Technique and Politics in Hard SF

To say that I felt slightly beseiged when I wrote this
essay would be such a massive understatement that it would border on mockery
of the situation. I was in my first year of studies in the Master’s in Creative
Writing program at Concordia University in Montreal. I was the only science-fiction
writer in my class, taking a prose-writing course in which most of the students
were writing some form of mainstream realistic of magical-realistic fiction.

There was no doubt in my mind that I could at the very least hold my own
among my fellow students; my eye for phrasing, my ability with language,
and my general sensibility compared to some of my classmates suggested that
much to me. And yet, I was , in so many discussions outside of the classroom,
"The Sci-Fi Guy." Students seemed to have no critical apparatus
well-enough deeloped to help them say something worthwhile about a text
that wasn’t some sort of Austenian or Joycean novel. This infuriated me
to no end, for I I was after all expected to cope with mainstream texts,
even if I was an SF guy.

And I did cope well with those mainstream texts. I wrote critique after
critique of their work, as well, even the stuff that I felt was "just
another expat story" (graduate writing programs seem full of people
who can’t write about anything but their terrible experience, or their sexual
experiences, in Asia). Over time, when I heard student excuse themselves
from making any kind of intelligent criticism of my work, because, "I
don’t know SF", they said. For obvious reasons, this enraged me. I’m no
connaiseur of expat confessional, either, you know! Finally, one evening, our professor, Catherine
Bush, told us that we would be giving academic-styled presentations on any
topic we liked, preferably something to do with our own work.

The result in my case was the original version of this essay, along with
a huge readings package that included excerpts from John Brunner’s Stand
On Zanzibar
, David Brin’s Earth, and Bruce Sterling’s Holy
and "Our Neural Chernobyl" from the collection Globalhead.
I think most of the students didn’t read the excerpts, which were quite
lengthy, but the presentation was largely a success in making at least one
point: that the techniques of realist finction and the techniques used in
SF are not all that different, and that at least ideally (in my thinking)
the advantage in SF is that those techniques can be used in a political
manner more given to subversion and resistance of so -called "common
sense". Moreover, I was happy to show my classmates that a lot of what I was doing, I was doing
using writing techniques that were basically the same as theirs.

In his famous Harper’s piece,“Perchance to
Dream: Reasons to Write Novels in an Age of Images”, the now oft-discussed
Jonathan Franzen articulates his personal motivation for writing literature
in an age where the most powerful media is not print but image-based technology
like TV and film. He starts out the description of a retreat from the world
— a world that his persona in the essay feels has gone mad. He writes:
“I began to think that the most reasonable thing for a citizen to
do might be to enter a monastery and pray for humanity.” This, from
a man who describes his connections with the outside world as “the
twin portals of my TV set and my New York Times subscription.” He
decants nightmares of a Silicon Valley VR-helmet plague, and derides rampant
multiculturalism. Franzen writes that “History is the rabid thing
from which we all . . . would like to hide. But no bubble can stay unburst.
On whether this is a good thing or not, tragic realists offer no opinion.
They simply represent it. . . The world was ending [a generation ago] .
. . and it’s ending still, and I’m happy to belong to it again.”
And he thinks this is optimism.

This puzzles me. To my mind, VR helmets are old hat (if you’ll
excuse the pun) and the unified worldview he speaks about never existed—we
were just too deluded to see the diversity and intertribalism; in some sense,
we look at our own history (and our own future) the way we in the West look
at China: with our eyes squinted nearly-shut, coarse-graining everything
into a tidy mono-culture, a tidy-monophilosophy, and so on. China, and our
own past, and quite certainly our own future, all teem with now-unseen rebels,
jarringly irreconcilable contradictions in thought and belief, and an extraordinary
amount of diversity and inter-cultural appropriations of ideas and practices.

It’s not by accident that these two themes of Franzen’s provoke
the strongest response from me; the apparent collapse of older cultural
organizational systems, and the strange cultural effects proceeding from
an explosion in telecommuncications technology both thematically are crucial
in science fiction. They also play a significant role in all the books I’ll
be discussing in this essay. But most troubling is Franzen’s idea
that History is something to be hidden from. By History, I take
it Franzen means the inescapable changes going on in Western Culture. But
why would he want to hide from these changes? And what good does it do claiming
merely to represent “our world,” pretending not to pass judgement
but moaning and gnashing your teeth all the way?


The curious thing is that, as opposed politically to Franzen’s
position as most SF is, the writers producing SF are using techniques od
construction that are essentially hallmarks of "realist" writing.
This is not by accident; the bulk of SF, after all, is simply pseudo-realist
fiction set in the future. However, the works of SF that have any political
significance manage to use these tools in a far different way, and to far
different ends, from those of mainstream "realist" fictioneers.
And even in the less-political texts, the effects proceeding from the use
of these techniques produce a special conflicted effect that is surprisingly
at odds with the effects of realist fiction.

Perhaps I should begin by defining "realist” fiction. In the
publishing industry, it is what I suppose might be called Mainstream, but
to be specific I am talking about the stuff that’s bent on familiarity;
what I am talking about the books that, because they’re set in our
world and time (or sometime adjacent enough to our time, accessible and
reasonably stylized in our memory for something to seem "accurate"
when set in that time), they are so familiar that we can plug into it, just
jump into the story, in medias res. I would like to propose the main strategy
of a Realist poetics in a moment, but first look around the Realist landscape:
Coke bottles look the same there as they do (or did) in our world at a given
period. Coke bottles do not call individuals by name, and are incapable
of introducing minor flavour variations. 20th Century Western people speak
basically the same language that we speak (with minor appropriate variations
in dialect and regional pronunciation differences), they dress mostly like
people in our world (freak or not), and they mostly think like people in
our world (even the unusual is often conventional unusualness). Windows
95 is still buggy and inelegant in their 1997, and their Evening Post and
sitcoms look much like ours.

These presences that are continuous to our own are present for a reason.
I argue that the reason is this: Realism is a mimetic strategy
which represents our world — I’ll be facetious and say “the
real world” — through surfaces and appearance, which generate
an immersive illusion of familiarity. This “real world” is a
kind of lingua franca. It’s assumed you can meld into the
timeframe, because you’re used to a mimetic strategy that privileges
appearance and surface as the plane upon which the “real” world
is best represented. Barbie Dolls? Yeah, I know what those are. Yep, we
have a Bureaucratic Government, no need to jump into too much exposition
about that. And you don’t need to explain what a URL is, or a squeegee.
And everyone (even the filthiest Luddite among us) recognizes the format
of email by now, so it can be used in fiction without much fuss. A whole
story can be told through postcards (Griffin&Sabine), or email (I’ve
done it, trust me!). "Good old documentary format," one of my
professors told me, "dates back to Richardson" (the author of
Clarissa). She said it was a trick that made the fiction more immanent,
more “vivid” for the reader. This seems absurd to us, of course:
Clarissa is expecting those men who are coming to the house are probably
going to rape her, and yet she feels compelled to write a letter about it,
instead of hiding. But that just goes to show you that a great deal of what
seems to us to be realistic quality in writing is actually stylization according
to the dramatic and genre expectations of the time. Realism isn’t about
writing realistically, it’s about writing in a way that people perceive
as realistic. But strings of words are never realistic, they’re always stylizing
whatever they describe, reducing it and conveying it in some way or other.
You can thinkof it as a kind of encryption process, really.

Now, Realism not the only mimetic strategy around: you can compare folk
carvings to icons or photography and perceive different value systems emerging,
just as you do comparing Chaucer or the Simpsons to Jane Austen. So why
is it that so many science fiction writers, like Sterling, Brunner, and
Brin, write about unfamiliar worlds using many originally realist techniques?
They are meant to be conveying to us unfamiliar futuristic worlds, and to
some degree one might imagine that a documentary format, such a an Encyclopedia
, might be a better venue for conveying a richly detailed future
world. And yet throughout science fiction, the ‘cyclopedias make only brief
appearances. What we return to continually is characters, to individuals.

Perhaps it is simply a human desire, to hear the stories of other people,
even if those other people are imaginary. The techniques of realist writing
seem to be a method of rendering those characters realistic. But in SF,
their function is quite different. There is still a strong desire for believability:
readers often critique SF characters as vehemently as characters in mainstream
novels if their motivations become too inexplicable, or their actions too
implausible. Even the idea of sf is realist, after all — don’t
violate the laws of the universe (science) as we know them, or at least
don’t break very many. John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding
magazine that dominated (and for a time literally defined) SF during the
“Golden Age” of Asimov & Co., formulated the Rule of One,
which let you break one rule of science — just one, and you have to
do it plausibly. The feasibility of the science is not merely a neurotic
“tic.” After all, this is a literature concerned deeply with
the impact upon human life of technological and scientific change. It’s
important to understand that there is a desire for realistic, plausible
science among readers of this genre: the science often must be as plausible
as the characters themselves, or even more so.


In terms of writerly craft, there are three major techniques rom the realist
school that I’d like to dwell on: Immersive Surface Depiction;
Dialect Peppering; and Documentary Technique. Let’s
look at each of those points one by one.

First, let’s examine Immersive Surface Depiction. A wonderful
example is the opening of Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire. If
you look closely, Sterling’s working very hard in these opening paragraphs.
He alternates the familiar with the bizarre: a women about to see a an old,
dying lover, then Net-archives of etiquette and public records of individual
citizens; Mia picks out some clothes, a familiar activity to most of us,
but then she gets some bizarre medical treatments, and then she goes shopping
for a hat. The familiar and the weird alternate in precise chunks, with
the bizarre growing bit by bit until… a dog talks walks up to Mia
and talks to her.

Bam!—what’s that? Is she on drugs? Sterling doesn’t
immediately tell how the dog can actually speak—first he wants you
to see that it’s been genetically engineered, and is fully dressed.
He lets you stew for a little while, listen in on the conversation a bit,
and tacitly expects you notice how Mia doesn’t think it’s odd,
this conversation with a canine. Then he casually mentions that the voice
is coming from an implant. The mention of the implant, though it might look
like a clumsy throwaway is carefully crafted to appear somehow sloppy. It’s
the kind of clumsiness of someone who forgot to mention something, because
it ought to be common knowledge. He’s speaking from the point of view
of an inhabitant of this world, but one who occasionally recalls that you’re
a visitor. He has the courtesy to mention the time-frame only in the third
paragraph, unlike the cheesy SF convention of starting a story with the
date, or some mention of the decade. You’re treated like any tourist,
but a tourist surrounded by people who forget that people didn’t know about
stuff that they grew up with themselves. If you haven’t had this kind of
experience yet, talk to a ten-year-old child about the Internet. For those
kids it’s a completely normal thing, a part of the world that has been there
from day one. Kids can’t imagine us growing up without the internet, and
how we communicated before its advent is something they can’t even begin
to imagine. Sterling’s narrator is that way about many things, including
post-canines, and throughout the book, more postcanines appear — one
is a famous TV talk-show interviewer who, at one point, philosophizes about
postcanine consciousness. By the end, though, something very strange has
happened: postcanines are eerily familiar.

This gives us a wonderful example of the effect that use of immersive
surface depiction
in SF can achieve; instead of being made comfortable,
feeling familiarity, you’re made uncomfortable and expected to deal
with it, adjust, like a backpacker roughing it in some unfamiliar time.
You are, as Darko Suvin famously puts it, cognitively estranged.
What’s striking is that, simply by substitution the unreal-but-plausible
for the real, SF writers use this realist technique to provoke a much more
complex reaction from their readers… there are elements of unreality,
plausibility, familiarity, and also estrangement or exclusion of the reader.
The stuff people narrators mention in passing, assuming the reader knows
about them, are effectively jolts that communicate, "This world is
not your world. And yet, it is the world… it is a possible world, a world
like the one you may live in in the future." You’re immersed
in a hyper-real world of objects, places, images that only halfway make
sense, and you’re given the bare minimum equipment to negotiate the new
terrain. Yet, the narrator is always there, ready to bail you out (a little)
when the author succeeds in the task of estrangement.

The rest of the excerpts from Holy Fire, especially the scene
in the drug-den, highlight something else that happens a lot in hard sf—not
only is the reader estranged. Protagonists to whom you can relate often
are, after the brief introduction of the novel, just as estranged as you
are by the imaginary world—they are estranged by our world, just as
we sometimes are by our real one. Here, I’ll briefly remind you that
Jonathan Franzen’s response to “History”, to VR helmets
and cultural change, could be compared to the way that an estranged character
(or reader) reacts to (or in) the fictive world—they are alienated,
made uncomfortable. However, it should be also noted that the narrators
of these texts, in all three cases, speak retrospectively about the assumptions
of the twentieth century. Brin mocks the idea of an information-based economy
(an idea popular at the time when he was writing his novel), and Sterling
retrospectively mentions the (then-)common and public assertion that the
War on Drugs was indeed futile, for example. This highlights the
bizarre, unstable continuity of the fictional future to our present, another
estranging factor.

A glance at pages 23-30 of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar suggests one
special case of immersive alienation that is so particularly important that
I’d deigned to create a name for the technique: Dialect Peppering.
Dialect peppering is absolutely common in mainstream, realist fiction. From
the drawl of a character from the Deep South who refers to women as "ma’am",
through the rendering of Indo-English by Indian writers, all the way to
the nearly unreadable Scots dialect in works of late, dialect peppering
is a technique that is critical. It is critical because, after all, texts
are made of words. The degree to which a text is composed of "foreign
language" determines the degree t which a reader is potentially alienated
by it. That is to say, there is a binary at play in the use of dialect peppering.
If you are familiar with the dialect being used, then its occasional use
functions like any other immersive surface depiction; it renders the landscape
more lifelike and plausible to you. In a way, it seduces you into letting
your guard down and believing what is said in this familiar tongue. However,
if you are unfamiliar with the dialect, what results is an increased opacity
in the text. You are immersed, but immersed in the unfamiliar.

Frequency of occurrence is important. In Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar,
for example, the section labeled “Tracking with closeups (2) Yonderboy”
describes a woman going crazy and attacking one of the world’s only
Artificially Intelligent computers, Shalmaneser. While speculations are
made about her religious affiliation, it’s notable that the characters
are watching rather calmly. One of them is smoking what turns out to be
a joint. People are alarmed, but not that alarmed. What follows that description
in the text is an excerpt from a fictional book: You’re an Ignorant
by Chad C. Mulligan. The first paragraph of the text discusses
(in snotty pundit style) the etymology of the word mucker. Now,
it may or may not be apparent by this point from the excerpts you’ve
read, but a mucker is a person who behaves exactly as the woman
in the preceding scene did. Muckers are people who flip out and
get violent. Mulligan doesn’t even tell you this directly; he snipes
at etymology, and then slips into his version of a psycho-social historical
explanation of why people become muckers. It’s pretty obvious (despite
the rance and barrage of unknown words) that Mulligan is blaming overpopulation.

This example, beneath the surface, demonstrates a lot:

· First: muckers are not
uncommon in Brunner’s world (people don’t make much notice of
violence, as the preceding scene reveals, and there’s a common term
for people who go nuts in this way).
· Second: this world is overpopulated. Brunner managed to sneak in
expository material under the guise of a new word. These “new words”
don’t just carry their specific meaning: they convey the fictional
culture and world situation from which they emerge. Sure, this is a simple
point, but it’s notable that in using this approach, Brunner introduces
an important theme with elegance, considering that overpopulation turns
out to be one of the most central themes in the novel.

Gary Westfal, in an article on neologism published in Science Fiction
, makes an important point: neologism — which in science
fiction is little more than dialect peppering using snippets of imagined
future dialects — is not complete linguistic extrapolation. Writers
in general, including SF writers, only rarely create a whole new language
(as Russell Hoban did in his Riddley Walker… the other example
that comes to mind is not an SF writer but the fantasist Tolkien, although
in fact Tolkien’s use of foreign language and spelling in the text is far
less extensive than Hoban’s). This makes sense, after all, for the creation
of a new language is not only a lot of work, but also More often the technique
resembles the way many of you have used other languages, that is, sprinkling
them here and there, to vividly paint the “exotic” or “different”
(whether it’s chunks of a conversation in French or Thai, or simply the
addition of polite address suffixes like "-nim" or "-ji"
Korean and Hindi respectively). Again, the narrator is an intermediary here;
they do their best to immerse and estrange the reader at the same time,
allowing a certain percentage of unknown words to appear in texts and in
dialogue while not attempting to realistically depict the cascade of unfamiliar
language and speech that one would actually encounter if one were transported
three or four hundred years into the future.

Westfal draws the connection to colonial writing, and how a traveler might
pepper their stories with “exotic” words, to make the story
more interesting and more “convincing.” Foreign words in Realist
writing function in a very similar way to neologism in SF. However, one
step further, neologism highlights real-world linguistic change, and makes
obvious the fact that language in the real world will continue to change—and
so will the society from which is springs. Therefore it’s important
to note that these neologisms are not the Star-Trek/Star Wars technobabble
that’s supposedly a hallmark prop of the genre. While Westfal’s study
shows that the bulk of neologisms are used for objects, that is new technological
devices, he also notes that social group names are important neologisms
within texts. Brunner’s muckers and bleeders and
shiggies, Brin’s NorAChuGa, and Sterling’s
gerontocrats are all social groups, linked to social & ecological
conditions, and the context of imaginary societies which are—importantly—imaginatively
antecedent to our real one.

Finally, let’s examine the hard-sf use of documentary format.
Now, the false-documentary technique has some distinct advantages for the
SF writer. It creates a space which allows for the decanting of information,
but simultaneously creates a sort of peripheral immersiveness, in that it
assumes in its reader a minimal amount of knowledge which the reader cannot
have—because the background information is the “common sense”
of an imaginary future world. The commonsensical in the document can sometimes
be linked to ideas that are common sense in our day, but sometimes they
are based on very uncommon sense, or an completely alien ideas. In any case,
this works in a way similar to the immersiveness that goes on in the first
technique I discussed, immersive surface depiciton, except it allows for
a much more expository mode. The exposition allows the hard SF author to
get at depiction of pseudo-realist fictional futures in some way other than
using straight traditional narratives.

The most basic use of this technique is to be found in the Bruce short
story “Our Neural Chernobyl.” Here, Sterling uses the book review
as a form that allows him to write what is essentially a history (with commentary)
from a fictional future. The whole piece is in itself a document. Sterling
traces the connections between possible developments in biomedicine, but
reminds us to consider the social element; using “hackers” as
a analogy, he reminds us to consider the possible social reactions to our
technological development and the possible ramifications, considered in
the light of subcultures that emerged around developing computer technology
in our own time. This is structurally the most simple use of the documentary
form that I included in your readings package; it allows believable, immersive
exposition (history books ought to read like history books, after all),
and it allows Sterling to make retrospective commentary. In many ways, while
it’s a clever device, it’s no less clever than the older uses
of documentary format. But it works amazingly—the whole piece assumes
complete immersion in the imaginary culture where it’s produced.

Brin’s work with documentary format in Earth goes to the next level
of complexity using this technique: the main (conventionally immersive)
narrative is interspersed with a barrage of disconnected images, emails,
myths, statistics, and other clippings from the future. Brin’s most
interesting move is an examination the limits of the documentary technique:
it’s an artifice when an author uses printed text to represent the
“documents” of the future. If you examine the documents throughout
Earth you find representations of computer-conveyed documents which are
far more dynamic than are possible in our hard-copy books. The hyperlinks
in the book Earth don’t “work,” strictly speaking,
because they’re not real links. They representations of a more dynamic
system of documents available to a completely (or almost completely) digitized
culture. The most striking example of this in Earth is the news
report from Amazonia (on pages 275-77 in my paperback edition). In place
of moving images, we get bracketed descriptions of what the reported is
doing and what images appear on-screen. Unfortunately, paper-books don’t
have access to streaming video. Earth is a lot closer to a CD-ROM, the books
is composed from the imaginative place of a digitized culture (striking
in that its copyright is 1990, when such an idea had not suffused our society
as completely as it has now, nearly a decade later. In the back of the book,
Brin extols the wonders of his new “Macintosh II with four megabytes
of RAM, a forty-megabyte hard drive, laser printer, and Wordperfect software”
(680). HTTP might have been around at the time, known to a few people here
and there, but it was a few years before most of us heard about hypertext,
when AOL flooded the Internet (and the Internet, especially the Web, began
flooding us in return).

But John Brunner’s use of documentary technique is even more complete
than Brin’s. If you look at the groupings of sections in the text
draw upon video- and written-documentary forms (like we’ve seen previously
in Tracey’s work). The “tracking with closeups” sections
emulate visual camera movements and closeups; sections labelled “context”
are all text quotes from fabricated books (by proto-pundit Chad C. Mulligan);
and “the happening world” is a kind of media-barrage like we
see in commercials or on CNN these days. But the novel itself is also, in
itself, to be seen as a document. Brunner achieved the kaleidoscope that
Brin later emulated, but Brunner unified his whole novel as one gigantic,
bizarre “document” which itself mimics and attacks fragmented
futurist conceptions of the world (as forecast in the Marshall McLuhan epigraph
at the beginning of the novel). Again, the limitations of the documentary
format are underlined (and put to work as tools of estrangement) at the
same time as the format is used to create vivid, immersive worlds.

I said I that I believe that there is a political aspect to these uses
of pseudo-Realist Techniques; however, conventional definitions of “sf”
are not the paths that will take us where I’ll need to get you to,
if you’re to understand this fact. Samuel R. Delany claims that SF
depicts “the human condition,” and Damon Knight wrote that SF
is supposed to evoke, in its reader, a “sense of wonder.” Both
claims are true, but they are not necessarily the most helpful definitions;
they don’t specifically place us in a better position for understanding
what’s going on in this use of Realist Techniques to immerse and estrange.
One level deeper, Joanna Russ, brilliant feminist SF theorist, claims that
like feminism, SF suggests that “Things can be different.” Now,
this is interesting. If SF is seen in this way, as a kind of consciousness-raising
(or, as Russ put it when describing her youthful feminist thinking, "CR")
endeavour, then there’s a real political stake in believability —
one should strive to make one’s stories vivid and real, so people can see
real possibility of difference; a much higher calling that simply crafting
convincing escapist fantasies, right? However, while possibility is important,
and plays a major role in hard SF, there’s more, if we dig one last
level deeper into the question of what SF is (or can be).

Rewind to 1970. Alvin Toffler’s just published his new non-fiction
book, Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970). Since it’s
1970, nobody knows yet that this will become a closet handbook for SF, and
that the term “future shock” will appear as a sneaky homage
(or, at the very least, as an inescapable model of the future) in many SF
books including both Sterling’s Holy Fire and Brin’s
Earth. Future Shock, from the vantage point of the early
70’s, analyzes the current effects of exponentially accelerated change
on Western society with a view to its current patterns, projected onto the
future. Toffler’s thesis is that the shift going on as we become a
post-industrial culture is comparable to the historical shifts from hunter/gatherer
to agrarian society, and from agrarian to industrial society. For Toffler,
all social institutions, modes of identity-shaping, and even the structure
of our psychology are fragmenting under the pressure of this accelerated
change, because almost all of these older systems of coping evolved (or
were designed) for industrial or agrarian societies.

When we can’t cope with the pace of change, Toffler claims, we get
sick from a disease which he calls “future shock.” Aside from
physical symptoms, you get psychological ones, including paranoia, apathy,
anti-rationalist thinking, luddism, and others. What’s most pertinent
to my presentation, is his prescription for treating this “illness”:
Toffler suggests that, among other things, we must overhaul our education
system to include “the future” as a part of our imaginative

Consider the notion that the estrangement that SF readers experience by
immersion in fictional futures, mirrors Toffler’s proposed real-world
condition “future shock. We’re bombarded by sound-bytes; our
tamagotchis are disposable; I’d bet many of us have changed apartments
twice in the past four years. It struck me, reading Future Shock, that this
experience of change, is one of the central aspects of “reality”
that is privileged by hard-sf mimetics—immersive estrangement. These
“Realist-techniques” are tools of immersion and estrangement
which mimic, primarily, the experience of accelerating change. Jonathan
Franzen may be — unmercifully — considered an example of a sufferer
of Toffler’s hypothetical syndrome “future shock.”

In the face of Franzen and DeLillo’s claims that “serious reading”
is dwindling, Darko Suvin points out that that the readership of SF has
om general increased significantly throughout the 20th Century, despite
the vagaries of various publishing houses and their fickle promotions departments.
If a “serious” writer considers his or her work, as DeLillo
suggests, “a form of personal freedom,” and if these “serious”
writers really do write merely to “save themselves, to survive as
individuals,” then “serious writing” deserves nothing
more than to become obsolete. I don’t believe that all supposedly
“serious” writers think this way, of course. But what attracts
me to sf, is the fact that some of its best writers write not only to support
and save themselves, but to save humanity — and they are very serious
about this, generally. Not in some grandiose fashion; they’re merely
meme-engineers with a effective strategy of inoculation against future shock.
When a reader is drawn into this changed world — with its implied
continuity to the real one — the reader experiences a small foretaste
not of the surfaces and appearance of a “real” future, but rather
the internal “shock” of the future which characterizes how life
is becoming in our world. The point is that the reader is educated by this
experience — infected with memes that facilitate their coping with
compounding change. This is therapy! Hard Sf writers are out to infect society
with ideas and a worldview that makes Franzen’s sense that the world
is “ending” an obsolete model of thinking. We are not at the
epitome of history, we’re just at the cusp of the future. The thing
that’s propelling us there is change, and what the sf writer declares
is that change is something that we need face, that we need to learn to
cope with. Now that’s a project with scope. That is, undeniably, “serious

Appendix: Future Shock

Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970)
is a book which, at least it seems to have become practically the underground
manual for the profession of writing sf. The term “future shock”
even appears once or twice (perhaps as an homage) in both Brin’s Earth
and Sterling’s Holy Fire. It is a book which, from the
vantage point of the early 70’s, analyzes industrial society with
a view to its current patterns, projected onto the future.

Toffler stresses the following points in his analysis:

Acceleration of change has increase exponentially throughout human history.
However, the rate of change in our day has reached such a tempo (much faster
than the length of a human generation) that it has had a profound effect
on not only our social structures, but our minds and bodies. The pace of
change is still accelerating, and human adaptive strategies are no longer
useful in Western society, and will soon be completely impotent if the pace
of change continues to accelerate exponentially.

Three important consequences of this change include:

1. Increased TRANSIENCE
in our relationships with:
• our material surroundings (obsolesence)
• location and thus relationships with other people (modularity)
• organizational structures: from local to government, unable to adapt
to current life-patterns
• accelerated access to Information: publishing, fads, telecommunications
(NB!!), the arts, and language itself (increased use of neologisms is mentioned,
for example) (information overload).
2. Increasing NOVELTY
• Technological development: biotechnology/telecommunications
redefining what is “human”

• Rise of the Experience-Industry: “escape”
stressful accelerated lives; “simulated” and “live”
environments of immersive diversion (VR’s, if you will—cf. glossary).
Family Structures fragmented and experimental as
accelerated change alters personality
3. Increasing DIVERSITY
• cultural production on over-load produces a problem of overchoice
Subcults emerge preaching divergent worldviews,
and people attempt to cope with membership in various mutually exclusive
“tribal” structures
• As consensus reality collapses, styles and lifestyles
are used as exclusivist coping mechanisms that allow identity-forming in
an accelerated and post-industrial society.

Toffler then proceeds to diagnose what occurs to humans and their society
where the exponential acceleration of the rate of change passes the limits
of human adaptability it is a disease which he terms “future shock.”
Aside from the physical symptoms, there are many psychological ones, including
paranoia, apathy, retrogressive thinking, luddism, and others.

Finally, and most pertinent to my presentation, is his prescription for
treatment. His section on Strategies for Survival urges people
to rethink their time-orientation to include the future and what it is bound
to bring, through revision of education systems, the rethinking of development,
marketing, distribution, and control, of technologies in two especially
pertinent chapters on the development of “Coping mechanisms”,
and “The Strategy of Social Futurism.”

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