A Call to What If?
When I started reading Science Fiction as a kid, I was disappointed pretty much every time.
Even though a great deal of it had one or two interesting ideas, the books didn’t seem to take themselves seriously. It was as if the authors had said “I want to write a book where laser guns make the Government lose lol” and then proceeded to open up WordStar.
So I complained to my dad and he told me about “hard” scifi. I tried it out. Some of it was better, but mostly it was the same: the increased realism usually focused on why certain elements of the premise and technology make sense, rationalized one or two inferences about the dynamics being presented, and then largely slumped into the classic scifi mashup of “this is what I want out of tech” and “this is what people have always and will always be like”.
I’ve specifically asked people for recommendations of scifi that showcases how people would feel and act different in these imagined worlds. Most of the time I’ve ended up feeling like these recommendations, while explicitly focusing on key differences are usually:
(a) so focused on showing differences that they portray human action incredibly unrealistically (1984),
(b) so naïve in the way they setup new dynamics like alien cultures that they basically feel like toddler toys for hypotheticals (The Mote in God’s Eye),
(c) so ridiculously unable to jump-out from the zeitgeist that they tend to try to defend certain aspects of society, especially morality, as “universal” (Ancillary Justice).
The good ones only have two of these problems at a time.
In fact, I’m comfortable saying that as a means of exploring the possible, scifi is a failed experiment. It came from a certain variety of futurism that wanted to imagine, and is now held together by style and theme like all genreficton. It can barely look down on steampunk. Jorge Luis Borges beat scifi out of the water.
Yeah, yeah, yeah—I know that a few people were special. Asimov had some good points, I admit it. But I honestly couldn’t get through Foundations, because (again) I can’t help feeling that Asimov couldn’t take his own idea of “psychohistory” seriously, and basically just kept writing ideas in that ended-up being something like “yeah, but what if we can compensate for emergent effects lol”.
I think the failure of scifi leaves a small but deep market niche open: the niche of Tangible Fiction.
Today, people are constantly asking “What if?” questions on social media, but the follow-up discussions are often social. The idea of “what if X could be different? what if could design it to be different? but what consequences would that have?” is so normal to think about that it forces us to consider: why aren’t we writing more fiction like that today?
I think one of the big reasons is because it’s more dangerous than it used to be. Calling something normal or abnormal, suggesting ways that people would organize that frames certain kinds of political organizations well or badly, or really just fantasizing about anything that doesn’t explicitly evoke “a moral and beautiful future for all” or “the inevitable dystopia” are easy to attack in the increasingly flat public communication landscape.
But that only makes the mouth of this market niche wider:
Right now, fiction tends to avoid dynamics, especially if it’s not trying to get you to accept the world, as my friend Natural Hazard pointed out earlier today when writing about The Magicians:
Now, the show hasn't really given enough details of the world or the magic system for us, the viewers, to make reasonable claims about whether or not saving the ghost-kids is possible in-universe. There have been other moments in the show were a similarly unexplained-to-the-viewers problem was presented, declared impossible, and then resolved. But there have also been many points where there seemed to be agreement about certain fundamental limits of magic. Point being, we don't have any of the information we'd actually need to make a judgment about whether Alice or Elliot is right here.
Most contemporary fiction I see today tends to pit ideological or perspective differences against each other, where the actual dynamics of the world are too murky for us to make pragmatic distinctions about their appropriateness. This could be viewed as “idealized circumstances” but I just view it as lame. Real situations are full of details about the dynamics that become load-bearing as soon as they can be used for coordination—what Thomas Schelling calls “incidental details” in The Strategy of Conflict, a foundation text for the birth of a new genre that takes the underlying dynamics of imagined worlds seriously.
I propose we call it “Tangible Fiction”.
What I’m describing could easily be called “thought experiments”, but thought experiments have a deservedly bad rap: they tend to try to evoke the impossible by avoiding the question of construction, steady-states, etc.
What I want, and what I’m guessing a lot of other people would enjoy, is the exact opposite: I want fiction that takes the “What if?” seriously and fleshes out the phenomenology and social ecology of the situations it constructs. Tangible Fiction gets a free pass for a bunch of stuff in the premise, because you don’t have to know how you got there necessarily to take the rest seriously. It is usually the exact reverse in Hard SciFi: lots of explanation of why FTL is possible and then flat characters that use it in melodramatic ways, instead of getting rich by becoming the Intergalactic Information Suez Canal.
Tangible Fiction is a call for us to collectively start thinking and socializing around the actual ways that history feels different when you’re living in it, and the fact that these feelings actually result in different behavior. COVID-19 showed everyone how wonky our notion of reality could get, and how weak our narrativization skills had gotten by not experiencing such disruptions, especially when it comes to meaningfully communicating about narrative conflict.
What if we used the current cultural moment we’ve been handed to transform fiction into the ultimate, socially-distributed “What If” engine? What would that be like?