Why Sci-fi Properties Are Not More Future-positive
Science fiction and vision for the future
Meditations on Sweet Tooth
My first dream was to be a sci-fi writer. One of the earliest memories is writing a fanfic for an alt history book; I was 6 or so. It failed when I scribbled the (rather detailed) cover art on an A5 notebook and couldn't fit the title underneath it, prompting some comments from the family. All in all, two pages were done, plus a plan for 50-100 more; then rejection sensitive dysphoria kicked in and never really left. Oh well, maybe the world is better for it.
I've recently read the Canadian comic Sweet Tooth which had ran in 2009-2013 and is the basis for an instantly adored Netflix series of the same name. I don't give a damn about «spoilers»; you've been warned. I don't care much for Sweet Tooth either, my interest in it has been anthropological. Maybe some of my observations will be of interest to you.
To get a few things out of the way: it's uncanny how the production began months before COVID. The comic's story, taking place during a plague – I won't bore you retelling Wikipedia summary – has a prophetic reference to our circumstances: «H1N1and SARS had hit only years before. We had fair warning. We had time to prepare. But it didn't matter: none of it mattered. Any safeguards and provisions we had in place were instantly overwhelmed...» Hopefully this will fuel some loony discussion. On the other hand, I'm not looking forward to right-wingers ranting about Igbo Nonso Anozie who's cast as Tom Jepperd, the violent, rugged Middle American survivalist father figure, pale as a ghost, his cold blue eyes terrifying the deer-like main character (Gus) from page 1. To a proper conspiratorial eye, this appears a red herring, distracting opposition from the subtler agenda.
What agenda? As is usual with American comic culture, it's a melange (rather, a surgical garbage bin) of gory images and gritty script, but the meta-level moral of the story is, I think, about letting go and coming to terms with your destiny as laid out by God. Unlike Greek tragedies, there's no admiration of a doomed mortal rebel: they are «bad men», and acts of resisting the Fate are explicitly punished; whereas happiness comes to those who give up. Jepperd, thrown around the continent by stubborn attachment to his dead wife, finds meaning in protecting Gus (as is the custom with protective father figures in entertainment, he's killed); and Singh, a half-insane medic trying to save humanity with futile and brutal experiments, becomes a wise teacher to the new species repopulating America. Yeah, God's plan is extermination of modern humanity; no Noahs allowed! The plague is incurable and unpredictable in its spread. Human children are not being born any more; instead, women give birth to «hybrids», or frankly, furries (and boy, are they ugly; although the entire comic is visually sickening). Going gently into that good night is a virtue here.
But mayhap it's too charitable to go meta. The object-level moral is simply that humans despoil the environment, are mean, suck and deserve to die making the way for furries. There's a pathologically infantile tone to the comic, as befits something told from the perspective of a sheltered nine year old deer-boy on the run: strong men are scary demons, motherly women are Nice, civilization and technology are worthless. It exemplifies many of the unappealing environmentalist attitudes, and lays it on thick; I fail to assume good faith when seeing the accolades to its writing.
And speaking of God whose horned messiah Gus is, he's not Yahweh. «Ain't no God here», says Jepperd. There is, in fact, a mention of «Judeo-Christian» motifs evident in the «bible» authored by Gus' «dad», and there's an Abrahamic understanding of sin and retribution; but the one who has sentenced our species is Inuit deity Tekkeitsertok. It even remains possible to interpret the plot in a wholly atheistic way: half-animal creatures, which the Inuit came to worship, reproduce (only after their temporary extinction?) via DNA-rewriting spores, ruining the nuclei of human somatic cells (hence, The Sick expresses itself like radiation-induced cancer); and the attempt to harness their power (by cloning deer deity's remains, which yielded Gus) was the trigger for the pandemic. This makes one wonder what was the error of hybrid-hunting Bad Men, led by the toughest character in all 40 chapters, Abbot. The comic doesn't raise this question. The Gods never reveal themselves. But Fate is a palpable force in Sweet Tooth: through dreams and accidents, it compels the events to arrange into a predefined conclusion.
Back in September 2020 I've created a file for a post titled «On state relationship to great art, and differences between US and Chinese approach»; the idea is dead so I'm cleaning out the drafts. It was mainly inspired by Gwern's old lamentation on the (dis)utility of fiction, and on two recent events. One was Amazon canceling TV adaptation of the late Iain M. Banks’ sci-fi Culture series – IMO, the most comprehensive, bold and uplifting vision of humanity's far future that you can find in English.
Kelly suggested the decision was down to Banks’ estate. “In the end, I just think the estate didn’t want to go through with it. It wasn’t the material,” he says, “it was just because I think they weren’t ready to do it, for whatever reason. I’m a little mystified myself, to be honest.” Banks’ estate offered no further explanation for the project’s end.
Sci-fi fans don’t seem to think “positive energy” is what the genre needs in China. Posts on social media jokingly referred to the Chinese phrase that’s now an all-encompassing term for behaviour considered in line with Communist Party policies.
“Sci-fi films’ most famous stories are often based on evil corporations and failing governments,” said an industry insider who asked not to be named. “If all stories coming from China have to have ‘positive energy’, this will be really hard for local talent to develop interesting scripts.”
they seem to have imported a lot of cultural trends and talking points from the present. People swear, class issues seem to be a thing again. I thought we had moved past that in Trek?
You get the picture.
“Environmental activists have also become extra bold: protest mobs at construction sites to stop nuclear power plants and hydroelectric dams, experimental communities ‘returning to nature,’ and other apparently trivial matters.… Do you go to the movies?”
“No, not really.”
“Recent big-budget films all have rustic themes. The setting is always green mountains and clear water, with handsome men and pretty women of some indeterminate era living in harmony with nature. To use the words of the directors, they ‘represent the beautiful life before science spoiled nature.’ Take Peach Blossom Spring: it’s clearly the sort of film that no one wants to see. But they spent hundreds of millions to make it. There was also this science fiction contest with a top reward of five million for the person who imagined the most disgusting possible future. They spent another few hundred million to turn the winning stories into movies.
[...] “Everything that’s happening is coordinated by someone behind the scenes with one goal: to completely ruin scientific research.”
This from Liu Cixin's Three Body Problem.
Despite what Owen recommends, I'm not trying to spin a conspiracy theory (well, only a little). But I also do not buy the excuse that negative, misantrophic stories – cyberpunk, (post)apocalypse, war – are naturally better ideas, easier sells or provide for tenser drama. The Wandering Earth is testament to its falsity. My point is that fiction is not simply downstream of material conditions: it has the power to implant visions in young human minds, making our fates path-dependent. It's no accident Moldbug says that «Our first step, now and for quite some time, is one thing and one thing only: creating the finest possible art». Bad art, misleading art, meanwhile, may be a memetic hazard. «You all were prepared to be cosmonauts» – says one Russian copypasta to people who feel out of their element on Earth, and they notice its biting truth. All it took was a few awkward Soviet books and movies.
And importantly, fiction can fail at that. Some narratives are plain unacceptable to a healthy psyche. Advancing them at the expense of better alternatives means ceding the ground to those hardy ones which can survive the era of astroturfed dominance of unworthy content. Genocidal pseudo-pagan environmentalism is, I think, both unacceptable and on its last legs; it has no chance against the word of Biblical God who puts humans right beside His throne.
Maybe this is proper. But Sci-fi is about creating new visions. At least trying to.
What makes it so hard to come up with one celebrating humanity?
What prevents someone like Thiel or Andreessen from funding a «Cultures that build» Sci-fi contest?