Mind Meld: Science Fiction, Technology, and Society

Science Fiction often deals with the connections between science/technology and society. These books can influence our assumptions and paradigms about the world we live in today.

Q: What book have you loved that explore the connection between society and technology, and how did it  influence how your worldview?

Carrie Patel
Carrie Patel is the author of the science fantasy Recoletta trilogy, which includes The Buried Life, Cities and Thrones, and The Song of the Dead. She is also a narrative designer at Obsidian Entertainment, where she writes for the Pillars of Eternity games. You can find her on Twitter at @Carrie_Patel

One of my favorite novels about the intersection between society and technology is Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. It’s a fascinating book, and my takeaway from it is that technology is not so much an agent of societal change as a reflection of it.

The Diamond Age posits a globalized future filled with advanced technologies: matter compilers, nanotech, and an array of useful and entertaining devices. Yet these technologies don’t unite society; they simply change the lines according to which nations divide themselves. These technologies also don’t improve the stations of the world’s poorest; they merely keep them occupied.

As a result, the world of the novel is carved into “phyles” that, for all their advancements, still misunderstand and mistrust each other, and filled with impoverished “thetes” who fall between them.

Nell, a thete and the child protagonist of the novel, comes into possession of the titular primer, an interactive book that develops her young mind in powerful ways. Yet what defines her education and enables her to improve her lot in life is not the technology of the primer as much as the human presence behind it.

What The Diamond Age demonstrated to me is that technology is a tool rather than a solution. What drives change, innovation, and improvement is not new technology, but rather thoughtful and engaged people.

Devan Sagliani
Devan Sagliani is the author of the Zombie Attack series, The Rising Dead, the Undead L.A. series, the At Hell’s Gates series, and more. He currently lives in Los Angeles, California with his family. For more on his work visit his official website at http://devansagliani.com. Catch up with him on Twitter @devansagliani.

I discovered William Gibson’s Neuromancer my freshman year of college and instantly fell in love with all things cyberpunk, breezing through the series, then his other books, before branching out to similar works like Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and Holy Fire from Bruce Sterling. Back then the internet was little more than bulletin boards and chatrooms, a far cry from where we are today. AOL was ramping up membership, bringing more people online, but now commonplace technology like video chatting and online banking were pure science fiction.

Reading Neuromancer was like glimpsing a terrifying and enthralling window into the near future, one that comes more into focus with every passing day – for better and worse. Unlike some readers, who found his world building tedious and character development overly esoteric, the plethora of neologisms and tech jargon he unleashed from the very first chapter made me feel like I was receiving hip slang from a dark and overpopulated future.

I began inserting phrases like ‘jacking in’ and ‘cracking the ice’ and ‘cyberspace’ into my conversations with friends equally obsessed with the internet, the way I imagine people did with the word ‘grok’ after first reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Words themselves are a form of technology. We cannot create the world of the future without first dreaming up a simulacrum of what that world might look like.

Gibson’s vision left me yearning to slip into a digit world and fight for an unbounded new frontier not defined by the traditional restrictions of identity politics, where unlimited access to information itself was championed as the highest ideal of humankind. I still carry some of that hope, and distrust of the system, with me to this day.

Karin Lowachee
Karin was born in South America, grew up in Canada, and worked in the Arctic. Her first novel, Warchild, won the 2001 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. Both Warchild and her third novel Cagebird were finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award. Cagebird won the Prix Aurora Award in 2006 for Best Long-Form Work in English and the Spectrum Award also in 2006. Her books have been translated into French, Hebrew, and Japanese, and her short stories have appeared in anthologies edited by Nalo Hopkinson, John Joseph Adams, Jonathan Strahan and Ann VanderMeer. Her fantasy novel, The Gaslight Dogs, was published through Orbit Books US.

The book that I think beautifully explores the connection between science/technology and society is Cyteen by CJ Cherryh. I loved this book immediately and it is still one of my favorite works of literature of all time. I read it as a teenager when I was just truly figuring out how I was going to pursue writing professionally and it opened my mind to what science fiction could be. I hadn’t read a lot of adult SF at that point and I became enthralled by the layers of storytelling: through complex characters, politics, questions of ethics and morality, an examination of power and ego and psychology, the confluence of genetics and programming…all with the backdrop of a fascinating future society that spanned star systems. Maybe most directly, Cyteen is a perfect example of how to tell an intimate, intricate story on a human level while entwining it in large concepts. Since I was still a teenager when I read it, her depiction of politics and its connection with developing technologies in society opened my eyes and stayed with me. The ethical boundaries of science and research she explored stayed with me. The fragility and strength of people’s psyches stayed with me. So much of what was in that novel informed how I approached my own writing and the real world going forward, in the very least because I felt just a little more informed about how such societal and psychological complexities might work with the impact of controversial scientific exploration.

Stephanie Diaz
Stephanie Diaz is the author of Extraction, Rebellion, and Evolution. She lives in San Diego with her husband, writing novels and working as a freelance editor to help other writers accomplish their dreams. Find out more at www.stephaniediazbooks.com and follow her on twitter @StephanieEDiaz.

Recently I finally got my hands on a copy of Want by Cindy Pon, a riveting, fast-paced, and timely novel set in a near-future Taipei where pollution has taken over and society’s stratification is at an all-time high. The poor die off quickly, succumbing to illness on the streets. The rich live on encased in high-tech suits priced too high for anyone else to afford, hardly aware of the woes of everyone breathing the real, horrible air outside. Instead of listening to the scientists urging them to fix the pollution in their city, the politicians cling to their technology that allows them to forget pollution is a problem at all, even as the world continues deteriorating around them.

To me, Want is not just a portrait of a possible future in our world—it is the inevitable future, if people continue ignoring scientists’ warnings about the effects of global warning. It’s real, it’s happening, and we saw it this week in the destructive nature of Hurricane Harvey. We also saw the present-day economic stratification of America at work, in the numbers of people who couldn’t flee from the hurricane’s path because they did not have the money.

Tumultuous storms made worse by all the moisture in the atmosphere, melting icecaps, pollution—it’s all only going to get worse if we continue carrying on with the false idea that our habits aren’t having any permanent affect on the world. This is a problem we must solve now, instead of covering our ears and pretending it’s not happening, before it gets worse. This is our world, our home, our one beautiful Earth, and we must protect it.

Tom Doyle
Tom Doyle is the author of a military fantasy trilogy from Tor Books: American Craftsmen, The Left-Hand Way, and War and Craft (Sept. 26th). In this series, modern magician-soldiers and psychic spies fight their way through America’s occult legacy as they attempt to destroy undying evils–and not kill each other first. You can find free text and audio of his award-winning short fiction on his website: www.tomdoyleauthor.com. Twitter: @tmdoyle2

The most fun I’ve had exploring science’s love-hate relationship with society was with Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Stephenson’s novel updates A Canticle for Leibowitz’s cyclical worldview with principles from the philosophy and history of science (areas that I was studying for kicks when I read it). As with the Order of St. Leibowitz, Anathem’s scientists work in a quasi-monastic setting, but unlike Canticle’s future Earth, the world of Anathem (Arbre) appears to have found a way of containing its cycles of progress and destruction through strict control of scientists and their technology–that is, until an unanticipated external challenge arises.

Early in his novel, Stephenson takes a humorous look at the various frames through which outsiders view scientists, with winking nods to our own world’s real and fictional geniuses: Doctor Who, Spock, Einstein. This amusing detour helps establish the purpose for setting Anathem in an alternate world–Arbre serves as a skewed mirror on our own world’s relation to science.

Arbre’s stability is far from perfect: the secular power has sacked the monasteries when they’ve pursued technologies that threaten to drive the world once more toward apocalypse. But in its confrontation with the external threat, Arbre eventually chooses to loosen its strictures on its scientists. This may seem a more reasonable balance to most real world readers, but I was left wondering if Arbre had again opened itself up to a cycle of destruction.

Anathem rewards close reading. It does the job of good SF: while it entertains, it provokes serious thought–in this case, about the sometimes fraught connection of science and society. As for the entertaining part, Stephenson gives us enough warrior monks, quantum wizards, and other fantastic coolness to thoroughly delight nerds of all sorts, including mine.

Patrick Tomlinson
Patrick S. Tomlinson is an author, stand up comic, and political contributor living in Milwaukee. His Children of a Dead Earth trilogy is available from Angry Robot. He does not like avocados. he can be found online at www.patrickstomlinson.com, or follow him on twitter @stealthygeek.

Of all the books I’ve read that tackled technology’s integration into society, and vice versa, the real standout for me has to be the Nexus trilogy by Ramez Naam. With his background in computer science, software design, and dabbling into brain/machine interfacing, Mez’s work nails the details of the ‘nexus’ tech right down to the base code. He makes a compelling case for how direct communication, virtual telepathy, really, between humans, other humans, machines, and the internet could work. But instead of stopping there, he dives so much deeper into the life-changing promise the tech holds for individual people without shying away from its very real potential for abuse, use in crime, warfare, etc. He goes further still to explore the impact of such technology not just on one society, but how it’s adopted or restricted by different cultures and political blocks. Neither painting a rosy picture nor a dystopia, Nexus confronts the social impacts and ethical questions of its new tech head on and with the intent of working through the problem. It’s hard to walk away from these books without believing they’re almost exactly what the world will look like in forty or fifty years time.

Marissa Lingen
Marissa Lingen lives in the Minneapolis suburbs with two large men and one small dog. She is the author of numerous works of short science fiction and fantasy. Her website is www.marissalingen.com, and she’s on Twitter as @MarissaLingen due to being very sneaky.

When I was fifteen, one of the science fiction novels I fell in love with was Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain. I go back to it over and over again as an influence, especially for questions like this one about science and society. Kress’s genetically engineered Sleepless form a subculture of their own, with new paradigms and ways to relate. They face suspicion, fear, and prejudice from the larger culture–and form their own suspicions, fears, and prejudices towards it. The substance of the book is the resolution of that tension from both sides: finding an interrelation and a coexistence even when it felt like there was nothing that either could give the other. I think a lot of smart teenagers need that message: that isolation and withdrawal are not the answer, no matter how much it may feel like it in the throes of high school. I’ve carried that essentially ecological view with me ever since.

Marshall Ryan Maresca
Marshall Ryan Maresca is a fantasy and science-fiction writer, author of the Maradaine Novels: The Thorn of Dentonhill, A Murder of Mages, The Alchemy of Chaos, An Import of Intrigue, The Holver Alley Crew and The Imposters of Aventil. He lives in Austin with his family, where he cooks too well and eats too many carbs. Find him at mrmaresca.com or on twitter at @marshallmaresca.

I feel like the go-to answer for this has to be Neal Stephenson, because every inch of his work is filled with the interweaving connections between technology and its effect on society. What puts his work above so many others is how encompassing and interconnected his novels are, from the historical examinations of changing technology and scientific exploration in the 17th century in The Baroque Cycle to the far-future, deeply fractured post-scarcity world of The Diamond Age. But the one that always resonated the strongest for me was his second novel, Zodiac. Zodiac came out in 1988, so the “future” it describes was already well into our past by the time I read it, but yet it still resonates today. Stephenson’s “eco-thriller” explores the effect of the slow burn environmental damage caused by casual disregard in disposing of toxic waster—how the carelessness at the highest end of the economic strata devastates those at the lowest end. But it also looks at the impact of man-made catastrophe, and what it takes to hold accountable those responsible, especially in an age where the communication power of the internet was in its infancy. This book stays with me as a reminder of the impact we all can have on the world and our environment, and what we can do to help it.

Rahul Kanakia
Rahul Kanakia’s first book, Enter Title Here (Disney-Hyperion), is a contemporary young adult novel. Additionally, his stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Apex, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, The Indiana Review, and Nature. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins. Originally from Washington, D.C., Rahul now lives in San Francisco. If you want to know more you can visit his blog at http://www.blotter-paper.com or follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rahkan.

One of my favorite science fiction novels of the last decade was Jo Walton’s My Real Children. This book, which won last year’s Tiptree Award, concerns one woman whose life diverges as the result of a fateful decision early in the book. From thenceforward the book is told in alternating chapters that detail the two very different courses her life takes. Both of her lives have their ups and downs, their joys and sorrows, but they are far from equal. In one she finds enduring love, friendship, and meaningful work, and in the other she must struggle to find anything worth holding onto. Both lives also take place in very different futures, and these futures influence the course of the lives, but they do so subtly. The stunning climax of this book really brought home to me the truth that every life is so singular and unique. In our fiction we’re often tempted to turn our characters into avatars of their times. We think people who live in totalitarian dystopias have to be sad and oppressed, while people who live in forward-looking Galactic Empires must obviously be full of zest and adventure. But the truth is clearly much more nuanced than this, and it’s in analyzing this interplay between the personal and the global that My Real Children really has something new and fresh to contribute.

How would you answer?

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