Geek Speaks: The Uses (and Abuses) of Science Fiction

This piece appeared on Contents May Vary on November 8th 2013 Photo Credit: Geoffrey Long

What do you get when you bring together science fiction writer and co-editor of Boing Boing Cory Doctorow, Intel Futurist Brian David Johnson, and transmedia specialist Dr. Henry Jenkins for a conversation about the purpose of science fiction? You get what Jenkins described as the Three Tenors for geeks: last night’s Geek Speaks panel on “The Uses (and Abuses) of Science Fiction.”

In partnership with the Annenberg Innovation Lab, this is the first in an ongoing speaker series Jenkins created “to provide a homeland for those of us who are geeks here at USC to get together and hear from interesting thinkers from across popular culture and new technology.” The goal, according to Jenkins, is to help build up the community of geeks at USC, and he hopes to have one panel a semester.

The conversation ranged from the panelist’s geek ‘origin stories’ to the participatory culture of science fiction to what draws them to science fiction. Johnson stated that, “one of the things that we all talked about is that the science fiction that has inspired all three of us is usually science fiction with an opinion.”

This led to a discussion of dystopian science fiction: whether, as Doctorow stated, the idea that there’s a thin veneer of civilization that disappears when the lights go out becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The three panelists went on to define their definitions of dystopian versus utopian concepts. Johnson brought up the point that from the fiction aspect, dystopian concepts make a better story: “if everything is great, it’s a crappy story.” To him, science fiction “allows us to explore these worlds, the worlds and the futures that we want and the worlds that we don’t want.” He went on to say that having worlds we don’t want helps us explore how to not go there, and that’s what’s missing in a lot of science fiction – that sense of responsibility of what we’re going to do about it.

Doctorow disagreed as to Johnson’s definition of dystopia, stated his definition of utopia, “is not necessarily a world where nothing’s gone wrong. I think the most utopian world you can write is a world where, in conditions of adversity, people are good.” He went on to explain that a Utopian world is not where we have no problems, but one where we solve the problems we have.

The discussion moved to steampunk, a genre explored in “Vintage Tomorrows,” the book co-written by Johnson (with an introductory essay by Jenkins) that was given out to attendees. Johnson told a story of meeting a woman who was into steampunk, and asking her why. Her answer was that it was a past she wanted to be from: the idea that steampunk helps envision a different past as opposed to a different future.

Doctorow brought up the parallels of the Victorian era presented in the steampunk genre and how the industrial revolution affected the world with regards to the equitable redistribution of the gains of productivity, and how the Internet is presenting a similar situation now.

Science fiction and activism, from fans being activists to using the genre as a tool to change the future, was the next discussion topic, with Jenkins bringing up the idea of Superman being used as a metaphor for illegal immigration.

Jenkins then brought up that the discussion hadn’t gotten to the “abuse” angle in the “use (and abuse)” of the title of the series. This brought up the idea that science fiction sometimes gives us a “vision the future so vividly that we’ve absolutely no patience as a society of the baby steps that get us there.”

The panel was then opened up for questions from the audience, bringing in the idea that when discussing the concept that ‘we need to make the world a better place’, that there needs to be a discussion of the definition of ‘we’ and ‘better’.

Another question brought up the need to change how we approach education, as well as the way we think about ownership. “Content is most definitely not king: conversation is king,” stated Doctorow. Jenkins added that we need to redefine what the word content means. “I think we live in a world where value is no longer is produced by containing and bottling up content, but rather value is going to be produced by circulating content.”

Cory Doctorow, Brian David Johnson, & Dr. Henry Jenkins. Photo courtesy Geoffrey Long

At the book signing afterwards, I asked each of the panelists how they define science fiction. Doctorow’s answer can be seen in his separate Q&A, but Jenkins stated, “I think science fiction is a genre that encourages us to speculate. It’s a place where we ask questions. It is a place where we from the very beginning have been encouraged to think deeply and ask hard questions.”

Johnson stated, “Science fiction gives us a language to talk about the future. Science fiction is the landscape where we can begin to play out the futures that we want and the futures that we want to avoid. It is really the landscape of imagination, and ultimately it is a fictional form of us coming up with different mental models for possible futures we couldn’t have.”

If you’re a geek and are interested in geeky things, check out the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

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