It’s hot, and you’re walking. Shuffling, actually. You’ve spanned a seemingly endless chalk-dry plane, and you’re thirsty, run-down, exhausted. You think about your flaking, parched lips and aching muscles, and about how your arduous journey will be worth it if you ever reach your destination. An immigrant, you’re searching for a new place to live, because the place you call home has become barely livable. You’re thinking about the hot dirt sweat-caked on your skin when you’re interrupted by an even greater pain -- your tooth, recently implanted with a geo-location chip, is practically vibrating. This means you’re close.
So begins Madeleine Ashby’s short story, “By the Time We Get to Arizona,” published last year in Hieroglyph, a collection of science-fiction stories meant to inspire readers about the possibilities the future holds, rather than invoke fear about impending societal doom. Solutions to climate change catastrophes abound in the series; so do suggestions for jumping forward in our approach to space exploration technologies. Ashby’s story -- a spinoff of her Master’s thesis on making border security more humane -- explores a world where guns and guards are replaced by sensors and facial recognition technology.
Conceived of by Neal Stephenson -- a celebrated writer whose most recent novel ventures a guess at what post-Earth diplomacy might look like -- Hieroglyph showcases a growing crew of writers who, by commission or by choice, present sunnier alternatives to the now-prevalent, Hunger Games-fueled dystopia trend. These aren’t the stifling factions of Divergent or the heart-pounding twists and turns of The Maze Runner; they aren’t the bleak worlds crafted by Margaret Atwood or even the fable-like, anti-technology morals embedded in movies like “Wall-E.” Although many of the stories in Hieroglyph highlight societal problems, they have technological solutions to those problems embedded within them.
The anthology, along with the few others like it, was divisive in the science-fiction community. One camp, headed up by Stephenson, holds the belief that scientists and engineers could use a positive push from the writers whose job it is to imagine what the future will look like. Writers, Stephenson asserts, have a responsibility not only to confront social problems, but to provide potential solutions, too. So, a socially disheveled community like The Hunger Games’ Panem might feature a technology that allows citizens to communicate with each other, and fight back. Because these writers are using their fiction to provide solutions to contemporary problems, many necessarily couch their stories in grim scenarios the characters must escape from. Sexism, racism and classism are addressed, if subtly.
This doesn’t sit well with the other school of readers and writers, who lament the days when an interstellar story was a joyride, whizzing quickly past social justice issues towards thrilling plot twists. One particularly rabid breed of decriers are the writers who make up a group called the Sad Puppies, who banded together during The Hugo Awards to stack the vote against minority and women writers. The problem, they claim, is that the science-fiction community has prioritized social justice and diversity, ignoring superior prose and more inventive stories as a result. Science-fiction, they say, is about fun. It’s about escaping the problems of the real world through otherworldly scenarios -- including dystopias -- in which a central hero implausibly conquers evil alone, rather than with the aid of collective thinking and the useful technologies that arise from it.
The future of science-fiction -- which, if George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are indicators, runs parallel with the future of science and technology on our own planet -- probably lies somewhere on the vast, auroral spectrum between these two approaches. So, it’s worth examining both, and the groups of writers propelling them.
“Now is not a time for realism,” Margaret Atwood said in a recent interview with NPR, succinctly summarizing why so many literary writers flock to fantasy, to dystopia, to amplifying the threat of impending problems -- environmental and political -- that aren’t yet a reality.
Though the genre has seen a spike in popularity within teen-centric reading communities, it’s seeped into the realm of grown-up storytelling more than ever. Which isn’t to say it’s unfamiliar territory for writers of adult literary fiction. In fact, dystopian stories began, arguably, with a weird, little book written by Mary Shelley in 1826 that’s since become a beloved classic: The Last Man. The story centers on a plague-addled Europe, where a man named Lionel struggles to survive alongside various extant communities. There’s a false messiah, political turmoil, and all the other makings of a present-day dystopia. Though Shelley’s book wasn’t recognized until the 1960s, others like it by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells surfaced shortly thereafter, spawning a sub-genre of writing that asks timeless questions about human nature, and how it responds to dire, life-threatening scenarios.
But today, with a few notable exceptions (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins), popular dystopian stories have lost a bit of their original complexity. They tend to be thinly cloistered morality lessons, better suited for young readers. Rather than highlighting the nuances of human interactions, they tend to generalize, and draw hard lines between good and evil.
Why are more and more adult literary writers, and adult literary fiction readers, opting into the rather nihilistic and juvenile genre? It’s a quandary posed again and again by columnists, providing more questions than answers -- perhaps because the answer is hazy. It could be that the genre distracts readers from present realities, or provides a puzzle-like, limited scenario for a protagonist to work through, so different from the more fractured plot of real life. Or, it could be that our present realities seem increasingly fantastical, due to the quick proliferation of disastrous events filling our Twitter feeds alongside our friends’ quotidian musings.
Madeline Ashby believes it’s the latter.
“There are elements of dystopia in everybody’s lives,” she said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “Remember the Christmas protests in Ferguson? There’s this image of riot police under this big electrified, ‘Season’s Greetings’ banner. If you search for Ferguson plus Season’s plus Greetings, you’ll find the picture. I found it, and I tweeted in all caps, ‘WHY DO SO MANY KIDS LOVE DYSTOPIA? HM, I WONDER.’”
Ashby cites her own dystopia-like governmental interactions as inspiration for many of her sci-fi stories, including “By the Time We Got to Arizona.” In 2006, she immigrated to Canada, and says the process, for her, was dehumanizing.
“My immigration took over a year,” she said, adding that she feels fortunate -- for other people immigrating to Canada, two years is the average wait-time.
“During that process you’re essentially a number and a sheet of paper. You feel it every time they ask you progressively more invasive questions,” Ashby added, sharing an anecdote about how immigration questions reduce complex romantic relationships to statistics-based judgement calls. “[They’d ask] things like, ‘Can you describe to us the number and monetary value of gifts exchanged between the two of you.’ And then you start to think, oh, OK, the quality of my relationship is already interpreted through capital. I have a monetary value.”
In her short story, Ashby acknowledges these issues, but also offers solutions to the problem. She notes that by working change-inspiring technologies into her plots, she's at the very least offering readers a sense of hope.
“Dystopia is very useful in grappling with the world as it exists,” Ashby said. “It’s a really stylized, formalized way of talking about things that are already happening in practice. But utopia, or more optimistic stories, can also be useful, because you can imagine a future that you actually want.”
Ashby’s fiction is informed by her other, more technical approach to writing. After studying Strategic Foresight and Innovation at the Ontario College of Art and Design, she started getting gigs drafting potential future scenarios for organizations such as Intel Labs and Nesta. Envisioning the future on behalf of corporations and research labs isn’t exactly an established career path -- actually, it sounds a little like something out of a sci-fi novel. But Ashby isn’t the only writer who moonlights as a “narrative scenario” practitioner. There’s a host of organizations dedicated to allowing sci-fi writers to draft potential outcomes for specific companies or entire industries. Sci Futures, a sort of think tank dedicated to providing these services to clients such as Crayola, Ford, and Lowe’s, has a pithy tagline encapsulating their mission: "Where sci-fi gets real.” A comparable organization, 2020 Media Futures, describes its mission as, “an ambitious, multi-industry strategic foresight project designed to understand and envision what media may look like in the year 2020.”
So, the research interests are vast. Of her work with Intel Labs and beyond, Ashby said, “They often tell me, we want the future of intelligent systems, or the future of warfare in smart cities, the future of a world without antibiotics, the future of programmable matter, or the Internet of things.”
Because Ashby spends considerable time dreaming up innovative solutions to social problems, she can’t help but imbue her stories with similar gizmos and features. Her stories don’t always involve positive situations for her characters, but they do often incorporate technologies that could solve said characters’ problems.
This is the central tenet of “techno-optimism,” the breed of science-fiction writing that’s working to counter the rough terrain of dystopia, barren and desolate as it is; thirsty, it sometimes seems, for a solution that’s bigger than a big-hearted narrator.
Writer and anthology editor Kathryn Cramer was a reluctant adopter of the genre. When aforementioned writer Stephenson, author of Seveneves, approached her to edit a collection of stories united under the banner of positive change, she worried the stories themselves would suffer from lack of plot, and lack of diversity. But, as she commissioned works of techno-optimism, she realized the genre promotes diverse voices rather than suppressing them. Her fears were quelled.
“When we contemplate dark scenarios or disasters for the future, it is perhaps an ethically and morally good thing to do to figure out what the solutions might be, especially technological solutions,” Cramer said in an interview with HuffPost. “If we look at the 20th century, there are a whole lot of things that changed our lives in good ways, and solved a lot of problems, ranging from vaccines and refrigerated food transportation to frozen food. Some of them are sexy, like space travel, but a lot of them are things that improved everybody’s lives in ways we might not’ve expected. Preservatives, things like that.”
Cramer’s altruistic outlook hints at her thoughts on what a book can, and should, accomplish. While she believes writers have a responsibility to push innovation in a positive direction, some readers and writers think that mindset interferes with the quality of a story. So addressing societal problems, be it via extended, post-apocalyptic metaphors, or via similarly bleak settings peppered with hope, doesn’t sit well with all sci-fi readers. Most notably, there are those -- cue the Sad Puppies -- who are nostalgic for the days of so-called Golden Age sci-fi: “Star Trek”-like space-travel adventures that offer a means of briefly escaping the restrictions of the real world. Nimble writing and world-building is supposedly the aim for such stories; political opinions, solutions-oriented and otherwise, are actively eschewed.
But the Puppies’ agenda -- which resulted in No Award being given at the Hugo Awards this year in categories for which only white men were nominated -- extends beyond particular tastes in writing styles. Claiming science-fiction has opted for “affirmative action”-guided decisions rather than supporting story-centric writing, they lobbied to place white, male writers -- including themselves -- on the award ballots.
Ashby spoke passionately against the Puppies’ movement: “That’s part of their battle cry: Why do we have to think about social issues in our science fiction? Why do we have to think about other genders, or sexualities, or economic circumstances? Why can’t it just be fun like it used to be? Well, yeah, I’m sure it was really fun when you weren’t thinking about it. Everything’s a lot more fun when you’re not thinking about it.”
Thinking about it, according to Ashby, involves confronting the dire state of life for some social groups. It involves constructing a narrative that encourages the reader to consider the lives of others, rather than just getting lost in his own fantasy world, in which he alone is the hero and the solution. It involves hope not in the form of a triumphant narrator, but in the technologies we can create when we do something really miraculous: work together.
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