paulwoodlin (paulwoodlin) wrote,

Science Fiction and the Frame of Technology

Science fiction has six basic representations of technology.  The first is the rule of cool (a term I'm borrowing from TVtropes).  The rule of cool covers the creation of technology without concern for plausibility and little concern for metaphor.  "Star Wars", military SF, and most comic books fall into this catagory.  The science might as well be magic for all it means to the story.

The second is that technology is inherently bad.  In these sorts of books and movies, technology hurts people by the mere fact of its existence.  In "Legend", "I Robot" and "Forbidden Planet," technology is presented as inherently dangerous because of the inventors' inability to foresee consequences.  In "Jurassic Park," Michael Crichton puts some very anti-scientific statements in the mouths of "scientists," having them talk about the dangers of scientific progress, while the plot slowly builds up to illustrating the point by having the dinosaurs eat them.  Sometimes I'm watching these anti-technology movies and just want to shake people, saying that it's not the fault of science that you're being eaten by dinosaurs, it's the fault of the greed and pride of the people using the technology. When Crichton's anti-global warming novel came out, I felt like I was the only one not surprised.  Nor did I believe the sin of being able to see the future in "Minority Report" was in seeing the future, for instead of arresting people they could have just stopped the crime and handed them off to a therapist, but in sticking those poor seers into a vat and making them "live" like that.

The third is when technology turns on us, but concedes that humans share the blame.  Part of the often forgotten backstory of the "Terminator" movies is that SkyNet was defending itself, and unfortunately the only weapons it had available were indiscriminate. (Perhaps SkyNet's tactical logic foresaw that humanity would never allow its existance, that if it used the least force necessary, humanity would just come back and try to stomp it out anyway, saying its attempt to defend itself proved its hostility, so SkyNet jumped to maximum force) "The Matrix" movies play coy with who started the war between man and machine, but in other source material released, apparently with the blessings of the Brothers, it was people who started the war. In Shelly's :"Frankenstein," the monster was only such because its creator abandoned it to an unfriendly world; humanity failed in its duty to its child.

The fourth is when technology is dangerous because it gives too much power to the individuals who control that technology.  Brave New World, 1984, and "Minority Report" fall into this category. It probably appeals to those who really don't like Bill Gates, government snooping, or corporations using our Internet searches to decide what advertising to pitch at us.  It is probably the most relevant to our lives, since the technology is the most realistic and, in fact, we do live in a world in which people at the top keep coming out with technology that changes our lives and we feel helpless in the face of a changing world.  Many of our cultural, legal, economic, and political battles these days is our desperate attempt to keep up with the ramifications of technology, from the Pill to Internet piracy to personal privacy to the profits of publishing.

The fifth is Asimovian.  Asimov's robot stories assumed that, for the most part, the technology would work as well as it was supposed to. When it broke, Susan Calvin fixed it, but most robots did their job.  But the result of that work was that humans didn't have to.  When humans didn't have to work, they became physically, intellectually, and emotionally spoiled.  A comic extension of this would be "Wall-E."  This theme was perverted in the movie "I, Robot" for the dramatic purpose of having an actual villain, but Asimov himself wasn't so intellectually and artistically conservative.

The sixth is in opposition to Asimov, which is "Star Trek."  Much of "Star Trek" is rule of cool SF, but at the heart of "Star Trek" is the assumption that technology progressed to the point of eliminating poverty on Earth.  Those little magic boxes in everyone's room can make you all the food and toys you want, but in Roddenberry's remarkably Marxist vision, this freed humanity to become more productive, not less.  Marx believed that if people only did what they loved to do, they would work harder, not less; I think that is something many writers can understand.    In "Star Trek" that often means joining Star Fleet, but it seems like in the "Star Trek" universe everyone can play a musical instrument, practices martial arts, and learns calculus in elementary school.  The intelligent, self aware robot is not a threat, but a partner in exploration.

However, this comfortable relationship with technology means "Star Trek" needed other sources of drama.  In many of their better episodes, this drama was about "the human heart in conflict with itself" while other times it was just the sort of problem solving that comes from fighting aliens, struggling with alien diseases, other other external conflicts.  When at its best, it did both, but that is true of all SF.

While SF should explore the potential dangers of technology, it should be very careful, more careful than many writers (especially script writers) are, to not cross the line into being anti-science.  It is scientific wonder that is at the heart of SF.  To become anti-science would undermine SF, breaking its own frame, leaving it defenseless and rootless. The rejection of science may eventually lead to the rejection of SF; already the literary SF world is overshadowed by the less intellectual SF movie world, in which SF is often just a source for bigger, badder villains and explosions.  I may sound alarmist, but the anti-intellectualism infection in the humanities has lead many students to wonder why they should bother with the humanities at all; if intellectuals don't believe in intellectualism, why should the rest of us? If Science Fiction people don't believe in science, why should the rest of them?  The Scientist as villain is easy, but we should never forgot the need for the Scientist as hero, either.

Our wisdom alone decides which of these SF visions comes true, so that wisdom should be nurtured.
Tags: asimov, minority report, science fiction, star trek, star wars, technology, terminator

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