In their stories, science fiction writers imagine future worlds. Their thought experiments play out scenarios for the future, says literary scholar Philipp Theisohn.
By Roger Nickl
English translation by Toby Alleyne-Gee
Fifty years ago, on 21 July 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon. However, French author Jules Verne had rocketed astronauts into space to orbit the Earth’s satellite in his visionary novel, Around the Moon, as long as a century before the moon landing. Yesterday’s science fiction sometimes actually does become today’s reality. Many ideas for the future outlined by 19th-century authors have certainly done so – such as the credit card, which the American author Edward Bellamy describes in his 1888 book Looking Backward: 2000–1887. “Admittedly, it’s not the case that the credit card was invented because of Bellamy’s idea,” says Philipp Theisohn. “Science fiction is not industrial research; it never works like that.”
Theisohn is a Germanist who specializes not only in Carl Spitteler and Gottfried Keller, but also in science fiction and the question of how the future – in other words, something that has not yet occurred – can be narrated. “Because we cannot bear uncertainty, tales of the future are an attempt to safeguard our existence,” says the literature scholar. “They protect us in our own vulnerability.” They are thus akin to the ancient myths, which tell us where we come from. Science fiction novels, by contrast, show us where we could be heading. They propose hypotheses for the future. “Science fiction expresses an interest in findings – and expects a narrative solution,” says Theisohn. For the literary scholar and futurologist, science fiction is thus about much more than stories that speculate on future scientific and technical innovations. Rather, they are thought experiments that play out possibilities and perspectives for the future.
Good science fiction authors outline future worlds which, although fictitious, are in themselves plausible and logically consistent. Indebted to the “scientific method,” they adopt a scientific approach to research and writing. These authors are up to date on the latest research and often have a scientific background – like the successful Chinese sci-fi writer, physicist and economist Hao Jingfang, who recently attracted attention with her novella Folding Beijing.
The combination of fiction and in-depth knowledge is not only appealing for readers, but also interesting for scientists and engineers. That is why writers are also in demand in Silicon Valley, for example, where they collaborate in think tanks that focus on the world of tomorrow. “It’s about anticipating developments and envisaging products that we don’t yet even need,” says Theisohn.
However, sci-fi authors don’t usually observe scientific and technological developments in isolation. “Science fiction doesn’t discuss technology for technology’s sake,” says literary researcher Theisohn. “It’s a social literary genre.” Science fiction novels ask what conceivable innovations could mean for future societies, and highlight the potential social consequences, opportunities and risks of such innovations.
If teleportation were possible
One such example is American author Alfred Bester’s novel The Stars My Destination,published in 1956. In the fictitious world of Bester’s struggling hero Gully Foyle, teleportation – being “beamed” from one place to another – is possible. This technology is indeed pure fiction, and implementing it, if ever, is a long way off. “But the interesting thing about this novel is that Alfred Bester explores the question of what uncontrolled mobility can mean for a society – for its economy, security policy, and private life,” says Philipp Theisohn. Literature makes it possible to play out and test such scenarios. “The stress test shows whether social structures are sustainable under certain circumstances. And science fiction conducts a great many such stress tests.”
Chinese writer Hao Jingfang also conducts a fictional stress test. In her novella Folding Beijingof 2017, she provides an answer to how the future mega-city of Beijing could handle the shortage of space. In Jingfang’s story, the future 80-million-strong metropolis is folded like an origami artwork according to a fixed time schedule, in order to treat one section of the population to a little life on the surface at a time. Those who are folded away fall into a deep sleep.
In the Chinese author’s story, the amount of time one is permitted to spend in daylight depends on one’s social class. While the elite are allowed to spend 24 hours on the surface, the middle class may spend 16, and the lower class 10 hours – during the night. “Hao Jingfang examines what pressure such spatial regulations exert on politics, what role technology plays in this, and the fairness of such a society,” says Philipp Theisohn. For East Asia, where people already know what it means to be short of space, these are key topics.
Most visions of the future outlined by science fiction writers are alarming. The works of 19th-century author Edward Bellamy, who dreamed of credit cards, are quite different. In 1888, he sketched a utopian vision of the future. The society that his protagonist Julian West encounters in the United States of the year 2000 has overcome social issues. In the world in which he awakes after a profound sleep imposed by hypnosis, people are living together on an equal footing.
However, such positively tinged images of the future are the exception in science fiction literature. Dystopias and scenarios culminating in catastrophe are far more widespread. These include sci-fi classics such as George Orwell’s 1984, set in a totalitarian police state, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which people are scientifically conditioned and live in a rigid class society, as well as works of cyberpunk literature such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which the famous film Blade Runnerwas based. According to Philipp Theisohn, utopias and dystopias are not mutually exclusive antitheses, but two sides of the same coin. Our fear of and wishes for the future are closely interlinked. Desires can rapidly become fears, and vice versa. “We in fact develop technologies that support us and make life easier,” says Theisohn. “However, they ultimately also control us, but only because they do what we want of them.”
Our smartphones are a current example of the ambivalence between our desires and fears. These devices give us free access to information anywhere and connect us with people all over the world, thus embodying the promise of future liberty, availability and pleasure. “What we often overlook is the fact that digital media function according to their own rules and control us, not vice versa,” says Theisohn. “If we become aware of this, our desires can turn to fear, and the promise of salvation can become disillusionment.” Forward-looking science fiction literature reflects on precisely such ambivalence.
Smart machines and how we handle them feature prominently in Philipp Theisohn’s own reflections on the future. For it is foreseeable that in future we will cohabit with increasingly intelligent algorithms, computers and robots. “This will involve a convergence that will also change us,” says Theisohn. “The more machines are able to do, the more they will demystify us as human beings.”
The literary scholar is therefore also convinced that the future will see us applying a sophisticated machine-related system of ethics telling us the appropriate way to interact with smart technology. “Because if, someday, we have truly intelligent, self-learning machines at our disposal, we must treat them as human beings,” he says. “If, on the other hand, we treat them as slaves, they will also learn to treat us the same way.” In that sense, the machines of the future will make us take a look in the mirror. We can only guess how living with smart, emotional devices is going to be – but in the virtual space of literature and the internet, we can already try it out.
Reading Tips – Three Centuries of Science Fiction
Looking Backward: 2000–1887
In his classic novel, published in 1888, Edward Bellamy has his hero Julian West wake up in the year 2000 after sleeping for more than a hundred years. He encounters a society that cohabits peacefully and has, among other things, credit cards at its disposal.
Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward: 2000–1887; Cosimo Classics 2008
The Stars My Destination
In 1956, American author Alfred Bester set his story of astronaut Gully Foyle in a dazzling future. Humans have learned to “jaunt” – timeless teleportation – and a war is raging between Earth and the Outer Satellites. In the midst of it all, Gully Foyle seeks justice.
Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination; Orion Publishing Group 2010
In her novella published in English in 2015, Chinese author Hao Jingfang describes Beijing as a work of origami art in which its citizens, classified according to sectors and depending on their practical value, live – or work and sleep – under or below ground level. Lao Dao, a laborer in a waste disposal facility in the Third Sector, takes on a risky errand to the shielded First Zone – and discovers a grim secret behind the foldable walls of this brave new world.
Hao Jingfang: Folding Beijing; trans. Ken Liu; Uncanny Magazine 2015