Tuesday, December 6, 2016

How Science Fiction Could Save the World (#SFWA Pro)

“We’ll be fine,” my Facebook friends say. “We survived W, we’ll survive this.”

But what if these friends are wrong? What if we don’t survive? What if it really is different this time?

I grew up in a science-literate household (my father was a paleontologist), and began reading science fiction in sixth grade. It has always been natural for me to react to major global and societal changes in terms of “what if,” extrapolating what might ensue from this or that event or trend. Today, as an adult science fiction writer, I can’t help looking at the current scene from a science-fictional what-if perspective.

The things that currently keep me awake nights are what seem to be too-likely consequences from the relentless destruction of our natural heritage, including coral reefs, a wide diversity of animals, and genetically diverse food crops;  or a precipitous global warming catastrophe, caused by the sudden collapse of the Greenland glaciers or the massive release of previously sequestered carbon in the permafrost; or, more dramatically, nuclear war, caused perhaps by careless talk from a national leader who does not understand either diplomacy or the devastating consequences of the detonation of nuclear weapons.   
The problem is that to avoid these horrible outcomes it is necessary to understand them, and for that a knowledge of science is essential. Unfortunately, most of our new leaders seem to lack any interest or knowledge of science, as well as the necessary imagination to read actual science. But perhaps they can be educated in a different way. Perhaps reading (and watching) good science fiction could help make a difference. Perhaps well-wrought stories with a scientific background might interest those who believe that science is all bunk or a left-wing conspiracy. Perhaps when science is explained dramatically in a plot point, some decision makers might be impelled to think twice:  “Maybe there is something to this after all. Maybe we should be careful about adding more carbon to the atmosphere.” Or, “I can see that if we continue to threaten to use nuclear weapons, we could end up destroying a lot more than our enemy’s cities.”

“What if?” is the starting point for many if not most science fiction stories. Reading science fiction might lead current non-readers to start thinking about the what-if’s implicit in their policy decisions. A few classic science fiction novels might be the spur we need. What if genetic manipulation led to a caste system on which social and work status are based? Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World gives us one plausible scenario. What if the “free world” were taken over by a highly technologized dictatorship whose perverse use of language destroyed its meaning? See George Orwell’s 1984. What if the world population continued to grow exponentially without any mitigation from social or political policy? Read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, which also features Shalmaneser, an all-wise computer that foreshadows the Internet. What if there were a very sudden global warming catastrophe? John Barnes’ Mother of Storms shows us the horrifying, too-believable aftermath. What would human life be like six hundred years after a nuclear war? Walter M. Miller, Jr., describes it in his award-winning classic A Canticle for Leibowitz.

There are many more examples, including two of my own stories:  The Pandora’s Trilogy, which tells how civilization was destroyed as a consequence of a massive oil spill; while my novelette “The Ptorrigan Lode,” shows the devastating consequences of out-of-control corporate greed that values profit over human life and art. I would be more than happy to donate copies of my books to any decision-makers who would agree to read them, and I imagine the same is true for other science fiction writers and publishers. 
Do I think that my solution will really make a difference to the "brave" new world that will soon confront us? Not really. But it could, and I think it’s worth trying. If you agree, send your representatives reading lists or even books. And who knows? A good story is seductive, and a few good science fiction stories might actually change some minds. For more of my musings on the value of science fiction, see this earlier post.

16 comments:

  1. Good points! Considering that the proposed new administration members are willing to believe 'made up facts' before anything labeled 'scientific', maybe the best way to get their attention is by disguising facts as something shiny and new. These people seem more impressed by dreadful scenarios that could make blockbuster movies, than hopeful dreams in which everyone lives a better and more fulfilling life.
    The Pandora trilogy would make a terrific mini-series since it has all the elements of storytelling, characterizations and suspense. I'm afraid it is also an unnerving prophecy given the current climate.

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  2. Thanks for your feedback, Truman! I like "disguising facts as something shiny and new." Probably movies would be even better than books for these guys, except my experience is that the science in science fiction movies is usually jettisoned in favor of spectacle. As for my trilogy, I fear as a prophecy it is too optimistic considering where we seem to be headed....

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  3. Having a science background does add horror to opinions bandied about as facts. Nature always has a balance going and what many don't realize is that man is part of that balance. If humans disappeared the next hour, the environment would be much healthier. If all microbes disappeared, the world would grind to a stop within an hour.
    Unfortunately, society will have to experience some of the problems of an environmental rebalancing act to take environmental issues more seriously. It will affect the captains of industry as well as the common man. It will work out. Those that are living will see a lower age of death, more illness and lower standard of living.

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    1. Excellent points, Ann. I hope you are right. If humans only have to accept a lesser life span and lower standard of living, we are getting off easy! (IMHO of course)

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    2. Well lifespans of 35 years could be the result. Normal in the Middle Ages.

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    3. When did SCIENCE become just another "belief system" in the United States of America? We live in a post-fact, post-truth world. We have lost our human connectivity, our sense of wonder, our dreams for a future far greater than what we know. Bless you, Kathryn Lance, for endeavoring to awaken a society asleep at the wheel.

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    4. Ann: 35 years is long enough to reproduce and get the kid to reproductive age... all that is really needed in a primitive world.

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    5. Karen: I don't know when or how it happened, but it did. I fear it is too late to do anything but wait for the inevitable apocalypse, but maybe, just maybe, enough people in charge can be awakened that we can pull back before it's too late.

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  4. Absolutely excellent article, and viewpoint. We see a mainstream op-ed piece coming out of this idea.

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    1. One of you is missing, but I think I know who you are! Can you give more feedback on the best way for me to do this?

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    2. Sure can, just to grease your wheels. Headline: "Can Science Fiction Save Trump's America?" Pick five catastrophic flaws in the Trumplandia program (get started with https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/pessimists-guide-to-2017/) and match an important part of each one with a known sci-fi storyline, famous authors preferred (to help sell the piece). At that point, our guess is the piece will start writing itself. Oh, and the "Bob &" is because blogspot doesn't like multi-part names with punctuation or special characters. Neither do credit card companies, banks, insurers, prison wardens, and in-laws. We sometimes go under our Google handle of "Observer," which we'll use now.
      Hugs (till Sunday?),
      Bob & Ursula (helped by Semi;)

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    3. If Evvy and Zach survived so can, well, maybe not we, but someone. It may be brutish and short, but what makes it worth being human will survive. A Canticle for Liebowitz (which I once taught) is a testament to faith in science, though I do admit the world would be better off without us.

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    4. Yes, the world would be better off without us, no argument. Now I'm wondering--if a few humans survive what is coming, will they keep alive the history of what has happened and make it an article of their new faith never to let it happen again? (Kind of like the guys in the Institute in Pandora's Promise.) My guess is no... if humans survive they will do exactly as they have done previously and will end in destroying the new ecosystem they have created.

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    5. Exactly why I found Canticle so compelling. Technology is too seductive to be left alone, and humans are too good at developing it. Just desserts.

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    6. Yesh. Excellent. But I must try.

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