Living in a Science Fictional Universe (and the Revolt of Fantasy)

Adam Turl/13 Baristas Art Collective, "Ascension," 2015

We live in a world in which killer robots stalk the skies, blasting enemies of the state off the map without resort to judicial procedure. Electronic devices routinely replace organs and genetically-modified foods dominate our grocery shelves. Thousands of artificial objects orbit our Earth, sending real time information for purposes ranging from ordinance delivery to pizza delivery. Most possess more computing powers in their phones than the Apollo astronauts enjoyed on their mission to the Moon. At the recent SXSW tech and entertainment festival, protests decried the dangers of unchecked artificial intelligence—though it seems this was a calculated deception designed to create a buzz on social media networks that now connect people in an ever-growing web of instant communication. Robot cars anonymously roam the roadways of the United States and the ghostly areas around Fukushima, where a nuclear disaster followed an earthquake and tsunami just a few short years ago. This is a world in which the human productive apparatus has, in the interests of a tiny elite, monumentally altered the climatic system of the entire planet, inaugurating what some call the Anthropocene: an epoch of natural history defined by human domination of the natural order on Earth.

In other words, we live in a science fictional world. The technologiade—the “epic of the struggle surrounding the transformation of the cosmos into a technological regime”—is the primary ideological narrative employed to justify the social and political projects of the dominant regimes of the planet (Csicsery-Ronay Jr. 217). Oppositionists decry the lack of “development” or failure to “enter modernity” or the “vestiges of the past” when calling for regime change, thereby confirming the narrative of progress of which they want to take part.

In spite of the presence of romantic outliers who push an increasingly sophisticated Neo-Luddite ideology, the general question is not whether nature ought to be turned into technology, but how and to what ends should this transformation take place. Those who oppose the social conditions that give rise to Predator drones and global warming do not oppose drone technology or energy infrastructure in themselves, rather they highlight alternative uses for drones and alternative energy sources whose byproduct is not destruction on a planetary scale. Whether inspired by patriarchal mythology that seeks to dominate nature in the vein of Francis Bacon or by the drive for innovation and profits by a rapacious system of global capitalism (or, more likely, both simultaneously), the fact of the “enframing” (Heidegger) of the world is something that few seem to deny.

In what sense is this metaphor of enclosure within a techno-scientific empire useful or accurate? In a certain sense it is the case that, for the ordinary person, scientific reasoning plays almost no factor in their existence. Other than its role as a justificatory discourse, scientific methodology is mostly relegated to peer-reviewed journals and specific communities of scientists working in specific fields. The effects of this mode of thought are felt in virtually every aspect of their lives, but the actual employment of this ideology for specific purposes is rare indeed. Even among scientists, this vision is often limited to one aspect of their approach to the world. Gone are the “renaissance men” with a holistic outlook of the world unified by a singular philosophical vision. Instead a deracinated and fragmented postmodern cultural logic pervades everyday life—including the lives of scientists—the kind of thing that makes it possible for someone to be a scientist and young Earth creationist without any sense of irony.

Robert Longo, "Untitled (Ferguson)," 2014

The reasons for this deracinated and fragmentary consciousness are structural. The enormity, complexity, and division of human society into competing polities which are nonetheless regulated by a single global regime (capital accumulation) tends to produce a world that is simultaneously one and many. While the gyrations of stock markets and exchange rates dominate every last person on Earth, the consciousness of that process is necessarily mediated through a prism of complex, overdetermined social relations and locations (e.g., region of the globe, political region, state apparatus, location within the state, intersectional identities encompassing class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity/race, etc.).

Within this unity there is a teeming plurality of being that asserts the variable nature of the human condition. Accordingly, logics other than the techno-scientific necessarily dominate various aspects of the lives of ordinary people. Nonetheless, with few exceptions, each of these seeks legitimacy in the eyes of the vision of a techno-scientific empire. Even the claims of religious revelation are subjected to “scientific” discourses of justifications. For instance, many fundamentalist Christians in the United States go to great lengths to demonstrate the scientific veracity of the view that the world was made in six 24 hour days and that during one period humans lived side by side with dinosaurs. The validity of their views, expressed in such works as The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith, is conditional on its confirmation by scientific means.

This is to say that revelation itself is finding it difficult to escape the enframing logic of technological development. So where does revolt lie?

Within this general paradigm of techno-scientific empire there are miniature revolts in the form of explosions of folklore, fantasy, and conspiratorial thought. Tales of human ATMs spewing cash from their mouths, end of days lore that casts every world leader at some point as “the Beast” of the New Testament, and ghostly Red Cross workers collecting souls in the wreckage of the World Trade Center in the days following 9/11 all represent something of a revolt against the prevailing techno-scientific paradigm.

I use the term “revolt” here with all sincerity in much the same sense that Albert Camus juxtaposed revolt against revolution in his book The Rebel. In my view, the ultimate struggle is the struggle to seize this techno-scientific apparatus from an inhuman and automatic logic—the logic of capital accumulation and the maintenance of regimes of domination—and to place it in directly human hands by way of processes of democratic decision-making. In other words, I posit that the goal is to turn the techno-scientific empire into a techno-scientific socialist democracy spanning the globe. Interesting science fictional works that have explored this condition include Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312.

Ilya Kabakov, "The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment," 1989/1990

But revolt is more immediate and common to our everyday lives. The journey of transforming revolt into revolution requires us to truly engage with revolt and to understand its meaning. Tales like The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven or tales of wealth acquired by ritual sacrifices have a certain resonance with people. Wealth creation, the machinations of global industry, the complexity of biology and the uncertainty of death, all processes such as these are explained by resorting to metaphor and fantasy in the first place.

Growing thick in the interstices of an incongruous global ideological framework, such fantastical narratives promise that behind every door there is a potential for weirdness which is not legitimated by scientific rationality. This is the sensibility that animates much of modern urban fantasy and, far from representing an irrationalist regression—as Marxist scholars of the Darko Suvin variety tend to suggest—we ought to see this as an opening in the ideological framework that reveals even as it conceals.

As China Miéville often repeats, “fantasy is good to think with.” In spite of our pretensions to scientific legitimacy, we live in a world governed by fantasies of commodities, money, gender, race, nation, and so on which have a continuous impact on our lives. The deliberate construction of fantasies (as well as critical consumption of them) is therapeutic and eye opening in that it allows us to lay bare the real structure of our lives. The relatively spontaneous production of new lore, particularly the kind unmediated by the constraints of commodity production (i.e. not coming from mainstream media sources) represents a collective sigh of protest from the people whose lives are structured and dominated by this system.

Inasmuch as the forces of domination and acceptable opposition both seek scientific rationality as a legitimizing discourse, it is no surprise that most of these take the form of anti- or a-scientific narratives. In the mainstream, even zombies and vampires are now subject to science fictional modes of dissemination, as such stories usually follow the logic of a disease epidemic. In such an environment in which every eruption of fantasy is subjected to scientific logic, the ability to maintain fantastical narrative forms becomes circumspect and difficult. Conspiracy and modern folklore has already undergone a thorough science fictionalization in the form of alien conspiracies. What in decades past would have been a story of angels and spinning lights of the heavens now becomes a story of visitors from Zeta Reticuli.

 "Lrr, Ruler of the Planet Omicron Persei 8"

"Lrr, Ruler of the Planet Omicron Persei 8"

Nonetheless, the attempt to maintain this sensibility is illustrative of a simmering discontent with the current state of affairs. In place of analyses of imperialist stratagems, we have tales of secret societies and/or alien overlords secretly pulling the strings of world leaders. In many respects this is not much different than the phenomenon of the proliferation of cults and new religious movements during the decline of the Roman Empire. These folk stories provide another logic not subject to the discourses of the dominate sectors of society and as such function as a register of popular discontent. The mainstream has even caught on, and this in many ways explains the much broader allure and appeal of narratives of fantasy over against science fiction.

Diego Rivera, National Palace murals, History of Mexico (detail).

Ultimately this mode of thought finds its most refined expression in the form of urban fantasy or New Weird literature (to name just a couple of examples). In the context of fiction, whether of the literary or cinematic variety, this allows for a free-flowing reflection on circumstances. It is revolt congealed and formalized, a kind of perfected revolt that liberates the imagination from the constraints of “believability” and scientific veracity—or, at least what is popularly imagined to be scientific veracity. Without the problem of “hard science” and “believability” weighing down a narrative, attention can be focused on plot, character development, and so on. But here we encounter the limits of revolt.

Art can be a form of revolt, but it can also point the way towards revolution. When we come to intimately know the fantasies that drive our world by exploring fantasies of our own making, it is incumbent on us to take responsibility to translate this transformation of consciousness into a kind of praxis. Now having tasted our collective power to conjure fantasies that illustrate truths of our daily lives, we must take the next step of acting on our world in order to mold it. Inasmuch as we do live in a techno-scientific empire, a regime of capital accumulation, an enframed grid of technology, or a vast network of fantasies feeding into a central mythos of techno-scientific utopia, it is a world of our creation. We create and determine realities as collective acts of labor and struggle, and accordingly it is within our power to reshape this world.

We do not create ex nihilo, but rather we create from the world we are in. In this world, there are limits to the revolt of the fantastic. If it does not morph into its opposite—popular control over the techno-scientific regime—then the revolt of fantasy will remain nothing but a moment in artistic expression, rather like the relationship of romanticist aesthetics over and against the various forces of modernity.

If we trace the process of development for these revolts of fantasy, if we learn from them and what they signify, then we gain more tools in our arsenal to create a better world. The most important aspects of creating this new world involve a liberation of our mind from prior constraints and active engagement in struggle. Both of these, together, act to excorcise our demon-haunted empire by linking together the various aspects of our global culture. This is a story of humanity coming to be, not as a homogenous “New Man” as in the dream of 20th century socialisms or the levelled down “modern man” of the old liberalism. On the contrary, this is the story of humanity coming to be in its diversity, in its complexity, in its messiness and nakedness. We harness the power of fantastical revolt in order to turn our fantasies into realities.

We do live in a science fictional universe, but it is important to understand that it is a universe governed by fantasies and regimes of domination. The revolt of fantasy is, ultimately, the groundswell for transforming our world into something better. The collective hopes for another world, a better world, are fuel for the engine of global revolution. Learning to fantasize is learning to dream of something new, and this is the first step towards building the new. As Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown of Octavia’s Brood tell it: “visionary fiction…[is] a way to uncover the truths buried in the fantastical—and to inject a healthy dose of the fantastical into our search for truth.”

Some might find it suspect that I began by decrying the science fictional mode of thought and being that dominates our world and yet ended up sneaking it back into a place of dominance for the logic of turning revolt into revolution. Nonetheless I stand by this sensibility, that the transformation of the revolt of fantasy into the revolution of popular control is consistent. I do not think a new world can be created from nothing, nor do I believe that everything about our world is dark, bankrupt, or evil. On the contrary, I think that embedded in this world there are the seeds for new ones—better and worse worlds, which we have the power to bring to life.

This is not to suggest another version of the thesis that fantasy represents mere reactionary drivel in the field of aesthetics; on the contrary I’ve indicated the opposite. The goal is not to turn the fantasies of fiction into realities, but rather to turn the fantasies of a better world into reality. We can enjoy and learn from the sensibility of fictional fantasies while simultaneously struggling for a world that puts the social empowerment of scientific rationality in the hands of the masses of ordinary people. This is not an argument of genre tropes but of social struggle and how they relate to the sensibilities undergirding those genres.

Indeed, with the acceleration of forces of destruction at the hands of an oppressive and violent world order, this is not a luxury, but a necessity. If we do not dispel ourselves of belief in our current round of fantasies and work on conjuring up new ones, we may not have any worlds left to dream of.


*Quote from The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
China Miéville quotation repeated in numerous interviews and writings. Octavia’s Brood quotation from Octaviasbrood.com


"The Ansible" is a blog featuring reflections on science fiction, politics, and philosophy by Red Wedge writer Jase Short.