Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Authors in a panel Saturday at The MIT Museum in Cambridge (Photo: Madeleine Aitken)

In a world harried by automation and innovation, science fiction books can provide a lens through which to examine the relationship between technology and humanity – as Hugo Award-winning science fiction authors Elizabeth Bear, Suzanne Palmer, Ken Liu and James Patrick Kelly discussed Saturday in a packed event at The MIT Museum.

The panel, co-hosted by the museum and MIT Press Bookstore, supported the publication of the most recent of the MIT Press’ “Twelve Tomorrows” series, which explores developing technologies in the near and distant future. The panel, moderated by National Book Award winner Will Alexander, was meant to answer that question: “How does science fiction use today’s technology to envision the future?” Most of the conversation revolved around the authors’ experience writing, though, with only nods to the importance of technology in their work.

“Are we actually novelists, or are we oracles?” Liu asked. “Sci-fi is a challenge of the very fundamental notion of what humanity really is.” 

To understand humanity, Liu said, we need to understand its technology. “You cannot understand beavers without studying their dams, you cannot understand bees without studying their hives,” Liu said. “Humans are not separable from this technology.”

Science fiction books are art because they are written works, but their authors depend on the work of scientists. “[Scientists] are trying to make sense of the universe, and we’re trying to tell stories about the universe that make sense,” Liu said. “There’s something that unites the arts and sciences: Ultimately, we’re all just trying to make sense of the universe and trying to listen to its music.”

Alexander asked whether science fiction is an act of translation between the languages of science and fiction. Liu called it more of a transformation – trying to say in words what cannot be said in words. He quoted Ursula K. Le Guin, sort of a “mother” of the genre: “The artist deals in what cannot be said in words.”

“We’re trying to evoke a thing that does not exist with the symbols that already exist,” Liu said. “I think it’s the closest thing we have to magic.”

And science fiction isn’t about having all the answers about the future, but about experimenting based on what we already know. “We’re not writing science fiction now for the people in the future,” Bear said. “We’re writing them for readers now.”

Kelly achieves this by playing with bad technology. A self-proclaimed “gadget guy,” he said he gets his inspiration and ideas about our future from playing with bad technology. “Sometimes playing with a gadget in its most primitive form is very helpful in formulating how it might play out,” he said, comparing it to talking to someone imagining a scientific breakthrough. In other words, what we have in primitive form is as important to what will come in the future as new ideas are.

And, of course, what is “primitive” today may very well be second nature someday. “I’m all over playing with the bad VR that we have now, because I think someday our grandchildren will take VR for granted the same way we currently take our iPhones for granted.”

The fun of writing science fiction, Palmer said, is not just interrogating technology that exists, but contesting it. “One of the fascinating things about technology is not what can it do that it’s meant to do, but also what are the ways in which we can repurpose and undermine it?”

Palmer told about a person gathering cellphones at a street event and pulling them around in a wagon so map apps would think this area was congested with cars and route traffic elsewhere. “That’s brilliant,” she said.

This, Palmer said, is the key to our humanity: “A lot of technology makers would really like us to not have agency in repurposing or undermining what they’re doing and want us to be little productive consumers who are predictable,” Palmer said. “Not investing with technology in ways that are socially beneficial is sort of the ultimate expression of humanity and freedom.”