Peter Watts vs. Minister Faust: Can sci-fi be a happy place?
We've teamed up with The Next Chapter to present The Canada Writes Literary Smackdowns, an essay series in which authors sound off on various writing topics. No writers were injured in the making of this series.
Battle Nine: Is the future bright or gloomy? Most science fiction authors tend to cast their worlds in a dystopic light—a light that "hard SF" author Peter Watts argues is the only realistic one. But SF author and community activist Minister Faust contends that, no matter how dark the future may become, beauty and hope remain. What do you think—are you on Team Peter or Team Minister?
Can sci-fi be a happy place?
Editor’s note: This essay contains language that may be offensive to some.
Ray Bradbury wrote a happy science fiction story once.
No, really. The author of those bone-chilling tales about infant assassins and book-banning societies once wrote a story about a guy named Craig Bennett Stiles, who saved the world by lying to it. Stiles told the world that he'd built a time machine and seen the Future, and It Was Good: we'd cleaned up the planet, saved the whales, eliminated poverty and overpopulation. And in this upbeat science fiction story, people didn't say Great: then we might as well keep sitting on our asses, snarfing pork rinds until Utopia comes calling. No, they rolled up their sleeves, and by golly they set about making that future happen.
That's what it takes to write a happy science fiction story: throw out everything you know about human nature, and replace it with rainbows and puffy kittens.
What sets SF apart from the rest of the speculative menagerie (fantasy, magic realism, et al) is that it is fiction based on science. Like science, it is founded on the premise that the universe is tractable, that it operates according to consistent and definable laws. You respect the extant laws of physics, even if you have to invent a couple of new ones to get the story moving. Setting a story in some imagined future, you need to plot an at-least-semi-plausible path from here to there. Which means you gotta know where here is.
Where is here?
Here swarms with seven billion hominins, gripped by delusional beliefs in invisible sky fairies, unable to keep their appetites or their numbers under control. Here loses 30 species a day: Here, plutocrats and sociopaths call the shots; Here there be genocides. Here is dying by degrees and drowning under melting icecaps. We can't help ourselves; we're wired for denial and self-gratification, programmed for xenophobia by genetic subroutines stuck in the Pleistocene.
So let's revisit Bradbury's happy future. Let's buy into the noble lies of Craig Bennett Stiles and focus on just one aspect of the utopia he described: let's say we cut our carbon emissions by 50% overnight. Problem solved?
Nope. We've been pouring shit into the air since the industrial revolution; by now, thermal inertia could push us past tipping point no matter what we do. The only question is whether we're in for a very bad ride, or a pants-crappingly catastrophic one.
How then to write a story in which we stopped the flooding, preempted water wars and a whole new class of climate refugee? Simple: tell a tale in which people got serious about climate change back in the seventies— which by definition has already left the realm of science fiction, and blundered into the hazy reaches of pure fantasy.
We are cave men, playing with nuclear reactors and engineered Ebola. We don't really believe in future consequences, not down in the gut; catastrophe in that far-off land is less real to us than mild inconvenience in the here-and-now. So we will f*ck up, repeatedly, inevitably*.
Any plausible fiction of the future must recognize that fact.
We could just lower our standards. Lighten up a bit, play into the hands of the lit-snobs who dismiss all that spaceship-and-raygun crap as childish escapism anyway. Embrace your Roman Empires in space, your lightsabres and superheroes. I'll even join you; we'll check our brains at the door and have a blast even if the real world is snapping just outside.
But eventually all those empty calories may leave you wanting for something that really deals with where we're headed: the thought experiments, the cautionary tales. The stuff Margaret Atwood won't be seen with in public, unless it's been de-cootied and rebranded and tarted up in the Oprah-friendly guise of speculative fiction.
When you find yourself jonesing for that kind of fix, come to the dark side. We don't have cookies, but at least we keep our eyes open.
Somebody has to.
*We could posit a future in which we re-engineered our own brain stems, became enlightened beings akin to the angels themselves. Which would strip our stories of the drama, the conflict, the humanity necessary to engage readers in the first place.
Peter Watts is the author of the so-called "Rifters trilogy" (the NYT-Notable Starfish, Maelstrom, and βehemoth); an obscure video-game novelization; and the semi-hit Blindsight, which was nominated for a shitload of awards (even winning a few) and which somehow ended up as a required text for a smattering of university courses in neuropsych and philosophy. Watts' work is available in 18 languages; he is especially popular in Poland, for reasons that remain unclear. He probably owes at least part of his 2010 Hugo (for the novelette The Island) to fan outrage over an unfortunate altercation with the US Department of Homeland Security, but he's okay with that. His short story "The Things" made the finals for a bunch of other prizes and even won a couple (including the Shirley Jackson Award). Watts’ upcoming novel is Echopraxia. A former marine mammalogist, he lives in Toronto.
The mood of my work partly reflects an Antonio Gramsci comment: “I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” Antonio was a grand ol’ commie, so naturally capitalist economists completely share his view, arguing that when times are tough, economies can’t grow without “irrational optimism.” And neither can our communities, our relationships, our minds, or our souls.
Cuz face it: we’re doomed. Seriously. While you’re reading or listening to my words right now, you’re dying, right at this very moment. So are all of us, and we know it. They say we’re the only animals that know we’re dying, but have you ever looked at a Globus monkey? To me, they look pretty down. So intellectually we’re face to face with our own personal extinction at all times, such as graduations, weddings, birthdays, and especially staff meetings. Each event is one more milestone towards the tombstone. So: why don’t we just all pack ’er in—grab some rope or a chug down a case of Scope? Why not? Because of, how shall I put it the will to flower.
Flowers are pretty. They smell nice. They attract ladybugs. With their bright colours and the way they help bumblebees make honey and their weird genitals built right into their faces, they cheer us up, even though they’re destined for death by winter and locusts and idiots with lawnmowers (which, if you ask my wife, would include me).
Flowers are why I write the kind of science fiction and fantasy I do. And not just because of what I said about their faces, although that does make for some pretty awesome aliens. My own work stresses the need for connection: in geographic, activist, and ethnocultural communities, on teams, in friendships, and in families. And I use science fiction and fantasy to write about this need for community because those two genres also depend on the most underrated and one of the most transcendent of human emotions: awe.
Horror fiction’s main emotion is fear that something, somewhere, probably right behind you, is out to maim, mutate, or kill you. Mystery fiction’s main emotions are anxiety that everybody is out to kill you and disappointment that somebody actually will. So-called literary fiction’s main emotion is the crippling ennui of realising that full professorship in an English department means that even if you somehow get hit by lightning and actually win the Giller, you’re still as boring and uneventful as your book.
But for SFF, the machine runs on awe. Awe says, “There are bigger things that I am, that are beautiful and glorious and worthy of my total attention.” Awe is fundamentally optimistic, so that even when we behold, through the words on the page, the Tyrannosaurus Rex about to kill us, or the black hole about to shred our world, we can still perceive its magnificent, terrible beauty, and like the mystics, understand its connection to all things, including ourselves. And how much more awe do we experience when we behold fields of stars through our telescopes, fields of DNA through our microscopes, or fields of flowers with our bare eyes, startling us with the complexity and grandeur of mere existence?
Even if we somehow avoid destroying all life on our world and no comet does it for us, the sun eventually will destroy the entire planet. But science fiction raises our minds to the means by which our species can live on past this world and time, surviving long enough so flawed people can become a little more perfect, flawed communities can embrace more members, and flawed spirits can find meaning and love.
Minister Faust's latest book is The Alchemists of Kush. He is also the author of the critically
acclaimed The Coyote Kings, Book One: Space-Age Bachelor Pad, and the Kindred Award-winning Shrinking the Heroes. Minister Faust refers to his sub-genre of writing as Imhotep-Hop—an Africentric literature that draws from myriad ancient African civilisations, explores present realities, and imagines a future in which people struggle not only for justice, but for the stars. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and daughters.
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