Look for the Lungfish

Charlie Stross on why he mainly no longer reads science fiction books.

The exercise of substituting “SF” for “Design” or “Speculative Design” is left to the reader.

Similar to the sad baggage surrounding space battles and asteroid belts, we carry real world baggage with us into SF. It happens whenever we fail to question our assumptions. Next time you read a a work of SF ask yourself whether the protagonists have a healthy work/life balance. No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity interplanetary future? Why is this side-effect of carbon energy economics clogging up my post-climate-change world? Where does the concept of a paid occupation whereby individuals auction some portion of their lifespan to third parties as labour in return for money come from historically? What is the social structure of a posthuman lifespan? What are the medical and demographic constraints upon what we do at different ages if our average life expectancy is 200? Why is gender? Where is the world of childhood?

Some of these things may feel like constants, but they’re really not. Humans are social organisms, our technologies are part of our cultures, and the way we live is largely determined by this stuff. Alienated labour as we know it today, distinct from identity, didn’t exist in its current form before the industrial revolution. Look back two centuries, to before the germ theory of disease brought vaccination and medical hygeine: about 50% of children died before reaching maturity and up to 10% of pregnancies ended in maternal death—childbearing killed a significant minority of women and consumed huge amounts of labour, just to maintain a stable population, at gigantic and unpleasant (to them) social cost. Energy economics depended on static power sources (windmills and water wheels: sails on boats), or on muscle power. To an English writer of the 18th century, these must have looked like inevitable constraints on the shape of any conceivable future—but they weren’t.

Similarly, if I was to choose a candidate for the great clomping foot of nerdism afflicting fiction today, I’d pick late-period capitalism, the piss-polluted sea we fish are doomed to swim in. It seems inevitable but it’s a relatively recent development in historic terms, it’s clearly not sustainable in the long term. However, trying to visualize a world without it is surprisingly difficult. Take a random grab-bag of concepts and try to imagine the following without capitalism: “advertising”, “trophy wife”, “health insurance”, “jaywalking”, “passport”, “police”, “teen-ager”, “television”.

SF should—in my view—be draining the ocean and trying to see at a glance which of the gasping, flopping creatures on the sea bed might be lungfish. But too much SF shrugs at the state of our sea water and settles for draining the local aquarium (or even just the bathtub) instead, or settles for gazing into the depths of a brightly coloured computer-generated fishtank screensaver. If you’re writing a story that posits giant all-embracing interstellar space corporations, or a space mafia, or space battleships, never mind universalizing contemporary norms of gender, race, and power hierarchies, let alone fashions in clothing as social class signifiers, or religions … then you need to think long and hard about whether you’ve mistaken your fishtank for the ocean.

And I’m sick and tired of watching the goldfish.

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