Science Fiction As Tech Criticism
Brian Merchant, Claire Evans
Paris Marx is joined by Brian Merchant and Claire Evans to discuss their new science fiction anthology, how it uses the genre to critically interrogate the technologies being rolled out around us, and how it pushes back on the desire of tech billionaires to use science fiction to get the public to buy into their corporate futures.
Brian Merchant is a tech journalist and author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone. Claire L. Evans is the author of Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet and singer of the Grammy-nominated pop group YACHT. They are the cofounders of Terraform at VICE's Motherboard and the co-editors of Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn. Follow Brian on Twitter at @bcmerchant and follow Claire at @TheUniverse.
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Brian, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Brian Merchant: Thanks for having me as always, Paris.
Once again, you’re obviously the person who’s been on the show more than anyone else!
BM: I had to defend my title. I have to keep that being the case, so I have to make my repeated guests slot. I don’t want to let the people down, who’ve come to hear that rich baritone. Is it a baritone? It’s maybe a….anyways, I’m here!
Welcome. And of course, we not only have the most frequent guest, but also a new guests as well. Claire, welcome to the show.
Claire Evans: Hi, thanks so much for having me. It’s an honor.
Absolutely. I’m very excited to speak to you both because you had this new science fiction anthology with a ton of short stories that you’ve edited that is out there now (“Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn”). And that is really fantastic; I love the stories in this; I’ve read the whole thing. But this is a project Terraform that did not just begin with this book that you’ve been working on for a number of years. So what was the impetus for Terraform? How did you decide to collaborate on this project?
BM: It was kind of a lucky, serendipitous thing that happened back in Vice’s Wild West-ier days where Claire and I were both working for Motherboard in different capacities, and we’d met. I was a staffer there at the time, and Claire was the Futures Editor (which is a cool title, and I would love to have that title someday!). But we were doing mostly just journalism, and some culture investigation, tech culture stuff. But there wasn’t a lot that we were seeing anyways in terms of speculative fiction, in terms of science fiction on the most mainstream sites and social media platforms that we would visit. It was out there, but to our mind, it should have been playing a more dominant role at this point where we were seeing all of these wacky tech ideas, all of these frontiers being pushed — both good and bad leaps in science and innovation and then all the bad stuff on the labor front. It seemed like a ripe moment for speculative fiction to come help make sense of it. And we decided that we should try to make some of that happen. Vice was a big platform; it still is a big platform; it’s a great platform for taking a swing like that. So Claire and I started talking and we just decided to make a full go of it. I think that’s the gist of it, would you say Claire?
CE: I think the only thing that I would add is that the stories that we were seeing run on Motherboard at the time that we started Terraform, and the stories that Motherboard still runs read like the opening pages of a science fiction dystopia. And so it was sort of the project of taking these headlines and thinking like: What happens five years down the line, 10 years down the line from the story? And wouldn’t it be really constructive to workshop some of these futures so that we could potentially anticipate and prevent the worst outcomes? That’s a very kind of utilitarian view of science fiction, but in the context of the kind of short form stuff that we were running, and the fact that it was always in response to what we were publishing on the nonfiction side, it just felt like a piece of a larger kind of critical puzzle for understanding the world.
No, I love that. And I think it contributes really well to doing that, reading the book, and having read some of the Terraform stories in the past. One thing that I was thinking about as I was reading the book, and certainly my knowledge of science fiction isn’t like, I’m not a historian of science fiction or anything else. But I feel like short fiction used to be very important in science fiction, and having these magazines of short fiction and things like that. Is there less of that today? And do we lose out by not having so many of those short stories that can respond to things as you’re saying.
CE: No, short stories are still very much part of sci-fi. I just think like all literature, and like all media, it’s just more marginalized and siloed than it used to be. Obviously, we’re not getting paperback magazines of amazing stories; we’re not buying those at the bus stop, like kids used to in the 50s. But it’s all out there. It’s just much more distributed and diffuse than it used to be.
BM: It is and it is also that I do think that you used to be able to crank out short stories, and you could scrape by, Philip K Dick style, or some of these guys that were sending their stories all over the place and maybe weren’t going to get rich usually, but it was a viable mode. And now it’s a lot less so — for most science fiction, short form publications the rates are low. So I would say that as there’s been more of an expectation to see this stuff on your streaming platforms, in theaters and bigger budget arenas, I do feel like the short form area has, like Claire said, been siloed and become more of a niche practice, and it doesn’t still enjoy the benefit of a literary machine where The New Yorkers still has literary fiction and you’ve got the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and you can still there viable ways to kind of still do short fiction if it’s literary fiction. It’s a little bit less so for science fiction; it’s a more of a wacky prospect. And I would still love, as great as Terraform is and was, I would still love for there to be a big sort of marquee, another huge that puts this stuff front and center because Terraform was part of Motherboard, which is part of Vice, another Omni saying: We’re going to do short-form science fiction; we’re going to do it so you can’t look away. And in many ways at Terraform, that was what we did. But I still think there’s room for more of this.
BM: And this is a reminder — it’s a time that we get to drop this big brick of a book and say: Look, this is out there, these stories are really fun! I’m biased, obviously, but to just spend 10-15 minutes, and boom, that was that future. Let’s think about it for a second and boom, here’s the next one. In this future, Omar El Akkad’s “Busy,” the very first story in the anthology is about a future where most people are unemployed, and you can only get a job at an old New Deal style, they’re called “Entropy Mills,” where you go and you generate randomized data for tech startups to use. It’s such a brilliant idea. The story pacts in a narrative; it’s really compelling. We learn more about this protagonist and why he’s showing up at the “Entropy Mill” at this given day. And then it weaves the story, but you also get this window into this world. It offers you the texture and the tools to think about it in a different way that you know, I think piece or a news report or even like a Black Mirror episode would, it just inhabit that space. And then you can move on to the next one. And I think it’s a really exciting prospect to be able to drop this thing out there.
I think you’ve described that really well, Brian, and reading through the book, there’s so many of these stories that are just fantastic. And have this way of making you think about these technologies in a different way. I’m sure some of the people who will be reading the book will be very critical of these things anyway. But even if you are and especially if you’re not, it does give you another way into thinking about the technologies and the futures that they are kind of pushing us toward. And before we talk broadly about those futures, and how we should think about them, and what role science fiction can play in getting us to think through them, I guess that part of the reason this was able to exist in the moment that it did, was it because Vice was at a particular moment where it had the money and wanted to look to be doing innovative things? Do you think that this thing could get started in the way that it did today, or is it very much of a moment that offered you a unique opportunity to do this?
BM: There definitely were a lot of things that went right and allowed us to do it. And we had a publisher, I should shout him out, Toby Campion, who was a big sci-fi nut, and he loved to take big swings. And he was very good at making the case for this stuff. And it turned out that it actually was a very good business proposition for Motherboard and for Vice, because sci-fi is cool; you could sell ads and packages and stuff around sci-fi. So it does take having the right person who’s interested in this stuff in the ecosystem to be able to do it. And I don’t know how much we need to go behind the scenes here, but just briefly, Claire and I have had some talks with folks about maybe trying to spin off or do a Terraform-like project if and when the Terraform project concludes at Vice or do something similar. It is a really interesting prospect; it is, and actually we had some conversations with some Silicon Valley investor types who see this in their terms, talking about efficiencies, and they’re looking at the market going: Wait a minute, the short form market of science fiction is really being underserved. There’s this huge value gap between like a short story that somebody’s going to make $200 for writing. And then it’s just like Black Mirror where it’s of this multi 10s of millions of dollars proposition and a Marvel, MCU. And it’s like: Well, how do we connect these two, even from a business perspective? And then we heard some feedback from some folks that were just like: Well, it’s an interesting idea, but how do you get that to a unicorn status? And it’s like: Well, the reality is something like a science fiction magazine is very unlikely to ever become an Uber style.
CE: Nor would we want it to, for the record!
BM: Of course, not, no. In terms of scale alone. But it was it was really interesting to hear thesewhat would it look like if you were really going to start a science fiction project and and that’s still I would say, that’s kind of just, it’s simmering, and we still have those conversations and we’re still feeling around for a while. Do it. But it’s a long way of answering your question, which is it is hard. It’s hard to find money for any publication, right? Science fiction short form. You know, speculative fiction is a pretty niche subject, but it has this huge and robust case that can be made for it also. So I think that it’s still possible. I’m sure somebody will come along and do it well, again.
Alright, we’ll have new science fiction, a16z’s [Andreessen Horowitz], along with Future, will be their new science fiction vertical run by you two in the future.
CE: Science fiction is useful; I can imagine that there is a value proposition here in having a think-tank full of people who are imagining the worst case scenario of all the technologies that are being developed. I think that’s worth whatever you can pay for it.
BM: I bet we all wish Facebook, Uber, Amazon all had people doing that 10 or 15 years ago. And there is foresight, where science fiction writers call it foresight work when a company comes and says: We need a report or write us a story. It’s this fascinating little neck of the science fiction industrial complex — where people are doing sort of this work for marketing agencies. Lowe’s has a whole division that’s all about trying to use science fiction as a predictive or analytical tool. So, there’s absolutely room for stuff like that out there. But I would say what we’re mostly focused on is tearing apart the here and the now and what the technological tools that surround us every day would really stand to do, in a given scenario, or to the average person’s life. I’m curious. So you read the whole show, when Jeff VanderMeer got a galley of the book, he described it as thick. It’s true, and we’ve had a lot of great folks in the field say really nice things about it. I’m curious to see, what did one story stand out to you.
You’re used to interviewing me, and now you’re back at it; it’s just instinctual. It’s tough to point to just one because I’ve been reading it over the course of a number of weeks. And so I feel like at this point, if I were to point out a story, it would be from closer to the end of the book, because I’m probably, off the top of my head, forgetting something that’s earlier on that I really liked. I don’t know if I want to like specifically point to one and say this was once I like. I will say, the Zombie Capitalism one I really enjoyed. I read that one earlier today; I won’t dig into it; people can go read it. But I think it was great. And it was kind of what is so great about the book using these more fantastical or future oriented settings in order to get us to reconsider things or think about things critically. And I think that’s something I wanted to ask both of you as well, obviously, you’ve put together this anthology you’ve been working on besides fiction stories for years now and editing them and putting them together? What role do you see for science fiction, in helping us to think critically about the future that could exist and the technologies that surround us and that are increasingly being rolled out in the world that we exist in?
CE: I think we talk about this a lot. But one of the things that people think about science fiction is that it’s about the future. That’s the default assumption that science fiction is going to be about the future. It is. But of course, it’s very much about the present. And I think the people who are the most competent at writing sci-fi, really powerful science fiction are people who are looking very, very closely at what’s happening around them at all times. And who are looking in unexpected places. And who are looking for the unexpected overlaps of certain important things that are happening around them that might not be in the same domain as one another, and tracing where those overlaps are going to happen and anticipating them. So it’s not so much about imagining the future. It’s about like finding what the future is already latent in the present. And like pointing at it and being like: This matters; this is going to matter, and here’s why. The fact that it’s played out in a story is just like for us plebes to wrap our heads around it, everything that’s important. Everything that’s vital, is already here. I think that’s part of the reason that I think like TerraForm is such a thick volume is every single writer has a different perspective and what they think is going to be important in the future and what they think those like kind of nodes are going to be that are going to have lasting import, and they’re going to touch one another and the more eyes we can get on that the more we can spot like all the things that are happening around us that we might be blind to. And then we get this kind of collective vision of like: Okay, here’s what 60 people think matters now, ranging from all the things that we are aware of, but in more nuanced detail.
BM: One good example, as Claire was talking I was just thinking of maybe the second story in the whole volume is Paul Ford’s story about the very near term future of using Uber, basically an Uber Eats kind of thing. I don’t even know if Uber Eats really even existed yet when he wrote this story. It didn’t — so it was right when Uber was first sort of coming to sort of national consciousness and was become it was attracting all this investment. And it’s a really clever story that follows three threads. It follows one sort of wealthyish or upper middle-class guy in a Manhattan apartment who’s trying to get cat food delivered, and is frustrated that it’s taking longer. One perspective is from this like beleaguered delivery driver who has to make his way through the city to try to get there on time, or as we know now, everybody knows now what happens if the delivery driver fails to show up on time, they get penalized, all these consequences that really affect their livelihoods. And then he does a fun sort of POV inside the actual mind of Uber itself, the algorithm, and it really serves to underscore what is dictating this: it’s this code that is operated and owned by the corporation, Uber, that is facilitating this interaction between two people, and everything is going wrong. The one guy, the upper-class guy is frustrated and mad because his cat can’t get his food, because he’s been conditioned by these apps not to just go get it, or he’s exploiting the labor of this other guy who is rushing through —
CE: — A flood or a rainstorm, I think.
BM: And there’s people protesting. It’s funny, Paul Ford is another writer who doesn’t do a lot of fiction, but we asked him to do fiction, which is one of the joys of doing this project and doing Terraform is that you can ask a tech writer or a coder or a scientist or somebody who might not have a bunch of fiction bonafides to experiment and put their ideas into play here. And that’s what Paul did. And it’s just such a great story. And I emailed him to say that we chose this story for the anthology. And he said, he reread and he’s like: Oh, God, it happened, didn’t it? It did! So much of our life is now mediated by these interactions, and these transactions between user and platform, and invisible or semi-invisible labor, that we expect to do this work and having the opportunity to sort of examine that at the sort of the point of this nascent relationship growing and developing. It sure helps me think more critically about what the ramifications for this technology were. We see how time and again, we wish we were more critical, we wish we could just burrow more deeply into those node points. And I think in “Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn,” you’ll find at least 52 of those probably more, because some of those stories, overlap and or have myriad noted points they’ve identified.
BM: And to that end, while I’m talking about the gig labor one, the other one that’s great is about — I don’t know how much I should spoil of any of these — but there’s a story called “Dream Job” that features a student whose takes on some work on the side through an app and they’re basically giving their dream space over to someone else, so that you can pay to go on the app and you log your sleep time somebody else inhabits your headspace, so you don’t ever actually get to sleep for yourself. But it’s just kind of pulling their lifeforce out of them. And it was a really vivid illustration of the effect of giving yourself over to these platforms and saying: Okay, I’ll do this as a part time thing. And and this is all subtext in the story it’s not explicit and more powerful for it, but you slowly give more of yourself over to these arrangements. And then these companies find really tricky ways of keeping you motivated to log on more. And before you know it, it’s a real burden. And it is a real burden for a lot of working people. So having stories that can sort of drive these points home and underline them and emphasize them in ways that are not the same op-ed, polemic or whatever, I think is really useful.
CE: It’s like the emotional piece that’s missing from other forms of critique about technology in the contemporary condition, like connecting it to people’s lived experiences, making it relatable, making it visceral, making it something that kind of haunts you. I think that’s a really powerful thing.
No, absolutely. I completely agree with that. And I’m wondering, you brought up there that some of the people who you got to write these stories, obviously, there are people who very clearly write science fiction, quite often Tim Maughan in there, Jeff VanderMeer, among others. But then you also sought out people or there are people who wrote science fiction stories who don’t usually write science fiction. So was that something conscious that you sought to seek those kinds of people out? Or as you were working on the project, did you find that people were coming to you and being like: I’d like to write something about this? And then you’ve kind of went with it?
CE: Well, there’s a couple of things to that. One is that if you reach out to like a literary fiction writer, or someone who’s normally just writes “real” fiction or whatever, and you ask them to write a science fiction story a lot of the time they’ll want to do it. Because they’ve never been asked, and it seems like fun; it doesn’t sound like work; it’s like an easier, a lighter ask in a weird way, because it’s something they want to try or it’s something experimental. For example, we asked Ellen Ullman who’s this great technology writer and essayist, who writes novels and stories about her personal experience as a coder in Silicon Valley in the 80s. She has never written a sci-fi story before; she wrote a sci-fi story for us. And it took her three days to do it. And she was so excited about the possibility of doing something totally out of her wheelhouse. Then there’s the tech writers, journalists and scientists that Brian alluded to earlier, who have a lot of specific knowledge about something, but have perhaps struggled to make an emotional connection with people on the subjects of their discipline, or they’re so siloed in their academic or journalistic worlds, that they’re not able to kind of connect the broader implications of the stuff that they’re reporting, like climate change for example. And fiction allows them a new way to reach people and a new way to communicate the stuff that they’re really passionate about. So there’s a couple of different manifestations of the non sci-fi writer trying their hand, but it always turns out interesting. And I think for a lot of writers, it’s liberating and fun for them to take it on.
BM: Some of them turned out to be really good at it. Sam Biddle, who is at The Intercept now, but he ended up, I think just on a lark, because I saw him make some funny tweets about CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, that for a long time the whole tech journalism apparatus descended upon every year. And he was making fun of it. And I just said: Hey, do this, but like 50 years into the future. It was just so funny, and so on-point, and he had a blast doing it. And he just became a regular writer; I think he wrote three or four different speculations for us. And one of them’s in there. One of them is about when word leaked out that Slack was not ever deleting any chat logs, they’re just being stored forever. So it’s the story on the premise of a co worker having to relive some of these permanent chat logs and trying to go through the steps of deleting them, which are magnified for comedic and narrative purposes. Again, you get to embody this thing that Sam had written about and reported on in one capacity. But now it’s like: Pkay, what does this mean? And you really get a sense of the distress and the anxiety over this prospect that anything you’ve ever said, a one-off remark gossiping with your colleagues or your co-workers, and you can’t delete it. What does that mean? What does that mean for the future in 10 years or something?
BM: Now, we’re seeing that all over again with the tech platforms, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and these texts that are now permanent. There are so many people now who just are living with this possibility that these electronic records that are not controlled by them anymore, are in the hands of tech giants who can turn them over to authorities. Again, the more ways that we can come at these issues, and really think about them and get people to sort of empathize and embody the threat as well they can, the better, especially at this juncture where things are bad, but there are also some points where they could get worse.
That’s always the way it is. But I think it’s fascinating how it gives you a new medium through which to think about these issues, and the ways that technology is affecting the world. And I think on that point, the book, through the introduction written by Cory Doctorow also makes a provocative point, I think to some people, that science fiction itself is or can work as a form of Luddism, and certainly this is a concept that has reemerged, I think it’s fair to say in recent years, or has had a renewal. And I know, Brian, you’re working on a book on this very topic, not science fiction and Luddism. But the history of the Luddites and Luddism. Can you expand on the idea that this science fiction is actually engaging in this form of Luddism to make us think critically about these technologies and the role or the effect that they’re having on our societies?
BM: A quick funny side note about that is that when we asked Corey to write the introduction, I hadn’t told him at that point that I was even working on a book about the Luddites. This was like a years ago plus, year-and-a-half ago, (books take a while to make), but it came in, and it’s in the headline of the essay that he wrote for the introduction of the book is like you’re a Luddite, and I immediately called him, this is perfect. This is so and then the first story that we slated is also the Omar El Akkad story that I mentioned earlier, is basically an act of leftism — go ahead and spoiler alert — because he goes in and pretends that he’s an IT guy, and they call it God’s tongue, all these numbers that that people are generating by doing meaningless tasks and he goes in to destroy it, basically, just to shut it down. And we’ve had varying degrees of tech critique for the last five or 10 years and beyond. People have always been doing it, but that has reached enough of a mainstream consciousness to be called something like a tech lash or something. But there is a difference in Luddism and someone like Langdon Winner would call it “Epistemological Luddism,” where you just are deciding to critique something, and whether saying this technology should be rejected for this reason, or considering it in full and actually sort of going through and making sort of intellectual case for shutting it down, Luddism proper was using force to physically destroy sort of the implements of exploitation when it came to machinery. And that core you would connect these two things. And we really do have this I think, this podcast, some of your peer’s podcasts like This Machine Kills and we got getting you to even blurb the book, because it is sort of in the same kind of wheelhouse.
BM: And as we’ve been talking about, we hope this sort of further does help arm people with these tools to be critical. And to take it a step further. I think it’s interesting that even though the “techlash” has died down, we’re seeing this new wave of metaverse, and Web3 and cryptocurrency things that people are not saying: Oh, I don’t know about this. Some people feel free to say: Fuck this, like no, just no. And that really wasn’t even like when Uber came out. It wasn’t like, oh, how exploitative is it? So let’s check it out and see how it goes. Like, maybe it’s a sharing economy or Oh, look at this technology, WeWork. Oh, that sounds like it could be something let’s give it a go. And now that Luddism, I think that you’re referring to that’s kind of in the air. And as Corey says, science fiction can be a tool for doing Luddism, it is sort of that ability to say no. Because for a long time, it just didn’t feel like that was on the tool belt — just the rejection like it. I said: Well, what kind of policy can we do to rein this in if we don’t want facial recognition tech to capture everybody’s face all the time? Can we do that? Is that an option? Can we just say no?
BM: And I think our book, and all these amazing writers that are making variations of that case, time and again. There’s Eric Holthaus who is the meteorologist who wrote a story about climate change has gotten so bad that there’s a new class of hurricane called a hypercane, and his protagonist, and maybe I won’t spoil that one, is doing an act of Luddism, as well. There are a lot of these stories, and it was funny. It feels culturally like we are at a moment where the more that we can encourage that — not just blanket denial of every technological development — but critical evaluation, where denial is a possibility where we can say no. This is maybe a goofy thing and I want to compare it to and I’m going to probably sound like a dork doing it. But that Ryan Reynolds movie, the time travel movie — did you either of you see this? — It was the biggest one on Netflix for a while. He’s a time traveler, and they find out that he goes back to his childhood home. But it becomes clear throughout the story that time travel was deployed for a commercialist gain, some mega corporations benefited from time travel, they exacerbated inequality, blah, blah, blah. And his dad, it turns out, was one of the inventors of the technology that made time travel possible. And instead of going like: Well, let’s rein this in. The movie was just like: Let’s go and destroy it, so nobody can do time travel because it’s bad because no good can come of it. That to me — it was whatever, it was a dumb movie — but it was novel to me like the extremes just shut it down. Just say no; just walk away from it. Just say no, just say no, right? It’s the latest PSA — just don’t say no. And a lot of ways I hope that that this book can give people the tools to sort of execute science fictional or technologic Luddism more thoroughly and readily.
CE: To Brian’s point about the refusal that we’re experiencing, it’s kind of like this snake eating its own tail, too. Because right now, tech companies are trying to sell us all this stuff, the metaverse namely, but they’re using the mechanism of science fiction to sell it to us. They’re presenting us this idea of a future which they basically cribbed from science fiction novels from the 80s and 90s, which they’ve conveniently excised of any political criticism or context and just taking the surface trappings. Same thing happened with cyberpunk — just take what’s cool, and then get rid of everything else that criticizes corporate power. But we’re being sold this fantasy of the metaverse by these companies, and they’re using science fiction against us. And the fact that we’ve learned enough in the last 20 years that we can learn to say no to that is really inspiring to me. I got an Instagram the ad the other day for some Meta thing of gardening in the metaverse, like: Let’s all get together and garden in the metaverse! And just for fun, I looked at the comments which I love to do on all Meta sponsored posts. And it was 5000 different like: Fuck, you, no’s, basically. It was so incredible to see just every single person just being like: Absolutely, not, no! Absolutely not, I want to go outside; I hate you for even trying to push this down my throat. And that’s true. I feel like I haven’t seen that before that level of just outright refusal. So, even when they use our own tools against us, I think we have the equipment to just to simply say no, and to look towards more realistic and critical analyses of the future, which hopefully Terraform puts together for a broad audience.
I think your point on the different uses of science fiction is so important. Because when we think about these tech companies, they’re so often using whether it’s science fictiomn or ideas from science fiction to inform the kind of futures or products that they’re trying to bring into being, or to justify the terrible things that they’re trying to do, like Jeff Bezos comparing his space projects to “Star Trek” and the sort of things like that. I’d like to dig into it further. I wonder how you think about these kind of dual uses or multiple uses of science fiction in this way that can, as Terraform does, and as all of your authors are doing, getting us to think critically about these technologies and the impact that they have on society. But then at the same time, how these tech companies so effectively also utilize that in order to get people to buy into these corporate visions that they have for society, for the future, for the present, what have you, and how that also really helps them to get past a lot of people’s maybe reservations about some of the things that they might be doing, because they say: Look, we’re going to deliver this incredible science fiction future for you, if you just let us roll out these technologies.
CE: That’s a really complex question. I think that when the tech companies are presenting us with the shiny new futures, they’re exploiting our sentimentality and our emotional connection to the science fiction stories that we grew up watching. They’re exploiting our love of “Star Trek,” for example, but they’re removing anything about those texts that was actually positioned in society in any way or said anything about society. And that’s super insidious. And it’s rough, because, I think, we assume they get it if they’re talking about all these things that we love, and they’re comparing what they’re going to offer to us with these texts that we’re so familiar with, we’ve assumed that they must get the whole thing. But really, it’s a very blatant and intentional missing of the point, and it’s not dissimilar from using a fond and beloved celebrity as the face of your dark dystopian company. It’s these kinds of emotional associations people have, it’s just marketing. But we have to question what the source material is, and if they’re reading it closely enough, for sure.
BM: Right, and that’s what it is. I think there’s a case to be made that like the 21st century is maybe the most science fictional, or the most likely to be shaped most wholly by extremely wealthy men, and their ideas pulled straight out of the science fictional universes that they grew up with. We have people worth upwards of $200 billion, who are getting their ideas from science fiction books they read in the 90s are the aughts. And they’re encouraging their teams to read these books to explicitly sort of replicate pieces of this. And they’re bringing this vision to life with immense resources and immense power in ways that if it wasn’t kind of alarming, it would be pretty fascinating because they have effectively been able to marshall these resources to make chunks of their visions. They run into reality quite frequently, and we get to laugh when they do. But they also cause a lot of immiseration, and they cause a lot of conflict and chaos in implementing these. They also are paving over, as we just talked about with your book, it’s such a great example in the transit sector explicit where they have all these visions that they don’t have the patience, or the know-how, or the ability to implement their transit solution. So after all, the money gets funneled into them sort of what we really need, which is like trains, but things that are not so futuristic, get left in the wayside.
BM: So I do think that it’s a really interesting time to be looking very carefully about who gets to use science fiction to sort of bring the future into being and who has to sort of use it as Luddites to turn it down and when we can. Because from Mark Zuckerberg in the metaverse, Jeff Bezos and his rocket ship fantasies, and Elon Musk and his rocket ship fantasies, you name it, they’re just pulling from the source material, and they’re trying to make. If you want to understand where we’re going, read science fiction from the 90s. That is where you can get a lot of understanding about the worldview of a lot of these tech folks from just mining that source material. I think it’s interesting to think about a book like Terraform, or a book or like amount of stuff that a lot of the stuff that MCD publishes or those a lot of our authors publish as sort of counter futures to the retro future, the sort of current slate of tech giants and folks are attempting to build and bring into being.
CE: I think a lot of the Terraform stories are approaching this from a hacker perspective, where it’s like we’re kicking the tires of these futures. Sci-fi is a really powerful tool — it can be wielded for good or for evil. It can be just like technology; it’s what we do with it that matters. And I think there are many different positions you can take within genre to do lots of different things. And it kind of depends where you are, at what level of granularity you’re looking at it, from what position you’re wielding it. I think the Jeff Bezos isn’t the Elon Musk’s of the world, they’re thinking about it full God Mode. They’re just thinking of being world builders, imagining a world and making it become, make it so, like: Engaged, my vision is reality! That’s the level at which they’re thinking about science fiction; they’re not thinking about fan cultures; they’re not thinking about a close read of the text; hey’re not thinking about the many different ways in which characters are queer coded; they’re not approaching the text with any level of close reading, and even within the same text, you can look at it from so many different perspective. So it’s really what we do with it and how we read it and how we use it.
I guess for many of them, it’s that the aesthetics look interesting, so let’s just try to replicate those and ignore everything else in the story that says don’t do that.
BM: I think it’s the aesthetic. It’s the shiny tech. It’s taking that, but it’s also the often and even sort of astute and layered cyberpunk sort of narratives, like from Gibson, and so on — our court is sort of guilty of this too. It’s the young man’s hero journey, like in Stevenson (“Ready Player One”), where the world is fucked up, but they get to have all these adventures through the technology, and they get to emerge victorious somehow. And obviously, the hero’s journey is pretty universal, but the way that it is often carried out in a lot of these books, the critique is, especially in something like “Snow Crash,” it turns out to be pretty flimsy. I think Gibson’s is a dud. I was just rereading “Neuromancer,” and I was actually pleasantly surprised with he actually does talk about how the evolution of technology actually happens. And it’s outside sort of the cloistered and rich places where people actually hack together techno and he does spend some attention to detail on the divide.
BM: But going back to “Snow Crash,” for instance, you get a sense that it’s a depicts a world where a lot of things have fallen apart, but a lot of that is just to the benefit of the protagonist, who gets to have kind of a kick ass time, using his crazy tech and beating the bad guys. And that simplistic mentality is the same in “Ready Player One,” where any nub of critique by the end of the book or the end of the narrative has completely been sanded away in the mold of the video games that it represents. It’s just about either conquering or the badass tech itself, or the friends they made along the way. So they may be using that as a reference point. But it’s also worth asking what pieces they are drawing from.
CE: There’s also an element of context collapse too because someone like Bezos citing “Star Trek,” it’s not that different from “YMCA” playing at a Trump rally or hearing “Born in the USA” at a Monster Truck Show. It’s like we forget what these things are actually about. It happens to us across all levels of culture.
I think it’s really good point. Well, I think this was a fantastic conversation to get some insight into the book and what you’ve been doing, as well as thinking more broadly about the role that science fiction plays and how we think about these technologies. I’m wondering, to close, any final thoughts on the book that we didn’t get to that you wanted to ensure that the audience knows. And do you have any recommendations, whether it’s favorite stories in the book, or any other science fiction you’ve been reading recently that you might want to recommend to the listeners?
BM: I’ll go first, and give Claire the final word here, but I’ll just be brief. And I would never dare play favorites, so I love each and every one of these stories that’s in here; they cover topics that we didn’t get to today. We do have a lot that’s sort of about AI, and there’s a lot about climate, I guess we touched on that briefly, and about social justice. They are all tied together by what we feel was always Terraform’s main mission. And that was that it wasn’t just going to be a fantasy space opera, where you could read the thing and forget about today. If it was going to be a space opera, it was going to tell you something about the dynamics of what’s at play in tech or politics today. So we hope that each of these stories embodies one of those nodes. I love that word that Claire has been using, so I’m stealing it.
BM: Instead of citing just one story, I would just say that you could read this thing from beginning to end because it does vaguely sketch out this arc where we have it, watch worlds burn, separated for a reason. And that’s the first stories are about platform capitalism and entertainment and navigating these digital systems, the next are about alternative realities and AI, maybe the next stages of that in a lot of cases, and then we end with burn, where if we don’t let the issues and the tensions and the conflicts raised in the first to go untended, this is what we get. A lot of people think we’re already here; we are here in varying degrees. But we’re having issues with vast inequality, with climate crisis, with racial injustice, tons of things that are burning. So I would say that you could read this thing from point A to point B and really get an interesting experience. That’s the hope anyway, is that people will have their favorite stories. I love them all, and I hope everyone will go pick this thing out, see if I’m right. I think it is always fun to talk about your favorite story. But I edited it; I’m opting out, can’t say!
CE: Same, I kind of want to say the same. I mean, we’ve already spoiled like four stories by talking about the full plots of them, so I don’t want to do the same thing either. I think that’s really something for everyone in this book; there’s truly experimental literary style fiction; there’s a comic; there’s a story told entirely through text messages; there’s a story told entirely through founded documents; there are very yarny, campy, fun raunchy stories; there’s really dark dystopian stories; there’s these kind of near-term, mundane banal stories where it’s only very, slightly different from our reality. So whatever flavor of sci-fi you’re into, I promise you, there’s something in there for you.
I love that and I completely agree with what both of you said. I think reads really well; there’s so many different types of stories in there to get immersed in and I would just say I respect your desire not to pick a favorite because all of my podcast episodes are my favorites as well because I can’t pick like that so I totally get it. But Brian, Claire, I thank you both so much for coming on the show, for talking about the book and for putting this thing together. It really is fantastic!
CE: Thanks so much for having us.
BM: Thanks, Paris, as always.