Jason Sanford has a short but excellent post on Medium.com about the notion that science fiction does not predict the future, but in fact creates the future. In the article he cites Cory Doctorow’s Locus essay, “A Vocabulary for Speaking About the Future.” I was particularly struck by the assertion that when science fiction writers believe they are predicting the future they may in fact be inspiring. Who/what are they inspiring? Young readers who may grow up to be scientists, engineers, filmmakers, novelists, visionaries. People, in other words, who shape the future.
I sometimes read the blog The Last Psychiatrist. While the author, Alone, can sometimes come off as acerbic, if you wade through her rhetorical arguments, you will find genius buried within. While she tends to focus on the pervasive problem of narcissism in our society (and by “ours” she typically means America, or any culture that mimics or shares our value system), one of her arguments is that advertising in our culture is aspirational and not inspirational.
Note that I mention “inspiration” again. I’ll come back to that.
But first, I want to explore the difference between aspiration and inspiration. Aspiration, of course, is the “ardent wish or desire for something, chiefly that which is elevated or spiritual.” (source: Wiktionary) Whereas inspiration is “the act of an elevating or stimulating influence upon the intellect, emotions or creativity.” In other words, aspiration is the desire for something you don’t have. Inspiration pushes you to act with what you already have.
My point is that, based on my read of The Last Psychiatrist, and my take on Cory Doctorow’s and Jason Sanford’s essays, that most of Western culture (and by that I mean pop/materialist/consumerist culture) is stuck in an aspirational loop. We are desiring things we do not have, only to desire yet more things when we acquire these material items. We are left perpetually unsatisfied because a core need is not being met. I think this need is a sense of purpose. For many, religion has failed to provide that connection to a greater force. And while some gape in awe at the grandeur of the universe without need for a divine being, most cannot muster the will to appreciate that which is so unfathomable (that is, the immensity and complexity of the cosmos). For most it is easier to retire back into a sort of mindless trance, where we indulge in television and video games and ever more reclusive forms of self-numbing, because all seems utterly meaningless outside of our comfortable zone.
Well, I say, fuck that. If we cannot find meaning out there, then let’s make our own meaning right here. Let’s use the tools at our disposal, in other words, let’s inspire people toward greater things. And we can use science fiction as a backdrop to explore those grand ideas. This is probably echoing a lot of what Jetse de Vries tried to do with his Shine: Optimistic SF anthology. And I say, let’s dream bigger. Why can’t we write stories, novels, films, video games that show the following:
o) a world without poverty, pollution, hunger, disease that is not a frightful dystopia
o) the human race expanding into the solar system and beyond, not to conquer, but to explore and learn. Spaceships, in other words, without weapons and explosions. Yes, I’m thinking Star Trek, sans battles, but why is this view of the future considered quaint by many? It’s because we’ve been conditioned to be cynics, to believe that dystopia is the only possible future. We’ve been taught to be pessimistic. Note that I don’t mean there is a conspiracy, per se, but that our collective unconscious fears have been affecting us for a long time. It’s time we create our future worlds more consciously, the way we want them to appear, not how we fear they might.
o) a common dream for humanity, echoing what Carl Sagan says is his famous Cosmos tv series, a long-term goal for all, and with very real immediate milestones to be met. In other words, short-term inspiration towards long-term aspiration.
I believe science fiction has the tools to do all of this at its disposal now. SF can inspire us to greater things. And in fact I would argue that it is the only medium/genre/voice which has such power to shape and mold the future. Let’s not let our unconscious fears and behaviors rule us as if we are automatons, dreaming up default grotesque dystopias of corporate control and diminished individual power, of worlds smog-choked and polluted and dying, of wars and more death. Let’s consciously choose to create a different, better future, and let’s use science fiction as the tool to inspire it.*
* One last note. I do not suggest here that all stories of dystopia are bad. In fact, dystopias can often teach us how things can go wrong, and how we might avoid such a dark fate. But I think the balance of pessimistic vs. optimistic stories are skewed heavily toward the former, and a drastic shift is in order.