Sunday 21 May 2023

When Imagination Fails

There are things that annoy me about Greg Bear's Eon.

From the point of view of 1985, the year it was published, Eon has some interesting and imaginative leaps. A hollowed out asteroid from an alternate human future turning up in Earth orbit. The thinking about the architecture of its interior and how cities might make the best use of lower gravity and a cylindrical-shaped environment. A chamber that, thanks to some physics jiggery-pokery, stretches into infinity. How a singularity might be tamed, worked, and used for transportation. The use of fancy divining rods that find the location of and can sink wells into other universes along "The Way". The use of holographics for interior decoration, body adornment, and communication (speech 1,300 years hence has largely been replaced by ... emojis). The transcendence of the basic human form and the option to take on any physical shape one wishes. The storage of personalities and their depositing in the memory banks of their home, Axis City. A leap into entirely post-human reproduction where personalities are fashioned by "parents" in the digital environment and upon maturation can acquire physical bodies. And more mind-boggingly weird physics where The Way existed prior to its moment of creation.

Of Eon, all of this and more won it plaudits then and since for spinning out so many ideas and concepts that could be hinges on which to hang more limited science fiction novels. Some of these tropes have been done to death since, others have attracted less attention. But what interests me about Eon are not the flights of fancy but Bear's failures of imagination.

What might the society of the far future look like? Despite being a mature post-human civilisation capable of building its own pocket universe, getting beyond a presidential republic resembling a mix of the US system sitting atop a Belgian/Netherlands-style consociational system is not within the wit of our descendents. And that means capitalism is in the mix, too. This society can master the mysteries of physical laws and manipulate them as they see fit, but wage labour persists and Axis City squats on The Way in a manner akin to the City of London. It is a regulator of cross-gate traffic, managing the commerce that flits across The Way and serves buyers and sellers in different dimensions - for which it receives commissions to sustain itself. All this infinite land with infinite possibilities, and the only reality Bear could conceive for advanced humans is a society immediately familiar to Adam Smith.

The character of politics of the future are, if anything, even worse. There are plenty of expository moments as per hard SF custom and practice, and we get glimpses about how social problems are dealt with. Crime is treated as a personality disorder. Criminals and deviants are not treated with empathy or understanding, but become the objects of engineering and programming. The forms of social domination attendant in capitalist society exert a silent presence as problem people are categorised, individually pathologised, and altered to fit. Even more bizarrely we're led to believe people 1,300 years from now have stubborn affections for national identities that largely perished in the fires of nuclear war. Flashing flags in one's array of emoticons is apparently the done thing in post-human circles. And call it a daft in-joke or plain ignorance about how politics works, one of the main factions among Axis City's inhabitants are the Naderites. They tend toward the aesthetics and style of the early 21st century - when the nuclear bombs fell - and with varying degrees of commitment eschew the post-human accoutrements of their contemporaries. Their name derives from US consumer champion, environmentalist, and some time presidential candidate Ralph Nader. We're led to believe his activism and example became the basis of a post-war political creed that was suspicious of technology and promoted a Bill and Ted-style be excellent to each other ethic. This is utterly nonsensical, betrays zero materialist understanding of how even liberal democratic politics works, but is consistent with the dismal politics of Bear's setting. In his capitalist utopia, the only real politics there's room for are around consumption, consumer rights, and consumer identities.

Eon is an interesting read, and still worthwhile almost 40 years after publication. The passage of time might have dimmed the hard science imaginary shown of here. But what truly dates it is Bear's failure to show any respect for, let alone awareness of the realities described, explained, and imagined by the social and political sciences.

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Anonymous said...

What you’re complaining about is not at all uncommon in science fiction. In my opinion, science fiction is an expression of the author’s political opinions through the seemingly neutral vector of technology – which isn’t neutral at all, of course. As a result, the politics of the future, in science fiction, necessarily plays out the politics of the present. I’m sure there are exceptions, but offhand I can’t think of any.

Bear, I think, is just clumsier than most, because he’s tremendously focussed on his technological notions – which are often worked out surprisingly crudely; I found his idea of a wormhole remarkably implausibly done. But his tech is far better than his politics.

Anonymous said...

Harari has said what needed to be said about science fiction.

It's not about the future, the real future, because it can't be. The real prediction horizon was short in 1985 and it's much shorter now.

It's about the present. Science fiction is a what-if machine to explore counterfactuals derived from the concerns of the present day, through a vehicle of bold ideas, buttressed by workmanlike details that the author probably didn't really want to add but had to because the form demands it and they couldn't think of anything better to fill that space. You know, stuff like gaudily humdrum presidential campaigns in a post-human magitech society.

The bold ideas will always be - if you stop and think seriously about them for a few seconds - completely implausible in their detail; that's what suspension of disbelief is for. But in the best science fiction, they will capture in their form something that is genuinely interesting and relevant, either in the now or in the very near future. And usually this is only partially deliberate. As with any truly great work of art, in great science fiction the author themselves doesn't really know exactly what they are channelling.

There's also something else that science fiction can do, when done really well, and this is when it does its best actual futurology. It can capture very deep and unintuitive invariants from the nature of the universe that we live in, and relate these in accessible story form. Principles and patterns in nature that the author took a lifetime to learn can be distilled and planted into the brain of the reader, sometimes without the author even trying. They reveal these just as unwittingly as other authors - or even the same author, in the same book - reveal their personal biases, neuroses, and cultural blinkers.

The deep invariants so captured will rarely concern anything so fleeting, and absolutely dependent upon the living conditions of humans over the last 15000 years, as politics or sociology.