Science Fiction as Collective Anxiety

Convention panel discussions often raise the question of how accurately science fiction predicts the future. I gave the following answer on a panel at BristolCon in October 2021:

I disagree with the premise of the question, in so far as I don’t believe it is science fiction’s job to predict the future. Rather, we use the genre to project ourselves into realms of possibility rather than predicting what it will be like with any kind of accuracy. It’s more a kind of collective anxiety than it is a planning tool, in that we are freewheeling through all these terrible things that might happen and how it will feel and what will go on, instead of having a rational discussion. A completely rational prediction of the future would probably be boring as fuck, because there comes a point where the future would have no understandable relevance for us and it would be very, very difficult to establish an interesting character or coherent story within that. If we look at the Singularity for example, the very fact it is a singularity means we cannot predict what the world will be like after with any sense of confidence. It would be hard to create a story. And what we’re doing is telling stories; telling stories about ourselves and what might happen to us. Because the three main questions of life are: Who are We? What do we do while we’re here? And, where are we going when we die? And science fiction messes around with all three of those quite nicely… We’re humanity’s equivalent of that voice that whispers in your ear at 4am and says, ‘What happens if this goes on?’

What is Science Fiction?

Science fiction isn’t just about aliens and rocket ships (although those are a lot of fun), rather it’s a lens we use to tell stories about who we are, what’s wrong with the world, and what will happen to us if we do or do not take steps to address our behaviour. It’s a literature of ideas, but it’s also one woven into being using analogy and parable. It’s about OUR relationship to technology, nature, society, and the cosmos. And through it, we can address these things in ways with which mainstream fiction might struggle.

Look back at Mary Shelley, HG Wells or George Orwell. Look at the SF of the postwar years, the 1960s and 1970s. The flowering of cyberpunk in the 1980s… Our science fiction reflects who we are when we write it.

Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes then shows them to us in rough disguise.

W.H. Auden

As a writer, science fiction gives you one of the widest possible canvases: the whole of time and space, from the beginning of the universe to its end. You can go anywhere, imagine anything, set up any social experiment or emotional “what if?” you desire. It’s a blank canvas wide enough for your imagination. It encapulates that “anything-is-possible” punk rock attitude. And in that freedom, that willingness to extrapolate what we see around us into tales that examine out relationship with the universe, it is possibly the oldest and purest of our storytelling traditions.

“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”

Octavia E. Butler

Science fiction is subversive

The act of imagining the future has always been a quietly subversive activity. Portraying a different or changed society cannot help but be a deeply political exercise. By doing it, you’re implicitly passing comment on our present world and the way it will be altered by coming events or technologies. From HG Wells onwards, SF writers have imagined what will happen if we continue down our current path. If things go badly, we get a dystopia to warn us of the consequences of inaction; if things go well, we get a utopia to which we can aspire and work towards.

One of the core messages of the genre is that, “this too shall pass.” The world we know today – it’s political, economic and social systems – cannot endure forever. Change will come. Some people don’t want to hear that, but come it will. As SF writers, we get to model a vast array of possible futures. To remake the world according to our personal fears and desires.

The forces of conservatism seek stasis and security. They fear change, but SF writers revel in it. We dream of better worlds. We are literally paid to imagine that things are different to the way they are today, and that can be a hell of a subversive act.

Standing on the edge of the world

In my fiction, I’ve been fascinated by the liminality of ports. They are where the everyday intersects with the extraordinary, the start and end point for thousands of journeys, and portals connecting this place with every other place.

Being a SF writer, I have a particular fondness for space ports. The idea that you can run away from life as a colonist, get to the port, and then have the whole universe open up before you…

In this sense, as in Star Wars, the space port is a bridge between the main character’s old life and the adventure awaiting them. Between who they were and who they are going to be.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the port city of Bristol, which historically served as a jumping-off point for merchants, pirates, explorers and (despicably) slavers. Standing on the quay in the late afternoon, you can imagine the ships slipping their moorings and heading for the gorge, and beyond it the Severn Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean, and it feels as if you’re standing on the edge of the world.

The same applies to beaches. They are an ever-changing no-man’s land between the eroding coastline and furious sea. A place where we can stand and contemplate our relationship to the vast elemental forces of the Earth, and maybe yearn for a way to touch that distant horizon.

Top 10 spaceships in fiction

From Jules Verne’s far-sighted Victorian moonshot to the self-aware starships of Iain M Banks, here are some of the most compelling flights of fantasy.
Cosmic slingshot … a still from the 2015 film of The Martian. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox

Some of my earliest memories are of watching Star Trek in the early 1970s, on my grandparents’ black and white TV, and then getting caught up as a schoolboy in all the hype surrounding the release of Star Wars in 1977. But while movie and TV spaceships such as the USS Enterprise and Millennium Falcon – and even the Red Dwarf – are firmly established as part of our shared cultural vocabulary, the worlds of printed fiction contain many other ships that are every bit as iconic.

In science fiction, spaceships are more than vehicles. They’re often characters in their own right, whether they can think for themselves or not. One of the lead characters in my new book Embers of War is the sentient warship Trouble Dog. Shaken by the horrors of war, she has chosen to resign her position in her fleet. 

Over the years, spaceships in fiction have come in many forms and guises. These are some of my favourites:

1. From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne
In the aftermath of the US civil war, members of the Baltimore Gun Club construct a cannon capable of launching three men to the moon. Published in 1865, this novel was one of the first to take a serious stab at describing a space vessel and its means of propulsion (earlier attempts involving balloons and geese notwithstanding). Although Verne got a few of his calculations wrong (the length of the cannon’s barrel would have to have been much longer), most of what he describes seems remarkably prescient when you consider it was written a century before the first real moon landings.

2. Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss
As members of a tribe of primitive people undertake a quest through an overgrown jungle, it slowly becomes apparent that they are aboard a huge spaceship, and the descendants of its original crew. They may have forgotten the fact and purpose of their voyage, but the ship itself has shaped them. The confines of its interior have led to them becoming smaller; the wild, over-spilling hydroponics garden has provided them with food and shelter. For Roy Complain and his little group of explorers, the spaceship literally is their whole world.

3. Nova by Samuel Delany
Completed when the author was only 25, Nova is a swaggering, heady smash-up of gritty space opera and serious literary ambition. It takes the tropes of traditional space opera and bolts them to a self-consciously mythical framework of grail and tarot lore. The main character, the doomed Lorq van Ray, leads a crew in search of a metal than can only be mined from the heart of an exploding star. They are flying an aged ship called the Roc, which requires the crew to physically and mentally connect themselves to its systems in order to fly.

4. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
The all-conquering story of a murdered starship’s quest for vengeance, and the human body in which it now finds its consciousness trapped. Leckie’s debut novel, the first volume in her Imperial Radch trilogy, won a stack of honours, including the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke awards.

5. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Due to a technical blunder, the last humans alive find themselves confined to their starship for centuries, while a different (and surprising) Earth species grows and evolves on the planet where they wanted to settle. Generations grow and wither in the corridors and cabins, while a few survivors of the original crew sleep in suspended animation, observing the same mistakes of power and aggression being played out again and again. Yet all the while, the ship remains a constant and unchanging presence around them, keeping them safe as the centuries pass.

6. Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks
A rollicking adventure featuring space pirates, shape-changers, sentient ships and interstellar war, which somehow also manages to simultaneously provide a deep and acutely painful meditation on the moral and emotional futility of conflict. When it comes to self-aware starships with quirky names, Banks is the touchstone.

7. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
Famous for the author’s vision of a galaxy segregated by “zones of thought” – areas in which certain technologies such as FTL and AI simply won’t work – A Fire Upon the Deep also presents us with a vision of a galaxy-wide internet chatroom and the terrifying incursion of an artificial super-intelligence into human society: perhaps the definitive use of the Singularity in space opera. Racing to rescue a pair of stranded human children, the starship Out of Band II carries its passengers on a long haul into the unknown.

8. The Martian by Andy Weir
While the focus of this book is on the astronaut Mark Watney’s attempts to survive alone on the surface of Mars, his crewmates spend months aboard the Hermes, the ship that brought them to Mars and which they’re now using to slingshot around the Earth and return to rescue him. Through cleverly sketched scenes, we get a vivid impression of life on board the cramped vessel. And in the end, the spaceship itself aids in the rescue attempt, at some cost to itself.

9. Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey
In the colonised solar system of a not-too-distant future, political tensions between Mars, Earth and the Belt threaten the stability and future of humanity. When a stealth ship attacks an ice-mining vessel, the survivors find themselves in possession of a small warship, which they name the Rocinante after Don Quixote’s steed. But while the Rocinante offers them a way out of their predicament, it quickly becomes much more – their home, the thing that holds them together as an ersatz family, and the means and muscle they need in order to survive, and bring the fight to the enemy. 

10. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
A space opera that has all the classic ingredients: a beaten-up ship, a crew of misfits and a galaxy filled with danger and adventure. Like its multi-species inhabitants, the starship Wayfarer is a bricolage of mismatching parts fused into one ugly but endearing whole. It isn’t here to win a beauty contest; it’s strictly a working vessel. But like the Rocinante above, it’s also a home and its crew a family bonded by their interdependence with, and love of, their vessel.


The Fermi Paradox

So, I’ve been thinking about the Fermi Paradox. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the paradox was suggested in 1950 by physicist Enrico Fermi, when he asked, “Where is everybody?”

His argument was that it tool 4 million years for potentially space-travelling life to evolve on Earth, but the universe is a thousand times older, so there should have been plenty of time for other star-faring races to evolve and overrun the galaxy–and yet, we don’t see them.

Many (mostly depressing) solutions have been put forward, postulating some kind of Great Filter that prevents civilisations reaching the level of technology necessary for us to detect them. Candidates for the Great Filter include nuclear war, pollution, the impossiblity of interstellar travel, and killer robots that destroy life wherever they detect it.

On Earth, life evolved in response to a series of great extinctions and a variable climate. When the dinosaurs died out, mammals just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And when climate change started to make life on the savannah difficult for our ape ancestors, they had to get smart or die. They had to diversify their diet, learn to hunt, and ultimately harness fire and travel north, into Europe and beyond. We wouldn’t have survived without our intelligence and desire to explore. But an alien species in a more stable environment (a sub-surface ocean beneath the ice of a frozen moon, for example) might never have the need to develop those characteristics. They may have curiosity, but their options for exploration or technology would be limited by their environment. Their world would be covered by kilometres of ice, beyond which only vacuum lies; and they probably wouldn’t discover fire and smelting on a seabed. The desire to look outwards and seek new frontiers may be an extremely rare trait.

My own personal thoughts on the matter are that given the size and age of the universe, intelligent alien life almost certainly exists, but given those vast gulfs of time and space, we are extremely unlikely to ever meet them.

Look at the picture of the Andromeda galaxy accompanying this post. Look how many stars there are there. Roughly a trillion. If one of those stars housed an alien race at the same technological level as us, how would we ever detect it? You could drop a fair-sized galactic empire in there and unless they were using spectacularly noisy star drives to power their ships, we’d still never know they were there.

But it isn’t just the distance. Every light year we peer into the cosmos is a year back in time. Andromeda is 2.537 million light years away, so we’re seeing it as it was when the first Homo habilis on Earth were just beginning to experiment with stone tools. Given that some estimate it would take humanity only 100,000 years to colonise our galaxy using self-replicating, slower-than-light craft, that’s plenty of time for a species to have done the same to Andromeda. There might be whole reefs of Dyson spheres, and a galaxy-wide civilisation existing there right now, but we won’t know anything about it for another 2.5 million years.

Or perhaps we simply missed them. Perhaps that vast empire collapsed a billion years ago, and we simply can’t see their ruins.

Perhaps vast waves of colonisation have already swept through our own galaxy and we simply don’t recognise their traces.

In our own solar system, there are anomalies. Mercury appears to be the solid iron core of a larger planet, stripped of most of its crust. Venus spins in the opposite direction to the rest of the planets, and has the slowest rotation of any of the planets. Did something smack into it, or could its rotational energy have been tapped by a supercivilisation in order to power an interstellar wormhole, slowing (and reversing) its rotation? Or perhaps, given that it was once apparently habitable, could it and Earth have been targetted by planet-killing robots that wrecked Venus’s climate and dealt us the blow that birthed our moon?

We exist in deep time and deep space. I live in hope that one day, we’ll find evidence that we’re not alone, but realise that given the distances involved, any species we detect will most likely have gone extinct by the time we detect them. And alas, the same holds true in reverse. By the time we’re spotted, we may be long gone.

“Look on my works, ye mighty and despair.”