“We on the left know another world is possible that does not require us to wait for alien contact or the invention of warp drive”
This is an interview I did with journalist Andrew Dana Hudson about sci-fi, speculative fiction and the left. This interview originally appeared as part of the fully automated luxury communism newsletter, my newsletter on technology and the left.
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And now over to the actual interview:
Could you shortly introduce yourself, and maybe show us where to find some of your work?
“I’ve been a lot of things, but these days I’m 50% speculative fiction writer and 50% socialist organizer. I study sustainability at Arizona State University, where I’m a part of the Center for Science and the Imagination’s Imaginary College. I also organize with DSA Phoenix and the Medicare for All campaign. I really came to both of these threads through my concern with the climate crisis. Climate change will mean an ongoing, profound shift in human civilization, and we need both better stories and better politics if we are going to navigate through the disaster to a liveable future.
I have a small website collecting links to my more interesting works: andrewdanahudson.com”
Why should the left, or anyone hoping to achieve a better world, care about speculative fiction and science-fiction? What is the use of it?
“Writing is a form of thinking. Fiction, and speculative fiction in particular, offers a particular set of tools for examining human life and relations. To feel authentic, to have literary quality, fiction requires a level of detail that theory often elides. What does a place look and sound and smell like? What makes a person there giddy or uncomfortable or lonesome, and why? What fills a human day, not just which hours spent on which activities, but the moments that create memories and meaning? Theory rarely answers these sorts of questions. Nor should it, since the answers are usually subjective, and the basis of left theory must be material and social analysis that goes beyond anecdote. But these are questions many people have about the radically different society the left proposes. Speculative fiction is a method for both discovering and conveying those answers.
For example in the book Socialism…Seriously, Danny Katch offers a brief fictional depiction of what ‘a bad day under socialism’ would look like. The second-person subject has to wake up early and slog through the cold to work at a restaurant — a familiar experience for many of us! But the difference is: this is a once-a-month ordeal (not daily), and however frustrating the service job is there are no bosses and no risk that you might not be able to pay your rent if you don’t get enough tips. By foregrounding daily annoyances, the story shows how policies that many consider radical would, once enacted, become unremarkable parts of daily life.
Rousing political speeches rarely articulate these mundane details of the world we propose. But uncertainty about such details is a big source of resistance to any political project, since many people would rather keep the devil they know than risk the unknown. The left can use fiction to help people make an informed choice. More to the point, speculative fiction is already a way millions of people explore what other worlds and lives might be like, for their own edification and amusement. But rarely are these worlds on offer: sci-fi futures (like, say, Star Trek) are usually built on hypothetical tech advances and coming historical events that the average person has no hand in. We on the left know another world is possible that does not require us to wait for alien contact or the invention of warp drive. We people get to choose it, if we are willing to fight those who profit off injustice in the world we have.”
Do you think science-fiction has become too pessimistic lately, and do you agree that optimistic sci-fi could help spur change?
“The short answer is yes. For a long answer, consider a graph like the familiar political compass, divided into social and technological dimensions of optimism-vs-pessimism. The horizontal axis charts predictions of how transformative and effective future technology will be. The vertical axis considers how wise and just future people might be at handling these changes, as well as the broader human condition. This gives us four squares, each one with a far corner that gives us the extreme case: a benevolent singularity (or something like Iain Banks’ Culture series), Pandora’s Box (perhaps like Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam, or high tech dystopias like Brave New World), collapse (Mad Max, et al), and a fourth square I sometimes call the Long Now (populated largely by Ursula K. Le Guin). It’s an interesting exercise to try to plot notable works of sci-fi on this graph. The point is: by complicating optimism-vs-pessimism even just a little bit, we can see that possible futures might be “good” or “bad” in varied ways.
The other reason I’m shying away from a simple happy vs. grim dichotomy is that the best science fiction isn’t predictive and is only rarely an activist document designed to inspire a particular political action. A better term that I’ve heard is “seeing instrument.” Sci-fi helps us consider our options, which include a range of different futures that we might not know how to feel about until we lived them — if even then!
So while I think that people are indeed probably a bit fatigued with dystopias and disasters and apocalypses, and that a positive vision of the future gives us something to actively work towards rather than passively avoid, I’m more interested in normative questions that sci-fi can raise and define to help us decide which vision is the positive one. For instance, is useful technology that which lets us win the “cosmic endowment” (aka colonizing other planets), or that which lets us live sustainably into the “long now” here on Earth for tens of thousands of years? Is the path out of human suffering transhumanist technologies that allow us to transcend the limits of our material form (like pain or death), or the elimination of all the manifold layers of injustice and oppression until, as my friend Stan Robinson once wrote, ‘[there will be] no more suffering than what life brings us for being born and having to die, and then we will see for the first time what kind of creatures we really are.’”
Could you shortly explain what solarpunk is, and what its political significance is?
“Cyberpunk was a movement in sci-fi that imagined the countercultural implications of computation. Similarly, solarpunk imagines the implications of abundant renewable energy and technologies that improve our relationships with the living world. In this way solarpunk stories tend to be hopeful, colorful, plucky, environmentally concerned and social justice-minded. Four years ago my friend Adam wrote a short almost-manifesto that is still probably the best way to grok the set of ideas and aesthetics solarpunk plays with. Check out Solarpunks.net and the reference guide for lots more.
Astonishingly, solarpunk is also increasingly a practical movement as well. I’m constantly meeting people who say “love what you’ve written — we’re actually doing that.” Which shouldn’t be so surprising, since good sci-fi is really more about the present than the future. People are using solarpunk to describe what they’ve wanted technology to do for a while: make our lives healthier, happier and more sustainable. Turns out it isn’t that hard to make tech like that if we aren’t driving innovation solely with the capitalist profit motive!
Politically, solarpunk is being used by lots of folks as a form to breathe visionary life into queer politics and narratives of decolonization. I see anarchists embracing solarpunk as a vision of what high tech society outside capitalism might look like. A few years ago I wrote that I didn’t think solarpunk was exactly the aesthetic for waging mass class struggle against the megarich, and I still think that’s correct. Solarpunk is much more about “flowers growing in sidewalk cracks” — autonomous spaces that offer alternatives to capitalist arrangements, as well as “infrastructure as a form of resistance.” Whether this vision is useful depends on what you think is strategically possible and how totalizing you think the capitalist system is. I’ve shifted politically on those questions in recent years, so personally I hope socialists can develop our own flavor of solarpunk aesthetics to inform and enhance our organizing.”
What are some of the writers and thinkers that influenced you? Which books should we all read? (particularly if they are less well known)
“The greatest sci-fi author of all time is Ursula K. Le Guin, who is also probably the most important sci-fi writer for leftists to read. Her great works are well known, but my favorite of hers that is somewhat overlooked is a novella called “The Matter of Seggri.” Kim Stanley Robinson is a friend and leftist and a great writer, and we should all get excited for us upcoming book Red Moon. Bruce Sterling’s work has influenced me a lot; I recommend watching videos of some of his speeches. And Paolo Bacigalupi is probably one of the best writers of climate fiction, whose “broken futures” narratives provide useful reference points for solarpunks to envision alternatives against.”
So hope you enjoyed that.
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