My latest Locus column, “A Vocabulary for Speaking about the Future,” talks about science fiction’s uselessness as a predictive medium, and its great utility as a medium for thinking about, attaining, and preventing futures.
But the really interesting thing is how science fiction does its best tricks: through creating the narrative vocabularies by which futures can be debated, discussed, adopted, or discarded.
There are innumerable examples of this, but my favorite is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Before this novel’s rise to prominence, any discussion of intrusive surveillance was singularly bloodless. ‘‘I don’t like how it would feel,’’ you could say, or, ‘‘It would change my behavior, make me self-conscious.’’ These are highly abstract, rather unconvincing arguments, especially when weighed against the technological narrative of surveillance: ‘‘With total information awareness, we will be as gods, our eye upon each sparrow as it falls from the tree. No evil deed will go unobserved and unpunished.’’ After all, it stands to reason that if you can watch everyone, you can see everything, and punish every bad deed.
But a science fiction writer, Orwell, has given us a marvelous and versatile vocabulary word for discussing this: now we can say, ‘‘Your surveillance idea is a bad one because it is Orwellian’’ – we can import all of that novel and its horrors with one compact word. The argument becomes a duel of narratives: the cool, impartial intelligence apparat that catches the bad guys versus the human reality of the corrupting nature of power and the way that our social contract and good behavior are eroded by constant surveillance and a culture of suspicion.