Etienne Augé: Science fiction as a foil to propaganda
The writer Kurt Vonnegut, author of “Slaughterhouse Five” and many other classics, once said: “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’… and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”
Critics’ opinions aside, the French-born communications scholar Etienne Augé, now at Erasmus University Rotterdam, wanted in. Building on a longstanding interest in the genre and a career of distinguished work in public diplomacy and propaganda, he has developed his own science fiction file drawer, and with fascinating results. He argues that science fiction is not just far-fetched entertainment, but rather a window into the societies that create it (or don’t create it) and, just as importantly, a tool for people living in those societies to envision the worlds they want (or don’t want) to live in. Augé will talk about science fiction and what we can learn from it at Brain Bar Budapest 2016.
Augé’s interest in sci-fi was both a reaction to his core research and teachings as well as a return to an interest that began during his boyhood in rural France, when he devoured the likes of Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein.
“When you do propaganda, you have to reduce the options — it’s either ‘this’ or something they don’t want. So there’s really only one option,” Augé says. “Science fiction is the exact opposite — you question everything. You start with ‘What if?’ What if there were flying cars? What if you traveled to another planet?”
To Augé, propaganda and science fiction are opposite sides of the same coin. Both are about storytelling. But propaganda is communication steering the audience to a single option, whereas sci-fi is open-ended, daring its audience to think about the possibilities that lay ahead, good and bad.
And so it’s no coincidence that, of the 1,100 movies produced in Nazi Germany, none were science fiction, Augé says.
“One of the reasons the Nazis didn’t do sci-fi is that they didn’t want to project into the future,” Augé says. “They were stuck in the past.”
Saudi Arabia still bans science fiction, he says. Religion tends to be at odds with the genre, he adds. Perhaps, he says, it’s because religion has its own its own stories, ones with specific endings that sci-fi is perceived to threaten.
“In religion, they say ‘what if’ also,” Augé says. “What if there is a god?”
He links national standing to science fiction production. It’s no coincidence that Jules Verne, a Frenchman, and H.G. Wells, a Brit, pioneered the genre in the late 1800s. Their respective countries were the great empires of the time. Similarly, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as sci-fi superpowers during the Cold War. Today, the United States stands alone in sci-fi primacy.
There are exceptions, his adopted home of the Netherlands being an example. Despite having been an engineering and innovation power for centuries — home to Rembrandt and Van Gogh and to the inventors of Wi-fi and Bluetooth and those who have fought back the ocean itself — one could fit the entire Dutch sci-fi community in his dining room, Augé says.
“They say, ‘We’re Dutch. We don’t have imagination,” Augé says. “And I tell them, ‘You found a way to lower the sea.’
“The one country that destroys my theory,” Augé laughs.
But in general, he says, the countries leading in science fiction are the countries that are looking ahead and asking not only, “What if?” but also “What’s next?”
Space travel, the iPad, the smartphone, IBM’s Watson — science fiction writers imaged these and many other modern technologies long before they came to pass, Augé says. There’s no reason to believe that won’t be the case with nanobots attacking cancer cells, robotically enhanced humans, telepathy, or whatever sci-fi authors dream up next.
But there is another benefit to science fiction — not only to invent, but to prevent, as Augé puts it. The specter of Terminator- or Matrix-style robot overlords, the products of imagined artificial superintelligence gone bad (at least from the human perspective), is also a common theme of science fiction. Even what at first glance appears benign — Star Trek style teleportation, say — is not always as clear-cut as it seems.
“If we tell people, ‘You can go to Paris to Wellington in one second, and it’s cheap — interested? They like the idea” Augé says. “But then if we add that, by the way, we kill you and revive a different version of you, people are not so into it.”
Sci-fi still has its weaknesses. It’s written mostly in the West, and mostly by white men. He would like to see more women writing sci-fi, more people of color, better geographic distribution. Until that happens, Augé says, “I don’t want to be too enthusiastic — that sci-fi will solve all our problems and we’ll have three unicorns for lunch.”
There’s much more room for study and analysis, Augé believes. To open the doors wider, he has launched the Community for Histories of the Future (CHiFT) at Erasmus University Rotterdam. The center hosts talks, studies and discusses science fiction through an analytical lens shaped by current technological and societal developments.
“I think everybody can find something in science fiction, and use the idea of science fiction as a way to say ‘What if?’” he says.
In a world swimming in propaganda, that’s probably a good thing.