by Lap Le
This essay was given as a lecture to inaugurate Sigh-Fi
Nothing is so mundane as frustration. And as the name of this show suggests, the future doesn’t become the present in any excitable fashion, no whoosh or laser reverbs, but with an audible human sigh. Which is appropriate if you ask me. Science fiction, despite what it may seem, contends with human frustrations more often than not. In the impulse to write it; as a critique of reality. In the content of it; as dis-synchronous interpretations of the present. And in the role of it; as representative of that intangible potentiality that can be called a future.
As a genre it has always drawn out frustration, tapping into a deeper consciousness that is fundamentally human—public myths and pathos that rest in the center of things, plural. Time travel more often than not implicates regret, insecurity, our failures. Artificial intelligence, our ego, our disparaged faith. Aliens, our empathy and loneliness. And space, our limits. I’m being reductive of course, but the point stands: the most powerful science fiction, no matter how expansive it makes this universe, remains couched in a human reality. Both the immediately understood and experienced reality which is subjective and can be considered specifically mundane, and the less tangible reality which is at the core of who we are as humans—a sentient and feeling organism that has for the duration of its tenure on this planet been faced with continuous threats to its existence.
While the latter existential imperative colors the genre, and perhaps suggests that survival is still a prime motivation for our actions, I would counter-suggest that the kind of existentialism that I find potent in science fiction isn’t at all about extinction, or not-dying, but is found in the former reality—in how impossibly hard it is to live, to be “of this world” as mundanity suggests.
The really good SF is mired in this sentiment. Life begins uncertain at best, get progressively more complicated, then we die. Along the way, in our relatively short lifespans, we try to unravel the mysteries of existence and come to terms with what we are. Unlike traditional literature, science fiction exclusively takes this on sideways. It doesn’t contend with the human condition head on, as humans, but rather it takes the implications and contexts of humanity, namely our material contributions (positive and negative), to talk about life and us. It takes human reality, distends its effects, then uses that to talk about itself.
This is important because in that middle part of life, where things get complicated, you really can’t take anything head on. You have to see the sides and hidden dimensions of a thing to really understand it. You have to understand its contours as well as the weight and volume of it. And most importantly, to understand a thing, you have to see the shadows it casts. The words science and fiction together create a very powerful lens for this to happen. Especially in an era where fiction begins to take on new economy. Seeing sideways, seeing the shadows of things becomes a very real way of describing reality.
And, being the internet, a counter... which isn't entirely accurate either.
To look at this further, lets try to think of science fiction in more fundamental terms. Let us not say it is only about the future, or even about technology, two things which I’d argue many people would find representative of the genre. Instead let us think about science fiction as the relationship between the mundane—the things of this world—and the greater systems mundane realities inhabit. I think this is important because when we take away the grandeur from science fiction we begin to see the things that motivate us in a different light. It isn’t about survival, but understanding. Another way to put it would be to say it could actually be about humans contending with things that are advanced and misunderstood—greater systems—of which our world and contributions are a part.
For instance, if we think about it even in 2016 a simple truth of science is that it is still trying to catch up to and understand nature. Nature being the greater system. So if we want to think that science fiction is about technology, it requires a certain context for the word. Those who write science fiction well understand technology as a material thing. It must be integrated with and work throughout the human condition, not unlike when we think about our own bodies and minds. Given this, another way to describe science fiction—in a way that correlates to the mundane—is to say that it speaks to the human species in the context of the natural world, which is itself an advanced and misunderstood technology.
In art, we expand this to emphasize the cultural world, which can be see as an advanced and misunderstood form of fiction. Or we could go the other way around: that fiction is an advanced and misunderstood form of culture. Putting weight to the fiction has its own perils, but in 2016 it seems more apt than ever. If science chases nature, then surely fiction chases humanity. And if science describes the empiric world, then surely fiction interprets it. You can see the potency there.
It is in this interpretation of the human condition through its contributions, cultural and material, that we can see the shadows we cast as a species. The human sigh, then, suggests that we aren’t as far along as we believe.
For instance, we have yet to find a way to transcend the barriers that effectively prevent us from co-existing as a species. (War, systemic racism, institutionally sanctioned sexism).
For instance, we still have unhealthy relationships with or against technology, or science for that matter. This includes nature.
For instance, we are still oppressed by systems of scarcity. And we have yet to rectify, or even comprehend, the extent to which capitalism has affected the global population, much less the Earth (though we are getting clued in pretty quickly).
For instance, our perpetually degrading bodies still scare us into doing things we shouldn’t. Which inevitably gives fear undue influence on our behavior.
Which is not to suggest that science fiction—or art—is a physic for such things, because at best they provide a metaphor, at the least an interpretation. They won’t actually prevent systemic racism, for instance. But through them we can take those things to their logical (or illogical) conclusion. They can ask us seemingly banal questions that stretch our systems of interpretations simply because they come from a hidden dimension, an alien world where the human condition is allowed to be what it needs to be for a future to exist that isn’t readily available in the present. In doing so they require that we confront such subjects and contend with their implications. We can see their shadows, possibly.
They require us to fill in the space between dichotomies that don’t need to be there. Between life and death is a whole lot of uncertainty, between white and black a whole lot of gray. By distorting the present into multiplications of itself, which is what fiction does, we enhance the resolution of that gray. We begin to see simple questions as complex, interconnected ideas. Will the air on Mars one day be like the air on Earth? Will the words “I can’t breathe” mean the same?
Fiction—and art—can reframe reality in a way that reveals the tension between where we are and where we ought to be. That exact moment is when the past meets the present and sometimes (more often and in simpler, day-to-day ways than we think) reality can rupture. Which reveals, for a moment, a possibility of a future, which itself is an advanced and misunderstood form of the present. We see it all the time. In the latest comforts and fears. In the latest frustrations about how things were and can never be again. In the latest unmet expectations. Those moments, those frustrations, point us where to go. We see it all the time. We feel it in every sigh.