What can space opera tell us about the future?

The Beyonders in The Algebraist of Iain M. Banks, the Ousters in The Hyperion Cantos of Dan Simmons, the Slashers in Century Rain: all are from 90’s – 00’s SF, and all seem to manifest some sort of dissatisfaction with the inability to write through the time-wall. This is a recasting of a phrase found in Ernst Jünger‘s Eumeswil:

There can be no doubt that gods have appeared, not only in ancient times but even late in history; they feasted with us and fought at our sides. But what good is the splendor of bygone banquets to a starving man? What good is the clinking of gold that a poor man hears through the wall of time? The gods must be called.

I take this to imply that there is sometimes a point in our speculations that it is difficult, to the point of perceived impossibility, to proceed outwards into a realm of new possibility that we have convinced ourselves exists. We hit a bottleneck of time and thought. This bottleneck we often refer to as the Singularity, the advent (this word used advisedly, theological overtones kept firmly in mind) of the post-scarcity social reality. All the great civilizations in these books are materially stable, it would appear, but contrary to p89 of The Algebraist (how freakishly precise of me), the neurosis of civilization does not simply go away. It is displaced. In Banks, this is in the direction of the Beyonders, but also the Dwellers (who are not quite post-anything, in the sense that they are pre-everything… only of relevance if you have read the book).

Using Fredric Jameson‘s mode of interacting with SF, we might ask the question, what does this attempt to glimpse the future tell us about now? Even previous SF (including space fantasy/opera) conflicts, between galactic empires with something trying to undermine it, take a different structure, as in Dune. In this case the Fremen (“Free Men”) are taking back the planet, and reconfiguring the galaxy accordingly (although this interpretation is complicated by the story Spice Planet where we learn the Fremen were transported as convicts to Dune to work in return for commuted sentences, but my convenient get out clause is to take this as indicative of no more than the fact that all origins are recursive.)

In contrast, the Beyonders, Slashers, Ousters, and Dwellers are all already space-faring civilizations of their own, but in having embraced (in the first three) all the apparent positive potential of singularity-level technology, what happens in these stories is that the “blowback” of the singularity manifests in the ‘stable’, hegemonic, controlling-dominating civilizations (the use by Simmons of the name “The Hegemony” for the dominant civilization is of course no mistake). Is it that authors and readers quite simply cannot reconfigure the collective conception of reality which we all hold, in a similar way to the fact that a vivid hell is more readily imagined than a paradise?

Further to this, I have other questions, which relates to the formal qualities and structure of imagining a future from the present. What about the snap-back of this stretching our minds, rubber-band like into the future? What if the inability to properly write the singularity, other than ‘over there somewhere’, affects our chances of reconfiguring reality now? What if we were to take our narratives seriously, recognising that in essence reality is the descendant of the utopia. We require narratives as a structuring technology, which is a broadened view, but one which includes Ricoeur, Turner, Lakoff andJohnson, Booker. With this, space operas are analogy devices, which show us the impasses by which we are reduced to a standstill. I find the realm of the Beyonders, Slashers, Ousters etc. to be the most fascinating, most thrilling because most unfamiliar. Is this need to know more going to push us in the direction of technologies which will fundamentally alter us, to become beyond the human? Is it then the case that all the above is not regarding what space opera or SF can tell us about the future, but rather what they can tell us about how we talk to each other about the future?

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6 thoughts on “What can space opera tell us about the future?

  1. Pingback: Look To Windward, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2000) | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

  2. Pingback: The Fall of Hyperion, Dan Simmons (Doubleday, 1990) | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

  3. Pingback: A Canticle for Leibowitz, religion, and the failure of SF « Wetwiring

  4. Pingback: The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2005) | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

  5. Iain M. Banks’ novels are also great to think about the potential role of artificial intelligences.
    See for example Yannick Rumpala, Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012.

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