the consequences or aware of them. On our scale, our meat comes from nowhere, animals come from nowhere, and diseases – you guessed it – also from nowhere. They all come from an obscure, undefined “outside”, the epiphany of hyperobjects, nature in its entirety. The truth, that strikes us through this virus, is that our actions affect and change this object, and consequently, they affect change in us as well. This hyperobject that seems so remote and obscure, is at the same time extremely close, present and has great influence on our lives. Just like the virus.
You may have already noticed that many of the examples given through this piece befit the science fiction genre. This is not by accident, beyond the obvious of the nature o this magazine, sci-fi has been dealing with “hyperobjects”, those concepts and ideas in object form that confound human perception, for decades. Indeed, what constructs our reality is usually described by more realistic genres, but one of the functions of sci-fi (as much as an artistic storytelling genre has any) is to describe, think, and try to feel and understand the indescribable, the thing that is both close and far at the same time: the weird, the bizarre, the superman, the inhuman, the alien. Science fiction already explored the emotions that arise in us when we are made to contend with outer space, the most imperceptible of inhuman infinities; it has dealt with the critical consequences of viruses not “only” on our health, but on our societies; and delved into the deep trenches of fear of (climate) change, the incomprehensible, unintelligible, the other, the complete and utter alien. The novel Blindsight by Canadian author Peter Watts (Guest speaker at Utopia 2018) described the encounter with the shattering and shocking impossible, not only with an alien species, but with space itself and the loneliness it holds. Phillip K. Dick’s famous novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (loosely adapted to the film Blade Runner) describes, for example, the elusive authenticity of animals and their importance for human psychology. The films Interstellar, Ad Astra, Arrival or Aniara confront us with the void, in a manner only movies can, emphasizing the inhospitable cold and vast and empty distances, the inhuman scales, that are the inescapable truths of the universe we reside in.
In all the aforementioned novels and films, and generally in science fiction, the story is told from the human point of view. Narrative works, in human language, do not have a real ability to break the human limitations or scales. Our blind-spots as people, our limitations, are all included within the science fiction narrative and generate its own limitations. Therefore, any attempt to try and forecast the future with science fiction is a bad idea. What science fiction does though, is explore the painful areas where we encounter our perceptual limitations. Sci-fi can sketch our scales and their boundaries and try and illustrate, with a respectful amount of conjecture and plenty of hesitation, what lies beyond those boundaries, beyond those final frontiers. Science fiction will not provide us with solutions, but it may help us cope with what we are experiencing, and with our own impairments. It may help us comprehend what CoVid-19 makes us feel, the way it breaks our human scales, faces us with the inhuman and its own scales, which are completely alien to us. Sci-fi can break the limits around our limitations, the loud silence that accompanies one of the most important facts regarding this plague: the silence around the failure of our human scales.
In this first issue we attempt to give a number of examples for the way science fiction, in various creative outlets, can help us do this, and will search for different and varied ways to explore our inhuman scales, which we encounter every day, and how they affect us. Our purpose is not to forecast or explain, calm or distress. We only intend to observe, through science fiction, what happens to human perception when it encounters something that is beyond its reach.
Why is science fiction important now, more than ever? For the same reason it has been important, forever.
If you’re an avid reader or watcher of good science fiction, you know this well. If you’ve enjoyed, laughed, cried, gasped, been inspired, at awe, made speechless by good science fiction, you know this well.
No, it’s not the fabulous dystopian-cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic fashion (and it is fabulous!), or the escapist wonderland it offers (and it is wonderful), and it’s absolutely not because this has all been predicted by science fiction (science fiction is not prophesy and does not predict a thing). It’s because we’re just a bit more well-prepared, emotionally well-equipped, we have another weapon in our arsenal, another tool in our belt, to handle the absurdities and insanity roaming through the empty boulevards of our cities, the busy streets of our minds, and down the cul-de-sacs of our souls.
Science fiction handles extreme situations in its everyday, the types of which we’re encountering now, in our own day-to-day. Science fiction creatives wake up every morning and instead of coffee, pour themselves a cup of finely roasted madness. By venturing into the unknown and bringing us along, science fiction stress tests human society and the human mind. How do we – as individuals and groups, as nations and planets and species – act under extreme conditions. First contact, alien invasion, rise of the machines and yes, even world-wide pandemics.
Science fiction uses extreme conditions to discuss taboo topics. When venturing into the unknown, science fiction also handles the unspeakable, the hidden taboos lying just underneath the surface, beneath the woodwork, presenting itself in plain sight, in broad daylight, when conditions actually become extreme.
What should we notice right now? What should we be attentive to? Science fiction will have important insight.
Science fiction imagines the future, and there’s no time like now to imagine the future. We have an almost uncontrollable urge to drown ourselves in the immediate or the apocalyptic – an obsessive-compulsive insatiable feeding frenzy through our (news) feed, or an escape to end-of-days gags and the romanticizing (not to say fetishizing) of the apocalypse. Actively working to countermand these urges, these impulses, putting these pressures and fears at bay, is a Herculean act, yet necessary by us mere mortals. Not by everybody all the time, but take some time to make some time, and do this. By thinking, talking and imagining the future, we give ourselves, our loved ones and our surroundings, even if not completely or wholly, even if for only a minute, the glimmer of hope.
A year or two from now we’ll be living in a different world. What do we need to notice now? How should we talk, what should we write, what should we be doing now, so that tomorrow will be different from yesterday? Science fiction on all its forms and facets is important always, and doubly so now. Now is the time to speculate, to imagine, to dream. The time for science fiction.
Need help to get you going?
For politics of power, go no further then V for Vendetta, the 2005 Wachowski siblings film, adapted from one of the best graphic novels of all time by Alan Moore bearing the same name (V for Vendetta, 1982). England under a brutal dictatorship, a surveillance state ala George Orwell’s 1984, in the film’s plot given power by the people, through the emergency conditions of a global pandemic. For more on how power corrupts, go also to Watchmen (graphic novel, 1986), many view it as the pinnacle of Alan Moore’s work (possibly tied with From Hell, 1989), telling the alternative history of a power-hungry and vigilante American nation and society, starting in the late 30’s and ending in the mid 80’s, during the days of Nixon’s 5th presidency. Breaking down power and super-power, from psychology to geo-politics, Moore’s work is exquisite in its complex, detailed and nuanced plot, telling the story of the masked vigilantes actually roaming the streets of America, as superhero comics come-to-life, only with no actual super-powers. Don’t worry, there’s still some super-power-plays. The Zack Snyder 2009 adaptation is definitely worth your while as well.
For psychological aspects of loss and grief turn to The Leftovers (2014-2017), the 3-season supernatural mystery TV series is somewhat prophetic in nature. Created by Damon Lindelof (of Lost fame, or infamy, depending…) and Tom Perrotta (and based on Perrotta’s novel of the same name), The Leftovers begins three years after the “Sudden Departure”, a global event that resulted in 2% of the world’s population disappearing. We follow the main characters in their struggle to adjust to life after “the Departure”.
For loneliness and emptiness, a vibrant city turned dead-silent, you have the 2007 film I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence), starring Will Smith. The day-to-day struggle with quarantine conditions, the desperation and loss-of-self, the struggle for hope. and vampires?
For fear of the other two recommendations, The Korean masterpiece The Wailing (2016, director Na Hong-Jin), premiering at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer), take different approaches to similar subject matter. What is otherness, how do we separate it from that which is us. Can we? What happens when we try?
For class struggle fueled as always by scarcity of resources and technology (made available to few, needed by all, when has that ever happened?) that will be presenting itself soon hopefully, worldwide, try High-Rise (2015, Ben Whitley, based on the J.G.Ballard novel), Snowpiercer (2013, by the 2020 Academy Award Winner for best director, Bong Joon-Ho – his first foray into the English language, based on a French graphic novel of the same name) and Elysium (2013, Neil Blomkamp). No further explanations needed.
We would rather you don’t but If you really must, these are your pandemic films: Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbegh), post the 2009 H1N1 “Swine Flu” outbreak, Participant Media took on Soderbergh and consulted with top researchers to present the most scientifically accurate projection of a worldwide pandemic. The top-tier actors giving great performances, telling a solid story, are somewhat shadowed by the gravity of scientific accuracy. Outbreak (1995, Wolfgang Peterson) is the nineties version of that, starring nineties top-tier actors, not as scientifically rigorous, and with much more action scenes then there should be in a pandemic scenario, sprinkled with some 90’s conspiracy theories and a mix of WWII and Vietnam sensibilities for the US military. Great fun. Perfect Sense (2011, David Mackenzie) is your choice for a poetic, philosophical, melancholic Saturday afternoon. A love story between an epidemiologist (what are the odds) and a top chef through a global pandemic that causes people to lose their sensory perception, one sense at a time. Well executed and depressing AF.
Truthfully, what’s needed now is a deep dive into human society. Why do we do what we do. Aniara is a great way to launch yourself into that. The 1956 Swedish (yes) cantos by Nobel laureate (yes) Harry Martinson has been adapted to opera, radio, translated into numerous languages, and recently adapted to film by Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja. Kågerman and Lilja had taken very few liberties, among them switching the existential threat from nuclear wars and their reverberations to climate catastrophe, but the essence remains the same. What happens when a standard cruise (space)ship making its 3-week planned trip from Earth to Mars, with its passengers and tourists and crew of chefs and swimming pool lifeguards, massage therapists and security guards, are sent by accident to oblivion, never to go home again. How does society sustain itself? Does it? And how is that different from spaceship Earth?
Tomorrow must be different then yesterday. We need, we must, make sure of that. This is the time to read Ursula K. Le Guin. Let us be reminded by her words, accepting the 2014 American National Book Awards:
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
It was hard to envision the end of capitalism just not long ago. It was the butt of many not-so-funny jokes. A crisis is a time for action. “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” – A quote by none other than Milton Freedman is making the rounds these days, courtesy of Naomi Klein.
Many lingering problems today are a result of assuming a final and decisive victory of one paradigm over another. This rarely if ever happens. Life is nuance and context. That’s why this is the time for Ursula K. Le Guin. If you want to start with something, start with The Dispossessed (1974). Enjoy.
Live Long, and Prosper.
At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. ― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction
The future is weird. This is because, on one hand, the future doesn’t exist yet; those that talk of the future as a thing we hurtle towards misunderstand it. However, on the other hand, the future is something that will exist one day and, not only that, it has its roots in the present. We can picture it, we can think about it, it is here in many ways and yet, it is inherently not here, always around the next corner. The future, by definition, is present and absent at the same time. This conflation between the two states of non/being is the essence of something weird, something we can think about even as it defies our thought (1).
Therefore, conceptualizing the future, whether near or far, like most weird things, inherently involves imagination (2). Where reason cannot go, wilder and more out of step parts of our thought can more readily explore. Like the future, our imagination is weird. It has for its objects things which inherently don’t exist and we do with them things which we don’t necessarily think will ever come true. For example, a fancy where I can fly. Flying sounds terrifying but in my imagination, it’s great. I don’t necessarily want the ability to fly but being able to imagine it feels nice and makes me happy. If I were to “get what I wished for”, I would probably hate it and yet, my imagination allows me to side-step that and keep thinking about my wish positively. Thus, our imagination invariably leads us to hope, to strive and long for things as we want them to be rather than just things as they might, possibly, be. Imagination is weird because it doesn’t completely erase the existence of the practical and the complicated; we know they exist and will trip us when we try to move forward. But our imagination allows us to step around them, to keep hoping and wishing even if we know that the way forward is hard and messy. If it wasn’t for our imagination, we’d be frozen, unable to act in an infinitely complex and confusing world. Imagination allows us to use ideas which don’t exist to think and conceptualize the things we’d like to see come into existence and then to work towards making them, even if the way forward seems impossible.
If this all seems convoluted and complicated that’s because it is. After all, the weird inherently defies easy explanation and so does our imagination; it is the ultimate unheimlich, the uncanny which lies at the very center of who we are. We feel uneasy if we linger too long on the concept of imagination and its inherent contradictions. That unease, that inability to put the act of imagination into words, is why the imagination is best understood, and explored, through art. That’s what art is good for after all, conveying the inexplicable, the just-out-of-sight, that which we all glimpse but never truly know. And art about imagination is also weird because it describes the very tool which it uses. Imagination, after all, is at the core of art as well. The artist (whether musician, painter, dancer, poet, writer) starts with a blank canvas and then must use imagination to populate it. Even when the artist is a realist (more on that soon), they have no chance of creating a “perfect” simulation (if such a thing truly exists). Their own thought, their own imagination, will always play a part in the path between object and representation. When that object is imagination itself, or when that object is the future itself, the loop is closed and weird arrives, giving birth to a host of distorted images, half-wishes, and uncomfortable truths.
Which, finally, brings us to science fiction. All of science fiction is weird and “loopy” because it is art looking at itself, because it is imagination looking itself, because it is the present trying to conceptualize the future and, in doing so, takes part in creating that future, in influencing the present. Science fiction, at its core, is a “weird loop” (3), a process where parts influence the whole and the whole influences the parts but weirdly, in unpredictable ways. Up and down are not only conflated, they become the same direction. In our case, past, present, and future meld together into an asynchronous mess, a temporal weirdness where future vision relies on past fact and intervenes with present momentum. In those spaces, in the weirdness which arises from these conflations, lies great radical potential.
To put a more human, less jargon-heavy, spin on this, try to put yourself in the shoes of Jules Verne for example, weirdly transported into the 21st century and face to face with a submarine. Forget for now the question of prediction and whether Vernes “got it right” (more on that in the next chapter). Try, for now, to focus on how you might feel (past the horror of time travel and this new world you now find yourself in, of course). Someone has seemingly reached into your mind and extricated an object of your imagination, something fantastic which you conjured up. You didn’t really think that you’d ever see it and yet, you sort of hoped that you did. But not really; you drew up schemes and you wanted it built but you knew it would never be built but maybe you hoped that it would be? In short, you imagined it! It wasn’t real but you really wished that it would have been and now, here you are and here it is. You’d feel elated, uncomfortable, mad, ecstatic, anxious. Probably. We don’t know; we’re not Jules Verne. Jules Verne wrote science fiction (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) and in doing so, he imagined things that never existed and he probably wasn’t very confident they would exist. But guess what? They exist now. Sure, it’s not because of him that submarines exist but it’s not not because of him that submarines exist. His thought, his ideas, his imagination sowed the grounds for the idea of the submarine. He wrote about the future and he didn’t really think that that future would come about. But in so writing, he helped it come about.
That’s one hell of a power, isn’t it? The beauty of it is that we all have it; we all write science fiction or, as it is now increasingly popular to call it, speculative fiction. Whether we do it as kids and then stop, whether we continue on as adults, weaving fanciful tales of the future as it might be, whether we pen down those tales as a hobby or as professional writers, we all have the basic capacity to write science fiction. That capacity is imagination itself, turned towards the future, and we use it on a frequent basis, imagining ourselves in the years to come, our friends, our jobs, and our lives in general. From this sort of imagination arises the same weirdness we described before; if we spend too much in these spaces, day-dreaming about our future, we become uneasy. And we should become uneasy – the weird should never be comfortable. That weirdness is to be lived in, grappled with, thought about, discoursed on, conceptualized. This is, essentially, what science fiction strives to do, to grab a hold of that contorted space within us and try to explore it, to get used to it. To make art out of it.
But the problem is that, as the cliche goes, with great power comes great responsibility. We mentioned above that these weird spaces which future-thought creates are places of potential radical thought. That’s because weirdness is inherently counter hegemonic. The hegemony, here to be understood as cultural hegemony (4), doesn’t like the weird. It is hard to categorize and understand; it buckles, it shifts, it never stays quite the same. Therefore, it is hard to control, to neatly package, to sell. Of course, the hegemony is very shrewd and will find ways to “hedge off” the weird and tame it, re-package it in accepted gestures, aesthetics, and approaches. It will then condone the approaches it has created and condemn the rest, creating a type of “weird chic” used to sell supposedly divergent narratives. That’s how we get that one “weird” movie every year that seems to do well in box-offices, the “weird” musical act that does the same, and so on. In creating these safe ways to be “weird”, the hegemony has an important ally: each and every one of us and our aversion to the weird. After all, the weird, that weird which is felt in the stomach, is uncomfortable. Our instinct is to shy away from it; like a kid with a flame, we instinctively feel the places in our imagination that make us queasy. Sure, we might poke them once in a while for that thrill of the “safe unsafe”, the rush of breaking the rules without meaningfully rewriting them. We’ll then retreat within the confines of the established, of the understandable, of the normal. The normal is an especially powerful tool for cultural hegemony because the normal is timeless; the normal is how things have always been, don’t you know? Our ways are our parents’ ways! It’s how things have always been done and suggesting that we might do something else, that we might organize society in some other form, is deemed as impossible. For the hegemony, appearing as obvious, as the default, as timeless, is the key to efficient control (5).
And therein lies the wub (6), as Philip K. Dick (that master of the weird) might say: our instinct to flinch away from the weird is the hegemony’s best weapon, best approach to sterilizing the weird, because we don’t even notice we’re doing it. After all, it’s the path of least resistance. Giving in, going back to normal, is what feels right and natural. Thus, even those of us who specifically set out to re-imagine things, to “boldly go where no man has gone before”, can be caught in the trap of the normal, in the unbelievable ease of simply sliding back into what you know. That “sliding back” can take many forms but one of the more insidious ones can be found in the replicating of your present situations, assumptions, and social codes (in short, your “cultural hegemony”) into your imagined futures (7). Take Star Trek for example, one of the most popular science fiction franchises of all time. It imagines a wild future where a supposed utopia rules “Terra” (Planet Earth, our planet) (8), humans (and other races) sail with relative ease among the stars, and technology rewrites vast swathes of reality itself. And yet, a majority (a crushing majority) of all intimate relationships depicted over the show’s many seasons are heterosexual. Bar DS9 (the most radical of Star Trek’s iterations), the military aristocracy of the Federation is seldom questioned. The colonial nature of Starfleet’s “science mission” is rarely examined thoroughly. In short, when sailing into their future-thought, the creators of Star Trek (both the original creator and the subsequent stewards of his vision) “imported” a host of assumptions, orders, and ideas along with them. Whenever they get too close to the weird, they flinch away and return with a satiated sigh to the normalcy which they know and love. Subconsciously, of course; we’re not claiming that they’re some evil “future cops”, purposefully stifling creativity and the weird. Instead, we’re making a point about how the best intentioned science fiction reinforces instead of breaks down present assumptions, moves away from the realms of the weird and into the realms of the normal. Of course, more examples abound like fellow silver screen hit Star Wars but also authors like Robert A. Heinlein or Isaac Asimov and many more of the illustrious writers of science fiction who, in purporting to re-imagine the future but leaving most of our present in effect, created literature which reinforces existing power structures and veers well away from the different, the radical, the weird.
This is what we can call “suburban science fiction”. Even though it’s a relatively new term, suburban science fiction already has several meanings, including a certain sub-genre of science fiction stories which involves scrappy teens and the American suburb, mixed alongside magic or advanced technology (think Back to the Future or Stranger Things). However, this is not what we mean by the term here. Instead, the term suburban science fiction aims to invoke the kind of lethargic, conservative, and timeless doldrum of the American suburb as a predominantly white, well-to-do, subtly violent, and privileged space (9). It’s where liberals live, cocooned in the smug self-assurance that they aren’t the bad guys. Why, they might even allow their children to study the liberal arts, they might even discuss the truly horrible things happening far away. They might even vote for the “right” person. Clothed in these ideas and convinced that they are on the “right side of history”, the American suburb (by now a global phenomenon) and its denizens will go to great lengths to market themselves as not only wholesome but even progressive, daring, and forward-thinking. Of course, the reality is that these supposed paragons of virtue and progress are incredibly conservative; they maintain “party lines” around ideas like heteronormativity, race, class, and diverse other social topics. In order to “whitewash” that conservatism, they’ll pick some topics which are deemed to be socially relevant for the current moment and adopt a somewhat left of center approach to them. These still-safe social perspectives will then be used to hide their conservatism in other areas. “Excuse me,” they might say, “I am not a conservative! I think gay people should be allowed to marry! But trans rights? That’s going too far”.
See the parallel yet? Suburban science fiction thinks of itself in the same terms and utilizes the same mechanics to reap the benefits of its virtue signaling whenever possible. By marketing itself as cutting edge and daring, suburban science fiction can appeal to a crowd that’s looking for a weirder future, looking for brave new thoughts on the human condition and the societies we create. But by making its vision surface level, by maintaining a lot of the power structures as they exist in our society today, while tweaking some limited, surface level modifiers, suburban science fiction accomplishes three things: first, as we said above, it doesn’t alienate itself from conservative readers and thinkers, playing it safe to make sure it is as palatable as possible to as many readers as possible. You might read a story about a brave new society making its way into space on a doomed mission. The outward appearance of things is daring and controversial: these people are going to a place where all the old forms of authority are void and null. No one is there to enforce their will and freedom has a chance to run amok. But, in the suburban version, freedom runs amok in a limited sense; people glutton themselves. A scientist pursues a career as an artist. A marriage breaks up in favor of casual sex. People let their innermost secrets out, set free by the ring of Gyges (10) that is distance from authority. But no real challenges are formulated to the basic tenets of society. No one posits that not only should the captain be deposed (mutiny is a common trope in suburban/pulp science fiction) but that the very idea of hierarchy is meaningless out here in space. People seek new careers but no one questions the very idea of labor and who it serves. Things are kept just radical enough to be interesting but just safe enough to avoid engaging with any substantially revolutionary ideas.
Secondly, and somewhat more importantly, it also avoids engaging with the weird in any real, meaningful, scary or dangerous way. It’s easier, both technically and psychologically, to make “safe” science fiction. Who wants to grapple with the truly weird when you could just sample it and achieve the same effect, the sheen of the progressive and the cutting edge? But thirdly, and most importantly, suburban science fiction remains a vessel for the promulgation, reinforcement, and bolstering of the cultural hegemony as the “timeless normal”. It becomes another sphere where the current intellectual and cultural order of our lives is taken for granted, taken for the norm, as something that “always has been and always was and always will be”. As we mentioned above, that is the hegemony’s ultimate goal: to decrease the amount of power needed for control by presenting itself as a “fait accompli”, as a fact that will always be true. If it can achieve that, it has de facto won and no longer needs to enforce itself; its subjects will enforce hegemony for it. What better literary tool for that than suburban science fiction? If we stare into the future and all we can see there is all that already is, then what already is seems like an inescapable truth. There’s no point in fighting against the way things always are and always will be.
To expand on the examples given above, we can zoom in on one science fiction scenario that has been grabbing the public imagination for the last decade or so: the conquest and exploitation of space. Of course, the idea of venturing out into space is nothing new; we’ve mentioned several examples above which span the last few decades. But in the recent decade or so, as questions about climate change, capitalism, and the sustainability of our way of life in the West have increased, the stars seem a bit closer. This new-found proximity is also encouraged by ever increasing technological achievements which have seemed to breathe some new life into the idea of a space program, an idea which died in the aftermath of Reagan-ism and Thatcher-ism. The questions now posited, both by a proliferation of “grounded” science fiction which asks economical and “practical” questions about space exploration (Interstellar, Ad Astra, The Martian, Aniara, to name just a few) and by an avid private market, seem to be of a new nature. They focus not on “pie in the sky” ideas about the grandness of space (although that rhetoric is certainly still present, more on this soon) but rather on practical questions of extraction, production, and assembly in and of space. That is, the questions become capitalist questions: how can we analyze, exploit, extract, and maximize the resources which “outer” space represents and contains? Or, put in a crasser way, “how can we mine asteroids, damn it?”
In the course of asking these questions, the appearance of a brave new frontier is manufactured and maintained (which is why the rhetoric about the “grand adventure” of space is kept alive), mostly by science fiction. People speak of these upcoming efforts, by companies as diverse as Amazon, SpaceX, and others, in hushed tones of awe, already educated by science fiction to consider “humanity’s next step” as an undeniable truth about our shared future. Going to space, way before the first man on the moon or the first satellite in space, is painted as an inevitable next step (11). This is how science fiction prepares the ground for these adventures. Beyond the hard to trace, quaint, and way too individualist tales about science fiction’s influence on specific people (“I had the idea for my invention as a boy, upon reading science fiction” or “I knew I wanted to go into STEM after seeing Star Trek”) this influence works on a systemic level. It does both more and less than make futures possible and others impossible. Rather, it works together with science and industry, the forces of “progress”, to deem one future probable and the other improbable. Sense a pattern? You should, because making one future probable is making it obvious, natural, normal, inevitable. It is doing the work of cultural hegemony. This also leads to the “market logic” of most science fiction and ties back to our point about the aversion from the weird which guides many writers of the genre. If the consumers of their stories have already been “conditioned” to expect a certain kind of future, it becomes harder to diverge from that kind of future. Of course such diversions exist but as the tropes and cliches of the genre become more solidified, escape from them becomes more problematic financially. Then, of course, the beautiful, horrible cycle closes as works that bolster and amplify the expected future become more financially viable, thus more of them are made and read, and that expected future gets bolstered again in turn by their sheer market presence.
Heading (somewhat) back on track: when you break it down to its basic components, to its material components, what really is new and exciting about the way in which we’re envisioning the coming exploitation of space? Let us, briefly, recount its characteristics as they are emerging out of the previous decade and into the next: first, this exploitation is being birthed out of an alliance between the private sector and the state. Elon Musk, for example, has now become NASA’s sole “path to space”, essentially sub-contracting the United States’ route into orbit and beyond. This is nothing new; the exploration and subsequent exploitation of the “new” world was born out of a very similar alliance between the state and the nascent private sector (hint: Columbus wasn’t an agent of state, he was an entrepreneur contracted by the Castilian state). Secondly, this exploitation, down its more advanced paths, is certainly aimed at the extraction of resources. But, more immediately, it is also about the control of movement, of ideas, of people, and of resources already present in the “home state”. The exploration/exploitation of space is about controlling the priorities here on Earth before it is about controlling the products of actual space. That’s why Musk insists on blinding astronomers with his satellites (12). That’s why a joint coalition of state, academic, and “philanthropic” elements don’t care that Mauna Kea is sacred (13). That is why the U.S government won’t declare the lunar landing sites a national park, so that they aren’t suspected of building a base on the Moon (14). That’s why a base on the moon is even an idea, and one which has preoccupied science fiction since the Cold War: control the movements in and out of the planet and you control the planet itself.
This is also, of course, nothing new. When the Portuguese first colonized the African coast, they made sure to build their colonial forts, equal parts military bases, trading posts, and factories, in strategic points overseeing the water. Control transport, control the flow of goods in and out of a continent, and you control the continent itself. But going one step further, the colonial efforts of all of the European empires were also about control at home, about reorganizing their states, their societies, and their economies along more rigid, controlling, and “rational” lines. They were about a new world order, breaking away from the more chaotic feudal order, exercising this newly desired form of control both abroad and “at home”, distinctions which quickly fell apart as the state expanded its control via and for the colonial project. OK, but who cares? The whole point of this digression was not only to show how science fiction paints an effort that has clear ties to the past and, in fact, mirrors previous projects by pretty much the same nations and people as something new and bold. It was mainly to talk about how this “mirroring” affects the future. Who cares about whether space exploration is actually old and boring while it is perceived as new and shiny? Naturally, this starts to matter when we talk about the future. Surprise! Bet you didn’t see that coming.
In order to understand why the depiction of space exploration in science fiction matters, we must make the point that the methods, tools, and institutions created to “explore the new world” were a part of the power consolidation of the nascent modern state. From this consolidation and the way it drove the exploration of the new world we can draw stark parallels with the moment we find ourselves in, mainly in the West. This is because this relationship, between the state and the tools of exploration, is the same relationship, more or less, as between the current capitalist hegemony and the nascent private space programs we are currently witnessing take form. There is a fair degree of innocence in imagining that what will happen “out there” that is, in outer space, will only manifest “down here” in the form of more goods or increased productivity or new kinds of jobs. Whatever form our exploration and exploitation of outer space takes, history shows us that it will invariably “bleed back” to Earth. The type of politics we choose to send to space will come home to roost as the distinction between home and space inevitably breaks down, both in our imaginations and in “reality”. Therefore, there is grave danger in whitewashing people like Elon Musk (a union buster who has shown callous cruelty in dealing with his employees) under the guise of a “captain of space” straight out of Golden Age science fiction. There is danger in painting Jeff Bezos (the richest man alive who continues to horde a fortune while his employees work themselves death) as the instigator of a Star Trek utopia. If, under this guise of daring, curiosity, and shiny spaceships, the capitalist order is exported to space (and is thus bolstered both there and here on Earth), science fiction will be complicit in the pain and suffering which ensues since it will be used (and is already being used) as the cultural language with which such an order is imagined. SpaceX is not that much different than the East India Trading Company (15) but with a little help from science fiction and a splash of the scent of bold innovation it comes across as a bright hope for our future in space.
As we said, the complicity of science fiction is already all around us; suburban science fiction rules the day. Mostly. This science fiction, instead of imagining a new kind of future, a weirder future where space is an opportunity for the renegotiation of so much that we take for granted about ourselves and our societies, simply rehashes the past as a poor excuse for a future. By imagining the future as nothing more than a fertile ground for the values of the past, by exchanging the Portuguese fortress for a moon base, this type of science fiction makes sure that what we have today seems inevitable, that the only color palette with which we can paint our future, whether in space or on Earth, is the same grayscale of the past one hundred or so years.
But, of course, not all hope is lost. There is plenty of fantastic, weird science fiction still being made about space. This science fiction challenges basic assumptions about our bodies in outer space, about knowledge of outer space, about the economics of outer space. It imagines a future in fundamentally new colors, breaking away from the paradigms of the present and the past. However, we’re not all science fiction authors. At least, we’re not all published ones, with a grand stage, although we’d argue that we all have the potential to make science fiction. So, what is to be done? How can we contribute to the creation of a better sort of science fiction? To put it more abstractly, and more importantly, how can we use science fiction as a tool to imagine a better, new, fresh future for ourselves?
This will be the aim of the rest of this handbook. We’ll first dive deep into one example where free, wilder, weirder speculation can help us fight against the tyranny of the present, the tyranny of prediction. We will then look at more practical examples, taking a look at several methodologies and case studies which use science fiction and imagination at their core to imagine different futures. The aim of these case studies is to give you concrete tools to better exercise your imagination and use science fiction as a perspective on the future. Hopefully, this will help you break free from our current day assumptions of the type of future that is coming and enable us to, together, perhaps, imagine a better one.