Monday, November 3, 2008

Why We Should Read More Science Fiction

Because it's full of ideas about what people can do. In some ways, I'd call it the last bastion of humanism. Even when it's about robots. Even when, as in Charles Stross's Saturn's Children, the protagonist is a former sexbot, four centuries after all the humans have died out. As I told a friend who came by my car in a parking lot (waiting for a kid, natch) and saw me reading a book with the sexbot's picture on the front cover, complete with lurid purple hair, I read Stross more because he has interesting ideas than because he can sustain a good plot. The Atrocity Archives was that way for me, too.

Stross alludes to Isaac Asimov's rules for robots (they revolve around the rule that robots can never harm a human) and goes beyond. His narrator, Freya, admits, 124 pages into her narrative:
I'm a robot. Yes, I used the R-word; I know it's an obscenity. Use it to an aristo's face, and it's a mortal insult, grounds for a challenge on the field of honor between equals. Its connotations of subservience and helpless obedience are abhorrent, much as the word "nigger" once was between humans. But there's nobody left but us robots today. That's the dirty little hypocritical lie that's at the root of our society; they, our dead Creators, made us to serve them, and they forgot to manumit us before they died. And in their absence, that makes us what?
There's a word for it, but it isn't "free."

The beings that inhabit Freya's universe both fear and long for the technology to re-create their human creators, who, it is revealed on page 204, were like the humans in countless fictional degenerate societies, Wall-E's being one of the latest:
The late twenty-first and early twenty-second centuries were not good times for them: Economic deflation, ecosystem failure, wars, resource depletion, and the end of the western Enlightenment program of the natural sciences coincided poisonously with the availability of cheap slaves to serve their every need, and the near perfection of entertainment media to distract them from the wreckage of their once-beautiful world.

"The end of the western Enlightenment program of the natural sciences" doesn't seem like exaggeration to someone living in a town where the hearings over whether to fire the middle school science teacher who was refusing to teach evolution are still going on. On Friday, my middle-schooler came back from trick-or-treating in our traditionally Republican town, and told me that the people who have Obama signs in their yards either recognized him as Napoleon or asked who he was dressed up as. But the people with McCain signs didn't ask, he told me.

I think there are clear signs and portents on this election eve. Although I used to have respect for McCain, it has become clear to me that he is willing to pander to the lowest common human denominator, and that's not a good thing for the country. I'm with the "hockey mama for Obama" that I saw on YouTube (after I voted, incidentally). I'm convinced that anyone who would vote for a ticket with Palin on it has either been deluded or is deluding herself.

For some nonpartisan discussion, check out Blog the Vote , and then read Whatever for the most cogent endorsement I've read so far this year. But whatever you do, don't be like the people in Wall-E, who never looked up from their screens. As my election day t-shirt says, "Think. It's not illegal yet."

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