Wow, it’s been a minute. Four months and no posts is … well, as my hiatuses from this blog go, it’s fairly standard.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about science fiction, which I suppose is hardly unusual for me. To be more specific, I’ve found that my SF thoughts have been squaring up of late with contemporary events and situations, enough so that I’ve been writing them down so as to try to make sense of my inchoate thoughts in a significant way. This post, which is very long, is one of two I’ve been pecking away at for about two weeks.
And again—this is quite long, but I didn’t want to lop it up. I have however divided it into sections, so maybe read it in stages if you don’t feel like slogging through it all at once.
The Books that Shape Us
An internet sage once said: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
I’ve wondered on occasion about the cult of Ayn Rand among those whom she most venerated, billionaires and multi-millionaires (and the politicians who have built careers catering to the needs of the über-wealthy); I wonder if it was reading Rand’s odes to selfishness as “bookish fourteen-year olds” that set them on the path of rapacious capitalist accumulation, or whether Atlas Shrugged came, post-facto, to provide a useful pseudo-intellectual justification for why they should have vast wealth while 99%+ of people do not.
The question is rhetorical, of course, even perhaps somewhat disingenuous: while I have little doubt that some people did in fact find their life’s mission revealed to them in the pages of Rand’s writing at an early age (Ted Cruz springs to mind as an obvious candidate), the people at the extremes of that opposition are probably few and far between. I know a significant number of people who devoured The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as teens, who later discovered that what they found compelling about the novels when they were young was completely out of step with their adult sensibilities. That of course is not an uncommon experience with certain works of literature more generally: I read The Catcher in the Rye at the age of sixteen; given that Salinger’s novel is scientifically calibrated to resonate with angsty teenage boys, I read it in a single feverish sitting, but doubt I could tolerate Holden Caulfield for more than a few pages today. By contrast, I was a bookish twelve-year old when I read The Lord of the Rings, and it did indeed change my life—it remains a core text in my life, as evidenced by the fact that I am currently teaching my department’s Tolkien course for the third time.1
I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed? It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.
To be clear, reading SF when you’re young doesn’t necessarily translate into becoming a tech genius or innovator (sometimes it means you become an English professor); what Gaiman is advocating in his lecture is reading promiscuously, and especially making available for children as wide a range of reading options as possible: “The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.” He cites the story from his participation in the SF/F convention in China not to suggest that SF makes you innovative, but that the kind of creative imagination exemplified by SF and a multiplicity of other genres—which facilitates an imaginative engagement with the impossible and the unreal—is a precondition for inventiveness.
As with Rand’s objectivist fiction, however, there’s always a danger in reading stuff prescriptively. I’ve been thinking about this story of Gaiman’s a lot lately, though not so much in terms of the positive sense of it I communicated to my students. I have, rather, been watching as a trio of billionaires seem stuck in what I can only characterize as a sort of arrested development corresponding to certain eras of SF—two of them speaking confidently about colonizing Mars and the third apparently determined to build cyberspace—and none of them seem to have truly understood the SF paradigms they’re trying to make real.
Let’s take them in turn. Both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have been quite enthusiastic about the prospect of settling humans on other planets, starting with Mars. (I’m leaving Richard Branson out of this consideration for that reason: his spacefaring ambitions seem more in the line of having the coolest, fastest new vehicle, something made obvious by the sleek aesthetics of Virgin Galactic’s Unity spacecraft vs. Blue Origin’s phallic homage to Dr. Evil’s rocket).
Musk recently tweeted that his ultimate intention is “to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness.”
Bezos is also ultimately determined to make it to Mars (though he’s asserted that returning to the moon is a necessary first step), and has reportedly been fascinated by space travel all his life—as valedictorian in high school, he ended his address with the line “Space: the final frontier. Meet me there.” His love of Star Trek, as evidenced in those words, is something he’s frequently expressed, most recently when he shot ninety-year-old William Shatner into space.
It’s hardly unusual for people to love works of art that articulate values at odds with their own—as much as I love LOTR, for example, I’m hardly down with Tolkien’s conservative Catholicism as it emerges in the novel’s pages—but sometimes the dissonance can be jarring. Consider, for example, when former Republican Speaker of the House and Ayn Rand enthusiast Paul Ryan named Rage Against the Machine as his favourite band (which always begs the question: against which machine did you think Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello were raging, Paul? Spoiler alert, it’s you). It’s unsurprising that a tech guy like Bezos would love Star Trek, but it’s also hard not to see a comparable dissonance between Gene Rodenberry’s utopian, egalitarian vision of the future and the rapacious business ethos embodied by Amazon.
It makes me wonder what the Trek-loving Bezos made of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which the Enterprise comes across a 21st century satellite (somehow dislodged from Earth’s orbit and adrift in deep space) containing cryonically frozen people with terminal illnesses. They are unfrozen and their illnesses cured with 24th century medical technology, which of course had been the point of being frozen, kept in stasis until the day they could be treated. One of the unfrozen people is a stereotypical Wall Street douchenozzle who initially gloats over the success of his plan to cheat death—only possible, he notes, because of his considerable wealth—but is horrified to learn that the long-term investments he’d expected to cash in on would now be nonexistent. Captain Picard tells him, “A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy” (ep. 1.25, “The Neutral Zone”).
Even in its grittier iterations, Star Trek always retains the germ of Rodenberry’s utopianism, born in the American mid-century before postwar optimism would truly start to fracture under the repeated shocks of political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the cynical politics of the Nixon administration. “The final frontier” was a specific echo of John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” rhetoric; and while there is no lack of cynicism or dystopian predictions in the SF of the 1950s and 60s, the broader trends were more hopeful: one reads the SF of that period and finds, if not always optimism necessarily, then certainly a prevalent sense of the possibilities created by advanced technology … and, as with Star Trek, a not-uncommon faith that such technological advances will be matched by humanity’s moral maturation.
Undoubtedly, apologists for the Musk/Bezos space race would tell me that just because the billionaires are the contemporary embodiment of being “obsessed with the accumulation of things,” it doesn’t obviate the altruism of their visionary space-faring ambitions; that the groundwork laid by these early, seemingly trivial joyrides to the edge of space will be crucial for future larger-scale space travel; that governments have failed in such endeavours, so it falls to the billionaire class to carry humanity into the next stage of our development; almost certainly the Musk/Bezos devotees (especially the Muskovites) would tell me I’m a small-minded person resentful and jealous of their genius as manifested in their vast wealth. Possibly Bezos himself would say something to the effect of how he loves the utopianism of Star Trek and hopes for such a future, but to bring it about he needs to play by the rules of the world as it is today.
It’s possible that some of these things might end up being true; I suppose it’s even possible that my conviction that the very fact of billionaires’ existence in societies where children go hungry is a moral obscenity simply masks my own true desire to accumulate wealth on a cosmic scale. Possible, but unlikely; it strikes me that Bezos and Musk and their cheering sections might have science-fictional enthusiasms about colonizing space, but don’t seem to have paid much attention to the transformations in SF’s preoccupations. While we don’t lack for contemporary SF depicting the spread of humanity through space and the colonization of far-flung planets, the utopian spirit and assumptions of the mid-century has diminished rather dramatically. SF has become darker in its outlook—dystopian figurations are more pervasive, especially those imagining post-apocalyptic futures; increasingly, visions of the future have become tempered by the current environmental realities of the climate crisis and the Anthropocene; and even those imagined futures featuring the colonization of other planets largely eschew such tacit utopian assumptions like those of Star Trek, in which humanity’s expansion into the solar system and beyond entails progressing beyond the factious politics of the present. More and more, space-focused SF grapples specifically with the stubborn realities not just of the vast distances involved in space travel, but of human nature as well (I’m also currently writing a longish post about how, in the present moment, the most unbelievable aspect of much SF is the idea that any given planet could have one-government rule, never mind a galaxy-spanning empire or federation). A good example of this the Expanse novels by James S.A. Corey, which have been adapted into an excellent television series—ironically enough—by Amazon. In the future envisioned by The Expanse, humanity has colonized the Moon, Mars, and a bunch of moons and asteroids collectively known as “the Belt.” One of the things both the novels and the series does well is convey the sense of scale, the enormous distances involved just in our local solar system. Space travel is punishing, inflicting potentially stroke inducing Gs on travelers; people born and raised in the low gravity of Mars or the even lower gravity of the Belt cannot endure the gravity of Earth; and resentments, hatreds, and regional prejudices mark the attitudes of Earther, Martians, and Belters to each other and Earth’s imperial history plays out again in its exploitation of the Belt’s resources. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The impossible-to-comprehend vastness of space is central to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, about a generation ship’s three-century journey to the nearest possibly, hopefully, hospitable planet (spoiler alert: it isn’t). More germane to Musk and Bezos’ Mars ambitions is Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, popularized by the film adaptation starring Matt Damon. When botanist Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, his only way to survive is—in the now-famous line—“to science the shit out of this.” And as he notes, his margin for error is nonexistent: “If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the hab[itat] breaches, I’ll just kind of implode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.”
The novels of Robinson and Weir are exemplars of “extrapolative” SF, which is to say: SF that is scrupulous in its science, hewing closely to the possible and plausible. What is interesting in the context of what I’m talking about is a shift in focus—The Martian isn’t a trenchant argument against space exploration, but it also eschews an imaginative leap ahead to a Mars in the early stages of terraforming, with safe habitats for thousands of colonists to live, instead focusing on the granular problems involved with even beginning to think about such a project Again, the Musk/Bezos contingent would certainly say that of course we’d have to start small, that it would be harsh and difficult for a long time, but that the billionaire visionaries are the ones laying the groundwork.
To which I say: read the room. Or better yet, read the SF of the past twenty years. Really, just scan the spines in the SF section of a decent bookstore and count the number of novels from the past two decades that are dystopian, post-apocalyptic, or which, like John Scalzi’s recent “Interdependency” trilogy (The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, The Last Emperox) are essentially allegories about the current climate crisis. Then do a quick calculation and see how much of SF’s current market share comprises such narratives. Because it’s not as though dystopian stories and post-apocalyptic SF are at all new;2 they’re just more prevalent than ever,3 reflecting a zeitgeist more preoccupied with the depredations of modernity and technology than with their capacity for continued expansion.
All of which is by way of saying, if you want the TL;DR: this planet is our home and it would be great to fix the problems we have with it before seriously thinking of colonizing others—not least because the colonization of Mars, even if it proves possible, is the work not of years but centuries, centuries we simply don’t have. The resources Musk and Bezos are bringing to bear on their respective dreams of space travel would be much more profitably devoted to developing, among other things, green energy. Mars ain’t going anywhere.
But then, even billionaires are mortal. It’s possible to see their current competition less as mere dick-measuring (though it is that, to be certain) than as a race to satisfy their dreams of space travel while they still draw breath (in this respect, one wonders if sending ninety-year old William Shatner into space was not just an homage to Bezos’ favourite SF, but a cynical calculation on the part of the fifty-seven-year old billionaire to reassure himself he’s still got at least three decades of space faring years). Elon Musk has said he wants to die on Mars; as with many of his pronouncements, it’s not at all obvious if he’s serious or just taking the piss, but it does cast his ostensible determination, as quoted above, “to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness,” in a somewhat more fatalistic light—it seems to suggest that the “light of consciousness” isn’t likely to survive on Earth, and must therefore be seeded elsewhere. It’s difficult not to interpret these words in the context of the broader trend of doomsday prepping among the super-rich that has seen multi-millionaires and billionaires buying remote property on which to build bunkers, and stockpiling food, supplies, guns, and ammunition against the anticipated collapse of civilization. At the time of writing, Elon Musk was accounted the wealthiest man in the world, with his fortune exceeding $300B; it makes a sort of perverse sense that, as status-bunkers go, having one on an entirely different planet would win the game.
I am still stumped, however, by how Musk means “light of consciousness.” Is it him? Does he mean to be found, eons from now, cryonically frozen like the people on The Next Generation by an alien species, the last remaining human? Because it seems to me that the light of human consciousness is best carried into the future by teeming billions living on a planet saved by their collective effort. Sending the light of consciousness to Mars is more akin to the final words of Margaret Atwood’s short fiction “Time Capsule Found on a Dead Planet”: “You who have come here from some distant world, to this dry lakeshore and this cairn, and to this cylinder of brass, in which on the last day of all our recorded days I place our final words: Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.”
… or, from outer space to inner space.
I tried to watch Mark Zuckerberg’s ninety-minute infomercial in which he announced the launch of the “metaverse” and Facebook’s rebranding as “Meta,” and lasted all of about five minutes. I had no expectation of getting through the entire thing—nor of seriously attempting to—but you’d have thought I could have endured more. But apparently not … I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe, so I did a fair bit of both. It was just so damned earnest, and it baffled me how this putative tech genius could talk so enthusiastically and unironically about this new utopian virtuality, with no acknowledgment of (1) the dystopian shitshow that is the current state of social media generally and Facebook specifically, and (2) the fact that there has yet to be a depiction of virtual reality in fiction that is not even more dystopian than Facebook IRL.
The word “disingenuous” doesn’t even scratch the surface. “Sociopathically delusional” might be closer to the mark.
The next day I subjected my long-suffering first-year students to an impromptu rant about how SF authors in the 80s and 90s had anticipated all of this—specifically, a digital reality embedded in a broader condition in which massive transnational corporations have more power than most nation-states, wealth disparity is a vast and unbridgeable chasm, industry has irrevocably poisoned the environment, and the broader populace is distracted with the soporific of digital entertainment and misinformation—and this was why everybody needed to take more English courses (don’t ever tell me I don’t shill for my own department). I noted that the very term “metaverse” was used by SF writer Neal Stephenson to describe the online virtual environment in his 1992 novel Snow Crash; I also noted that depictions of virtual reality appeared long before computers were ubiquitous, such as in Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik, and that William Gibson wrote Neuromancer (1983), which became the definitive cyberpunk novel, on a manual typewriter without ever having owned a personal computer.
And I emphasized the point I made above: that in no instance were any of these depictions anything other than dystopian.
But then, it’s sadly unsurprising that the man who not only invented Facebook, but who for all intents and purposes is Facebook, should forge ahead with the arrogant certainty that he knows better than all the people who envisioned the metaverse long before it was a technical possibility. If Musk and Bezos’ arrested development is stuck sometime in the SF of the 1960s, Zuckerberg’s is in the 80s—but with apparently even less understanding of the material than his billionaire bros.
I could go on with all the elements of cyberpunk Zuckerberg obviously doesn’t get, but I think you get the point … and besides which, my main concern here is with the way in which the choice to rebrand Facebook as “Meta” is perfectly emblematic of Zuckerberg’s apparently congenital inability to engage in self-reflection. It is also, not to put too fine a point on it, what irritates me so profoundly: I have what you might characterize as a professional beef with this rebranding, as it entails the flagrant misuse of a prefix that is crucial to contemporary, and especially postmodernist, literature and culture.
What is “meta-“? Notably, in his infomercial and the letter posted to Facebook announcing the rebranding, Zuckerberg says that “meta” is from the Greek and means “beyond.” This much is true: the second entry in the OED’s definition of meta- is “beyond, above, at a higher level.” Zuckerberg goes on to say that, for him, it “symbolizes that there is always more to build, and there is always a next chapter to the story.” Except that that is entirely not the sense in which meta- is used, not even colloquially. It is not uncommon to hear people say things like “that’s so meta!” or “can we get meta about this?” In both cases, what is meant is not a sense of taking things further, but of reflection and reconsideration. “That’s so meta!” is precisely the kind of thing you might expect to hear from someone watching a movie like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a noirish murder mystery that constantly draws attention to the tropes, conventions, and clichés of noirish murder mystery, and which further features Robert Downey Jr.’s character frequently breaking the fourth wall to remind us that, yes, we’re watching a noirish murder mystery movie. The suggestion “can we get meta about this?” usually precedes a discussion not of the issue at hand, but rather things surrounding, informing, framing, or giving rise to the issue at hand.
In other words, as the next line in the OED definition tells us, meta- is typically “prefixed to the name of a subject or discipline to denote another which deals with ulterior issues in the same field, or which raises questions about the nature of the original discipline and its methods, procedures, and assumptions.” Hence, metafiction is fiction about fiction, metacriticism is criticism about criticism, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—whose title is taken from a disparaging comment by film critic Pauline Kael about what audiences want from movies—is metacinema (or metanoir, if you want to be more specific). And while the practice of being endlessly self-referential can grow tiresome,5 my point is more that meta- is, literally by definition, introspective.
Something Mark Zuckerberg manifestly is not. To be meta- about “Meta” would not involve plunging forward with a tone-deaf and bloody-minded ninety-minute infomercial promising to double down on Facebook’s putative mission of “bringing people together.” Rather, one might reflect upon the assertion that “We’re still the company that designs technology around people,” and wonder instead if all the internal studies establishing that Instagram is toxic to adolescent girls’ body-image and that Facebook facilitates atrocities and props up dictatorships are perhaps more indicative of technology shaping people’s behaviour. Perhaps all that SF from the 80s and 90s might help in this process?
1. I didn’t read anything by Ayn Rand until I was in grad school. When I finally did read her, it was in part out of curiosity, but more significantly because by then I’d had the basic tenets of objectivism explained to me in some detail; I found the entire philosophy abhorrent, as you might imagine, but also figured that were I ever to find myself in argument with a libertarian about the relative merits of her fiction, I should at least know more precisely what I was talking about. So first I read The Fountainhead, which was a fairly quick read and the more engaging of her two most notable novels. I completely understood its appeal to adolescent readers, especially precocious teens convinced of their own rightness and unsparing in their hatred of anything reeking of compromise and “selling out.” (Thinking about the novel now, it strikes me as possessing a notably modernist sensibility, if not style: architect Howard Roark’s ultimate determination to demolish his building rather than allow “lesser” architectural minds to taint the putative genius of his design reminds me of little else than the unfortunately common tendency among scholars of modernism to express categorical disdain for anything they consider unworthy of study).
Atlas Shrugged was more of a slog, and I often wondered as I read it (in fits and starts over several weeks) at how feverishly its devotees tore through its 1000+ pages, and then obsessively reread it over and over. It’s not that it’s a difficult read—it’s certainly not particularly complex, nor is the prose dense or opaque—I just had difficulty caring about the characters and their stories. I’ve nodded sympathetically many, many times when people have confessed to me that Tolkien’s digressions into the history of Middle-earth lost them, but the purplest of passages in LOTR ain’t got nothin’ on John Galt’s sixty-page-long paean to the moral virtues of selfishness and greed.
A number of years ago, as Breaking Bad was airing its final episodes, I hit on an idea for an article about how that series functioned in part as a sustained and trenchant critique of Ayn Rand. I was fairly deep into drafting it when I hit a wall—specifically, the resigned realization that, if I was going to make a serious run at writing it, I’d have to reread Atlas Shrugged. And, well, that was a bridge too far … though I did write a blog post sketching out the general argument.
2. The critical consensus is that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) was the first SF novel, and Frankenstein’s nothing if not a dystopian warning about the unthinking and unethical use of technology. Eight years later she published The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic story set in the midst of a deadly pandemic, so it’s safe to say she was ahead of her time.
3. The corollary to this upswing in post-apocalyptic SF is the proliferation post-apocalyptic narratives that don’t quite classify as SF, with the biggest and most obvious example being the critical mass of zombie apocalypse in fiction, film, television, and games. The corollary of this corollary is the concomitant prevalence of fantasy, with which zombie apocalypse shares DNA insofar as it posits a return to a premodern state of existence. If much SF is dystopian and articulates a bleak outlook, the zombies and the dragons are a kind of nostalgia for a world stripped of the modernity that went so very wrong.
4. Yes, yes, it was Facebook’s “virtual connect” conference … but really, it was an infomercial. A long, tedious, cringeworthy infomercial.
5. I recently watched the new Netflix film Red Notice, which was entirely forgettable, in part because of just how meta- it was. The biggest eye-roll for me was a scene in which the FBI agent and the master thief played, respectively, by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, are searching an arms dealer’s antiquities collection for a certain ancient Egyptian treasure that precipitates the action of the film. “Where is it?” mutters The Rock, to which Reynolds responds, “Check for a box labelled ‘MacGuffin’.”