More on Sociology and Science Fiction

by Henry Farrell on December 9, 2010

“Paul McAuley on sf and society today”:

bq. … something similar should have happened to science fiction, shouldn’t it? After all, catastrophes and sudden shifts in perception are part of its stock in trade. But instead of confronting Reality A, the genre has, in the first decade of the 21st century, too often turned to its own comforting version of Reality B: retreating into pleasant little pulpish daydreams in which starships still effortlessly span a galaxy where a guy can turn a profit, or where technology is as controllable as clockwork and the actions of individuals can still make a mark on history. …

bq. I prefer the point of view of William Gibson, who has pointed out that the only way to tackle the place we’re in now is to use the science-fiction toolkit – the tropes, images and metaphor developed from the crude flint hammers of pulp by decades of cooperative effort and argument. If other writers are using the science-fiction toolkit to evolve new kinds of stories in the present’s different air, that’s exactly what we should be doing, too. Forget the past. Especially the pasts of all those great glorious science-fiction futures, lost when it all changed. Look again at the future. Embrace change. Let go. If only. If only.

And “Cosma Shalizi riffs on Ernest Gellner”:

bq. It was pretty plain by, oh, 1848 at the latest that the kind of scientific knowledge we have now, and the technological power that goes with it, radically alters, and even more radically expands, the kind of societies are possible, lets us live our lives in ways profoundly different from our ancestors. (For instance, we can have affluence and liberty.) How then should we live? becomes a question of real concern, because we have, in fact, the power to change ourselves, and are steadily accruing more of it.

bq. This, I think, is the question at the heart of science fiction at its best. (This meshes with Jo Walton’s apt observation that one of the key aesthetic experiences of reading SF is having a new world unfold in one’s mind.) Now it is clear that the vast majority of it is rehashing familiar themes and properties, and transparently projecting the social situation of its authors. I like reading that anyway, even when I can see how it would be generated algorithmically (or even by a finite-state machine). … But sometimes, SF can break beyond that, to approach the question What should we make of our ourselves? with the imagination, and vertigo, it deserves.

Discuss – but try not to get bogged down in the finer nuances of the etymology of ‘reticent’ please …

The State of Statelessness

by Henry Farrell on December 9, 2010

I’ve written a “long review essay”: looking at Benedict Anderson’s _Under Three Flags_ and James Scott’s _The Art of Not Being Governed_ which has just gone up at _The American Interest._ In an ideal world, I’d have preferred to have written a bit more on Scott (whose book is a classic, and beautifully written to boot), and a bit less on Anderson (whose book has much of interest, but is not a new Imagined Communities), but the Anderson book fit better with the purpose of the review, which was to think about the prospects for anarchism in the modern world. I’m grateful to Scott McLemee for reading an early draft, and rescuing me from error on a few key points (Scott is absolved from any further responsibility though, and likely does not agree with everything I have to say).

bq. On August 8, 1897, Michele Angiolillo, an Italian anarchist, shot Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, the Prime Minister of Spain. Cánovas had dominated Spanish politics for decades, even during periods when he was nominally out of office, helping shore up Spain’s tottering monarchy and its possession of Cuba and the Philippines through torture and wide-scale military repression. Spanish imperialism in the Americas died with him: Cuba and the Philippines soon drifted out of Spain’s sphere of control and into that of the United States. A bullet from an anarchist’s pistol had changed global politics.