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.