What if we had a special streaming service that showed us television from the year 2050 so we could watch the future unfold on our HDTVs at night. Would we change the way we live in this present? Would we steer towards the news and shows we wanted to come true and away from those that frightened? And what if over time we could see the future change as we changed ourselves little by little. Wouldn’t that validate the reality of those 2050 TV shows from the future?
Hasn’t that been what we thought science fiction has been doing all along?
We avoid committing ourselves because half of us doubt any speculations about the future. What if there was no doubt? What if we knew the future for certain? Would we act decisively? I’m not sure we would. Then what’s the value of serious science fiction?
Science fiction has always encouraged us to rush towards sense-of-wonder tomorrows and run away from scary dystopias. However, most people don’t take science fiction all that seriously, and for that matter, most science fiction never tries to be serious. On the other hand, sometimes a science fiction writer cries wolf. Should we listen?
Back in 1968 John Brunner offered us the deadly serious science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar. I read it in 1969 when I was 17 and I loathed the future Brunner envisioned for 2010. I did not want to grow up to live in John Brunner’s extrapolated timeline. What he foresaw horrified me with its relentless political unrest, ecological catastrophes, but worst of all were the portrayals of constant worldwide terrorism. Brunner’s scenes of senseless violence repulsed me bitterly. I wanted exciting stories about colonizing Mars, so his future wasn’t one I wanted. By the time 2010 rolled around forty-two years later, we all realized just how brilliant John Brunner’s novel had been at speculating about things to come.
No science fiction writer claims to predict the future. No science fiction book has predicted the future. But rereading Stand on Zanzibar in 2010 was goddamn eerie.
The Ministry for the Future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s deadly serious 2020 science novel about our near future, and it reminds me so much of Zanzibar.
Both novels are hard to read on many levels even if you ignore their doom and gloom. Neither are traditionally structured fiction. Stand on Zanzibar offered a continuing narrative every fourth chapter, but between that narrative were imagined news programs, journals, bulletins, press releases, short stories, book quotes, and readings from a pop culture philosophy called The Hipcrime Vocab by one Chad C. Mulligan. Brunner coined a lot of slang to give his future a realistic flare, which required the reader to pick up the lingo as they read along. Stand on Zanzibar is 582 pages of dense reading. All this puts a strain on its page turning appeal. Nevertheless, this novel has always been the epitome of serious science fiction (at least to me). Now it has competition.
The Ministry for the Future is also hard to read because it does not read like a normal novel. I’d say about twenty percent is the ongoing storyline, while most of the 106 chapters are lessons/lectures in either monologues/soliloquies or Socratic dialogues. Robinson doesn’t try to create the barrage of future pop culture sources that Brunner did. Instead, he writes to educate his reader about the many dimensions of solving problems associated with climate change. It’s not thrilling action, but it is thought provoking. And Robinson works so hard to be optimistic. He wants us to believe we still have a chance.
Science fiction has always convinced its fans that it’s about the future, but it’s not. Science fiction is nearly always about escapism from the today, and sometimes, it gives the illusion that it’s saying something insightful about tomorrow. Every so often we get a SF writer who attempts to extrapolate today’s trends into tomorrow’s catastrophes or marvels. Brunner and Robinson are such writers. In both 1968 and 2020, Brunner and Robinson play Cassandra, warning us we’d better get our shit together because hell is on the horizon.
I want to recommend The Ministry for the Future to everyone, but I must be honest and admit it’s not a fun read. Science fiction has always had a problem with infodumping, and this book is mostly infodumps. I find them fascinating, but most readers won’t. There’s practically no story to this novel other than pondering how to change the world to avoid a climate apocalypse.
But here’s the thing. The first chapter, which is told in regular fiction style, was more effective at scaring me about climate change than anything I’ve ever read. You can read it here. I highly recommend you take the time to do so. If the entire novel had this emotional intensity maybe it would scare readers into changing their lives. Unfortunately, most of the chapters are like this one. Like in Zanzibar, we leave the plot narrative frequently. And when it does return, half the time, it’s more infodumping. The story does get more attention over time, just don’t expect it to entertain like The Expanse books or The Murderbot Diaries.
I am not trying to turn you off from buying and reading The Ministry of the Future, but I am trying to do an honest sales job. Stand on Zanzibar is extremely hard to read too, but I’ve read it twice and want to read it again. I believe both books are easier to listen to then read. Robinson’s book is read by multiple narrators. This helps make the infodumps more dramatic. And since many parts of Zanzibar is supposed to come from radio and TV audio, it’s more natural to hear them than to read them. See if your inner voice can handle this:
Don’t worry, Robinson’s prose isn’t like this, and neither is most of Brunner’s. But Brunner does make a valiant effort to simulate future dazzle. Robinson doesn’t. His work might be called a philosophical novel with lectures, maybe like Hermann Hesse. Thinking about both books I realize I have some questions about science fiction that challenge my lifelong assumptions about the genre.
First, should science fiction attempt to shape the future? Is it hubris to try? Back in the 1940s and 1950s true believers like Robert A. Heinlein wrote stories about the glories of space travel hoping they would inspire young people to grow up and build rockets that went to the Moon and Mars. Just because that happened doesn’t mean science fiction can claim it as a feather in its cap, but maybe it helped. I don’t know. But if you read memoirs by most rocket scientists you’ll find passages about growing up reading science fiction.
If in the future we do avoid climate change, will we look back and say science fiction had a hand in getting us to act sooner? There is a sub-genre emerging out of science fiction called Cli-Fi, and once you study its nature you’ll see it has a long history. But is it effective? Is Kim Stanley Robinson succeeding at inspiring his readers to aim at a different future? By the way, he’s written other Cli-Fi novels, so he’s been working at this task for a long time.
One area where Robinson does succeed is defining the problem, but you have to read The Ministry of the Future to see how he does that. Then we need to reconvene in 2050 and discuss whether or not The Ministry for the Future got us to take different paths to get to that future.
But one last confession. I’ve read thousands of science fiction stories and novels, and it has changed how I think, but I’m not sure it ever changed how I act.
James Wallace Harris, 1/23/21
2 thoughts on “Deadly Serious Science Fiction”
Thank you for this great essay. I didn’t see the link from MotF to Brunner. Both are less novel, more literary essay. And I still like KSR‘s optimistic view better.
If you want to read a Mars plus dystopian/social critic combination, then read the first story in Apex 121, my review‘s here: https://reiszwolf.wordpress.com/2021/01/23/root-rot-2021-sf-novelette-by-fargho-tbakhi/