Wells, Hitler and the World State is Orwell’s essay about H.G. Well’s and his inabilibty to see the danger that Hitler represented.
Only in the English-speaking countries was it fashionable to believe, right up to the outbreak of war, that Hitler was an unimportant lunatic and the German tanks made of cardboard. Mr. Wells, it will be seen from the quotations I have given above, believes something of the kind still. I do not suppose that either the bombs or the German campaign in Greece have altered his opinion. A lifelong habit of thought stands between him and an understanding of Hitler’s power.
Mr. Wells, like Dickens, belongs to the non-military middle class. The thunder of guns, the jingle of spurs, the catch in the throat when the old flag goes by, leave him manifestly cold. He has an invincible hatred of the fighting, hunting, swashbuckling side of life, symbolised in all his early books by a violent propaganda against horses. The principal villain of his Outline of History is the military adventurer, Napoleon. If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man. Now, he is probably right in assuming that a ‘reasonable,’ planned form of society, with scientists rather than witch-doctors in control, will prevail sooner or later, but that is a different matter from assuming that it is just round the corner.
It’s unsettling that over seventy years have passed since this essay yet many of these prejudices remain in science fiction. H.G. Wells casts a long shadow.
The genre’s faith in the rational and technological has withstood the bloodiest century in human history. Atomic weapons, industrialized death camps and, now, drones.
Torture devices using microwave radiation.
And after all that, we now have Neal Stephenson who insists that science fiction writers become “optimistic” and has created the Hieroglyph Project to encourage this most recent strain of middle class pollyannaism. It is, in his words, ”an effort to produce an anthology of new SF that will be in some ways a conscious throwback to the practical techno-optimism of the Golden Age.”
He lays the blame for the lack of technological process at the door of science fiction but, like many academics with a technocratic bent, fails to blame technology for modern warfare. And it’s good that he doesn’t. To do so would be a gross simplification.
But the notion that science or technology must be regarded with optimism, that it is somehow divorced from the devastation of entire cities, that it was religion that destroyed Hiroshima and mysticism that created the phosphorous that burned Fallujah to ash, is contrived ignorance.
The wonderful devices that “the golden age of techno-optimism” have birthed are made by people working in dangerous conditions, their mining an ongoing environmental disaster performed by exploited humans, who are often set in wars against each other, while the products they build, subject to the whims of fashion, are quickly sent to the landfill, where they no longer even serve their primary purpose of distracting people from all the problems their manufacture has caused.
The current pessimism is a result of the previous optimism.
Now, ignorance is never an acceptable solution. Like Asimov I believe that: “If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.” But dystopian fiction is not written to foster ignorance. It is written to foster awareness. Often political awareness.
And without that, none of the technological advances will be used in the service of humanity. They will be used to destroy it. We will have even less cause for optimism than we currently do.
This howling idea that a sceptical attitude towards technology, that anything less than ‘techno-optimism’, is destructive to human progress, is the frightened noise science makes when it’s viewed scientifically. Ironic but, given its track record, its fear is understandable. There is much to love in science. There is also much to terrify.
These days, it seems there is mainly a lot to masturbate to.
At the heart of this debate about optimistic science fiction is a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the genre. A misunderstanding grounded in marketing.
Science fiction is not about the future. It is about the present. Even, perhaps especially, when it thinks it isn’t.
Over the years, the genre has promoted itself as inspiring everything from the space program to the cell phone. (It takes a little less credit for atomic weapons, which were first imagined by H.G. Wells.) This marketing has met with so much success that science fiction has confused itself with futurism — a ‘science’ akin to astrology, economics or weather prediction.
And one is much better paid when speaking as a futurist than as an author.
What is basically a quirk of the genre — the very occasional correct prediction– has become a primary method of assessing the quality of the work. So much so that the military regularly pays well-known science fiction writers to sit on panels, discuss the future and come up with ideas.
(I doubt the military actually listens to these writers. More likely, they’re being used as stooges in the service of propaganda. Look how advanced and creative our army is. Look at how good and serious of a science fiction writer I am – the army hired me.)
Science fiction writers, these proponents of rationality, have embraced their role as techno-priests with the magical powers of predicting and, now, creating the future. But that is marketing.
And the old baloney factory has started eating its own baloney.
Neal Stephenson is a wonderful writer. Irrespective of genre, he’s probably one of the better ones working today. (Perhaps because so much of his work fails to meet this new techo-optimistic criteria.) It’s unfair to blame him or science fiction for the perceived lack of technological process. But given the way that science fiction has promoted itself –not as a tool to understand the present but as one to predict the future– it’s also understandable.
If science fiction wants to take the credit for the things it claims to have inspired, it must also take the blame for the lack of inspiring things. I don’t think it has any business doing either.
But I admire the honesty and integrity of Stephenson’s position. Unlike many authors who propose ‘techno-optimism’ he’s at least willing to take responsibility for the techno-failures. And to try to do something about it other than mouth defensive platitudes about all the good technology has done.
This is not such a bad thing.
Yet, catering to a misguided view by ignoring huge swarms of techno-consequences and adopting a form that flourished in the previous century and, frankly, belongs there, is a mistake. An honest and well-intentioned mistake but a mistake.
There is room for optimism and pessimism in science fiction. The world, the present day world, is more complex than science fiction can render. It always has been. One assumes it always will.
Of all literary forms, science fiction still offers the best tools for understanding and attacking the present while communicating its essential and shocking weirdness. It must not trade that to be ‘a conscious throwback’ to an obsolete optimism in the hopes of inspiring the next machine.
The genre is already and always in too much danger of becoming escapism.
But this not a problem of optimism or pessimism. Pessimistic works, grim-dark fantasies, proto-fascist, military space operas and the assorted power-fantasy, tentacled, violence-porn, can be just as escapist and defensive of the status quo as optimistic works.
We require honesty more we require than gadget propaganda.
We will not be of any service whatsoever by becoming William Gibson in rose coloured google goggles.