science fiction saves the future

Stephanie was invited to speak at the Speculative Fiction Festival at the New South Wales’ Writers’ Centre last week. It was curated by Cat Sparks, and it was excellent!

The blurb for Steph’s panel:

Can Science Fiction Save the Future? (11am-12am)

This panel examines science fiction as an agent of scientific and social change, serving as a cultural primer, preparing us for new inventions, moral arguments or major events, such as catastrophic destruction or the possibility of transhuman consciousness. Should SF shake us out of complacency regarding genuine threats to society, as well as inspiring compelling new possibilities?

Steph was on this panel with Joanne Anderton, Marianne de Pierres, Bruce McCabe, and Keith Stephenson.

Stephanie has so many feelings climate change and speculative fiction, news at eleven.

There was a feeling that spec fic isn’t for evangelising because the reader doesn’t want to be lectured at. But I disagree – science fiction is for evangelising. I write climate change fiction because I’m inspired in my day job, and I want everyone to know it and be converted.

Scientific accuracy is as important as being able to write well and to convey your meaning. If we’re to inspire, what’s the point in inspiring things that can’t scientifically happen because they defy physics? There’s an argument to be made for inspiring people to move beyond the known science but there’s only so far one can go with that. Don’t be suggesting our climate change future in Australia is going to be full of, like, coral and white people unless you can prove it.

Scientific accuracy is important in my own work, and preferably in the work of others. There’s no shame in throwing the book against the wall when the science is wrong. And half the fun is creating a fantastical world within scientific bounds.

But also: what’s the point in inspiring when you’re doing it on false pretenses?

But can’t you trust the reader to tell the difference between possible and impossible? Can’t you trust the reader?

This is shorthand, of course. You can trust your readers about some things; but your mileage will vary. There are assumptions I can make about my audience. It’s usually Australian. Sometimes it’s Azn. But I’ll probably have to explain some things more than others depending on that audience. I’ll have to explain the significance of the bagua above the door, even in a ghost story. I’ll have to explain the fingers tapping on the table, even in a tale about family. Australian stories often have to be explained internationally (famously, ‘rissoles’ had to be edited out of The Castle and replaced with something else).

I’ll probably have to explain some of the climate change impacts. Climate change impacts have to be included in near future. How can you even write and imagine an Australia in 10, 15 years that doesn’t have climate change impacts? We have climate change impacts right now, here, in 2015 in Australia. We’ll have it next week and we’ll have climate change impacts next year. To have nothing is unreal; to have nothing is the true science fiction.

At the same time, Australians also have to include other things in their near future fiction: refugee issues, land rights and indigenous stuff, racial issues and power and food insecurity. Otherwise what’s the point in suggesting we explore reality through science fiction?

Of course there’s a difference between science fiction and a science textbook. But in many ways, that’s when it stops being fun to the lay person. Text books are about detail and drilling down and all that awesome nitty gritty. Novels have that but in different, often more human ways. And lay people can enjoy science textbooks – but they might enjoy a speculative science novel more, whilst still getting to learn or explore some awesome science.

We can be evangelical in climate change fiction. We can do that without carrying blame or aspersions. In some ways that’s not the fun stuff in climate change fiction anyway, although it can be. IT CAN BE.

There are lots of questions about the place of science fiction, and if there’s a place with it beside romance and historical fiction and other stuff. Why wouldn’t there be? The place for ideals; the place for science fiction to have a message; the place for evangelising. Isn’t that the fucking point of science fiction?

Somewhere in this panel I went on a tangent about the focus on capitalism and the Western narrative in both climate change narratives and in speculative fiction narratives. These inform each other and create an ongoing problem.

I struggle, even now, to write within a Western writing form, with whatsnames – climaxes. There’s a reason why my favourite genre is the road trip. What is Journey to the West (sometimes known to Westerners as ‘Monkey’) if not the world’s most epic road trip where nothing happens except trouble? Wuxia is almost always a journey. There’s no high point, there’s just the self and the discovery and then the homecoming. A climax feels artificial and unnecessary, but it’s the Western form of storytelling.

So, too, is our narrative around climate change. It’s about the individual – Plastic Free July, and 4 minute shower timers, and love food, hate waste. Minimal focus on the role of rice in Australia’s agricultural system; our industrial agricultural complex; almond milk, despite the devastating impact at a national, institutional level.

In our climate change dystopia, the beer factories will all close down; there won’t be enough water to support them.

In our climate change future Australia’s food security and racial politics and violence against non-white Australians will have been heavily impacted by the Shenhua mine. In our climate change future, we’ll find out what ancient evils are sleeping in the ice of Antarctica and will awake when the ice melts. In our climate change future, I expect to have a jaegar, but the wall built Australia through the middle of Darling Harbour still won’t come as a surprise.

After the panel:

I bring my own supply of books to throw against the wall. I come prepared with a list of fights I want to start. And I come with a shopping list of opinions I want to share with you and the ways in which I want to change the world.

Let me tell you about things. Accurate things.

After all, that’s why science fiction is here.


Tehani’s storify of the day. Does not include the part where Stephanie went off on a twitter rant about men of a certain demographic who talk about themselves and are the reason why many women feel intimidated by the industry. Please apply within to experience it in person.

The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung – because it’s a dystopia that’s not about capitalism and white people.

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin – because it’s hard SFF that’s not about capitalism and white people, though I understand vegans are evil in it (I haven’t read it yet because I have to read it in Chinese).

(Liz says, not vegans, climate scientists!  It’s a well-known fact that climate scientists are part of an elaborate plot to destroy human civilisation — I read it in the comments to an article on!)

The Doomsday Handbook by Alok Jha – if you’re looking for ideas at the end of the world.

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