As I write this, a deadly virus that originated in bats from central China has brought the global economy to its knees, silenced world capitals, halted air travel, and killed over two hundred thousand people. The largest economic-stimulus package in American history—three trillion dollars (in the first round), designed to bring the US economy back from the brink—is yesterday’s news. The novel coronavirus has killed more Americans in three months than were killed fighting in the Vietnam War.
The word one hears a lot to describe this state of affairs is surreal, along with its kissing cousin unreal, as in “I just drove the Las Vegas Strip, which was completely deserted apart from a handful of police cars. It was unreal.” Put another way, we are living in science-fictional times and have been for a while now. The year 2016 was, after all, a year that saw a bankruptcy-prone Manhattan real-estate-heir-turned-reality-television star ascend to the White House with the help of Russian hackers and a disinformation campaign orchestrated by elements of its former KGB. As Slate’s Kelsey Atherton recently pointed out, “Replace the Tyrell Corporation with Amazon and reframe the replicants as ‘essential services,’ and suddenly you have a world of workers terrified that their jobs are inherently a death sentence—moving straight from fiction to reality.” As more and more people die from the eerily named COVID-19 and American life grows more and more unreal, I am reminded of something said in 1927 by the British biologist J. B. S. Haldane: “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
Now, one of the big claims of this essay is that writers actually can suppose a lot of the universe’s general queerness (I use this last word in its older, literary sense). My concern is that the writers with the greatest gifts of queerness-supposition, namely, writers of science fiction, aren’t taken seriously by the literary establishment and that they remain banished to the kid’s Thanksgiving table of academic culture. Put simply, science fiction has a bad name. Despite the genre’s protean achievements (Arthur C. Clarke’s invention of the communications satellite comes to mind) and Hollywood’s enthusiastic embrace of it, for most literary professionals the term science fiction still evokes a man in a space suit, little green men from Mars, portentously named deep-space probes and William Shatner’s overacting. It reeks of bad nerd breath, fake butter on movie-house popcorn, the poorly deodorized carpet of an L.A. grindhouse with an Asteroids machine beeping to itself in the corner, a poster of Jane Fonda in a space bikini à la Barbarella on the wall. Low-brow trash, basically.
Don’t believe me? Answer the following questions: When was the last time a work of science fiction won the Nobel Prize? The National Book Award? The Pulitzer? How many science-fiction short stories has the New Yorker published over the course of its entire ninety-five-year history? How many full-time MFA programs in the US openly welcome applications from writers of science fiction?
The answers to these questions are: never, never, once, thirteen, and one.
(The “science fiction” book that won the Pulitzer was Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, which to my mind wasn’t really science fiction at all, but a dull, repetitive, postapocalyptic rehashing of Leslie Fiedler’s thesis in Love and Death in The American Novel. In short: It’s about men being men around other men together in the wilderness.)
It’s tempting to think that things have changed in this, our very science fictional–sounding year of 2020, but it was only last April that Ian McEwan—an establishment literary figure if there ever was one—took the following potshot at science fiction in describing his recent android novel Machines Like Me. In McEwan’s estimation, the book broke new ground “not in terms of travelling at ten times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you.” This last clause of McEwan’s statement is about as good a working definition of science fiction as any that I’ve read. And yet McEwan seems appalled by the idea that his work might somehow be lumped into the same drawer used to hold Star Trek, Forbidden Planet, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. But to ridicule McEwan for his ignorance of science fiction, and, for example, Philip K. Dick’s broadly influential body of work (forty-four novels and hundreds of short stories)—not the least of which, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, spoke to the exact question at stake in his most recent novel—is to miss the point. McEwan said what he said because despite its unique ability to grant imaginative access to the change happening in our world today, science fiction is still thought to engage regions of the brain far from the centers associated with discernment, critical thinking, and philosophical speculation.
Interestingly, this habit of mocking science fiction isn’t limited to dedicated literary “get off my lawn” types like McEwan. So internalized is this kind of genre privileging that even science-fiction writers engage in it from time to time. Margaret Atwood, who has by her own account written and read and savored a great many science-fiction novels, once described the genre as “talking squids in outer space,” a statement that has fueled outrage for over a decade. The inimitable Harlan Ellison, never at a loss for an epithet (He once called my alma mater “a training ground for America’s next generation of Nazis.”), once said, “I’m a writer. There’s no adjective in front of it. Call me a science-fiction writer. I’ll come to your house and I’ll nail your pet’s head to a coffee table. I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die.”
Still, trash-talking writers like Ellison and McEwan are hardly the main culprits to blame for our narrow-minded, self-harming, Luddite (need I say dying?) literary culture. As many observers have noted, most of tomorrow’s writers come from MFA programs and here I can say on some authority, as a graduate of an MFA program who now teaches in one, that our literary culture is in very serious trouble. Within creative-writing programs and English departments generally, there remains a mechanical adherence to “realistic” writing, a paranoid fear of the new and a willful ignorance of speculative writing that keeps science fiction trapped in the literary “ghetto,” as critic and science-fiction champion Larry McCaffery put it. As I often say to my students, English professors today talk about technology and science fiction the way Victorians talked about sex—only when they are forced to and with a deep sense of skepticism about its actual existence.
Rigidly teaching traditional forms of literature is, of course, a well-documented method for exerting a kind of social control, but there is something especially threatening about a mode of writing that deliberately generates radically different realities than the one we currently inhabit. This sort of imaginative work, which often involves rigorously critiquing the role that technology plays in our lives, has serious political implications. As Walidah Imarisha put it in her introduction to Octavia’s Brood, an anthology of speculative writing about social justice, “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is science fiction. Organizers and activists dedicate their lives to creating and envisioning another world, or many other worlds—so what better venue for organizers to explore their work than science fiction stories?”
But sometimes this closed-mindedness toward speculative fiction comes from simple impatience with it as “child’s play,” something not worthy of serious critical attention. In 2017, shortly after signing my appointment papers as an assistant professor of English at the university where I teach, I was asked by a colleague if I intended to observe my predecessor’s “no wizard” rule for my undergraduate fiction workshop. “What’s the ‘no wizard’ rule?” I asked.
“Oh well, Professor X just got tired of reading Harry Potter fan fiction in his writing workshop, so he didn’t allow students to submit that kind of writing.”
The first writer I remember being actually, truly, addicted to—to the point of getting caught and receiving detention for stealing his books from my middle-school library—was Ray Bradbury, so naturally I scoffed at this “no wizard” rule and subtly mocked it on the first day of class. My students responded well to this mockery on my part and rewarded me with dozens of stories about wizards, talking frogs, samurai in outer space, necrophiliac gangsters, and hyperliterate, time-traveling, sword-wielding squirrels who created their own monastic order in the time of Chaucer. Needless to say, I now have a deep and profound appreciation for why my predecessor might have enacted his infamous edict—if you let today’s undergraduates write whatever they want, you tend to get a lot of regurgitated television plots, comic books, and content whipped up with the help of all manner of illicit substances. Frankly, after a full semester of this, I needed a long break and the mental wasabi of a Philip Roth novel. Still, there was some promising writing that got turned in, including a serious, technically informed story about an artificial-intelligence researcher struggling with the implications of his work and the vagaries of the Turing test, a foundational concept in AI research. While I’ll never know what would’ve happened had I kept the “no wizard” rule, I think it’s intellectually dishonest to call something a “creative-writing workshop” while placing limits on your students’ imaginations by saying, in essence, “be creative, but only in this very specific way that I’ve decided upon.”
Despite this rough introduction to the literary proclivities of students today, I feel an ethical obligation to teach science fiction, to write about it, and, in a controversial move for a critic, to promote it in the academy and beyond. We live in a time of radical cultural change—most of it brought on by new technology—and to fail to address this change through my teaching and writing feels like an abdication of the critic’s mission, that of locating the works of literary art that hold up the best mirror to our culture in its current state. In this regard, I assert without qualification that science fiction today leaves nearly all other forms of literary expression in the dust. To be blunt, any writer working today flirts with irrelevance if he or she fails to read and metabolize at least some of the science fiction currently being published.
An important science-fiction writer who is credited with bridging the substantial—some would say unspannable—gap between Chinese and American science fiction is Ken Liu, whose latest effort is The Hidden Girl, a collection of stories, many of which first appeared on the internet in some form or another. Liu, a polymath who emigrated to the US from China at age eleven (he is at once a Harvard-trained lawyer, a computer programmer, an international literary scout, a writer of fiction, and presumably an insomniac) is best known for his Hugo Award–winning translation of Liu Cixin’s novel The Three Body Problem, a novel that Barack Obama read during his presidency as a way of gaining perspective on his squabbles with a small-minded Congress and described as “just wildly imaginative.”
While Liu’s short fiction lacks the range of, say, Bradbury, The Hidden Girl is a remarkably accurate snapshot of its creator—like Liu, the book is both broad in its interests and deep in its understanding. Surveying its 408 pages is like looking at an fMRI in prose of a mind so restless that it causes discomfort in the casual observer. Many of the twenty pieces in the book serve as quick takes on a culture at the beginning of a long civil war. Like many current writers of speculative fiction, Liu’s jailbreak from the prison house of New Yorker–style realism is complete and emphatic and he moves seamlessly between the worlds of sword-wielding girl warriors to post-Earth space colonization to the seemingly infinite inner space of the internet. To say Liu holds the traditional narrative conventions of the space-time continuum in contempt is like saying Hunter S. Thompson liked drugs.
As the title suggests, most of Liu’s protagonists are female, which may say as much about our current cultural moment and how masculinity is portrayed in the video games that are as much of an obvious influence on Liu’s work as anything else—put simply, male characters in video games tend toward the hypermasculine and hypermasculine characters in our culture tend to lack the rich inner lives that lend themselves to quality fiction. Liu’s worldview is distinctly post–War on Terror, postcolonial, of the Trump era, and deeply informed by science—in the preface to the book, he refers to language as a “technology.”
Within The Hidden Girl’s covers, we are treated to stories about a dead father’s consciousness being uploaded to a techno-giant’s servers, a piece of travel journalism involving an Earth post-ice-cap melt, a genetically altered species of children being raised on a life-raft planet colonized by former earthlings, a Chinese girl kidnapped into a kind of ninja academy, and an interned Japanese-American who is shipped to Okinawa during World War II to aid the Japanese in developing a paranormal super weapon.
The best story in the collection is “The Gods Will Not Be Chained,” which introduces us to Maddie, a bullied schoolgirl whose recently deceased father’s consciousness has been secretly uploaded to a giant tech corporation’s servers. Liu is especially adept at channeling the inner lives of so-called “digital natives” (people under a certain age who have never known a world without the internet). After an exceptionally cruel bout of cyberbullying, Maddie muses, “Sticks and stones. But the digital world, the world of bits and electrons, of words and images—it had brought her so much joy, felt so intimate that she thought of it a part of herself. And it hurt. She crawled into bed and cried until she fell asleep.”
Things get interesting when the next day, Maddie gets an online message from a mysterious stranger that consists only of emojis. The stranger makes quick work of Maddie’s bullies, vanquishing them with a messaging campaign. “By fourth period, most of the girls who had been giving Maddie a hard time shared that haunted, everybodyhatesmenobodylikesme look. Accusations and counteraccusations flew back and forth; cliques gathered between classes to whisper and broke apart, screaming. Some of the girls came out the bathroom with red eyes. All day, they left Maddie alone.” In time it develops that the tech company has, unbeknownst to Maddie and her mother, uploaded the essence of her father’s mind to its servers, but in such a way that “he” is only able to communicate via emojis. This last stylistic experiment of Liu’s was interesting at first, but then, owing to the limits of black-and-white printing, became progressively more irritating.
If there is reality in The Hidden Girl, if it offers any insight into the spiritual challenges of our time, it is in its acknowledgment of the power of computing and its exploration of the ideas behind “the Singularity”—a Silicon Valley–based religion that advocates for cloud-based human immortality. As author and virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier said in his 2010 book You Are Not A Gadget, “Technology criticism shouldn’t be left to the Luddites,” and here Liu excels. He seems intent on using his fiction both as exploration and as a technically informed cautionary tale. This first tale ends on a portentous and eponymous note as Maddie and her mom convert to a kind of prepper lifestyle on the advice of Maddie’s father, who is now immortalized in the cloud. “Off in the cloud, a new race of beings was plotting the fate of the human race. We’ve created gods, she thought, and the gods will not be chained.”
While I don’t find Liu’s prose style to be particularly aesthetically noteworthy—he is no Ursula K. Le Guin but then who is these days?— his work does possess the undeniable quality of speaking to our historical moment in a way that is dangerously rare. There is an immediacy to his writing that other writers would do well to emulate. As students in my science-fiction seminar have told me over and over to my great dismay, for many people currently in their twenties, online experiences are perfectly real to them—as real as anything that happens to them at a bar, the grocery store, or hiking in the woods. It was, in fact, this emotional connection to data that first inspired William Gibson to write Neuromancer, the novel credited with launching the cyberpunk movement in the eighties, when he stepped into a video arcade and saw how people playing the stand-up games were rapt, responding to the stimuli on-screen as if it were happening in real life.
The most pointed story in The Hidden Girl is “Thoughts and Prayers,” an enervating tale about the aftermath of a mass shooting in latter-day America. An exploration of the impending pitfalls of virtual reality, the story reads like a speculative-fiction response to the depredations of Alex Jones, post–Sandy Hook. As a resident of Las Vegas, it’s a story I know too well: A large music event is shot up, dozens are killed for no reason at all, the family members of the deceased agitate for change and awareness, only to be targeted themselves by vicious internet actors. The story concludes with a curious indictment delivered by one of the story’s villains: “Everyone is a troll now. If you’ve ever liked or shared a meme that wished violence on someone you’ve never met, if you’ve ever decided it was okay to snarl and snark with venom because the target was ‘powerful,’ if you’ve ever tried to signal your virtue by piling on in an outrage mob, if you’ve ever wrung your hands and expressed concern that perhaps the money raised by some victim should have gone to some other less ‘privileged’ victim—then I hate to break it to you, you’ve also been trolling.”
Whether Western-style democracy and civil society can survive the internet is a central question of our time. More than any other seers currently at work, Liu and writers like him are trying to address this question. We ignore them at our peril. As Larry McCaffery, a leading science-fiction critic and my former professor, wrote, “The specialization required to understand developments in the computer and defense industries, or in biology, physics, astronomy, and chemistry, is simply too great. However, people do need some form of imaginative access that will allow them to judge the changes occurring today. Without this access there can be only passive, uninformed acquiescence— always dangerous, especially when we realize that scientists and businessmen may employ decision-making processes that are either amoral (the abstract logic of corporate capitalism) or even actively immoral (the personal or nationalistic exercise of power and greed).”
McCaffery wrote this in 1990, years before email, years before Facebook and Twitter, decades before WikiLeaks and the rise of Donald Trump. But like some alchemical works of criticism, it remains truer today than the day it was written.