Six Science Fiction Questions

I’ve been answering quite a few queries over on the question and answer site Quora. Here are a few selected questions about science fiction, dystopias, fantasy, and more…

How plausible do you find Huxley’s Brave New World?

BraveNewWorldYour question is exactly the one asked by Huxley himself, and by his top-caste character, World Director Mustafa Mond., who accepts that change may inevitably come to his tightly organized world. That is one of many contrasts with Orwell’s 1984. Where one party controls with fear and pain, the other does with eugenics, conditioning and pleasure, lots of pleasure.

Note what happens when some alphas start asking inconvenient questions. Are they killed? No, they are sent to “the Islands” where they can study, experiment and keep arguing for changes to be made. This shows that Huxley’s directors are aware that change may come, but demand a steep burden of proof… while seeing value in those who question. A lot like Huxley himself.

For years, Orwell was deemed the one making a plausible prediction. But today the scientific and skilled classes and even the “prols” have so much potential power in their hands – making today’s “terrorists” seem lame by comparison – that no government can risk for long angering those castes or abusing them. Not for long. (Hence the utter stupidity of today’s oligarchs, who wage war on science and all the fact professions. Nothing else could show as starkly how deeply stupid the oligarchy is.)

No, any dictatorship in the future will have to be like Brave New World… or an augmented China … committed to keeping the populace content.

For more see my essay: George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy.

Which science fiction scenarios do you find the most disturbing?

MV5BNzQzOTk3OTAtNDQ0Zi00ZTVkLWI0MTEtMDllZjNkYzNjNTc4L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjU0OTQ0OTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The Matrix, for suggesting that advanced AI’s would be spectacularly self-defeating and stupid. The novel, Revolt in 2100 by Heinlein, for predicting with stunning accuracy how America might go crazy. The film Idiocracy, for coming true before our eyes.

Almost anything by Philip K Dick, for questioning our perception of reality. Orwell’s 1984 for prescribing tech empowerment of older means of despotism based on terror.  Huxley’s Brave New World for showing how the same thing could happen with pleasure and fun.

And hey, what’s my novel The Postman… chopped liver? Its premise is coming true before your very eyes.

Which science fiction book offers the most likely scenario to a better world?

51WFumUHOCL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_If you want prescriptive preaching, set in plausible tomorrows and above average writing, try almost anything by Kim Stanley Robinson (his latest is New York 2140). He chides and finger wags, like LeGuin. But his aim is always to propose A Better Way. (I agree with him a lot… but he gives up too easily on regulated market enterprise.)

Iain Banks novels show alluring, post scarcity societies. (See his culture series: Consider Phlebas.)  So does Star Trek!. So does Robert Heinlein’s prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (Ignore the silly gun stuff at the beginning.)

My own novels Earth and Existence offer ruminations on the path ahead.

What do you consider to be the best Sci Fi/TV franchise?

MV5BMTc3MjEwMTc5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzQ2NjQ4NA@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Stargate was by far the best and most thorough exploration of a science fictional premise. It was tightly consistent and episodes all correlated with each other in a series of very well-managed plot and character arcs, while always striving to at least nod in the direction of scientific plausibility. It was also successful at engendering massive numbers of hours of diverse stories at a fairly low budget.

A final point about Stargate… it is one of the only SF franchises to revolve around a motif that is essentially optimistic. Of course, the equally good Star Trek had all of those traits, with a bit lower score on consistency, but even more hours and even more optimistic.

Ranking in the same general area – with similar qualities – would by Babylon Five.

See where I explain why optimism is so hard to do, in sci fi and hence so rare in my article: The Idiot Plot.

An excellent SF TV franchise at the opposite end of the optimism scale would be the remake of Battlestar Galactica. The premise and universe remained kinda dumb. But it had the best damn writing team imaginable. You had to watch.

And The Expanse has similar qualities.

What is the most interesting magic system from fantasy or science fiction?

Most magical systems rely upon a short list of basic fulcra:

fantasy1- similarity — make something similar to the object you seek to control. A voodoo doll of a person. Or a model of a valley where you want rain to fall.

2- contagion – add something that was part of the object to control. Add a person’a real hair trimmings to the voodoo doll.

3- True Names. Related to similarity. You gain power if you know the object’s full (or even hidden) names.

4- Appeal to powers…Invoke mighty spirits – or God – by offering what they want. Something valuable, ranging from a human sacrifice all the way to promising to be a good boy or girl.

5- Art… a florid- dynamic-dramatic VERBAL INCANTATION helps… it is the technique used by cable news and politicians – especially one side – to dazzle millions into magical thinking and hostility to fact-based and scientific systems. Other art enhancements could be visual or musical.

Note that all of these seemed to be reasonable things for our ancestors to try, even though magic almost never worked. Why? First, because these are all methods that work… on our fellow human beings! Persuasion uses all of them and other humans are the most important part of the environment. It was just an extrapolation for people to believe they could also persuade the capricious and deadly forces of nature.

Second, pattern seeking. We invest our hopes into an incantation… and shrug off when it fails, but shout with confirmation, if the thing we wanted happens.

All told, magic has been a horrid sickness that hobbled humans for ages, preventing us from honestly separating what work from what doesn’t. But we are all descended from priests and shamans who got extra food and mates because they pulled off this mumbo-jumbo really well. Their genes flow through our brains, today. No wonder there’s a War on Science!

But if you truly want a different system of magic, try my fun novel The Practice Effect! 😉

What is your most promising science fictional concept?

I suppose most people would cite the “Uplift” of pre-sapient creatures like dolphins and apes to full partnership in our civilization. It looks more likely by the day.

EarthHCIn my novel Earth, I posited both gravity lasers and a way the planet itself could become self-aware.

In Sundiver it’s — well — a way to go to the Sun.

In Existence it is the ultimate implication of self-replicating interstellar probes.

But my favorite is the machine I wish I had, from Kiln People, in which you can make 5 or 6 cheap, temporary clay “ditto” copies of yourself, each day, so that every single thing you needed to do, that day, could get done. I want that. I need that!

== See more questions on Quora, follow the links for more answers and lively discussions of each of these questions, or follow me on Quora.

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2 Comments

Filed under books, media, movies, science fiction

2 responses to “Six Science Fiction Questions

  1. On Magic:
    I found when teaching that the ability to name something gave the student the ability to see it.

    Example: On canoe trips the land was covered with ‘bush’ After I pointed out that some of the bush had flat leaves, some had needle like leaves they would distinguish them. At the end of an hour they could see that poplar and birch were different, that pine and spruce were different. These were distinctions they didn’t make before.

    So in this sense knowning the name is magic.

    You do not mention so called ‘psychic’ or psi powers as being magic. Depending on the conceptual model presented with the ability, it may be magic or science fiction. McCaffrey’s dragon books work as science fiction even though we have no good model for teleportation, nor a good reason why such beasts can fly in the first place.

    Nor do you mention about magic embedded in objects: The Rings of Power, Galadriel’s mirror, Palentir. Or Thor’s hammer.

  2. Kiln people remains the only novel that actually had me laughing out loud. Talk about wish fulfillment!

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