Explaining My Addiction to Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, 9/26/21

One reason I haven’t been posting much here lately is because I’m writing a short story review every other day on my science fiction site. I’m reviewing The Big Book of Science Fiction, an anthology of over a hundred science fiction stories from the 20th century, including many stories I’ve read over the past sixty years. The whole endeavor is a kind of self-psychoanalysis of a lifetime addiction to science fiction.

I’m slowly realizing what science fiction means to me. In 1960, I became a bookworm in the 4th grade to cope with the stress of growing up. In the 5th and 6th grades I slowly focused that addiction on science fiction. A couple decades ago I realized I had substituted belief in science fictional ideas for my childhood beliefs religion, becoming an atheist around age 12 or 13. But actual space exploration played a part too. Sputnik went up weeks after I began the first grade, and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon weeks after I graduated high school.

When I first started reading science fiction in the early 1960s I knew no one else that read it too. Then in March, 1967 I met my buddy Connell in 10th grade who became my lifelong friend. When I discovered he had read some science fiction I asked him who was his favorite author. I expected him to say Heinlein, since I assumed Heinlein was the absolute best. Instead, Connell said Clarke. We’ve been arguing ever since.

After Star Trek ended in 1969 I realized that millions of science fiction fans had come out of the closet. I joined an APA in 1970, then a local science fiction club, and then started going to SF conventions with my friend Greg. At the time, science fiction fans seem few and far between.

Then in 1977 Star Wars came out, and it seemed like everyone began to love science fiction. But I soon realized that even though the world loved science fiction on TV and at the movies, very few people actually read the science fiction magazines, and only slightly more people regularly read science fiction books.

As a kid, I wanted to be a science fiction writer like other kids wanted to be rock stars, football players, or astronauts. And even though I took writing courses in high school and college I never developed the discipline to write. Later on, I guess as a mid-life crisis, I took off six weeks from work in 2002 and attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and afterwards began a MFA in creative writing. I still didn’t have what it took. When I retired in 2013 I thought I’d finally get down to writing, but I didn’t.

Over the eight years I’ve been retired I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of science fiction. It’s become a pleasurable hobby to fill my time. But I’ve also discovered why I’ve psychologically embraced the genre. For most of my life I thought that space travel was important to the development of humanity, and science fiction was a kind of prophetic literature that gave exploring the high frontier meaning. Now I see wanting to leave Earth as a kind of psychological escape, and science fiction is only a minor art form, a specialized kind of fantasy and entertainment.

In my old age, I read science fiction and admire it for creative storytelling. But I know it’s only a couple steps up artistically from comic book reading. I do read literary novels, and know the difference. Science fiction appeals to the adolescent in me. That keeps me positive while the world around me is turning negative. Reading science fiction in my old age makes me realize I never grew up, but then I’m also realizing most of the people around me never have either. As a species we’re not very good at maturing and facing up to reality.

The percentage of people who rely on denialism to cope with reality grows every day. I like to think I don’t deny reality so much as avoid it. Most of the people who aren’t deniers tend to be avoiders. Only a small percentage of the population face up to reality. I don’t mind reading and studying reality, but I have no discipline to live the life I know I should live. Reading science fiction is my way of occupying my mind when I’m not thinking about how humanity is destroying itself.

I admire people who actual do something about the problems we face, but they are very rare. Most of us just fool ourselves that everything is going to be okay and maybe do a few token things to help, but isn’t that really an effort to sooth our guilt? Reading science fiction is my version of watching Ted Lasso or The Andy Griffith Show. But we’re all on the Titanic killing time in amusing ways even though we know we could change the ship’s course if we worked together. Unfortunately, cooperation is not in our genes.

Reading science fiction teaches me about the possibilities. Science fiction has always been about building better futures, advocating better societies (utopias) or warnings of de-evolving into dystopias, or even the nightmares of apocalypses. It’s all too obvious that we’re actually heading towards the collapse of our global civilization and an environmental apocalypse. Half the population copes by denying this, and the other half that does recognize our destiny does little to avoid it.

We indulge in mindless consumerism and socializing, or restless tourism, or occupy our minds with political and religious rationalizations. When I see people protesting that the 2020 election was stolen, or vaccinations are evil, or the January 6th attack on the capitol didn’t happen I realize those people have the psychology of children, the kind who throw tantrums, who scream “You can’t make me” or “You’re not the boss of me” to their parents, teachers, and even peers. But you can’t reason with them not because they can’t see reason, which they can’t, but because that’s their survival mechanism, and if you could get past it, these people would only fall apart. I have to assume reading science fiction is my survival mechanism.

I am starting to worry a tiny bit because some of my coping mechanisms are starting to fail. I used to binge watch TV in the evenings. I’ve always loved TV, and looking back see that it was a reality stress releaser too. But I now have to try a dozen or two dozen TV shows or movies before I can find one that I can watch. And I no longer can watch TV and movie science fiction. For example, I was looking forward to the new production of the Foundation series on Apple TV+. It just annoyed me, and I quit trying after fifteen minutes. I forced myself to finish the first episode the next night, but still no joy.

I worry that I’m also going to develop a tolerance to written science fiction, and it will fail to hold my attention like my TV watching. So far, I still find great pleasure in reading science fiction short stories. I don’t have the patience to read novels anymore, but continue to enjoying reading old SF anthologies and magazines. I worry that this love won’t last.

Luckily, I still have other interests to turn to if I finally wear out on science fiction. The current state of the world is very sobering. It might even cure my addiction to science fiction, but I doubt it. I’ve had it my whole life now. It might be too late to give up. But my attitude has changed. We wanted a lot of fantastic things from religion, and that’s true of science fiction. That’s why I compare them. I believe we need to change our expectations for both. Religion and science fiction need to focus on reality. They both need to be more down to Earth.

JWH

Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human

James Wallace Harris, 3/13/21

Androids that can pass for humans have become very popular characters in books, movies, and television shows. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro is the second novel I’ve read by a literary writer to explore this theme, the first being Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. I reviewed it back in 2019. I have to admit that literary writers do a better job at characterization than science fiction writers. Klara is a fully realized being that we come to know from a first person perspective.

And I was impressed with Ishiguro’s science fictional speculation. He develops Klara with a distinctive speech pattern and we learn about Klara’s way of perceiving the world through Klara’s narration. Klara is designed to be a girl robot, an artificial friend, and androids like Klara are referred to as AFs in the book. Other than looks, Klara’s personality has little to identify as female. Klara is a being with growing awareness and Klara’s consciousness grows by observations. We never know exactly what Klara looks like, but since Klara is supposed to be a companion for a teenage girl we have to assume it looks like one.

However, one of my greatest objections to stories about androids passing as humans is giving them gender. For some reason creators of such stories believe AI minds will have gender and that’s illogical. AI minds, no matter what their outer casing looks like will not have gender because they will not be based on biology. Nor will they have human emotions. All of our emotions are tied to our biological subsystems. Writers of these stories seem to assume people will want to buy machines just like themselves. That might be true, but it won’t happen.

Klara starts out life in a store waiting to be bought. I imagined an upscale Apple Store. We slowly learn how Klara thinks about things from its observations. Klara’s vision is broken down into a grid system. Sometimes this appears to help Klara with perspective, sometimes with identifying objects, and sometimes with analysis of the details of specific aspects of what’s Klara sees. If you remember Deckard using the machine to analyze a photograph in Blade Runner, that’s how I envisioned Klara’s visual field. I thought this clever of Ishiguro.

Klara is eventually bought to be the companion for Josie, a young teenage girl around fourteen who suffers from an unnamed medical condition. Josie’s sister died from a similar condition. One of the mysteries of the novel is what they suffer from.

Ishiguro fleshes out this story with many other current science fictional speculations. Some kids, like Josie have been genetically altered (think Gattaca) while others haven’t. Josie’s closest childhood friend Rick hasn’t. The society of this world has also put many people out of work while elevated other humans with high status jobs. In this story, Josie’s mom has such a valuable job, but her divorced dad doesn’t.

Another fascinating theme introduced by Ishiguro is theology. Klara is a Sun worshipper, which is logical since Klara runs on solar power. However, Klara’s simple-minded beliefs are hard to accept. Ishiguro makes his AFs childlike in their thinking. If we ever create AI minds with general knowledge, including a chip with all of human knowledge would probably only add a buck to the cost. AI minds will know all human languages, all of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, all of history, literature, and the arts, all of philosophy, religion, and psychology.

But Klara and the Sun is a story, and for this story, Klara has an innocent faith in the Sun. Giving theology to robots is what made Battlestar Galactica great, and has the same effect here.

Klara and the Sun is really about human relationships, and all the plot complications deal with Josie and her family. Without spoiling the story, it’s what the humans want and fear from machines that make the novel philosophically interesting. Ultimately, I believe Ishiguro rejects our sillier desires for androids that pass for humans such as creating them to satisfy our sexual urges, but even the ones he does suggest seem tied to our basic instincts.

Overall, Klara and the Sun is an enjoyable story, but more and more I’m getting disappointed that writers can’t picture realistic AI beings, or imagine such realistic AI beings’ impact on our society. There are no real reasons to create robots that look like us. There’s no reason to think they will think or feel like we do. And they will certainly have immense intelligences that will dwarf ours. We will probably anthropomorphize them even when real AI beings with general intelligence emerge because that’s our hangup.

But how will AI minds see us? Our behaviors will be inscrutable to them. They won’t be able to imagine love, hate, pain, lust, anxiety, humor, greed, jealousy, pride, and all our other emotions. AI minds will understand us like biologists study all nonhuman living organisms. AI minds will see us through their statistical studies of our behavior and by theorizing on how our behavior coincides with our languages. But could you imagine love, hate, or pain if you’ve never felt them?

Klara believes Josie was helped by the theology Klara imagined, but there is no real reason to believe this is true. If you read this novel, pay attention to Klara’s usefulness throughout the story. Does Ishiguro ever suggest that an AF would be an actual useful companion for teenagers? Or is Klara no more than a sentimental toy?

How will humanity be helped or hurt by AI minds? I think such novels are waiting to be written. So far all the ones about computer overlords or humans passing for human are based on our most basic emotions. Writers need to think outside our brain box we can’t seem to escape.

I actually thoroughly enjoyed reading Klara and the Sun despite my nitpicking about how writers want us to believe we can create androids that will pass as humans.

Other Takes:

JWH

Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/21

Rereading the 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy unearthed long suppressed feelings and ambitions that first emerged in my personality back in the 1960s and 1970s. When I first read Hackers in 1985 it rekindled those formative emotions and desires then as well. I’ll start my seventies this year and I have to wonder when do hopes that I formed in my teens finally fade away? When can I just give up and be here now? When do I stop trying to constantly be who I was? Why don’t hopes have expirations dates? Why are these books so exciting after all these years?

I remember four years ago triggering these same emotions and ambitions when I reread The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I tried to write about what I felt, but those words don’t capture what I’m trying to say now. One thing about growing older, at least for me, is seeking clarity about my time in reality. Before I die, or my mind fades away, I want eliminate all the bullshit barnacles that encrusts my soul.

My current theory is we acquire our personal dreams and desires from pop culture and subcultures. During my lifetime I’ve belonged to many subcultures, but the two I loved most are science fiction and computers. Both current forms of those subcultures have long past me by, but their initial seduction have left subprograms running within my mind that never stop. Why was I able to deprogram myself of childhood religious programming, but I’ve never been able to escape that cultural programming acquired from age 12-22?

You’d think we’d forget old beliefs as we acquired new insights. Of course, I’m generalizing, assuming all people are the same. Maybe other people do that, but I don’t. Why can’t we emotionally be like historians who rewrite history with new discovers. For example, after rereading Hackers I read A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018) by Joy Lisi Rankin. Basically, Rankin is saying, hold on there Steven Levy, your history of computer pioneers from MIT and Silicon Valley leave out a lot of middle America computer pioneers. Her book is reshaping my sense of computer history I got from Hackers. Why don’t I do the same things with my personal history?

This is not the book review I sat down to write. I might try again, but let’s go with the flow. These books hit the bullseye of my old computer ambitions. Over the past year I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos about 8-bit computers, especially those from The 8-Bit Guy. David Murray essentially has traveled back in time to work on computers at the point where Hackers ends in 1984. Many other YouTubers have done this too. I’ve wondered if the solution to my problem with all these old hopes and desires is to return to a past point in time and start over. I realize at this moment, that’s exactly what I’ve done with science fiction. I’m reading and collecting what I loved best from 1965-1975. That’s kind of weird when you think about it. But maybe it’s a natural aspect of aging too.

However, I also tell myself I should jettison my past like they were my first and second rocket stages and seek orbit for what I could be in 2021. But could that be me bullshitting myself that I’m not too old to learn new tricks. Of course, maybe one way not to stir up old emotions and desires is to stop consuming old pop culture. Does my library of old books, magazines, movies, and TV shows keep those old subprograms going? Actually, yes.

I have a friend, Anne, who lives so in the present that she hates the past, and even throws away old photographs and mementos when she finds them. I also live in the present by reading books published in 2020 and magazines that are February 2021 current. If I tossed out my old library and read only new books and magazines I would become a different person. I could become a fast nimble speedboat. But because I loved old pop culture, and can’t let go of old ambitions, magazines, and books, I feel the past I carry around has grown to the size of the Titanic. (I wish I had a photo of a guy in a rowboat towing the Titanic on a rope to put right here.)

The current nonfiction books and science fiction magazines I’m reading are about politics, climate change, and all the other dark clouds the horizon of this century. (No wonder I want to return to last century.) If I only read new books and magazines I’d completely reshape my present personality. Reading these three computer histories rekindles the futures I wanted back in the 1970s and 1980s, and they were tremendously more appealing than the futures I envision now. The people profiled in those books had such wonderful dreams about what computers would bring to the 21st century. And their dreams came true beyond anything they imagined or hoped. Yet, I wonder if they could see the downside of their creations, would they have done anything different? And isn’t that what I’m doing now by rereading these old books, second guessing my past decisions?

One of the reasons I can’t let the past go is it feels unfinished. I didn’t get to consume all the pop culture I wanted back then, satisfy all my wants, or achieve all my ambitions. But having lived in the future, it also feels like we took so many wrong turns. I can’t help but want to go back and finish what I started and even try different paths.

There is a whole lot more I want to say about Hackers, but this essay has already gotten too long for chiseling on this stone. Hopefully to be continued on another rock.

JWH

How to Save The World by Reading Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/21

Many people have the inner confidence that the world will always muddle through. That we’ll solve our problems naturally through the unfolding of uncontrolled events. Other people believe as the population of humans grow, we’ll eventually reach a breaking point and things will fall apart. If you read Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you know the history of the world is a history of failed civilizations. Whatever goes up must come down, and if you’re the kind of person that uses numbers and graphs to anticipate the future, it doesn’t look good.

Kim Stanley Robinson has written a science fiction “novel” where he imagines humanity intentionally solving our big problems. The book is called The Ministry for the Future. It’s hard to recommend this book because people who expect a novel to work in a certain way could have difficulty reading it. I’ve already written about how The Ministry for the Future isn’t structured like a typical novel so you might want to read that essay before buying it.

The Ministry for the Future imagines how humanity could save itself. It’s just one possible scenario, but it does offer more hope than I’ve seen elsewhere. Now, it’s not entirely Pollyannaish, because it also assumes a massive economic depression and worldwide acts of terrorism will force us to change at times too, warning us there are no easy solutions, and to expect a bumpy ride.

The chief task to saving our planet is reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Robinson suggests this can mainly be done by inventing a new worldwide currency he calls the carbon coin. Like the gold standard, this currency will be based on carbon kept out of the atmosphere. Once worldwide financial institutions back the carbon coin, and people and corporations realize future wealth depends on it, there will be an incentive to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. At one point, Robinson says we’ll pay Saudi Arabia to keep its oil in the ground and that will create more worldwide wealth. That’s hard to believe, especially if you watch this film. (Really, watch this film.)

Robinson also imagines many giant geoengineering projects, including pumping water out from under glaciers to slow their pace into the oceans. He also assumes we’ll pursue different kinds of carbon sequestering combined with switching to renewable energy sources. These are all technical solutions that we’re considering today, but Robinson also has several chapters about why many of our current big ideas will fail.

The whole goal is to get CO2 back down to 350 ppm. Near the end of the novel, which spans many decades, CO2 peaks at 475 ppm. Robinson promotes the success of the real 350.org movement in the book. Last month we were averaging 413.95 ppm of CO2, so we’re currently about half-way to Robinson’s future in real life. To get back to 350 ppm we’ll have to stop using all fossil fuels and retrieve a lot of CO2 already in the atmosphere and put it away somewhere safe. Generally, that’s into trees, or sequestered. So, Robinson imagines the world reforesting on a vast level. But can you really imagine that we’ll stop taking oil, gas, and coal out of the ground? That’s trillions of dollars in wealth that people have invested trillions of dollars to own.

Concurrent with the CO2 problem is the extinction problem. Robinson also embraces Half-Earth Project to give half the Earth back to wildlife based on E. O. Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Within Robinson’s novel, huge tracts land are purchased to create wildlife corridors to connect the larger national parks around the world. This is a beautiful vision that I hope comes true. But to achieve it would require buying up small towns and destroying roads on a vast scale. That adds another giant expenditure for saving the world. Robinson claims this will add jobs and eventually grow the economy, but will people see saving animals as an investment?

Robinson foresees two horrible sources of good for the earth that are evils for people. A giant worldwide depression will slow the release of CO2, and he imagines vast networks of ecoterrorists that will stop air and sea travel by any machines that run on fossil fuel. Robinson pictures us returning to clipper ships and dirigibles, as well as new kinds of electric planes and ships that use renewable resources.

In this book Robinson doesn’t dwell on rising seas and other natural disasters like he has in her earlier novels, but he does focus on the refugee problems. He imagines we’ll eventually develop a global citizenship status that will allow us to fairly resettle the millions of refugees. Will we be that wise and kind?

All of this is just a tip of the iceberg among Robinson’s speculations. Overall, The Ministry for the Future is a very hopeful story, but you must read between the lines to account for all the horrors. However, his first chapter is an extremely dramatic scene of one terrifying ecocatastrophe, and I can’t recommend reading it highly enough. It’s available online to read.

After finishing The Ministry for the Future, I keep asking myself: Will we really save ourselves? Robinson believes we’ll more than muddle through, and even find triumph in our achievements. Robinson is almost gung-ho for the future. Americans can’t even pull together in a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, so why expect us to pull together at far greater challenges? Will we muddle through despite ourselves? I don’t think so. Humans have always muddled through in the past because there were always been an abundance of options and resources. Solving climate change is where the Ponzi scheme of Capitalism finally comes due. Saving ourselves will require moving to a new paradigm for the politicaleconomy. I’m not sure that will happen. In fact, I seriously doubt it. Why? Because it will require humans to work together at a level of cooperation that we’ve never shown in the past.

Kim Stanley Robinson is an optimist. I’m a pessimist looking for hope. I believe it’s important to read science fiction novels like The Ministry for the Future because we need to all ask ourselves if such dreams are possible. Are we capable of making these kinds of changes in our lives? My hope says its theoretically possible. My pessimism says no.

If you haven’t really thought about how we’ll save ourselves in the future, then you might want to read The Ministry for the Future. It’s not a fun page turner, but I believe it covers most of what you’ll need to consider.

JWH

Devs – Turn On, Tune In, Psyche Out

Devs is a new eight-part science fiction miniseries on FX on Hulu. Physics and philosophy dominate this story but in a bogus way. Quantum computers are used to do things quantum computer will never do. The plot is driven by cliché thriller violence, while the characters are motivated by emotional reactions taken to absurd lengths. I should have hated this TV show, but I loved it. I’m even thinking about watching it again already.

Why, if the parts are so bad, can the whole be so good? The Matrix also abused physics, philosophy, computers, and succeeded in being wildly entertaining too. I’m trying very hard not to tell anything specific about Devs — I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. Reading the reviews, my guess is about 20-30% of viewers won’t like this show, but the rest might. Especially, if you love science fiction. If you’ve ever said, “Far fucking out, this is blowing my mind, man” (or its Millennial equivalent) while stoned then this show is for you.

Science fiction often tortures science to convey a sense of wonder — and some of the best science fiction goes beyond science to remind us of the limits of reality. Devs has the kind of physics and philosophy that potheads and science fiction nerds love to use to mess with each other’s heads. We should be reading Plato and Penrose but it’s more amusing to psych ourselves out by watching philosophy-fiction. (Phi-Fic?)

Quantum physics has become the LSD of science fiction. Einstein hated its spooky strangeness.  In the absence of a general theory of everything its possible to imply anything, and Devs takes us to some gnarly places. I wish Devs hadn’t felt the need for building its plot on a murder — and instead based it on philosophical concepts duking it out on a peaceful personal level.

The show seems to have paid off free-will to throw the fight in favor of determinism. I’m grateful they didn’t bring in good and evil, although in such a knockdown brawl of ontologies, tag-teaming the theory of God for a few rounds could have been even more consciousness-expanding.

I don’t believe in any of the theories or inventions Devs proposes, but I can’t mention them without spoiling your potential fun. What Alex Garland does is take some fascinating speculations and extrapolate them to their limits, creating some groovy PKDian science fiction.

Worth Reading:

devs-stewart

JWH