Friday, December 20, 2013

Science Fiction's Designs for the Future

In the New Yorker online (Dec. 12 posting), Tim Kreider examines science fiction's fondness for social commentary. Through depictions of the future (which cannot be anything but fictional), SF writers provide possible-world design for better societies, a better Earth. From obvious utopias to hard-science tales of space exploration that seem written for 15-year-old boys and their adult equivalents, alone, the genre has always been a showcase for the imaginings of society's critics. In more recent years, the criticism has been leveled at environmental problems more than anything else - and with good reason.
If only these ideas were not restricted to flights of fancy. Wouldn't it be wonderful if more scientists could conduct symposiums with SF writers - and that attendance for political leaders would be mandatory?
Kreider spotlights bestselling author Kim Stanley Robinson, whose environmental bugbear of choice (and there is plenty of choice) happens to be anthropogenic climate change. More than few politicians are "climate skeptics": they could certainly do with reading his books, at very least.
The major platform planks these methods lead him to in his books are:

  • common stewardship—not ownership—of the land, water, and air
  • an economic system based on ecological reality
  • divesting central governments of most of their power and diffusing it among local communities
  • the basics of existence, like health care, removed from the cruelties of the free market
  • the application of democratic principles like self-determination and equality in the workplace—which, in practice, means small co-ops instead of vast, hierarchical, exploitative corporations—and,
  • a reverence for the natural world codified into law.

Depending on your own politics, this may sound like millennia-overdue common sense or a bong-fuelled 3 A.M. wish list, but there’s no arguing that to implement it in the real world circa 2013 would be, literally, revolutionary. My own bet would be that either your grandchildren are going to be living by some of these precepts, or else they won’t be living at all.
Hmm, these do sound familiar! 
Robinson is hardly the only such concerned SF writer. Margaret Atwood's recent triology, which concluded with Maddaddam, deals with a dystopia full of genetically modified organisms. Countless other books warn us of the hazards of an overly technological society. Yet others talk about a more corded planet, where people become little more than numbers. The list is long and fascinating.
But it remains to be seen if we will listen to any of these prescient authors - or simply go on treating their thoughtful and thought-provoking prose as anything other than entertainment.
Have you read any books that hope to bring attention to an important issue by setting a story in the near or distant future? Please share the titles (and summaries, if you like).

Monday, December 9, 2013

2. Start Questioning Cultural Traditions

Every society has at least one culture in its midst, and that culture can be divided further into subcultures, all different in subtle or fairly major ways. The defining trait of a culture or subculture is transmission. Cultural traditions are passed down from present or past generations to the young, with the assumption that they, in turn, will pass the practices and beliefs to their descendants. In life, there is very little truly written in stone, but a high degree of immutability characterizes most traditions. That’s what gives them form and strength, and a means of comforting us. 

That resistance to change also makes traditions potentially dangerous. 
Tradition in its various forms helps guide us when faced with difficult situations—either familiar ones we might find new, like seeking a life partner, or entirely novel ones, such as certain ethical dilemmas. Traditions soothe us in a hectic world: if, for example, we know that a wedding in our county “is always like this” and not that, that knowledge means there are no surprises in that area at least, even if chaos reigns elsewhere. Traditions bring order and predictability, thereby relieving stress. They bring us into closer fellowship, even a sort of pseudo-kinship, with people we are not necessarily related to but who share our tribe or group—and those people may live far away or be long dead. We cannot possibly feel totally alone if we are part of this web of connection across time and space, and despite other differences.
Tradition also locks us into anachronistic thoughts and deeds. Some practices may have been extremely useful at some time in history, and been maintained down the centuries because no great harm came of them. But, in contemporary times, these firmly held ideas have to be examined, especially when they repeatedly run up against new realities: 
  • proximity to other cultures and their traditions and beliefs; 
  • scarcity of materials and other resources necessary for upholding the tradition; 
  • more, shall we say, enlightened practices born of philosophical progress; 
  • financial considerations, often closely linked to issues of scarcity.
When tradition is held onto without sufficient debate—if it is sealed within a glass jar instead of open to the air of inquiry—it can leave the wrong legacy for future generations, and even deprive them of the ability to exercise that practice at all, e.g., when a particular “useful” animal becomes extinct.
There are many cultural practices presently under debate, sometimes within the culture (usually, but not always, by the young), but often from outside the culture. (Other traditions barely merit a look, but I predict they will be examined within the next decade.)
The debates arise when we can no longer ignore matters of (1) sustainability, (2) ethics, (3) human rights, (4) “animal rights” (I’m personally not fond of the term), as well as the disparate levels of (5) disgust and aversion that emerge when immigration forces once geographically separate peoples into co-existence.
Here are some examples of currently debated (and in some cases partially abated) traditions.
-         Shark fin soup served at Chinese weddings (1, 4, 5);
-         Female genital mutilation in parts of Africa (2, 3, 5);
-         Songbird massacres during spring and autumn migrations in southern Europe and Egypt, among other places (1, 4);
-         So-called “honor killings” practiced in many developing countries, carried forth by their emigrants to more industrialized nations (2, 3, maybe 5).
Here are a few examples of traditions that could do with open and frank debate.
-         The prevalence of large families in fundamentalist religions, with or without arranged marriages; 
-         The mechanisms of corporate culture and capitalism in general—it may not be connected to a country or society like other cultures, but in most other ways it conforms to the definition and, thus, has traditions that go largely unchallenged;
-         The assumption in almost all cultures around the world that animal food is the most important part of a person’s diet, and that anything necessary for finding those animal products should be pursued, hang the cost (ethical, ecological, etc.). (See shark fin soup, songbird hunts, ad infinitum.)
What do you think should go on this partial list? What do you think of my initial choices?