Science fiction and capitalism

Ursula K. Le Guin’s short talk made me think about the following three things:

1. Without her publishers and readers she would not have been where she is today. Even though the thrust of her speech can be enjoyed and appreciated, it is undeniable that it easy for her to make certain claims, literally, from the pulpit. But this is the irony of capitalism: one can bite the hand capitalism feeds without the hurtful consequences. She surely cannot force publishers to charge public libraries less than the outrageous amounts they do; she can communicate it, but verba volant without consequences, especially until profit drives everything, as she says.

2. Fear, technology and capitalism seem to go hand in hand. Fear: fear of not being able to pay debts, fear of someone destroying your property, robbing you of it, and/or killing you,fear of falling ill, fear of death,  etc., etc., etc. Technology: that technology which seems to be running amok  without us being able to do anything about it. Capitalism: the bigger the better, etc., etc., etc. Fear, technology, capitalism make up the three cornerstones of any dystopian science fiction. As someone has claimed before, it is difficult to write a really inspiring, beautiful, important, attention-grabbing utopian science fiction narration.

3. She says: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” The parallelism is interesting, but it falls short of being useful for a more profound discussion (exactly like all short maxims on which social media thrive). Let’s see if scifi writers take up the challenge and offer us alternatives to capitalism which may become clear working models, not just words. This would make scifi proactive, rather than reactive: and this is the real challenge posed by her suggestion that writers help us envision alternative worlds. There are reasons behind the difficulty of this enterprise (pun intended): if science fiction illustrates the troubles of the present, contemporary society, or a future one which behaves just like this one, it is reactive and intimates that coping with what is now is already too outrageous. But a scifi novel cannot really give us anything that is completely outside of our capacity of perception and understanding, otherwise it would be gibberish.  The challenge therefore is not only to construct worlds which depict alternatives to capitalism, but to do so in a comprehensible and solid manner.


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