Those Who Aspire to Solaria

A certain mindset sees the movie Aliens and thinks it would be awesome to be a Space Marine. Because it’s like being a Marine, but in space.

A certain mindset skims a bit of cyberpunk fiction and thinks the future will be amazing, because Ruby-coding skills will clearly translate to proficiency with katanas. You know, katanas.

A certain mindset learns a little about the Victorian era and is instantly off in a fantasy of brass-goggled Gentlemen Aviators, at once dapper and wind-swept, tending the Tesla apparatus on their rigid airship. All art in the genre carries the tacit disclaimer in its caption, “(Not pictured: cholera.)” In the designation steampunk, the -punk has nothing to do with anarchy (in the UK or elsewhere), the suffix having been conventionalized into a mere signifier of anachronism. A steampunk condo development promises units for the reasonable price of 2 to 7.5 million dollars apiece.

[To be fair, Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), which is in some part responsible for the whole wibbly-wobbly steamery-punkery, did spend some of its time with the run-down and the passed-over. It also, I’m guessing unintentionally, underscored the incoherence of the premise, when in its final pages, Ada Lovelace describes a fanciful notion of the late Charles Babbage, whose fictional version dreamed of doing computation with electricity. The fictional Babbage’s never-implemented plan relied on such hypothetical devices as resistors and capacitors. The book’s plot begins in 1855; the Leyden jar was invented 110 years earlier. Carl Friedrich Gauss built a working telegraph years before the historical Babbage even designed his Analytical Engine. But our aesthetic can’t allow that, of course.]

It is against this background that we should read “Silicon Valley is a Science Fictional Utopia,” a recent piece in Model View Culture. I have enjoyed and appreciated MVC quite a bit in the past few months, which is why I was rather flummoxed to find a statement in that essay that just refused to parse. The overall thesis sounds roughly right to me, but not all the examples seem to fit as written. Here’s the part that jumped out at me:

Awesome things, and great ideas. This is what SF is all about.

This is also the drive behind Silicon Valley culture. It’s about a better future through human industry, like the Cyberpunks.

It’s a better future through ingenuity, risk-taking, and a rock-solid belief that technology is humanity’s best chance at a better future.

Cyberpunk—cyberpunk!—is “about a better future through human industry”?

Cyberpunk, the genre in which multinationals own everything and humans have to fight over what’s left; cyberpunk, which saw the Campbellian heroes of the Golden Age, staring at the stars with wonder and ambition, and said, “Fuck you, you get rain.” A cyberpunk future is a prosthetic heel grinding into a human face, if not forever, at least until the owner of the heel gets bored. The idea that success flows to the privileged was wired into the genre from the beginning. Technology can be incorporated into our bodies, but never trusted. “Progress” in the Sprawl means moving a little hot RAM. The Los Angeles of the Tyrell Corporation is no Utopia, and it never pretended to be.

But after a couple decades of the genre being reduced to ZOMG trenchcoats and mirrorshades, perhaps it’s not so surprising that looking back at the stories themselves can be a bit of a shock. It’s so easy to geek out over the superficial trappings, and so much harder to see ourselves complicit in the systems that the stories railed against.

In Blade Runner, Captain Bryant tells Deckard, “If you’re not cop, you’re little people.” Escaping into a story about being the cop has a much more obvious appeal than escaping into one about being the little people. As a friend of mine once noted, nobody reads Atlas Shrugged and says, “Why, I must be one of the unproductive slobs who are everything that is wrong with humanity.”

To say that cyberpunk fiction was “about a better future through human industry” is absurd; to say that of the aesthetic, of “cyberpunk” recoined by back-formation from “steampunk,” is rather less so.

Among the other SF stories mentioned in the MVC piece is one that I’ve thought a fair bit about: Asimov’s The Naked Sun (1957). This novel is, in spirit, an Agatha Christie yarn in space. A man is bludgeoned to death at his isolated country estate. His wife discovers the body. The murder weapon is missing. A detective comes from the big city to investigate, and everyone the detective meets had a motive to kill the victim. At the climax, the detective gathers all the principals to listen as he solves the crime.

Asimov greatly admired Christie and the “cozy mystery” genre, and I don’t doubt that this structure was intentional. The unintended consequence has to do with another novel published in 1957: in building the setting for his perfect murder, Asimov created Galt’s Gulch—with the crucial difference that Asimov’s version has the robot labor force necessary to keep everyone from dying in a couple weeks.

The planet Solaria was settled by wealthy people who wished to avoid the regulations of their home planet. Personal autonomy is sacrosanct. On Solaria, everyone is either the best or the only practitioner of a trade.

And, incidentally, their society is stagnant and moribund. Once something goes wrong, they have to call a cop from New York to fix it. At the end, the detective spells out what he has learned:

Baley said, “The Solarians have given up something mankind has had for a million years; something worth more than atomic power, cities, agriculture, tools, fire, everything; because it’s something that made everything else possible.”

“I don’t want to guess, Baley. What is it?”

“The tribe, sir. Cooperation between individuals. Solaria has given it up entirely. It is a world of isolated individuals and the planet’s only sociologist is delighted that this is so. That sociologist, by the way, never heard of sociomathematics, because he is inventing his own science. There is no one to teach him, no one to help him, no one to think of something that he himself might miss. The only science that really flourishes on Solaria is robotics and there are only a handful of men involved in that, and when it came to an analysis of the interaction of robots and men, they had to call in an Earthman to help. […] Without the interplay of human against human, the chief interest in life is gone; most of the intellectual values are gone; most of the reason for living is gone. […]”

The final message is that Earth and Solaria are both stagnating, in mirror-image ways. But more to the point is that vintage male-as-default language: “a handful of men,” “robots and men,” “call in an Earthman.” Aren’t we glad that casual sexism is a thing of the past? There’s more that one could dissect in that scene, including some talk of the evils of “ectogenesis,” a suggestion that gestating fetuses anywhere other than women’s bodies is dehumanizing. One really ought to unpack that at greater length, but for now, let’s step back and consider the novel more broadly. The “accusing parlor” scene, in which Baley presents the solution to the mystery, contains two women and five men, along with one robot, who is coded male in both the social and technological senses of the word. Three other male characters appear at various points, not counting the murder victim and assorted robots, all of whom are treated as male. Two women out of eleven characters—for this writer and that era, that’s practically Madoka Magica!

Earlier, we touched on how self-congratulation can enter the act of reading science fiction. There’s another angle to that: When one grows up reading books full of robots, it’s easy to say, “I’m willing to bestow my empathy upon artificial intelligences. I can think of these robot characters as human, in the ways that matter. Surely, then, from my enlightened perspective, the petty differences among flesh-and-blood humans must shrink to insignificance!” With this kind of thinking, it is simple to convince oneself of one’s own freedom from bias. Even though the books which inculcated this enlightened philosophy are replete with biases themselves!

Likewise: The Federation in Star Trek is largely a meritocracy. For the most part, promotions in Starfleet seem to happen on the basis of professional competence. I like that. Civilization triumphing, day by day, over its own worse elements—that’s a good story. But there’s a flipside. “I grew up watching Star Trek, where progress is based on merit,” I say to myself, “and so I learned to judge people fairly. Therefore, when I evaluate a person’s potential as a scientist or as a programmer, I will do so on their merit alone. Any suggestion that I might not is an insult against my character, made by someone who doesn’t understand people like me.” Psychology is probably seldom as straight a line as that, but at the very least, it’s a mental trap we should look out for. The more admirable our fiction makes our ideals sound, and the more we identify ourselves as devotees of that fiction, the harder it is to admit when we fail to live up to those standards.