Monday, November 1, 2010

We Live in the Science Fiction, Now

People say this all the time about our world now: we have iPhones and talking GPS in our cars, and in a few more years, the cars will drive themselves and humans will be leaving Earth forever to colonize other planets.

We think "real life is becoming science fiction!"

Our views of the world are fictions. The structures of our lives are fictions. Our nations are fictions, our religions are fictions, our sports-team seasons, our politics, our economies, our disciplines, our loves, our goals, our lives. This is not to diminish any of these things but simply to acknowledge what they really are: elaborate stories full of symbols, proceeding by silently agreed-upon conventions, full of interlinking narrative arcs, each making its own rules of proper conduct, determining its own hierarchy of values, not to mention determining what "wins" and what "loses."

There are fictions that we know are fictions, because they contain unicorns and gold-laying geese. There are fictions that we "know" are fictions but kind of "believe," because the world they describe has too many connections to our "real" world. And then there are the fictions we participate in, the immersive fictions, the ones in which we play a role, whether minor or vital, the ones we call "real life." All other "suspension of disbelief" is partial and transitory. Our lives take place in a fiction where our suspension of disbelief must be total and unwavering.

But rarely is it total. It wavers.

We've all been there: we lie awake at night and see the world as a cold and grubbing and meaningless collection of matter in the void. Our institutions are bullshit. Our belief systems are bullshit. All the crap people want us to do is bullshit.

And if this feeling goes on long enough, it is "debilitating" from the point of view of everyone in the fiction. The person can't play, anymore. The person has dropped out, ceased to perform his role. We call it clinical depression, now, not demons, not an imbalance of humors. That's one of the signs that our fiction is a science fiction, now.

Fictions are the natural antidepressant of Man, and when our belief in our stories falters so does our willingness to live life. A person can live without religion or politics or career goals or love, but a person cannot live without any story at all -- and so fictions are by far the most important thing to Mankind, and that is why we will fight for them and kill for them and die for them, the same way animals in the wild will fight and kill and die in search of food. We need them to survive.

But our fiction is a science fiction, now. Science fiction used to be the realm of fantasy, far from the immersive fiction we call "real." Over the last hundred years they have gotten closer and closer. Now there is very little "fantasy" left in science fiction--as time goes on, machines are less magic, more mechanism. And the recent past seems more fantastic: Mad Men, for example, has a drug-trip quality about it that Firefly does not. Only aliens are truly fantastic (especially p/muppet-aliens ala Farscape), but how long before they seem just a little "off the mark," like those giant boxy robots lumbering across black-and-white moonscapes of 1960s TV (See Twilight Zone's "The Lonely" for a great -- if disturbing -- exception to that trend!) compare to the comically harmless (near-useless) asimo?

We're not quite cyborgs, but we're getting there -- and we're definitely at the point where we cannot consider cyborg life an impossible fantasy. The last time I was polled I was asked whether I'd be willing to put a chip in my brain. This question was followed with, "would you be willing if it gave you instant access to music?" "instant access to news?" "live GPS"... and so on. It's not a question of if you CAN have a chip in your brain; it's a question of what features would convince you to buy one.

So the story is changing: the global fiction that we each understand, in which we see ourselves playing a part, is changing. Increasingly it's a story about mankind's evolution (including forward, beyond the biological), and our technologies, and necessity of getting off the earth and into space, because we know our sun won't last forever. A lot of people aren't fond of this new story, but it's a compelling and complete one, one we can believe. It's also one that, unlike all the other fictions, doesn't deny the emptiness we sometimes feel, but takes it for granted: the science fiction says, we are matter, we are parts in sum. There is no grander purpose to the universe.

The science fiction must also say, we are animals evolved to understand ourselves as part of a fiction. We cannot live without one. We must believe.

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