Science Fiction Mythologies

With the current proliferation of science fiction films and television one cannot help but notice that science fictional modes of expression have risen from the margins of pulp novels and comic books to the mainstream. But is that all that is happening here? Is this a mere trend that will soon be upended by a return to realism? Is this situation even primarily about changing genre conventions?

There is something more going on than a mere popularity contest being won by spaceships and mutants. Sf scholar Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. laid it out like this, “The widespread normalization of what is essentially a style of estrangement and dislocation has stimulated the development of science-fictional habits of mind, so that we no longer treat sf as purely a genre-engine producing formulaic effects, but rather as a kind of awareness we might call science-fictionality, a mode of response that frames and tests experiences as if they were aspects of a work of science fiction.”

This is nothing particularly new, though it may in fact be accelerating and becoming a hegemonic discourse for our “habits of mind.” The Orwellian vision of a totalitarian security-state animates both right wing and left wing political impulses, and it is rather directly science fictional in its scope. The old “5th column” fear of Communists—now Muslims—dialectically dances intimately with fantasies of alien invasions and body snatchers. Perhaps most dramatically, tens of millions of Marxist-inspired partisans in the 20th century held a science fictional vision of a future techno-utopia of working-class democracy that would inevitably be ushered in by collapse of capitalism—always around the next bend of history.

In Cscicsery-Ronay’s book, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, the quintessential myth of what he calls “contemporary techno-culture” is that of “the Singularity.” For those who have not been exposed to the gospel of “the Singularity,” developed by Vernor Vinge and popularized by Ray Kurzweil, this “theory” holds that technological developments in computing, artificial intelligence, networking, and so forth are accelerating to a convergence point that will lead to the appearance of a hyper-intelligent entity that transcends our biology (and, in some versions, offers a kind of immortality by way of digitizing our consciousness).

Of course, at this time, we have no way of knowing whether or not this is a mere confusion of metaphor with reality (the software/hardware distinction of human consciousness and the nervous system which produces it) or an actual possibility with the development of organic computing, nanotechnology, and so on. What is important is the status this myth enjoys among scientists and computer programmers, as well as an increasingly broad public of young men. Csciscery-Ronay notes that there is a kind of left-wing parallel in the form of Donna Harraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” even going so far as to describe them as one another’s “Shadow Mages.”

What is key here is that this is not merely or even primarily the subject of some science fiction narratives, rather those fictional reflections have arisen as a response to this mythology’s significance. Numerous professionals (and many not-so-professional) consider this to be more than a metaphor, they consider it to be something inevitable and on the horizon within actual history. Though far more sophisticated than the mystery cults of the late Roman Empire—at least in its philosophical and scientific pretensions—“the Singularity” (which I put in quotes to highlight its almost divine character) carries with it the trappings of religious belief.

We have here a kind of faith in the inevitable emergence of a quasi-divine entity of human construction whose emergence promises to retroactively transform the meaning of our current historical context in much the same way that many of us see the period around 0 C.E. in light of the later emergence of the Christian religion across the Mediterranean world. The emergence of this entity promises a kind of salvation from our biological constraints, even an end to death in its traditional sense, as well as a transcendence of our species from individuated consciousness to a kind of linked-in Brahmin/Over-Soul. Ideologically it provides a myth of meaning for the work of developing these technologies that transcends their current circumstance of service to the military-industrial complex and commodity production.

Whatever the veracity of the claims of the acolytes of “the Singularity,” it represents one of the first cases of science fiction as a genre reflecting back on science fictional modes of thought in the world. Alongside the “Star Wars” propaganda of the Reagan Administration and the promises of science fictional modes of colonial intervention—most notably that of the 1991 Persian Gulf War—the emergence of this mythology illustrates the ways in which science fictional modes of thought are becoming hegemonic in our global capitalist culture.

Interestingly, the perseverance of folklore and fantastical narratives centered around decidedly non-science fictional modes of fantastic expression represents a kind of protest against this, a phenomenon illustrated poignantly in David McNally’s book Monsters of the Market. Though that is a topic for another day. For now, it is important to remember that science fiction has become more than a mere genre of literature and film, it has become a dominant mode of thinking about our actual material world. For those seeking to develop visions of a better world in the midst of monumental social struggles, it is important to keep this fact in mind

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