Deep worry: writing the meathooks

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2011

Over at SF Signal, John H Stevens pokes through some dystopian short stories to see if he can throw any light on Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent statement: “I’m starting to think that if science fiction isn’t deeply worried about our present, it should be taken out and shot.” From his conclusion:

… my first thought is that SF as a literary field has become somewhat less focused on, less worried about the present. This is not because the genre lacks a focus on politics as a part of speculative storytelling, but because much of that work, while a product that may reflect some ideas and anxieties of its time, do not seem to focus vigorously on current concerns. There are some, certainly, but there seems to be no pervasive sense of “deep worry” across the wider genre. This is a point, however, that I would stress needs more consideration and surveying to answer more concretely.

At the risk of seeming to contradict Stevens using the same evidence, I think the “deep worry” is actually hiding in plain sight. The widespread refusal to grapple with grim meathook futures is the surest sign of existential terror that I can think of, and also displayed itself in the kneejerk rejection of Jetse de Vries’ optimist manifesto – even worse than the prospect of writing about the many possible pitfalls along the civilisational superhighway is the prospect of imagining how we might overcome them! If you’ll forgive me the vanity of quoting myself:

The Future (caps deliberate) was old-school sf’s metanarrative; The Future used to be somewhere awesome and clean which we could either build, conquer or travel to. But the closer we got to the real (uncapitalised) future, the more it looked like… well, a lot like today, really, or even yesterday, only faster, more ruthless, more worn at the corners, and packed full of grim new threats alongside a remarkably persistent cast of old classics (Teh 4 Horsemen Haz A Posse). The future isn’t somewhere that anyone – except possibly the more hardcore transhumanists, who are getting intriguingly vocal and self-assured of late – wants to escape to. Indeed, I think most of us, at some level or another, are more interested in escaping from the future.


Sf isn’t struggling to catch up with the future; on the contrary, it’s schism’d and reeling from having met the future in person, unexpectedly and with some considerable threat of violence, in an alley behind a franchise restaurant in downtown Mumbai.

Speaking from my own limited personal experience, near-future sf is the subgenre I’m driven to write, but I still feel a sort of paralysis of potentiality every time I start a story; an embarrassment of possible dooms, you might call it. A large part of that paralysis stems from my lack of skill and experience, I fully expect, but another part of the problem is my interest in not just exposing that “deep worry” Stevens talks about but addressing it, too: interrogating it, attempting to answer its concerns, trying to see what people might actually do in a world which – depending on which angle the light catches it – seems on the brink of either catastrophic collapse or civilisational transcendence. As should be obvious to regular readers, that’s an extension of the project that Futurismic has become… unless, perhaps, it’s the other way around.

To be clear, I’m a fellow-traveller of Jetse’s optimist project, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s something all – or even most – writers should be doing: it just sits well with the sorts of stories I want to tell, and the reasons I want to tell them. I’ll leave it to more experienced fiction writers and more widely-read critics to determine whether or not that underlying drive is in some way inimical to the writing of stories that people actually want to read; in the meantime, I figure that the only fair response I can make to my own hypothesis is to get my Ghandi on and become the change I want to see.

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7 Responses to “Deep worry: writing the meathooks”

  1. Wintermute says:

    By that “absence of evidence equals evidence of existence” logic, the usurping cabal of climate denialists — who universally refuse to grapple with the future serial cataclysms — really are the beacons of macroenvironmental salvation.

  2. Wintermute says:

    Stephanie Meyers’ writing is really a concerned well-weighed diatribe on the far-reaching repercussions stemming from assymetrical warfare, as she pays zero word to it in her Twilight Saga.

  3. Ian Sales says:

    I’ve been saying for a while that sf is failing to address the present.

  4. John Stevens says:


    I don’t think you are being contradictory to my point: I agree with you that our *anxiety* about the present can be detected in the fact that the present is not frequently dealt with in SF. But I find that a lot of SF literature is not confronting the moment, infrequently speculating on what may happen next, and sometimes shying away from proposing a path to the future. Obviously some writers do, from Bacigalupi himself to works like the SHINE anthology, but it seems more and more that the speculations of science fiction are more abstract, dissociative, and rendered for escape rather than reflection. What I gleaned from Mr. Bacigalupi’s statement was a frustration with SF tipping too far towards ignoring the present, of the literature not examining the present and giving us ideas and scenarios to consider and analyze as readers. SF is often championed as a laboratory for thought-experiments, but we could use more creative hypotheses and applied experiments to give us ideas for looking at our contemporary problems with more discernment and imagination.

  5. Athena Andreadis says:

    The major shoal for optimistic near-future SF is resources and their distribution. As I mentioned in my review, Shine flinched when it looked at this aspect. The choice is stark: either radical population reduction (planned or the other kind) which puts a crimp on economic growth; or close-object space missions.

  6. Jetse says:

    Many thansk for the heads-up, Paul.

    One minor point: I’m not saying *all* SF writers should write upbeat stories, or that *all* SF writers should write near-future stories. But I am saying they should seriously consider it, as these — see Paolo’s tweet re. present/near-future — are hugely underrepresented in written SF.


    Increased consumption is a bigger problem that population growth: see The Population Explosion.

    In other words: consumption patterns must change. If we implement radical population reduction but the remaining people keep increasing consumption as per the continuous economic growth model, then we’re only postponing the inevitable. A change in lifestyle is more urgent, but this is a choice a lot of us are extremely reluctant to make.

    Not that we shouldn’t try to curb population growth, but this is already happening to a certain extent in the west. Most scenarios see the world population even out at around 9 billion people in 2050: this is without implementing ‘population reduction’.

    Roughly speaking: the west should learn to live with less and share more resources with the rest of the world. Set the right example.

    Also: *either* reduce the impact of the human population on the biosphere *or* go into space? Can’t we do both? After all, there are over 7 billion of us…;-)

    (And “Overhead” tackles both these subjects: humanity trying to live more frugally while a small minority does set up a Moon colony. But a certain reviewer lambasted it for not focusing more on possible life on Europa…;-)

  7. Athena Andreadis says:

    Jetse, I agree that the west should reduce its footprint. But even if we do, we’l run out of resources anyway. So has to be space for certain if we need such things as metals, and even then I’m unsure about the food part.

    As for Overhead, I said that the story suffered from ignoring its most interesting premise. You must agree this is different from saying that it didn’t offer a blueprint for near-term plans. Here’s the relevant portion of my review, so that others can form their own opinions:

    “Two [stories in Shine] warily pet the woolly mammoth in the room: space exploration. Of these, Marie Ness’ “Twittering the Stars” (despite its gimmicky structure and grating title) is absorbing and complex, whereas Jason Stoddard’s too-earnest “Overhead” lets its most exciting premise – Europan life – lie totally fallow. In compensation, the latter contains the sole character in the anthology who’s instantly memorable: a heroic-despite-himself version of Henry the Navigator.”

    The entire review (which, incidentally has four out of five stars) is here: