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October 25th, 2006


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01:39 pm - SF, ideology, and my lack of connection to geek culture
In an interesting piece about the future of SF, Charles Stross talks about its past and its base assumptions:
SF is predicated on a modernist political program. It was, in fact, the fictional agitprop arm of the Technocrat movement, and it carried on marching in lockstep into the radiant future even after Technocracy withered in the 1930s. These days, the beliefs that form the bedrock of this medium have a curiously quaint, archaic feel to them. Technocracy was about central planning, enlightened rational leadership, and utopianism. SF as we know it is descended from a literature that reflects these values, either by amplifying or adopting them, or by explicitly contradicting them — but either way, Technocracy's ghost lies at the core of a multitude of genre conventions.

We've been writing technocracy-influenced fiction for eighty years, whether we knew it or not. You can catch its reflection in the mirror if you don't turn round fast enough; the belief that technological progress cures all ills, that progress is always good, and that rational, educated people will come up with the best solutions to problems are all hallmarks of technocracy.
What's fascinating to me, is that this quote not only describes the world-view of most SF, especially older SF, it describes my own world-view. Perhaps the greatest influence on my mind growing up was the truly vast amounts of SF I read, including huge amounts written in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, during the heyday of such attitudes. Of course it is also important to keep in mind Michael Moorcock's brilliant critique of the right-wing bias of much SF. However, it is also worth noting that there is as much SF progressive SF as there is SF (as Moorcock mentions) as there is regressive and scary SF, it's all a question of authors and eras, and unlike the 1970s, I doubt that these days, many SF would maintain that SF is (or even should be) apolitical.

In any case, I find that the basic technocratic ideas of "central planning, enlightened rational leadership, and utopianism" to be a valuable antidote to both the religious mania so common in political discourse in the US and also to the more widespread anti-technological nihilism common among both conservatives and progressives. In fact, those ideas look a great deal like the basis of EU social democracy, which continues to look (to me at least) vastly superior to any other form of government in use today.

What I also find interesting is Stross's contrasting traditional SF with this implicit ideology with a newer style of post-cyberpunk fiction that he effectively calls "geek fiction", written by the likes of "Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow and Douglas Coupland and (in his latest incarnation) Bruce Sterling ", and of course himself. My own relations to such authors is interesting. I find Doctorow to be brilliant and I have loved most of Stross' work (with a few very notable exceptions). However, I have never made it more than halfway through anything by Stephenson, I haven't bothered to read any fiction Sterling wrote since 1990 (although I do enjoy some of his essays), and I'd never even heard of Douglas Coupland before (and from a brief glance at Amazon, find myself uninclined to look further).

By these definitions, I am not a geek, which makes a fair amount of sense to me. I went to college in the first really big burst of interest in computers, networks, BBS's & etc… and found computers to be useful tools but to hold absolutely no interest in and of themselves – from both a practical and a theoretical perspective programming strikes me as tedious and rather at odds with my own multi-valued, interstitial, and generally eccentric modes of thought. To me, flowcharts and binary logic are at best cumbersome impediments to thought. Physical science, especially physics and astronomy fascinates me, as does history and the sorts of cultural studies which are currently (and in my opinion foolishly) sub-divided among social history, anthropology, and sociology. However, matters of computer hardware and software hold absolutely no interest for me. The modes of thought necessary to deal with such matters are naturally enough found throughout "geek culture", which in many ways places me firmly outside of it. I know many people who (as Stross accurate describes) greatly enjoy" playing MMORPGs and hacking their game consoles…", but neither activity is something that I have any interest in, the first for the same reason that I'm not interested in programming, dealing with any situation where there is a limited number of discrete options holds little interest for me.

To a small extent, my reactions are is a question of age, but I also knew many people in college who were already headed towards geekdom, and the founders of both Apple and Microsoft are all 6+ years older than I am. Some of it is growing up on a surfeit of SF from the 1930s-60s, and likely most of the rest is simply my own idiosyncrasies of thought.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

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Comments:


[User Picture]
From:oneirophrenia
Date:October 26th, 2006 05:07 am (UTC)
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Good ol' Chuck! I love Stross. He is my hero.

Speaking of which...I'm working on a seriously high-bit-rate Singularitarian story entitled "Metamorphosis 2.0" which I'll hopefully have up on my fiction blog within a few weeks. I'm basically upgrading Franz Kafka's story for the 2020s...only now it's set in Pittsburgh, and involves Herr Samsa getting drunk as hell one night and waking up the next day in an awesome robot body and not having ANY memory of how he got there. Ha! You may very well get a kick out of it, as I believe I'm going to force tlttlotd to help me out with it or I'll be testing out my latest brute-force-uploading techniques on him.
[User Picture]
From:heronheart
Date:October 26th, 2006 02:14 pm (UTC)
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Technocracy was about central planning, enlightened rational leadership, and utopianism. SF as we know it is descended from a literature that reflects these values, either by amplifying or adopting them, or by explicitly contradicting them — but either way, Technocracy's ghost lies at the core of a multitude of genre conventions.

I think it's an extremely useful observation on Stross' part, although I find Moorcock's essay to be the more compelling. It's interesting that over the years I've found SF to be less and less compelling, partly because as Stross says, we're living in the future already, but it also may be that I've largely turned away from that technocratic vision. A big part of it was the Reagan years with their vision of a Free Market Utopia. Let us also remember that Stalin and Hitler were also Technocrats. One could argue that none of the three (Reagan, Hitler or Stalin) were enlightened or rational, but I think we have to take into account that humans aren't terribly rational and that any human leader is going to be somewhat irrational.

Another part of it was a growing conviction of the spiritual sterility of the Technocratic vision. In Technocracy there really only seems to be room for human created and controlled things.

The only new SF that I can immediately think of that I find interesting enough to read consistently is Kage Baker's "Company" series. In large measure I've gravitated to "Urban Fantasy" and non-fiction.
[User Picture]
From:heronheart
Date:October 26th, 2006 02:20 pm (UTC)
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The only new SF that I can immediately think of that I find interesting enough to read consistently is Kage Baker's "Company" series. In large measure I've gravitated to "Urban Fantasy" and non-fiction.

I just realized that an exception to this is the "Escape Pod" podcast, but it would take me awhile to sort out just what I like about it and how well the stories fit the genre conventions.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:October 26th, 2006 06:28 pm (UTC)
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A big part of it was the Reagan years with their vision of a Free Market Utopia.

That's an interesting observation, since a good portion of traditional SF involves such places, but just as much focuses on centrally planned (ie socialist) utopias. My reaction to the Reagan years was actually to find traditional SF more compelling because it is so obvious to me how much superior EU social democracy is to the wretchedness started by Reagan and continued in an ever-worsening fashion by the chimp.
[User Picture]
From:heronheart
Date:October 26th, 2006 08:04 pm (UTC)
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What I got out of the Reagan years was that all good governments are eventually succeeded by bad governments and that as a result it's probably not a good idea to concentrate vast amounts of technological power in any central government (or corporation).
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:October 26th, 2006 08:17 pm (UTC)
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That argues that the US ever had a good government. I'd call US government in the 1970s as acceptable, but not actually good. Of course, it looks pretty good now, because that was AFAIK the pinnacle of US government. Also, the EU has done pretty well and while there are certainly problems, they are doing better than US and the Scandinavian nations have been doing so for many at least three decades. From talking to people who grew up in the midwest and other locations in the 70s, the undercurrent of fundamentalism and general religious mania never left the US, it was merely briefly suppressed. In contrast, the battle against extremist Christianity was won in the Scandinavian nations (and in fact in most first world, European or European colonized nation) decades ago. Sadly, my other lesson from the transformation from the 70s to the 80s in the US, is simply that the US sucks.
[User Picture]
From:kitten_goddess
Date:October 26th, 2006 04:20 pm (UTC)
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I'm glad to find another person in the geek culture with zero interest in programming or computers. I thought I was the only one. I don't even own a cell phone and never will, unless someone gives me one someday.

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