Claire Evans is a writer and artist working in Los Angeles. Her day job is as the singer and coauthor of the conceptual pop group YACHT. A science journalist and science-fiction critic, she is currently “futures editor” of Motherboard and editor of its sister science-fiction magazine, Terraform. She is a regular contributor to Grantland, VICE, and uncube magazine, and her writing has been extensively anthologized. She regularly participates in panels, conferences, and screenings on the subject of science and culture, including Moogfest, Eyeo Festival, WIRED x Design, the UCLA Center for the Art of Performance, the Kitchen, the Rubin Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the Center for Science and the Imagination.
Hi, my name is Claire.
I want to begin with a question that I thought would be far more left-field until Dan brought up Max Headroom. But the question is: what is science fiction?
Many people in response to this question throw together a collection of tropes. Science fiction is outer space. Science fiction is rockets and lasers and men traveling to the corners of the universe.
But that’s only the simplest way of defining and extremely complex literary and culture form. In fact, there’s something of a cottage industry, among academics, in drafting new and more comprehensive definitions of a genre that changes as quickly as our relationship to the future itself.
And because it means a lot of different things for a lot of different people, a singular definition for science fiction is hard to grasp. The boundaries are squiggly, and the more granular you get with the question, the more difficult the answer becomes: Does a science fiction story necessarily have to take place in the future? Well, no, every work of fiction has some temporal relationship with the world in which it is written, and even canonical science fiction texts like Star Wars take place a long, long time ago. Does science fiction have to be rigorous in its science or technological approach? Yes, there is a culture of science fiction—“hard SF”—in which that is an important quality, but some of the greatest science fiction writers of all time flubbed the science or considered it secondary to the central problems of their work. William Gibson, for example, wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter with little to no knowledge of the Internet, and Ray Bradbury famously put air on Mars in the Martian Chronicles.
If we try to define science fiction by first determining what it isn’t, we enter into an equally thorny area. Why is Slaughterhouse Five shelved under literature in bookstores, when its protagonist is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, but equally literary books by writers like Joanna Russ or Ursula Le Guin or James Tiptree Jr. are relegated to the mothballed corner of science fiction/fantasy.
And if we try to define where that slash falls between science fiction and fantasy it’s even more hairy. Because if aliens and robots and far-future scenarios are permitted, then why aren’t dragons and elves, etc.?
The truth is, a lot of different kinds of texts qualify as science fiction, books about parallel histories and alternate realities and futures so distant they might as well be mythic or ancient. Books where there are artificial intelligences on our desktops or extraterrestrial intelligences far off in the cosmos. In my study of the genre, which is informal but lifelong, I have only found onehard and fast rule about science fiction, which I am going to try and explain to you now.
Imagine a world. It can be the earth if that’s easier for you to imagine. In 99% of science fiction, it is the earth in some failed capacity. Whatever the world is, you must think of it as a starting point. It can have as tumultuous a history as you like, but, for the time being, it is a world that exists in a world of present condition, with set physics and social dynamics. Now change one thing about that world.
What kind of thing? Anything, it can be aesthetic, metaphysical, ecological, political. It usually takes the form of a question, which can be a technological question: What would happen if all the computers woke up tomorrow and said hello? What if we crack faster-than-light-speed travel? It can be a deeply human question. What if we cease to be able to breed? What if we radically upend social structures?
Pose and answer one of these questions, and you immediately create what genre critics call a “radical discontinuity,” which is a particular form of cognitive dissonance unique to science fiction that occurs when everything is familiar except for one, or a few, significantly altered variables. Radical discontinuities are what makes science fiction science fiction: Not rockets, not outer space, not far-flung time lines. They’re also what makes science fiction a particularly potent tool of “first response” for artists, because every radical discontinuity is inherently critical. By proposing an alternative to the world, either an aspirational alternative or an alternative that serves as a warning, depending on your proclivity for utopia or dystopia.
Using discontinuity for critique isn’t isolated to critiques of technology or society. It can work for art, I think, or it can, although I don’t see it used very much. In a lot of science fiction that deals with art, music, you know, the market’s frequently missed. When you look at musical sequences in science fiction like the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars or the cave rave in The Matrix, it doesn’t tell you anything about the future, it’s usually just like this shorthand of exoticism, or something, but I think it can be done in art and it can be used in an interesting way for art criticism. I’m thinking of the work of Mark Von Schlegell, does anybody know his work? When we practice the mental calisthenics of determining the difference between the real world Yeah, cool! He’s a science fiction writer who comes from art criticism and has published a handful of really incredible novels and semiotext, but he’s far outside of the science fiction landscape that he can only really publish in, like, highfalutin European art magazines and exhibition catalogs, and he makes these incredibly funny and biting critiques of the art world that, I think, are an indicator of what could be possible if we took that idea seriously. So, for example, for one of his stories, he presents the future of contemporary art as a hybrid of “all the essentially harmless activities of the Western cultural tradition” in a new practice called “kulturnautics,” which is among other things a circus of mathematically impossible pavilions that are sprouting up rudely and constantly into the lives of the working poor. This kind of thing is really snakry, of course, but it represents, to me, again what is possible when we begin to think seriously about speculative fiction as a form of art writing or art criticism.
No matter what the point of focus is, though, when we practice the mental calisthenics of determining the difference between the world that we live in and the variable world at hand in a science fiction, when we try to discover where the radical discontinuity has been made, and try to see how we, in our lives, in our world, might be led to the juncture at which those discontinuities are formed, we learn a great deal about what is seemingly natural to us in the world. It makes us reevaluate everything we take for granted. These strangenesses in science fiction can help clarify the normal, and it can help us to understand the inherently arbitrary or historical nature of some social constructions. It confronts us in a specifically cognitive way that is designed to leave us as readers wondering a great many things—it’s designed to pose questions like “where are we headed?” Or, whether we are complicit with the world, or whether we are really ourselves at all.
Radical discontinuities don’t require temporal extrapolation. They do not require the future in any capacity. Which is another of the assumed hard tenets of science fiction. Yes, the easiest way to understand the effects of a discontinuity is to play it out over time and to see how it modifies and takes root in the world, but something like a parallel history, such as in Philip K. Dick’s, The Man in the High Castle, a novel which takes place in a world in which the allies lost the war, can do the same kind of critical work, while taking place in the present.
And the kinds of science fictions that emerged from Mundane SF, which is a movement in the mid 2000s in science fiction—that was kind of like a Dogme 95 for science fiction—it called for stories that took place in the near future, with little technology, very little theatrics. It argued that, as in the manifesto it said, “our most likely future is one in which we have ourselves and this planet.” And it called for fiction that spoke to those realities.
With these kinds of practices, science fiction isn’t something escapist, exotic, or inherently futuristic—it is just an attitude, an approach to critique that can be applied anywhere and by anyone.
Great science fiction, the truly transgressive shit, proposes many different radical discontinuities at once, creating complex intellectual bombs that implode slowly in the mind, but the important thing is that it always remains tethered to the world as we know it, to the world as it was before the question or questions were posed, right? It always presents a clear road from the real to the discontinuous, a road we can imagine walking, because otherwise, there’s no through line. There’s nothing to hold onto, and therefore, it no longer has any position for real critique. It becomes just fantasy, pure escapism.
Which, speaking of, is the line between science fiction and fantasy. For the fantasy writer, the creative act is one ever pure imagination. His or her invented world doesn’t necessarily need to hew to a physics consistent with our own. A fantasy writer is free to magically relax the structure of the cosmos at will. But if science fiction writer wishes to do the same thing, they must invent a reason why, a method how, and then cope with the consequences. It may seem like a small difference, it’s kind of a conceptual stance, but makes all the difference, because waking up is what lends gravitas to dreams.
I deal in science fiction, partially for a living. Some of you may know me as a musician if you know me at all but I edit a rogue science fiction imprint of VICE called Terraform. It’s part of VICE‘s science and technology site, motherboard, of which I am the “Futures” editor. Terraform is where where we publish stories that speak to, extrapolate from, or are otherwise in conversation with the current news stories my journalist colleagues are covering elsewhere on the VICE platform. So, we connect our fiction in a very tangible way with the actual realities and anxieties of the present, and if somebody reads a piece of speculative fiction on Terraform and is piqued by the issues it raised, we have a very direct means for the readers to go back to read about what’s actually happening in the present day through tags and suggested articles.
I sometimes explain Terraform to people by saying it’s tomorrow’s news today, which is glib, but fairly accurate. At Terraform, we deal in the near term radical discontinuity. This means we publish stories about things like drones, the gamification of war, misogyny on the web, forms of protest in the 21st century, and the ways in which our relationship to social media changes our relationships to one another, etc. We only publish once a week and our upper ceiling, unless something is exceptional, is around 2,000 words, which is equivalent with the standard, shareable news story on the web. So we can be quite nimble, and often commission fiction or draw from our slush pile depending on what is happening in the world.
So, one of our favorite things to do is actually to commission journalists and non-fiction writers to extrapolate the ramifications of their own beats in a timely manner. So, for example, during a particular hairy privacy scandal involving Uber, we had technology writer Paul Ford imagine a dystopia in which a self-aware entity named Uber controls all resources. We’ve had the music Internet culture blogger Carles, formerly of Hipster Runoff, write us a picture of Coachella in the year 2065, as a scorching and inhospitable tent city in the militarized desert. Not everything we do is this literal, obviously because fiction is much more ambiguous than that, but we find that these kinds of stories receive the most engaged and immediate responses from our audience, because their themes are already highlighted in public conversation on the web. Ideally, their themes evoke existing but latent fears or perceptions about the direction of where the world is heading, and so the work of the reader to locate the radical discontinuities within them is simple, even intuitive. It’s been for us the most effective strategy for injecting fiction into people’s feeds and seeing it shared in the way nonfiction is shared.
In some case, we’ve used Terraform as a platform for direct critical response to issues about which we are passionate, some of which are self-reflexive. This year, there was a cultural upheaval in science fiction as our most illustrious literary awards, the Hugos, were in a sense overtaken, legally, but maliciously, through the gaming of a public ballot, but a very conservative group advocating for a political adventure yarn-style science fiction which, perhaps, never really existed. You know, when men were men and saved damsels from aliens in space, etc.
Considering that the Hugos have honored some of the great progressive and radical voices of the last 100 hundred years, you know, people like Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delaney, Phillip K. Dick, and Octavia Butler, it seems disingenuous and myopic, to say the least, to imagine that it deserves to be in the hands of people who do not use science fiction in that way. Science fiction has always been a tool for the marginalized to imagine new worlds beyond the limitations of the here and now, and such nostalgia seems ill placed. In reaction, Terraform commissioned a story from Kameron Hurley, a Hugo-winning writer, extrapolating what might happen when we no longer have the freedom to imagine our own future, if we let the trolls win. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s not good.
This is what science fiction does best. It uses speculation to shed light on the problems of the present, which, in this case, are the problems of science fiction itself.
The kind of stuff that we publish on Terraform is, and that I love, spiritually quite close to what cyberpunk was in its prime: Fiction about the very near, the very close, the alarmingly corporeal realities of technology and what it does to us, our societies, and to our planet. I think that now, more than ever, science fiction and art has a responsibility to be engaged head on with the complexities of the world, because, frankly, we need its power as a critical tool.
At Terraform, we believe that fiction isn’t just a place to go to escape from reality. It’s a place where we can come to understand, even take control over, what is real. To test code, you have to run it. To see if a building will stand, you have to build a model. And, for us, science fiction is the same thing—science fiction’s functionality has always been to take the world as we know it, tweak some key variables, to create discontinuities and to let it run. What emerges from the experiment may not tell us anything meaningful about the future, but it’s a really, really good mirror for the present.
The core science fictional gesture of radical discontinuity is not unique to the written word. It’s something that can be employed by anyone, any artist, any writer, operating in fictional and nonfictional spaces alike. It’s not watertight or isolated to genre, it’s more like a tendency or an impulse that can be manifested in any number of ways by anyone interested in reality.
So, I hope that I’ve made clear that science fiction is a mechanism for understanding and I want to leave you with a second stupid question: What is reality? Philip K. Dick defined reality as “that which doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it,” a purposefully evasive definition which requires us to believe in nothing in order to prove the reality of anything. But by that definition, the future is real, because although it’s intangible, it doesn’t require our belief to exist.
So, the future is real and it belongs to all of us and none of us at once, and the more we shore up its reality by writing about it seriously as though it were real, and identifying the variables which create it, the clearer our position in the present becomes. This, in my mind, is the real purpose of criticism, the role of criticism, not only to engage with the world, but to clarify our understanding of it, so that we can live better within it. As my favorite genre critic Robert Scholes writes: To live well in the present, to live decently and humanely, we must see into the future.