The Collapse of Possibility: The Problem of Aesthetics and Ontology in Science Fiction
On this blog, I mention Mark Fisher a lot – I've also referenced my love of speculative fiction a great deal. One of Fisher's commonly repeated ideas is the “slow cancellation of the future”, which is a common theme among Left Accelerationists (I must admit, I stick pretty closely to Left Accelerationism. I find Nick Land and his ilk to be somewhere between tragic and dangerous.) The basic idea is that, despite appearances, our current political and cultural (I would add “aesthetic”) regime is actually arresting our development. Information technology is an exception, phones are getting thinner, wires are disappearing, and it seems like 5G, when it gets here, is going to mess with weather forecasting somewhat. The answer is to try to accelerate the forces it is arresting.
But few other areas are seeing real improvement or innovation as far as the lived experience of most people. Just last year, Goldman Sachs asked “is curing patients a sustainable business model?” and a trip to the emergency room where you get an MRI and a horse-sized dose of ibuprofen will net you a $1000 bill if you don't have insurance. Consider the fact that you need a four year degree to tell the difference between different levels of resolution on monitors. This is not just found in technology and engineering, it's everything.
Fisher's common example is music – the Arctic Monkeys and Amy Winehouse and the fervor for retromania. I want to cast a wider net. Consider that American politics is stuck in the 1980s (for much of the country “socialist” is a dirty word, and we're just stuck legislating that). It seems more and more like we're still fighting the cold war. It brings to mind the oft-repeated quote from Marx that history repeats “first as tragedy, then as farce.” Of course, the Bush years were also a replay of the Reagan era in some ways, so we need a third level. Consider this revision “first as tragedy, then as farce, then as pornography.”
Outside of politics, let's look at culture. The highest grossing movies last year were all franchise outings or adaptations (though Black Panther was, in many ways, only peripherally connected to other Marvel projects) and you have to go back to 2016 to find a year where a film in the top 10 wasn't part of a franchise – 2016's The Secret Life of Pets, which I never saw, and probably never will (it's a Louis CK vehicle, and I was honestly getting tired of him before the whole “masturbating in front of women without their permission” thing.) You have to go all the way back to 2013 to find a movie aimed at adults that isn't based off of a previously existing property – Gravity – that breaks the top 10. At least, to the best of my knowledge.
Consider television: the most popular shows on Netflix are The Office (US version, which ran from 2005-2013) and Friends (1994-2004), and you have to go down to #10 on the list to find a show Netflix is producing that ranks (Arrested Development, the first three seasons of which came out almost twenty years ago and were not produced by Netflix, and The Office is eight and a half times more popular.) In broadcast TV, the top five most popular shows according to Nielsen ratings (a flawed metric, but the one we have,) were Roseanne, Sunday Night Football, The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, and This is Us. Of those, the only one I've never seen any of is This is Us, and while it sounds like a good show, I'm willing to say that the majority of this list isn't exactly culturally groundbreaking.
You find the same level of retromania elsewhere in culture – literature, video games, etc. – but I'm writing a blog post, not a monograph. I want to focus in specifically on so-called “geek culture”, my basic attitude on which can best be summed up as a mixture of exhaustion and this Patton Oswalt piece from 2010.
I want, specifically, to talk about science fiction and the aesthetics and ontology present there. With the aesthetics, I will be primarily talking about film, while with ontology I'm going to focus a bit more on literature.
Edgar has suggested that an ontology without an aesthetic or an ethic is bankrupt, and I believe they have a point here. However, I want to work things backwards, and treat ontology after aesthetic because, frankly, the aesthetic is more visually interesting and I have a habit of making the visuals an afterthought.
So let's talk aesthetics.
As far as I can tell, there are two major aesthetics in contemporary science fiction. The most popular is “Used Future”, and the other can best be summarized as “Jobsian Minimalism”.
“Used Future” is the aesthetic used to decorate much of the original Star Wars trilogy, Alien, and Blade Runner, it's also a compulsory element in most post-apocalyptic films for obvious reasons. This aesthetic is typified by a run-down look, with machinery that has obviously seen better days and been abused, modified, and repaired to hell and back. While in the past there was a bit of preference for dark, dank settings with a lot of standing water, the current crop of these seem to have undergone a bit of desertification – there people among the dusty, sun-bleached ruins instead of working in knee-deep water with a lot of dangling chains.
The second, so-called “Jobsian Minimalism” has been in vogue since the end of the last decade, and it's very much the opposite end of the spectrum. It's marked by clean, flowing lines, simple silhouettes, and a very new, engineered look to things. “Jobsian Minimalism” is currently in a bit of flux, as there used to be a preference for lighter colors, but it seems to me that darker colors are gaining more popularity. Notably, I think that this aesthetic draws on Star Trek, though you also see it in movies like Her, Ender's Game, and Prometheus. To an extent, Arrival was the pinnacle of this, with the alien ship as a lozenge that just floats above a field and receives visitors. Many of these examples ultimately reference 2001: A Space Odyssey as their core text when it comes to inhuman visuals – Kubrick's monolith is an iconic object both for film and for minimalism as a design concern.
A major difference here isn't just wardrobe or prop design, but lighting. The former, currently, features dark interiors and bright-lit exterior shots. The latter reverses that, but has a general emphasis on an even brightness.
Some films and television shows even manage to include both aesthetics – consider Interstellar, where the Earth is in the throes of an ecological death-spiral, but the film ends with a gleaming O'Neill Cylinder orbiting Saturn, featuring blatant images of americana-in-space.
Consider, also, The Expanse (N.B.: I love both the show and the books dearly, but I'm going to be returning over and over again to them in a somewhat critical fashion throughout this piece) where the Inner Planets operate on two flavors of the Jobsian Minimalism aesthetic, and the OPA and other Belters are deep in the Used Future. It's used here as a visual shorthand for the economic differences between the three groups – Earth and Mars are wealthy, standing in for the Global North, while the Belt is impoverished, standing in for the Global South.
But all of this is beside the point: the fact that we can pick out two dominant aesthetics in the visual media form of what is supposed to be a “literature of ideas” is a problem. It indicates, if anything, a lack of ideas. If our options are just a visual vocabulary iteration of the old Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate that no one but the people having it are interested in, we've got problems.
This is part of why I'm willing to give Black Panther, mentioned above, a pass: the afro-futurist visual aesthetic is different and fascinating. Compared to another decade of rehashing Blade Runner and 2001, I wouldn't mind seeing more afro-futurist visual aesthetics, as well as drawing inspiration from other artistic traditions. For example, a roommate that Edgar and I lived with for a while before we were married had a book of artwork by a man named Virgil Ortiz, who is a native futurist artist, and I still think about his work quite often.
Of course, while I think that bringing in visual inspirations from other cultures is necessary and important, and representation very much does matter, I need to come up with secondary solutions as well. I say this because I'm a member of a privileged group and I'd like to figure out a way to inspire the arts that isn't simply appropriative (of course, citing your sources and giving credit to the originators would be one way to go about it, instead of appropriating and claiming ownership.)
So, what ways are there to break out of the “Used Future” vs. “Jobsian Minimalism” visual paradigm?
Here's a list of under- or undeveloped ideas that come to mind. I'm going to use minimalism as an example here, principally because it's closest to the contemporary aesthetic:
Imagine the end-point. If you had to get to the point where everything you own is singular, what would be required for that? If you only had one set of clothing for every situation – going to a job interview, going to the gym, going out with friends, going to a funeral, etc. – what would the design parameters for that set of clothing be? If you could only have one electronic device for every purpose for the rest of your life, what would that have to do? What would it look like as a result?
Imagine a reaction or reformation. Trends don't just continue; sometimes they violently reverse. If you live in a world where every piece of clothing can be custom tailored and every color is available, what does a suit look like? Or day wear? If the only limit is your imagination, and you're dressing for you, why go with a little black dress? If you're free to customize everything to fit your style, why go with a black rectangle for your smart phone, when you could have a design as unique as your thumbprint? In short, imagine what the transformation from Apple's aesthetics to a psychedelic free-for-all.
Imagine a changed material culture. Let's say that some bizarre plague kills off all the cotton and sheep at the same time that peak oil happens or we decide to swear off fossil fuels, what does your clothing look like? If we decide, five years from now, to replace all plastics with vat-grown wood and bone, what does your phone look like?
Imagine different needs. If we don't do anything about the climate, what does our clothing look like? Do the wealthy put on air conditioned vests and the poor invest in formal speedos and the best sunscreen they can afford to go to a job interview?
Imagine different values. This is really more tied in with aesthetics, but almost everything we decide with our material culture reflects our values – even the shift from cellular phone AND MP3 player AND digital camera, etc. to smart phone was motivated by a desire for minimalism that could eventually reverse. It's fairly easy for me to imagine a generation of people deciding that they want these objects separated out and opting instead for a personal area network, in which a separate camera, phone, music player, and other tools, are all integrated but function in a modular fashion, all threaded through a personal hub to work together. Consider: these things are only “convenient” if we value having those functions tied together, but I would personally never have my cell phone and car keys tied together functionally and be replaced by the same object (just imagine a firmware update on the highway.)
I've already begun to edge into the next part of my piece, so I'm just going to go ahead and take the plunge and talk about it. A lot of contemporary science fiction is bad because a lot of it shares the exact same ontology and conception of how the world functions. There are a number of basic assumptions that are accepted wholesale by essentially every piece of science fiction and as a result they all begin to sound the same.
First and foremost, in my assessment, is the fact that almost all science fiction that acknowledges the possibilities of human enhancement has bought in hard core to Cartesian Dualism. While many people writing science fiction – especially those of them writing hard science fiction – claim to be taking a materialist perspective, this isn't what they're doing. Consider the idea of Uploading: the idea, originally developed (I believe) by Hans Moravec and then spread across much of science fiction, that the human brain can be digitized and the mind “written” in to a computer system, thus allowing a person to survive in perpetuity in a digital form, even opening up the possibility that the mind can be copied into a new body, or personalities can be forked.
Before going further, I'm going to leave aside the Ship of Theseus problem. That's been run into the ground, and I have my own thoughts on it which are immaterial to my polemic.
In short, there is a dualism present here: there is matter and there is data. A lot of transhuman science fiction hinges on the idea that the data is the “real” you and the matter is an unfortunate circumstance you're stuck with until a better situation shows up. This hinges on the fact that, due to the implications of the work of Alan Turing, there's the assumption that the mind is software and the brain is hardware. You can just move the software to new hardware, right?
This is failing to understand how metaphors work. This is mistaking the map for the territory. It's also reductionist to think that scanning the brain but leaving out the glands, the stomach – the whole wet mess of the human body – would get you anything like an approximation of the mind. The mind is not the brain.
However, many stories (Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, which I have to admit is my favorite science fiction novel, the Takeshi Kovacs novels by Richard K. Morgan come to mind, as does Hannu Rajaniemi's Quantum Thief series, and essentially all of cyberpunk,) take this as a given, and use this idea as a foundation for what they are trying to do in them, and this leads to legions of imitators who ignore the implications of an idea and just fold it in to their work without thinking about it, and pretty soon you have people paying thousands of dollars to freeze their head after they die so that their minds can be recovered from their corpses and uploaded into fresh cloned bodies (because we know that we'd want a whole bunch of people from the 1850s showing up and telling us that they already paid to be a part of our society.)
Consider: what does your standard cyberpunk plot look like if no one can jack their brain into a computer? Or if it's possible, but only about as effective as using a keyboard? Where are the stories about late-21C trillionaires funding brain uploading projects based on faulty assumptions to try to escape from a dying planet into cyberspace, leaving broken and damaged people in their wake?
So, mind-body dualism is one aspect, but it's an expression of something much, much deeper, that loops back around to politics: a lot of science fiction is stagnant because there is a deep-seated core of intellectual conservatism to a lot of the genre. There is a fear of dealing with new ontologies, new philosophies, new ideas, because this one, this one is self-evidently correct, right?
What we have here, largely, is Fukuyama's “end of history” applied to cultural, economic, and political fields but ignored for purposes of moving past it.
I return, as promised, to the Expanse. The Expanse doesn't really touch upon human enhancement in a way that suggests much subjectivity on the part of enhanced (there's that bit with the scientists in Leviathan Wakes [moved to Season 2 of the show]) but it's rare in the books or show for a computer to even have a voice interface, and so it seems a bit behind the modern day on that front, but they've got cheap and easy fusion power, interplanetary travel, colonization of the solar system, and so on. However, the economics of the Expanse seem somewhat unusual to me – the books are set something like 500 years in the future, and all of the major economies are structured on a sort of Neo-Fordist Capitalist line; there's mention of something like UBI on Earth, and there's plenty of Unions mentioned in the narrative, but it's all weirdly retro.
Despite all this, on economic issues, The Expanse is possibly the most progressive of any major science fiction story outside of Star Trek (I understand that the Culture series by Iain M. Banks might be similar, but I have yet to read it.) The vast majority of science fiction seems to take a more unspoken pro-Capitalist slant on things, because obviously we'll still work a 9-5 when every job can be automated out of existence for less than it cost to train a human to do it in the first place and fusion energy makes clean electricity free.
Still, there are other problems: consider the fact that, for much of the Expanse books, the cast is fairly straight and slightly more likely to be white than not. It feels, in short, like the most progressive thing to come out of 1990s. The show is slightly better, if only for the character of Amos (who seems fairly clearly in the show to be bisexual, though if memory serves this assumption isn't really supported that much in the books.)
Somewhat better on issues of gender and sexuality are Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota – which postulates a future after the abolition of gender, the nuclear family, and the nation state: every person is referred to with whatever pronoun the narrator feels reflects their character, regardless of assigned gender; any group of people may join together to form a bash', which is like a family or household, though not associated solely through kinship; any person is free to join whichever “Hive” they wish, which stands in for the top level of human social organization (analogous to a nation state, but post-geographic.) I've read the first one and it's fairly mind-bending, though difficult at times, given the self-conscious emulation of Enlightenment-era stylistics. However, despite these major leap, Palmer is still unable to conceive of the complete collapse of capitalism.
While I would consider the supercession of capitalism to utopian (in the sense I've been using it – an escape from the dominant ontology to an outside, a no-place) it doesn't have to be utopian in the colloquial sense, and I feel that a lot of authors and other creators make the error of thinking that it would need to be colloquially utopian to really do. It's gotten to the point where it's questionable that any of them have given much thought to what might lie beyond capitalism as an economic ideology, and I think that's a shame: not just because it shows a lack of imagination, but because it reinforces the dominant thinking of our time, disavowing future potentialities.
So, as with my aesthetics starting points above, I'm going to provide a list of starting points here. Please note that, while I have a certain political and economic ideas, I'm not advocating for anything in particular here, other than getting science fiction out of a rut:
Imagine disruption. There are a number of possibilities for things that might disrupt the functioning of markets as we know them: 3D printing, renewable energy, mass automation. If we can't predict that the genie will stay in the bottle or go back in the bottle, what reasonable assumptions can we make about how people might respond to it.
Ask who controls of the Means of Production. The “Means of Production” here refer to the machineries behind industry – arable agricultural land, factories, workshops, etc. – in idealized Capitalism, everyone individually controls some means of production; in actual Capitalism, the bourgeoise – those with inherited wealth or systemic advantage – control the means of production; in idealized communism, the workers who actually use the means of production control it; in actual communism, the state controlled the mean of production. What other schema of control might be possible? Democratic community control? Neo-Medieval religious control? Autonomous AI control? Space mercantilism?
Ask how Goods are distributed. Right now, labor is paid at a delay in the form of wages, which are then exchanged for goods and services. Before the contemporary period, wages were paid at the end of the day, now they're paid after a delay. When you run out of funds, you run out of purchasing power, though there are some safety nets in play. Are there other ways to distribute goods than the exchange of time and effort for what are, essentially, vouchers for goods and services? Perhaps all necessary labor is automated, and the basics of material life are provided as a public good. Perhaps people must swear fealty to a particular provider, and the provider with the most clients is given greater legal rights. Perhaps everything is provided by the public in proportion to the social good a person is perceive to provide.
Ask what values guide the economy. In the modern day, we value things done by hand (compare the value of a home-cooked meal or one from an upscale restaurant to a microwave dinner or fast food). We also value convenience and the appearance of wealth. However, if you look at the pattern of wages, you discover some interesting things – for example, consider that the average trash collector makes less than the average insurance claims adjuster or administrative assistant (read: person doing the job of the person they're assisting.) From appearances, it seems that the guide behind wages (read: access to resources) isn't how essential work is, or necessarily the danger of the work, or the skill required (teachers are famously underpaid,) but how close they work to the economic mechanisms that move money around. See David Graeber's fantastic book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.
As for viewing the replacement of capitalism with a post-scarcity economic model of some variety, I have good news for other creators: consider this analysis from the book Four Futures by Peter Frase, an expansion of this essay from the Jacobin –
In a common lesson about electromagnetic forces, students are given an exercise in which a bar magnet is placed on a table surrounded by scattered iron filings. The invisible field surrounding the magnet will draw the filings into alignment with it, until the swirling starburst shape of the field becomes visible. The capital relation is a kind of social magnet, with capital at one end and labor at the other, that tends to align all other social hierarchies with the master hierarchy based on money. Hence the hierarchy of athletic ability is translated into a hierarchy of payment for performing professionally. And yet the magnetism of capital is not so strong that it can perfectly align all the systems. Fame, for example, may in general be translatable into money (as when Kim Kardashian releases a smartphone game that becomes wildly successful), but the conversion is not an exact or uniform one. And while money can also buy fame, it may not always be of the sort intended, as teenager Rebecca Black discovered when her mother paid $4,000 for a music video so cringe-inducing and terrible that it became a viral media sensation.
The most interesting questions about communist society pertain to the operation of status competitions of various kinds, after the organizing force of the capital relation has been removed. And once again, fiction is a helpful illustration. This time, however, it is not necessary to conjure starships and aliens in order to imagine the tribulations of a communist future.
In short, while the Capital-Labor relation is a “master hierarchy” which subsumes other sorts of status to it (it’s hard to be famous and poor, for example,) this does not mean that with the removal of capital as an organizational principle other forms of hierarchy will vanish as well. While we might struggle to envision a world in which scarcity and deprivation aren’t a threat, a great deal of fiction has been written from the perspective of wealthy people for whom starvation and lack aren’t really problems — so why is it necessary to show a world where people are definitely starving or failing to pay medical bills just off screen?
The answer, it seems to me, is a lack of imagination. And I’ve got to tell you, the last thing I want one of my pieces of fiction described as is “unimaginative.”