Li'l sci fi, l'il politics • 9 January 2008 • The SnowBlog
Li'l sci fi, l'il politics
I should probably put my usual political-rant caveat on this post. If you're not a left-wing leftie lefterson, parts of this might rub you up the wrong way.
So anyway, I was recently kicking around the notion that sci-fi is getting more difficult to write because fact is stranger than fiction a lot of the time. Annalee at the newly-launched io9 has a different perspective and has said that sci-fi is so pervasive that it is de facto a mainstream genre. I suppose so many traditional sci-fi staples are now a reality (gadgets galore and a looming dystopian future) that not being interested in sci-fi is like not being interested in life. I was going to say 'like not being interested in current affairs', but that's actually pretty common - and sort of what I wanted to talk about. I think sci-fi has got more difficult because everyday reality has actually become less believable. To refresh your memories, I'm referring back to the narrowing credibility gap that's squeezing sci-fi. Reality is now strange to the point of corniness. If you try to outdo it, you sound preposterous; if you don't, you sound quaint and dull. I cited William Gibson's example from the Nineties of Michael Jackson marrying Elvis Presley's daughter, but there are heaps of other examples. You could talk about movie stars becoming president, for instance. Probably too silly and over the top for a book written in the Seventies, but not too silly and over the top for reality. I'm sure you could come up with our own examples too. In fact here's a little mental exercise for you: try to think of a concept for a reality TV show that's too outlandish to ever get made. You can't. You might come up with one that is illegal or too offensive to be broadcast - but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be successful. Find spouses, swap spouses, tempt couples into infidelity, have ugly people compete to win cosmetic surgery, revive your flagging celebrity status by demeaning yourself, punish fat people, binge drink to shame your kids - no matter what you come up with, you can't convince yourself it's 'going too far'. You can't be sure some production company isn't already discussing it.
So that's part of the problem: when the non-sci-fi parts of the media are allowed to apply their unfettered and so-immoral-it's-amoral imaginations to devising entertainment it puts the squeeze on sci-fi futurists. But it has occurred to me that there's something else going on too. I think our sense of verisimilitude is also being undermined. (Do excuse me for putting a link on that word, but outside of the Lemony Snicket movie, a person could go years without hearing the term and thus being prompted to look it up.)
And if I'm right, the culprit is the combination of politics and PR which every year controls more of what we see and hear. Propaganda wasn't invented in the Twentieth Century, but that's when the science of it began. Official statements, branding, PR campaigns, professional spokesmen and the idea of 'image' all become more universal over the course of the last century. Polling for movies, product launches and political campaigns has become vital - and it's not because it's 'nice to know' how you're doing; it's so that you can change what you're doing. Messages are crafted and tested - and re-crafted. "What do I stand for? What do you want me to stand for?" We now consider the idea of unscripted remarks from someone in power rather shocking and unprofessional. We might expect politicians to lie, but we also punish them if they give us the unvarnished truth. We expect not just the content but the delivery of everything we hear to be expertly timed, phrased and choreographed. And it has spread to business and celebrity. We expect all figures of prominence to be 'mediated', their public perception monitored, analysed and refined. In consequence of which, we know most of what we see and hear from anyone famous is scripted and on some level fake.
For me, and I suspect many others, the proof that this scripting and crafting had spread to the news media was brought home during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. Most of us weren't happy about what was about to happen but we didn't see our views represented on the evening news (especially in the U.S.). It was as though we looked in the mirror of mainstream journalism and couldn't see our own reflection. The 'popular opinion' we saw on TV didn't include us or the people we knew.
And even though everyone, even the sceptics among us, now know the whole thing was a sham and a disaster, the fiction continues. In reality, the war is illegal and we were lied to about the reasons for it. But on TV, it was 'controversial' and politicians were 'forced to make some very hard decisions which at the time they believed were right'. The fictional element to the reality we see on TV is now so strong that it continues almost untouched by the calamitous events taking place in the actual real world. On TV, global climate change is still up for debate, American foreign policy is about spreading democracy in a troubled world, corporate hyper-profits are good 'for the economy' and the news brings its audience the truth (rather than belatedly admitting it to them).
How can sci-fi writers craft a near-future world that seems believable when our own present isn't remotely credible? It can't. It can only do satire - and even then it has to pick its targets. Not only is reality TV unspoofable, but so is American politics (if you can imagine it and it's logistically possible, it has happened). Supporters of a draft-dodging president can paint a decorated war hero as a coward by buying ad time on TV to lie about him. It can happen in the glare of prime-time and it can work. I've lost track of the number of times I've seen Cheney or Bush lie - and all that would be required to expose them in their lies would be to pull the relevant tape of their earlier remarks from the tape library and play it: something that every news network in the U.S. is capable of, but none ever does (except Comedy Central - which isn't a news organisation). The fiction shouldn't hold up - but it does.
When the flimsiest of fake realities can withstand a storm-force pounding from reality and not even bend in the wind, what store can we set by our sense of verisimilitude? For sci-fi I think pickings are slim, unless you choose as your backdrop the far future, the altered past or galaxies far, far away. And there's no sense in having sci-fi help us make sense of the future when we haven't made sense of the present yet. Orwell wouldn't be able to satirise current presidential spin and Kafka couldn't outdo Guantanamo. If near-future sci-fi is struggling I think it's probably reality that's to blame.