The Future Finds Its Own Uses for Things

by Henry Farrell on November 15, 2021

So this event on the relationship between social science and science fiction went live late last week. It has Paul Krugman, Ada Palmer, Jo Walton, Noah Smith and … me. I’ve been wanting to say something a little bit more about this relationship for a while. Here is one take, which surely misses out on a lot, but maybe captures some stuff too.

The way I think about the relationship between social science and science fiction stems from a class of a dialectic between two of my favorite quotes. On the one hand, David Hume on the lessons of human history.

Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them

On the other, Italo Calvino describing a game of chess between emperor and traveler in Invisible Cities, as translated by William Weaver.

At times [Kublai Khan] thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to comparison with the game of chess … By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes; it was reduced to a square of planed wood.

Then Marco Polo spoke: Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods, ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist. … Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was once a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down

The Hume quote captures a particular – and very common – way of thinking about the world. It suggests that beneath the vast procession of history, the extraordinary profusion of ways in which human beings organize their society, their politics and their economies, lies a hidden and coherent unity. Hume emphasizes the constant principles of human nature – other social scientists have other notions about what the underlying unity involves and entails. But from this perspective all the ways in which things are different across time and space are really illustrations of how they are really deeply the same. This is a powerful lens for understanding the world and perhaps changing it.

When Marco Polo counters Kublai Khan, he points towards quite the opposite phenomenon; how an apparent unity -an abstract of plane forces – can be opened up to disclose the quiddity of things. A chessboard is a plane divided into sixty-four squares – yet it is also something physical, made out of joined-together pieces of wood, each with its own history. The apparently all encompassing abstract unity conceals a world of variation. Unless you understand how the squares were formed: a year of drought; a frosty night; a caterpillar’s appetite; you cannot understand how the chessboard came to be as it is.

It is a little too simple to say that social science is on Hume’s side of the dialectic, while science fiction is on Marco Polo’s. What makes more sense, I think is that very good social scientists and very good science fiction writers each work the tensions between the two understandings of the world, more from the one side than the other.

Good science fiction (at least as I understand it as a reader) starts as much from a curiosity about intelligent beings, and how they might vary under different circumstances, as it does about the universe. As Gene Wolfe has his narrator, Severian describe it, in one of the many metafictional moments in his Book of the New Sun:

I fell to thinking of the worlds that circled those suns. All of us know they exist, many being mere endless plains of rock, others spheres of ice or of tindery hills where lava rivers flow, as is alleged of Abaddon; but many others being worlds more or less fair, and inhabited by creatures either descended from the human stock or at least not wholly different from ourselves. At first I thought of green skies, blue grass, and all the rest of the childish exotica apt to inflict the mind that conceives of other than Urthly worlds.

But in time I tired of those puerile ideas, and began in their place to think of societies and ways of thought wholly different from our own, worlds in which all the people, knowing themselves descended from a single pair of colonists, treated one another as brothers and sisters, worlds where there was no currency but honor, so that everyone worked in order that he might be entitled to associate himself with some man or woman who had saved the community, worlds in which the long war between mankind and the beasts was pursued no more. With these thoughts came a hundred or more new ones – how justice might be meted out when all loved all, for example; how a beggar who retained nothing but his humanity might beg for honor, and the ways in which people who would kill no sentient animal might be shod and fed.

These multitudes of different possible worlds, as Severian later discovers, are ways of approaching our own, just as the many invisible cities that Marco Polo describes are all variations on Venice. Yet the writer would stumble without some understanding of the underlying principles that generate variations that are plausible, interesting and satisfying, even if sometimes initially strange or counterintuitive. Hume’s dictum then has value for the science fiction writer, in helping both to identify the broad boundary conditions past which they cannot easily go, and in providing fuel for the engine of imagination, by pointing towards new and interesting possible variations that might otherwise go unconsidered. Good social science, like good history, is one of the trade secrets of science fiction.

Equally, the social scientist who is looking to explain broader patterns can learn enormously from science fiction. Science fiction isn’t a series of social scientific thought experiments, but an effort to grapple imaginatively with the enormous variety of ways that people live their lives. That curiosity and imaginative concern with variety is a necessary tempering force. Social scientists, when they become unmoored, tend towards overweening pomposity and bland abstraction. And not only do social scientists need to recognize the limits of their explanations, but they need their own kind of imagination. Dani Rodrik is good on this – economists require models, which are abstractions of a messy social situation, but understanding which model to apply when is an art not a science. Coming up with new and useful models is a creative endeavor that is not entirely unrelated to writing good science fiction.

At the event, Jo and Ada discussed one of the things that social scientists can learn from science fiction. As Jo pointed out, it would be weird and unconvincing to have a future society in which something from today’s society persisted completely unchanged. Many of the political, economic and social arrangements that we take as being entirely solid and fixed are temporary stable states in a seething flux. And as Ada’s examples from Roman history and her own novels illustrate, things can survive into new eras, but they are likely to take on completely meanings, and serve radically different purposes as the world around them changes. The future finds its own uses for things. Thinking about our current institutions from the vantage point of an imaginary futurity can help shake up the imagination of social scientists, rendering the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

Again, Wolfe is good here. His far future novels deliberately reverse Proust’s repurposing of the surviving fragments of a feudal order in the modern world to capture an alien mode of thought. Wolfe – who is profoundly influenced by Proust – reverses the telescope. He tells us how the shattered fragments of modernity (a photograph of an astronaut on the moon; the destruction of the Monitor) would appear were they stranded as remnants in a future feudal order.

“Not entirely unrelated to” is quite different from “identical to.”Science fiction writers and social scientists – at least according to my argument here – both seek to inform, but in different ways. Social scientists often aspire to prediction (hedged around with caveats and hesitations), and usually aspire to explanation. It is nearly a cliche among science fiction writers that they aren’t in the prediction game. In one famous set-piece in The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin describes a means of fully accurate prediction only to emphasize how utterly irrelevant it is to the things that are really important (in fairness, this probably has at least as much to do with her Taoism as her philosophy of SF).

Proper SF isn’t simply the working out of inexorable social forces, but the interaction of these forces with the desires and actions of human beings. Michael Swanwick says that the difference between fantasy and science fiction is that the first has mystery at its heart, while the second takes place in a knowable universe. That may be right – but it shouldn’t aspire to taking place in a known universe, or it wouldn’t be fiction any more. A vanishing small number of people want to read novels about a universe where Hari Seldon’s predictions keep on working out like clockwork. On the contrary, the more convincingly a social science book reduces a set of apparently different phenomena to a common underlying explanation, the better and more exciting it is likely to be to its presumed audience.

So science fiction and social science won’t and shouldn’t converge. Each has different ends; each is working one end of a dialectic. But there is good reason why many good social scientists read science fiction, and many good science fiction writers read social science. They have a lot to learn from each other.

Postscript: Obviously, I am leaving out a lot out – most obviously the relationship between science fiction and the natural sciences (I am as much a sucker for the fictional deployment of weird-but-convincing-sounding physics or detailed areology as the next geek). Also: my simplifications are at the least crude and potentially seriously misleading. Certain social sciences – e.g. cultural anthropology – complicate the simple dichotomy I am trying to draw. But if an essay didn’t have flaws, blind spots, mistakes and questionable contentions, it wouldn’t be worth arguing with – so fire away as you like.



alfredlordbleep 11.15.21 at 8:17 pm

Trivial, non-substantive review
Interesting intro to the personalities featured which carried me through the whole hour when the comments themselves (versus reading a typescript) wouldn’t have.

Henry was having such a good time I had too see when that slackens at least. The Noah guy seemed like an undergrad (until he spoke) in his dorm room (until his feed pitched wildly as if on a houseboat).

Paul was, as I have seen him before, shifty (but then that’s somebody multitasking).



Marcos 11.15.21 at 8:27 pm

Really enjoyed that, thanks Henry.

P/S: possible missing “different” in “completely different meanings” below, in para 15

…but they are likely to take on completely meanings, and serve radically different purposes as the world around them changes.


Tm 11.16.21 at 11:12 am

“perhaps it was once a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves”

My understanding is that they didn’t have much of a grasp of metamorphosis and forest ecology in the 13th century. Using anachronisms to make a point about about history… not my taste.


Henry 11.16.21 at 1:52 pm

Invisible Cities gets worse. A thirteenth century traveler describing cities with advertising signs. Grandfather clocks! Radar towers !! Perhaps the publisher ought to put a fat red warning sticker on the cover, so that those with refined historical tastes and delicate constitutions can circumnavigate this pit of depravity without risking accidental exposure to the promiscuous horrors it contains.


Theophylact 11.16.21 at 3:46 pm

Tm: “Using anachronisms to make a point about about history… not my taste.”
Then you probably wouldn’t like T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, either.


LFC 11.16.21 at 8:47 pm

From the OP:
Hume’s dictum then has value for the science fiction writer, in helping both to identify the broad boundary conditions past which they cannot easily go….

The Hume quotation, taken in isolation, says nothing about what the “constant and universal principles of human nature” are, and thus I don’t really see how this quotation, again taken in isolation, establishes any particular boundary conditions.

Re Hume saying that “the moral philosopher” (a phrase which, in eighteenth-century terminology, of course included what we call social scientists) “fixes the principle of his science” in much the same way “the natural philosopher” does. As the OP suggests, at least at the very end, some contemporary social scientists, such as those of a (vaguely or otherwise) positivistic bent, believe this, and others don’t.

Btw, what should a social scientist do who wants to expand his/her/their imagination but doesn’t happen to like science fiction very much? Well, that person could read ordinary fiction — likely just as good for the purpose in most respects. (I’m talking about a certain kind of fiction, just as the OP is talking about a certain kind of science fiction.) Whether most working social scientists have either time or inclination to do that is at best an open question, I’d guess.


Tm 11.16.21 at 9:34 pm

Thanks for the warning Henry. I had no idea how bad things have become.


MisterMr 11.16.21 at 9:58 pm

In some sense, fiction is based on the principle that the human mind works always the same, so that for example people in a SF setting fall in love in the same way people in the 21st century, and people in the stone age fell in love in the same way.

If this wasn’t true at least in part, it would be impossible to immedesimate in the characters.

So in some sense it is the opposite, it is fiction that uses the most abstract singular model, and social sciences that use many ad hoc different models.

Also fiction is not science, this is obvious but I feel that it needs to be restated because many people apparently believe that social sciences aren’t much more scientific than fiction, but this is not the case.


Alan White 11.16.21 at 11:32 pm

Fascinating OP and some good comments. As for the difference between SF and fantasy, I taught the idea of logical possibility this way in terms of literature: there is real-world possibility (and fact) that science and history (e.g.) sort out as in bounds or just out of bounds for that label, but outside that it is a sliding-scale for closer or more-remote logical possibility as it ranges away from real-world possibility. Historical fiction begins close to real-world possibility but strays from it the farther it includes fictional elements. Romances (pulp type) stray farther as well as they distort social interactions and expectations. SF can operate very close to real-world possibility (Sagan’s Contact) but stray farther as it includes dubious logical possibility (Star Trek’s warp speed) and eventually feathers off farther toward fantasy as it includes dubious possibilities about human nature (Star War’s Jedis). Fantasy starts to kick in along that same extreme in in much the same ways, ranging from Harry Potter to a more extreme (I’d say) Alice in Wonderland, which is a great example of event sequences that are logically possible but mostly in utter disregard for event sequences that are real-world possible.


MFB 11.17.21 at 9:12 am

A very large part of science fiction concerns replicating contemporary social circumstances in a somewhat cognitively estranged way (thank you, Dr Suvin) by using technological images for symbolical purposes and then validating this through one of the ideologies of science. So, for instance, in the 1930s one saw the way in which technological power was overwhelming humanity and giving gigantic power to authoritarian figures, through such images as spaceships and varieties of atomic power. In the 1950s one saw the way in which traditional Western liberalism was being displaced by technocratic values, through such images as nuclear war and interstellar colonialism (nuclear war usually either represented the death of liberalism, or else the future in which technocracy would destroy itself). In the 1980s one saw the way in which cybernetics (mechanical and biological) was supplanting conventional humanism, through such images as artificial brains and cyborgs.

It is all quite interesting, but one problem is that it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Looking back at science fiction, its sociological perspectives as well as its technical perspectives seem to date very quickly. Reading 1980s science fiction, for instance, tells one much more about what the intelligentsia of the time anticipated, on a rather crude level, than about what was actually going to happen. It’s a system of mapping the expected and the existing mental constructs, rather than of exploring alternative possibilities. (Perhaps that’s why your discussion had Krugman as moderator – his vision of the future is always a clumsy extrapolation of the present rooted in ideas familiar to his social class, which is understandable in an economist, but also disqualifies him from ever generating any really interesting notions.)

And I’m saying this as someone who’s been a science fiction fanatic from the age of twelve, and who did all his postgraduate work in successive eras of science fiction.


MFB 11.17.21 at 9:13 am

Oh, before I go away, nice ironic Gibsonian metatextual title!


Sashas 11.17.21 at 3:45 pm

@MisterMr 8: As I understand it, Science Fiction asks “what if?” and then generally holds everything else constant (unless affected by the what-if). Many works of science fiction use very narrow what-ifs, but calling this use of the abstract singular model when the what-if is so central to the point of the work seems incorrect.

To your specific example about people falling in love, I offer Stranger in a Strange Land, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and Blindsight as tentative counterexamples off the top of my head. Many SF works don’t choose to make a what-if about how love works, but it’s hardly universal.

@MFB 10: See above about the importance of the what-if in Science Fiction. We can easily find examples where a work ends up showing how little really changes when we explore a particular what-if (Oath of Fealty comes to mind, I’m sure there are hundreds or thousands of other good examples). I’m sure you can find examples where the author’s intent was first and foremost to create an estranged copy of the present, some sort of thinly-disguised parody. I’m having trouble coming up with an example, but I certainly buy that they exist. A very large part of SF though? That I have some trouble believing.

Regarding dated perspectives, I think it’s worthwhile to do a little sanity check. Taking 1980s SF as an example, and incorporating the literary maxim that 90% of everything is junk, how many different what-ifs, different possible futures remain written down? How many different possible futures are there? If SF of the time was a fair sampling of possible futures, how many works would we expect to be predictive?

My suspicion is that you’re judging SF by the 90% rather than by the 10%, but it sounds like you probably know more about the history of SF than I do so I’m curious what conclusion you reach if you take that into account.


Zinsky 11.17.21 at 10:25 pm

Excellent writing and lots of thought nuggets to chew on over the next few days. Thank you! I read a lot of science fiction (Ursula LeGuin, Heinlein, et al) as a youth, but not so much now as an older (60+) adult. I guess my imagination has dimmed with age, like so much else…


alfredlordbleep 11.17.21 at 11:25 pm

Can’t help popping up with this (over-)assertive quote
stumbled on a few hours ago
Human nature does not change, or, at any rate,
history is too short for any changes to be perceptible.
The earliest known specimens of art and literature
are still comprehensible. The fact that wc can
understand them all and can recognize in some of
them an unsurpassed artistic excellence is proof
enough that not only men’s feelings and instincts,
but also their intellectual and imaginative powers,
were in the remotest times precisely what they are
now. In the fine arts it is only the convention, the
form, the incidentals that change : the fundamentals
of passion, of intellect and imagination remain

It is the same with the arts of life as with the
fine arts. Conventions and traditions, prejudices and
ideals and religious beliefs, moral systems and codes
of good manners, varying according to the geographical
and historical circumstances, mould into differcnt
forms the unchanging material of human instinct,
passion, and desire. . .

in Vanity Fair


tm 11.18.21 at 9:36 am

“The earliest known specimens of art and literature are still comprehensible.”

This is rather debatable. We always try to interpret prehistoric art in terms familiar to us. But we simply don’t know whether our attempts at comprehension have much in common with the way people did actually think at the time.


Phil 11.18.21 at 12:06 pm

Michael Swanwick says that the difference between fantasy and science fiction is that the first has mystery at its heart, while the second takes place in a knowable universe.

Curiously, this is pretty much the opposite of the definition suggested to me – and defended quite persuasively – by Adam Roberts. Per ARRR, to write fantasy is to write maps and timelines and genealogies and grammars, or at least to write the kind of fiction that could usefully be supplemented by same. (Discworld is a case in point – think of TP’s long resistance to having any kind of map of DW, then his concession that the city of Ankh-Morpork was perhaps the kind of place that could be mapped, and then the appearance of the very map he’d said there would never be. And thus Discworld became Fantasy – or, perhaps, embarked on a process of turning into Fantasy which was only really completed with Raising Steam.)

So Fantasy is, to some extent, straightforward: imagine your world, imagine the characters in it, tell their story. (That’s not to say that Fantasy’s easy, of course – thinking up an entire imagined world can take a lifetime.) As for science fiction – but it depends what you mean by science fiction. SF doesn’t go in much for genealogies or grammars, but it’s far from immune to maps and timelines of imaginary places and times (or to the kind of precisely-dated and -placed narratives which could benefit from maps and timelines). It follows that, whatever it was that (say) Isaac Asimov thought he was up to when he wrote the original Foundation trilogy, it was in fact Fantasy.

SF, in ARRR’s admittedly idiosyncratic (but persuasive) definition, stands precisely for those stories that have mystery at [their] heart; stories that make perfect sense as you read but ultimately, wondrously and horrifically, cannot be. SF in this understanding is an art of the sublime, with a definite kinship to horror (particularly to liminal figures like Robert Aickman). The greats of sf, thus understood, aren’t Asimov and Clarke and William Gibson and Iain M. Banks but Ballard and Dick and Christopher Priest and M. John Harrison.

I have to say, the more I think about it the more this makes sense to me (although it may just align well with my taste in sf). But perhaps I just haven’t read the right Fantasy.


MisterMr 11.18.21 at 5:31 pm

@Sashas 12

Of the novels you cite I only read Stranger in a strange land.
I read it a lot of years ago but I think that the logic is that some things that we usually take for granted and istinctive (e.g. family structure) are in reality social constructs that could be changed; however IIRC the novel traces a big line between earthlings and martians: because of their different nature they think differently, and the protagonist, who is an earthling but martian-parented, sucks at being a martian but is able to become an efficient earthling quite fast (it’s a big part of the novel but not a really long period in realistic terms).

I think that it is very difficult to tell what of our emotions are instictive and what culturally influenced, and how the two things interact: some writer will unconsciously project their own cultural perspective in any setting, whereas others will try to hace characters that think differently, but it is difficult.

That said, my point is that novels will (usually) explain a certaing setting, situation or historical period from the subjective point of view of the characters, and mostly in an emotive way: this is what I mean for a “singular model”.


John Quiggin 11.19.21 at 2:54 am

TM @15 We don’t even know if prehistoric paintings and so on were thought of as art. Our current ideas about art mostly date from C19.


steven t johnson 11.19.21 at 5:09 pm

Finally found time to view the whole talk. In some ways, it’s good that the professionals did so much talking. But Jo Walton is largely a fantasist. As an English writer she isn’t a staple in public libraries (near me) so I’ve never actually finished her alternate history of WWII or the Just City trilogy. Nor have I finished Palmer’s series. The discussion provoked an awful lot of thoughts, as it ranged fairly widely, so this is absurdly long.

Perhaps the most striking thing is the nearly total focus on worldbuilding for novels. First, it seems to me the Golden Age of SF was the heyday of fiction magazines, which meant, mostly, short stories. The Golden Age is arbitrarily limited I think to a few years before WWII, when paper shortages etc. put a temporary crimp in sales. I think in most senses the “Golden Age” continued well into the Fifties. Heinlein breaking into the Saturday Evening Post may be the peak? The decline of the magazines I think paralleled the decline of radio, maybe for the same reasons. But talking about worldbuilding for short stories is not helpful I think.

But, the social science fiction novel was well represented then. Philip K. Dick’s Solar
Lottery, the collaborations of Pohl and Kornbluth in particular. Presidential Year is a near-future novel and like all near-future novels uses SF techniques and fits very nicely in with things like Space Merchants. Near future thrillers are technically SF, by the way. But the more plausible they are, the more likely they are apt to be deemed “realistic.” Even the less plausible, i.e., more romantic ones, may be simply grandfathered in, so to speak, using the loophole of willing suspension of disbelief. Nonetheless, nobody knows the future, so near future thrillers, plausible and well-researched or not, are still using SF techniques.

The cautionary tale that extrapolates something now to warn against a wrong path is however fairly dead at the moment. There is no “if this goes on…” on any appreciable scale. It is almost all where the fictional hell is merely the now unmasked. The current glut of dystopias is almost all about how people are shit, with superficial details changed for copyright purposes. Palmer complains about the simplistic motivations, correctly I believe. She acutely cites Orwell’s O’Brien as a dreadful exemplar. The real problem is, Orwell will not be accepted as writing a hysterical anti-Communist tract. So long as his malignant nonsense is foisted onto impressionable minds as deeply wise and good, damaged minds will write badly. (In my opinion obviously.)

The emphasis on futurology stems I think from the desire to justify SF. Now I believe that one thing about SF is that much of it accepts the simple truth: Tomorrow Will Be Different. (Mack Reynolds almost got it, when he titled one of his books Tomorrow Might Be Different.) This is the experience of most people, though apparently many, if not most, find this a distressing one. Literature does not generally accept this. In many respects it appears that only eternal human nature is worthy of literature, all else is dross. (Not being so sure human nature is that much of a thing, I clearly am not literary, so be warned.)

Real futurology is very difficult. Palmer’s flying cars never seemed to me to justify the world as university departments, which seemed more like a takeoff on Veronica Roth’s the world as high school cliques than a genuine extrapolation. Frankly I have no idea how anybody could build enough parking lots to accommodate global peak demand. I do imagine that the locals would make sure to lock all the restrooms, though. I can’t imagine how you could keep teenagers from the rest of the planet from breaking in to swipe your liquor.

There is a view of SF and fantasy as deconstruction. I suppose the classic example of deconstruction is The Invisible Man, which thoroughly demolishes power fantasies of invisibility. The thing is, it does so by using more science, not less. The modern notion of deconstruction tends to think that fantasy can do the job. Hence, we get the half of Dune done under the impression that Paul Atreides demolishes messiah myths. Except of course—however controversial the “of course” may be claimed, I’m right on this, sorry—giving your protagonist real messianic powers cannot truly deconstruct.

This I think harks to the difference between SF and fantasy. Both have something fantastic, impossible, somewhere in them, even if it’s only an impossible knowledge of the day after tomorrow. But in SF, this fantastic is somehow supposed to be natural, connected to now. (Alternate history connects to the real past at some time. Even imaginary countries are supposed to be on this continent or ocean!) This is in one sense a purely stylistic distinction. But in writing, should style be considered fundamental? The notion that it’s all the same is nonsense, because good style in SF is therefore fundamentally different from good style in fantasy. Despite people who hate big words whining about dry science, the science in SF is always fictional. But some is good fictional science, and others not. Some types of impossible things are not even supposed to be natural, not even rational. They may be fantasy, but some of that is what I think of as absurdism, implicit claims that reality is not really rational. (I disagree.)

Another way of putting it, is: Fantasy is a mirror and SF is a window. If you are ignorant, there is only darkness outside, nothing to see except your reflection inside the window. That’s where SF and fantasy overlap. Fantasy is a mirror, because the imaginary world of fantasy is always wish-fulfilment in the end. You may think good fantasy is that which takes an honest look in the mirror and I might be tempted to agree with you but I’ve no idea how to support this notion.

If you do know things, that is, there’s something to see outside, then you can have SF. If you look outside the mirror, the real world is full of things, hence the concern of so much of SF with the furniture of the world. Technology is often an anarchist curse word, but “technology” is always social arrangements as well as hardware. When you say “technology” you are covertly saying, “way of life.” In my view, way of life has everything to do with how you think. But that, amazingly, is a controversial notion in the social sciences, whatever discreet footnotes in gratifyingly limited circulation academic journals imply. [One of the idle thoughts about information technology and social science, especially political science, is that nationalism in the age of mechanical translation will inevitably change. But, how?]

As for the impossibility of knowing how people will think in the future, it’s like not knowing how you personally will think in the future. Our own experience is that we don’t think the same as we did when we were children. And our experience is that foreigners don’t think the same. The idea that people in the past thought the same is as much an illusion as the though that we are the same people as when we were young or that foreigners are people. Sometimes the continuity is falsified, to project backwards into the past today. This is not so common in history, though the Butterfield case is a striking counter-example.* But religion is almost always imagined to be the same. Descent relationships are also almost always imagined to imply sameness.

The thing here is, technically, SF and historical fiction are the same thing. The basic problems, whether to stick to fact as much as possible or to falsify it for a more satisfying narrative in particular is perhaps the writer’s first job.

Perhaps the second is whether to go for the grand narrative or the personal one. The ideological prescription against an intelligible history, aka grand narrative, weakens historical fiction as much as it weakens historiography I think. But the real problem in fiction is that the personal narrative so often inadequate. Part of the problem is the inability to look outside at the whole world. People do not exist apart from setting, both natural and social, living a collective life as well as an interior one.

Another part is the tendency for personal narratives to devolve into movie/comic book/book derived fantasies. The current fad for brutalizing fact, as in the execrable The Favourite, is powered I suspect by narcissism. The reviewer’s rage at the detested “biopic” is part of that too. It appears this contempt for reality is conceived as being justified as expressing higher truths…but none of the pudding I’ve tasted proves that.

I don’t think SF has to be justified as futuruology. I think literature’s fixation on the imaginary eternal needs to be justified, though. Obviously I’m out of that conversation.

By the way, Krugman is both right and wrong about the Foundation adaptation. Asimov’s original trilogy gets a lot of stick for psychohistory from a certain ilk. Bret Deveraux at his blog was inspired to genuine stupidity recently, for example. But as I said already, all SF science is fiction. Psychohistory is good style. It’s the Mule who was’t good style. The Mule was comic book BS when he was first written and it’s gotten worse sense. Krugman is absolutely correct that doubling down on this mistake makes the Foundation adaptation bad. He’s incorrect in omitting Asimov’s role. The new TV series could have done some smarter things, like explaining that the key reason the Foundation can’t have psychohistory in hand is because, different people would try to use it to change the future to their satisfaction, and the clash of plans would mean, no plan could succeed. That would actually inspire a new direction with the Mule that makes more sense.

I don’t know if Krugman also objects to the childish views of “religion” in the TV series. But I think Asimov would have. His self-satisfaction at his success=”we” make our world that gave us Golan Trevize, the one man determining the fate of the galaxy would not I think have driven him to endorse the crazed religions glorified in the series. The obscene princess of the church killed in the end by the emperor was treated by the series as a noble marty, instead of what she was. (Casting a black woman as the mouthpiece for this irrational twaddle was not a good idea I think, any more than casting the openly gay Lee Pace as the perversion Empire was.)


steven t johnson 11.19.21 at 5:20 pm

*Herbert Butterfield, of The Whig Interpretation of History infamy. Except that he is not infamous, despite the fact that E.H. Carr long ago pointed out that Butterfield couldn’t actually cite examples from previous historiography! This is a case of someone imposing a current narrative on the past. Not a grand one, but a personal one, full of invidious attribution of motives to unnamed targets. If anything, this narrative is more alive than ever.


Jim Harrison 11.19.21 at 10:52 pm

Writing history is also world building although one of the genre rules is that your narrative isn’t supposed to literally contradict the vestiges of the past. We don’t know what shape a future society might take, but knowing that wouldn’t make the projected future any less of a fiction than, say, the works of R.R.Palmer.

I’m not a novelist, but I am an insomniac. For years I’ve passed the sleepless hours by imaging a version of myself returning by some eldritch means to the night of December 22, 1959 where I attempt to explain the future to my family. Turns out to be incredibly difficult as much because of how hard it is reconstruct their perspective on things as it is to summarize what’s going on in 2021. I’ve tried audiovisual methods, but my parents are not only scandalized by the sexual and racial content of TV shows and movies. They have a terrible time following the plots. (If you’re old enough, try screening the Wire to the ghost of your grandma.) What really makes my little exercise a terrible way of falling asleep is that the fact that I was 14 in 1959 doesn’t help because I don’t understand where I was coming from then any better than I understand the others—every memoir is at best a collection of Jakata tales about previous lives, albeit lives lived by people with the same Social Security number.


LFC 11.20.21 at 4:42 pm

Jim Harrison @21

I hope you’re not suggesting that a work of history is a species of fiction. It isn’t. A historical narrative has to impose a somewhat artificial order on its subject, but it is rooted in fact, however mediated by interpretation and selection. I haven’t read R.R. Palmer, but his work is not fiction, whether one agrees with his interpretations or not. (I’m aware of course that history can be read as literature, see some of John Clive’s work for instance, or perhaps more fashionably Hayden White, but that doesn’t alter the point.)


JimV 11.20.21 at 5:22 pm

I tend to agree with Michael Swanwick. In every fantasy I’ve read, arrows fly up and then fall down. Seeds are planted and grow into plants. Rain falls, the moon rises, etc., and apparently nobody has figured out any of the causes of these phenomena, after thousands of years. It is all due to “magic”.

I still enjoy some of them, but that seems ultimately a fatal flaw to me. I mean, look at all the harm magical thinking does, e.g. anti-vaxxers. Of course, a lot that is called science-fiction is actually fantasy. Take “Star Wars”–please.

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