Science Fiction: Red Pill or Blue Pill?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Would you do anything if you were sitting on a deck chair of the Titanic and just finished a science fiction novel about an unsinkable ship crashing into an iceberg?

When I was young I was constantly told that science fiction was silly kids’ stuff. I refused to believe that. I loved science fiction and wanted it to be important, valuable, and even educational. I made all kinds of rationalizations that science fiction taught people to prepare for the future – to avoid extrapolated pitfalls or build what we imagined possible.

Was I fooling myself? I know perfectly well that most science fiction fans read for fun, not enlightenment. I was taught serious literature provided deep insights into human existence and genre fiction was escapism. Is reading science fiction swallowing the blue pill and reading serious literature taking the red pill?

Reality

Can fiction ever describe reality in a useful way like science? Literary writers work to describe their experiences in novels. How close can they get to recording reality realistically? Other writers use fiction to illustrate their philosophical observations on existence. How accurately can they paint in words? Are novels ever like photography was to paintings? And what about science fiction with settings of time and space entirely imagined? Can science fiction ever make observations that we can validate and use?

I like to believe science fiction is a cognitive tool for examining the edges of reality. Of course, science fiction is usually a form of entertainment that plays at the edges of reality. Religion used to be a cognitive tool for exploring those edges. Now it’s the opium of the masses. I worry that science fiction is becoming fictional fentanyl. Humans have an exceedingly difficult time accepting reality. Often, we want far more than what reality offers, even though our reality is infinitely rich. Analyzing science fiction and our favorite science fictional fantasies can reveal our subjective desires with external possibilities. Such psychoanalysis should reveal what percentage of our map of reality is based on delusions.

I think every time we read a book we should ask ourselves: Are we taking the red pill or the blue pill?

We Are Legion We Are Bob by Dennis E. TaylorI’m going to illustrate this idea by examining We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor. I chose it because it was new and popular. It has garnered 32,675 ratings since 9/20/16 with the average score of 4.7 out of 5 stars (as of 8/2/17). Some readers will think I’m attacking We Are Legion (We Are Bob) in this essay even though I rated it 5 stars at Goodreads and Audible. The book is no literary masterpiece, but very entertaining Sci-Fi. I want to dissect why. This might come across as critical – it’s not. I just want show how reading Taylor’s book can be a blue pill or red pill activity.

Ever since The Skylark of Space by E. E. “Doc” Smith we’ve been too enthusiastic about our science fictional hopes. We assume given enough time and technology we can make anything come true. Can we even tell reality from fantasy anymore when it comes to science fiction? Doesn’t the mania for Star Wars border on science fictional porn? Are we people who can’t grow up because of our childhood addiction to science fiction?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, we had nightmares about WWIII and nuclear annihilation, although those horrors were sometimes relieved by hopeful fantasies of the high frontier. Neither futures were inevitable. Now we live with the near surety of the collapses of the economy and ecosystem. Wealth inequality will probably destroy our civilization well before climate change can. Yet, we ignore both and party like it’s 1999. Does a choice of apocalypses on the menu even matter?

Why aren’t we doing something? We know we’re on the friggin’ Titanic. We know we have a date with an iceberg. Is watching Star Wars sequels on our iPads while we lounge in our deck chairs an acceptance of predestination?

WARNING: THIS IS NOT A BOOK REVIEW. THIS ESSAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!!!

First off, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed We Are Legion (We Are Bob) and finished it quickly because I was always anxious to get back to the story. This novel was fun like Galaxy Quest the movie, or Ready Player One, the book, both of which lovingly relish the science fiction subculture. It doesn’t have much of a plot, sort of a serial problem-solving story that made The Martian so much fun. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is funny and light, a serious story told in a non-serious way, but not absurdly zany like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I would consider this novel the perfect how-would-I-do-it fantasy for science fiction fans. Just replace Bob with your first name. I would love to have Jimiverse adventures.

Now I want to get out my literary scalpels and dissect We Are Legion (We Are Bob) into its component parts. I’m sure some folks will consider me kicking the crap out of the book, but that’s not my intention. My goal is to explore how I felt about science fiction when I was young and compare it with how I feel about science fiction now.

I’m trying to compare Jim-2017 with how I remember Jim-1967. Fifty years have changed me. I’m also comparing Science-Fiction-2017 with how I remember Science-Fiction-1967. And let me up front about something. I don’t think science fiction is the same for everyone, nor do I think all the views of science fiction today are any different from all the views of science fiction back then. I’m looking at my own view of science fiction and exploring how it’s changed over my lifetime.

Even though I found We Are Legion (We Are Bob) very entertaining, I didn’t find it very strong on the speculative science fiction scale. I’ve always made a distinction between science fiction as I define it and how other fans define the genre. What I call science fiction is speculation about possibilities, which I believe is different from entertainment that uses science fiction for story setting. The difference is subtle. Think of it as traveling back in time to the Jurassic and visiting Jurassic Park. The whole time I was reading We Are Legion (We Are Bob) I realized I was on a science fiction thrill ride. Fun, escapist, but little I can claim as red pill understanding of reality. However, it might say a lot about how I’d want my blue pill to affect me.

I’m impressed with what Dennis E. Taylor created with We Are Legion (We Are Bob). Any introverted science fiction fan would probably sell their soul to be Bob. Hell, if you offered them sex with a hundred of their most desirable sex objects or life as Bob, most would opt to live the life of Bob. Taylor has imagined a science fictional heaven. Which makes We Are Legion (We Are Bob) a perfect example of blue pill science fiction. Here are just some of the SF ideas it uses:

  • Suspended animation to get into the future. In this case cryogenic freezing. The beginning reminds me a bit of The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein.
  • Brain downloading to a machine. A popular topic in and out of science fiction.
  • Observing reality with a digital consciousness
  • Intelligent space probes/spaceships
  • Interstellar flight at sublight speeds
  • War between intelligent machines
  • Von Neuman probes
  • First contact
  • FTL communication
  • Prime directive
  • Berserker machines
  • End of humanity on Earth
  • Migration to the stars
  • Space battles
  • Xenocide
  • Colonizing planets
  • Terraforming
  • Uplifting new species
  • 3D Printers

Science-Fiction-2017 is far slicker than Science-Fiction-1967. The people who create science fiction stories and movies know they are in the entertainment business. When I was growing up, most of them knew they were in the entertainment business too, but some of them worked as crazy-ass philosophers or sociologists (Heinlein, Le Guin, Dick, Brunner, Russ). They lacked the authority or degrees to be serious intellectuals, but they had plenty of theories to promote. I see Kim Stanley Robinson as a philosophical descendant of Heinlein and Clarke.

Dennis E. Taylor obvious loves science fiction. He’s an older fan, claiming he didn’t start writing until his late fifties. He’s a computer guy and his story is equally inspired by Wired, Silicon Valley, and SF writers like Cory Doctorow, Ernest Cline, and John Scalzi. And that’s part of the problem with writing science fiction today – it must compete with the legacy of older science fiction and with all the young Turks. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is not speculative heavy like Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, cutting edge like Lix Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past, or narratively innovative like the Ancillary books by Ann Leckie. Taylor is fun like Becky Chambers’ Galactic Commons stories. Taylor reminds me of John Scalzi more than he does Kim Stanley Robinson.

One of the major plot conundrums of science fiction is how to get a person from our time into the future. Sleep is often the answer. One of my favorite novels is Heinlein’s The Door into Summer which uses “cold sleep” to get Dan Davis into the future. Taylor uses a modern variation of this idea by getting Bob to buy a contract to have his head frozen when he dies. In a way, this is like Professor Jameson stories – he had to die first.

Strangely, Taylor gets Bob into the future not to explore the future, but to get him the technology to be downloaded. From there on out in the story, Taylor does not speculate about future technology but merely uses slightly refined current day technology like 3D printers.

I must wonder if Dennis Taylor is an introvert because this story is very introverted. Most of the characters are copies of the original character. They live in VR rooms and manipulate the outside world. I do that myself in a way since I stay mostly at home and observe the world and reality at a distance. Each version of Bob is different. That I found troublesome since each is a program that is copied from a backup of a previous Bob. Taylor said earlier drafts of the novel had them the same but it didn’t work as fiction. But Taylor doesn’t give us adequate reasons in the story for each Bob to be different. This is where I started dissecting the story.

Downloading human minds into computers has been a hot topic for decades. There are scientists who study the idea. Personally, I think the idea is about as real as dying and going to heaven. But let’s give the idea a chance. Taylor only makes a minimum effort to help us imagine what being a computer program would be like. That’s unfortunate. Obviously, he believes readers want to get on with the adventure of exploring space and saving humanity. I didn’t – I wanted more about digital reincarnation.

I wanted Taylor to speculate about living without a biological body. Without chemicals (hormones) would we have emotions? Wouldn’t a digitized version of ourselves be an emotionless thinker with only vague memories of once being alive? And what would drive our thoughts if we didn’t have emotions?

Here’s my problem. I believe real science fiction must be realistic speculation. Star Wars science fiction is escapist Disneyland fairy tales exactly equal to religious fantasies of the past. In other words, promises of things that will not happen. Religion has always promised life after death, and downloading minds is just another empty pipedream.

Aurora by Kim Stanley RobinsonOf course, my assumption about how reality works stops the story cold. Here’s the problem for current science fiction writers. More and more science is showing that our minds are 100% tied to our bodies, and more than likely, our bodies are going to be 100% tied to our Earthly environment. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson is an excellent exploration of the second part of that statement.

This is where Jim-1967 differs from Jim-2017. Jim-1967 had a lot of ideas about the future that have since turned out unscientific and impossible. The trouble is Science-Fiction-2017 keeps believing in those ideas.

I feel somewhere between 1967 and 2017 science fiction forked into two branches. One branch is entertainment science fiction that most people love, and the other branch is speculative fiction that seriously tries to understand the limits of reality that science has yet to define. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) belongs to the entertainment branch, and I believe is a very entertaining story for people who love that kind of science fiction. I believe it only pays the slightest lip service to the other branch. Is that because Taylor wants to be a successful writer and attract hordes of readers?

Or am I wrong, and Taylor actual thinks everything in the story is possible? If my brain was digitized and I was reborn inside a computer I think I could be happy with that existence. But is that belief only because it’s my only hope for avoiding death? Am I being realistic?

I’m not sure realistic science fiction isn’t considered a downer by readers. I considered Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson to have been the best science fiction novel of 2015 but it wasn’t up for a Hugo in 2016. Is that because it questions the faith of science fiction believers?

Why don’t we see more science fiction about climate change? The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, another book from 2015, is a novel that deals with climate change, but it was also ignored for the Hugos. For the 2017 Hugos, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders addresses climate catastrophe but not directly. Interestingly, it’s a story of magic v. science, and science appears to be the evil bad guys. Anders personifies nature with magic, but magic will not solve the problem of capitalism and technology run amok.

Entertainment science fiction must constantly borrow from speculative science fiction to give an illusion of maintaining its science fiction bona fides. Usually, entertainment science fiction mines past science fiction for settings and plots. Entertainment science fiction is as realistic as Disney recreations. But isn’t animatronics getting more realistic all the time? Isn’t the seduction of VR that it’s a better reality that reality?

As a lifelong science fiction fan, here’s my existential problem of being Jim-2017. I wish I could live the entertainment science fiction life. I wish those futures were possible. As Jim-1967 I believed those futures were possible. But Jim-2017 knows they are not. So, Jim-2017 craves speculative science fiction that’s honest. I want to die knowing what the realistic possibilities are for humans living in this universe. By those standards, We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is of little use – it’s a blue pill and not a red pill.

If you live long enough you’ll notice that some people get stuck in pop culture dreams. Has that happened to science fiction fans?

Below are some of the 21st Century SF books I’ve read. I’ve marked some which I think have a reasonable degree of reality in them. Of course, that might be my optimism or pessimism showing through.

  1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  2. The Martian by Andy Weir
  3. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
  4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  6. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  7. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
  8. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  9. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
  10. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  11. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  12. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
  13. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  14. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  15. Redshirts by John Scalzi
  16. The City & The City by China Miéville
  17. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  18. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  19. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
  20. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
  21. Accelerando by Charles Stross
  22. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
  23. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  24. Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
  25. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  26. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  27. The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey
  28. Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
  29. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
  30. WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer
  31. WWW: Watch by Robert J. Sawyer
  32. WWW: Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer
  33. Feed by Mira Grant
  34. Lock In by John Scalzi
  35. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  36. Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson
  37. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  38. Flood by Stephen Baxter
  39. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
  40. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
  41. New York City 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

JWH

12 thoughts on “Science Fiction: Red Pill or Blue Pill?”

  1. When I compare the 1967 me with the 2017 me (in the context of reading Science Fiction) I find the stuff I read in 1967 had the ability to generate a “sense of wonder” in me that contemporary SF just doesn’t. Charles Stross does not have the mojo of Robert Silverberg (although I enjoy both writers), Alastair Reynolds doesn’t light me up like Jack Vance did (although both writers specialize in Space Opera). I changed, but the SF genre changed, too.

    1. George, I also have a hard time finding current SF that excites me as much as science fiction I first discovered a half-century ago. Now, that might be because I was in my teens then, and I’m an old jaded fart now.

      I was just going through Audible.com’s new releases for science fiction. I went through almost 400 titles without finding anything I wanted. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is the only book I’ve found lately that has some of that old reading excitement.

      I’m currently listened to Anne of Green Gables, an old book for girls, and finding it far more compelling than any new science fiction I can find. Most of the few science fiction I look at is recycled old science fiction. Just how many invaders from space stories can you read, or marines in space, or astronauts stranded on Mars, etc.

  2. I can´t agree more with your view “SF should be realistic speculation” that´s why SF can be, and is, both the blue and red pill. If I had to pick the best SF book I´ve read, that would be “Rendezvous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke. It´s not the one I like the most, but the one I´d choose out of sheer honesty. I wonder if you´re familiar with the fact that academics are profiling future social “evolution” on the basis of the literary work of four, very well known “dystopians” George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, Franz Kafka and Aldous Huxley. And they´re doing it because systems dynamics analitics prove their premises correct. They´re in fact outlining every country in the world by how much they resemble these writers´ views.

    Scientists have extensively studied the collapse of 27 ancient civilizations. In conclusion, overreaching, population growth and internal corruption always lead to a terminal phase when resource depletion and surplus energy dissappearance disintegrate society at breakneck speed. The terminal phase is kicked in by currency debasement and always the most criminal leaders in charge. Sad, but true. Societies always end up as a cover for mass explotation and irrational over-privilege of a very small group, anarchysts have always had a point in this. Sadly, this “techno-industrial” civilization is going that way too, really fast. In this regard, 21st century SF is not doing a good job at all. As you summed up so well, we got either Star-wars fairy tales or horror/drama-like stories as realistic as the 80´s slasher films or japanese mangas.

    Carl Sagan wrote that we are nothing more than wicked kids with a box of matches. Time is proving him right in spades. There is no true advance at all without moral and ethic development. The human tragedy will always be the wilfull ignorance of this fact.

    Best wishes

    1. It’s actually a bit gloomier than that. Modern technological civilization requires some specific modern mineral resources. The easy to get to stuff has already been dug up and used.

      If civilization fell back to medieval levels, could we mine our way back to our present levels?

      1. I’ve been thinking about that for years. If our world civilization collapses could it rebuild a new technological civilization? And could a civilization achieve our level of scientific understanding without technology?

  3. My suspicion is that a lot of modern writers sort of back engineer their stories using ideas from other people to create the universe and plot they want and then reverse engineer the rationalizing science.

    Whatever I may think of their conclusions or concerns there are at least some writers like Kim Stanley Robinson trying to bring some realism in their speculations.

    Of course, no one’s going to listen to your wisdom and observations and suggestions unless you wrap it in a compelling sf message. Even then it may be ignored. Writing compelling propaganda (in the neutral sense of shaping opinions) is hard.

    Ideally, I’d like my science fiction to be realistic in its speculations and have something thoughtful to say and do it with an interesting plot and style. But my favorite sf novel is The Stars My Destination which certainly fails on the first count.

    I think you can sort of strike a balance. For me, Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium series has some worthwhile things to say on government (not to mention its Cold War context), but it’s rationalized with a stock FTL so its whole lab of speculation is one remove from reality.

    And speculating plausibly on the future gets harder and harder and grimmer and grimmer, and the work may not be monetarily rewarded.

    Those of us older sf fans also see the same dreams show up in sf stories — only the rationalizing mechanisms change (i.e. monkey glands once and now nanotech and tellomere editing for longevity). That also makes newer sf feel like retreads even when they’re not.

    1. Science fiction can’t be propaganda and sell. Stories have to have great storytelling to appeal to readers. Writers know they need to be entertaining. But I think there is a difference between innovative science fiction and pastiches of science fiction. It’s easy to create modern versions of Captain Future. Isn’t that Hans Solo?

      I thought The Windup Girl and Aurora was among the most creative science fiction novels we’ve had in years, but many of my friends claim they weren’t fun. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) was a lot of fun, but I didn’t feel it offered any new science fictional insights.

      I sometimes worry that all the great science fictional ideas have been discovered and we’re only refining them. I recently read “Touring With the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman that has been anthologized in 4 best-of-the-year anthologies this summer. It felt it had something new. An intelligent alien that wasn’t conscious. You can read it here:

      http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/gilman_04_16/

  4. Technology to the rescue or a new way to screw things up. LOL

    I noticed some time ago that reading reviews on the Internet was almost worthless. What was the value system of the reviewer and even when science was significant to the story the reviewers usually said nothing about it. So it occurred to me that it should not be possible to write a “sciency” science fiction story without using science words. So what would be the result of a computer program that scanned the text of a work and counted all of the science words and computed an SF Density. After fiddling with ‘C’ for a while and getting some results I switched to Python. Then I figured I might as well count Fantasy words also. A Fall of Moondus by Arthur C. Clarke has always been one of my favorites.

    astronomers 10 electronic 10 engineers 10 vacuum 10
    solar 10 engineer 11 astronomer 12 scientific 12
    scientist 13 program 14 gravity 15 infrared 17
    circuit 19 centimeters 26 pressure 26 Lagrange 27
    oxygen 44 radio 44

    The input file is: ACC.FaloMndst.txt with 443298 characters.
    It uses 103 SF words 581 times for an SF density of 1.311

    The word count limit of: 44 was exceeded by: 2

    castles == 1 prophets == 1 spell == 1 magical == 1
    castle == 1 wand == 2 magic == 2 conjuring == 3
    charm == 3 spirit == 3 spirits == 5

    11 Fantasy words used 23 times for a Fantasy density of 0.052

    Ender’s Game is rather different:

    pressure 10 brains 11 ansible 14 planet 22
    computer 44 gravity 51

    The input file is: /home/barlowj/Documents/e-books/1prop/OSC/OSC.EndersGame.txt with 582652 characters.
    It uses 55 SF words 261 times for an SF density of 0.448

    curses == 1 conjure == 1 unicorn == 1 king == 1
    dragon == 1 dwarves == 2 witch == 2 sword == 2
    spell == 2 magic == 2 curse == 3 queens == 6
    castle == 7 queen == 27

    14 Fantasy words used 58 times for a Fantasy density of 0.100

  5. I’m sure you know and assume you’ve read books published outside the SF genre James,that deal with more fantastic themes,such as Anna Kavan’s “Ice” and Angela Carter’s novels.They have depth and characterization that make them concrete and believable,but both resemble traditional SF to be found within it’s confines.The trouble with SF is,that much of it has been of a non-literary nature.An author like Olaf Stapleton is another case in point I think,who dealt with more realistic themes.

    It’s difficult it seems to really define in this case I think,what you call the red and blue pills of SF.

    1. I think it’s simple. If the story helped you understand reality better it’s a red pill. If it helps you escape reality it’s a blue pill. A story can be entirely fiction/false/fantasy yet still reveal truths about reality. Allegories do that. Science fiction can be either. Just because a story contains scientifically factual information it doesn’t mean it will educate the reader about their place in reality.

      I think a great example is REPLAY by Ken Grimwood. It’s a fantasy, but philosophically very useful.

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