03 July 2009

In Soviet Russia, worker lead you!

Since SF society has come up, I feel the need to look closer at the aspects of what I have read, and maybe introduce some of my favorite books as well.

The issues that fiction of any kind faces are issues of precognition - nothing in the future can be known, and, since people tend to overestimate effects in the near future and underestimate them in the further future, we end up with a variety of societies that are all very interesting and all likely wrong. Infinite variations on the "In the future, everyone will...." theme, commonly built upon the personal preference--or personal fear--of the author. Heinlein's future, as addressed before, is often one of enlightened, individualist, psychologically stable polyglot adults, which very much reflects his views; Alan Moore always manages to work in the triumph of his brand of anarchy over the illiberal fascist governments of his nightmares; and Iain M. Banks writes of the new liberal frontier of free love, infinite free time, and acceptance of everything in his Culture books.

Banks in particular is worth spending time on. I adore his books, despite his absurd Scots liberalism, precisely because his society is so complete, and utterly dependent on his technologies; it literally could not exist today, at least not on Earth. Murderers are punished by drones that follow them around passively for the rest of their life, more or less sentencing them to a lifetime--a potentially infinitely extended lifetime--of being socially outcast, as everyone knows exactly what that drone means. Work does not exist, and everyone has infinite free time to spend doing almost literally whatever they want. Actually, work does exist, but only because people need to feel useful, and so, the great AIs that run everything cheerfully run about the galaxy with 'crews' and poll them constantly as to what to do next. Voting is done by those who are directly affected by whatever is put to a vote, and the only failures of the Culture are caused by ignorant meddling in societies that they fail to understand.

I refer to him because of this: there are no 'laborers' in the Culture. AIs have rights even while being potentially godlike in their power, and create machines and processes at the drop of a hat, and in the time it takes for it to drop, that care for everything. This is admittedly where technology becomes very much a front for magic from the modern human perspective, but I feel that it illustrates an important point--that labor is nothing more than Work, which is the amount of energy needed to accomplish something. With virtually infinite power at their hands, the Culture needs no laborers. One AI ship in particular spends its time recreating vast, historically accurate panoramas of ancient battles with the (waivered!) bodies of hibernating individuals within its holds, and is particularly proud of its solution to simulating smoke--using a repulsor field on each individual particle!

We, on the other hand, certainly will not be facing this particular form of utopia any time soon. That said, we do have steadily increasing amounts of energy available, and steadily decreasing amounts of laborers are needed. American farm production manages to increase even while the number of workers in it decreases drastically; the number of people it takes to make a car, and the time it takes to do so, have both decreased greatly from the days of Ford...all because labor that once was done by men can now be done by the intelligence of men, though machines and innovation. The Culture remains distant, of course, because at certain points manpower is still more cost efficient than mechanical labor, but the thought is there. Banks' genius lies not in predicting the future, but instead in extrapolating along an exciting path.

Heinlein's ideas in Stranger in a Strange Land are still rather strange to us today, but in different ways. His larger message is perhaps not so strange, though, in the light of what happened in the 60s and 70s, and his work in Starship Troopers, while very much outwardly perpendicular to Stranger, follows a similar path, where what was controversial then is perhaps not so much now. Alan Moore's visions of the future are nothing if not 'wrong;' he himself has stated that V for Vendetta was based on a somewhat gloomy prediction after the election of Thatcher and a right-wing government that he sees as being overly pessimistic and reactionary, but even then, his vision has aspects that delve into the very matter of the soul, and extract meanings that can be taken on a small scale. Banks, well, he wants most of what the Culture stands for, and while his future is not THE future, hopes that he can spread his general ideas when they are ripe for being spread.


Adam Wykes said...

There are some other works that offer interesting sociological portrayals of the future as well:

The Diamond Age
Dune (don't forget the classics)
I Am Robot

In the Diamond Age, Stephenson extrapolates A future where nanotechnology allows a sort of cornucopia very similar to the one found in Banks' Culture, but lacks the powerful AI needed to run it. Human "engineers" design this nanotechnology, forming a sort of power elite that nonetheless is soon overcome by the effective education of the lower class. Resulting class warfare promises the redistribution of wealth at a much lower but more widespread level.

Dune is a bit more mainstream, but still does interesting work portraying theocracy, religious societies, and civilization as tied together by a ruling elite of spacefarers and spice-haulers.

I Am Robot hardly needs any introduction - it introduces robots into society.

The STALKER games build a SciFi world where something inexplicable has occurred, triggering a technological gold rush. The various responses of the factions in this series largely mirror the basic approaches to SF that authors and audiences can take... more on that in another post.

Geoffrey Wykes said...

I am Robot's society is less a vision, I think, than an analysis...but it fits in, yeah.

As for Diamond Age, well, let's just say that I was so put off by Snow Crash that I refuse to read much more early Stephenson.

Adam Wykes said...

Haha, funny you should say that... I actually didn't like Diamond Age because it wasn't very like Snow Crash - so perhaps you'd like it alot more than I did. For my say, the weakness of Diamond Age was that it was plotted poorly. Stephenson was so eager to show how future education might change the balance of power that he forgot to tie up loose ends or focus on the motivations of the other characters.