Norman Spinrad at Large: Bummers versus Speculative Fiction

Well it’s been quite a while since I wrote one of these, and this being near  the end of 2023, it seems to be a good time to let it be known that I’m still alive and yes, healthy, and the reason I haven’t been “AT LARGE” is not that I’ve been lazy, but busy, like it and or not.

Apartment  pains in the ass, Kafka-like legal bullshit, but on the other hand, dealing with some movies in play but mostly writing my latest Asimov’s SF ON BOOKS column, which this time took a full month if you count on the necessary reading. And when I’m doing something like that I’m usually not writing anything else, just as when it comes to answering emails or writing things like this it generally means I’m not writing much of anything else.

But I find myself in the situation of having written half a century of my “ON BOOKS” column, where I must center on novels,  and I can’t write critiques of individual short stories, nor what has been happening to Speculative Fiction in general.

I don’t think I have to explain what I mean by “Bummers” but herein I’m using “Speculative Fiction” to mean positive speculative fiction of future hope rather than the all too possible fiction futures of current despair.

Or, as JFK said  (or some say it was first Eleanor Roosevelt) “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” This  may seem odd coming  from the author of THE MEN IN THE JUNGLE, THE IRON DREAM, THE BIG FLASH, OSAMA THE GUN and so forth, but on the other hand, coming  from a writer well known for cursing plenty of darknesses, it may give it more  credibility.

And don’t get me wrong, in the last few years of the real world, there certainly has been all too much darkness to curse.  A worldwide epidemic pandemic. A war between Russia and NATO, the economic sanctions fought with which have caused world wide economic bummers. Another version of the Forever War between Israel and the Palestines. Planetary climate chaos. Neutral professional journalism crumbling into fighting propaganda.

But here I’m not talking about journalism, but literature, fiction, which doesn’t have to be neutral  and indeed can’t be, and particularly speculative fiction.  Which by  my definition here is fictional speculation of what could happen in the future, hopeful or bummer, or combination thereof.

And what I am saying now is that the majority of current SF, novel or short story, reflects the current bummers of our cultural, political, economic, planetary, psychic present, rather than possible hopeful futures.

Decades ago, I wrote something I called THE TRANSFORMATION CRISIS  first as the script of a speech, then published in Analog  and later bouncing around the internet, the idea being that any intelligent species anywhere in the Universe will, sooner or later, become capable of destroying itself, or its planetary biome, or its  planet, or even its entire solar system.  That is the inevitable crisis. The universal transformation crisis. A civilization anywhere and anywhen either succeeds in passing through its transformation crisis or dies.

When  I wrote this decades ago, our civilization, with nuclear power at least, had already entered its transformation crisis and would stay there for a few more centuries before we failed the crisis and died out or passed and could last indefinitely.

Well I was wrong about that.  The way current real things are going now, humans living now will decide.  The lunatics have already taken power of the asylum, and the future we get will be the future we make.

Until say the fifteenth century, China was the most advanced culture on this planet and had been so for centuries.  In science and technology. Mass printing.  Gunpowder. Literature. Arts.  Huge flotillas of great ships exploring at least half of the world and with them the masters of transnational economics.  Nothing like it in the whole world.

But China lacked three concepts:

Rule of the people, by the people, rather than by naked military power, descendant royalties, or the worldly power of those who convince their peoples that they speak the words of their gods.

The idea that their machineries on land and sea could be powered by other than muscle,  wind or controlled fire or water.

The concept that while there might have been a golden past, better than the present, that the peoples of the present could imagine and therefore seek to create futures better than even the golden past

You could call it imaginative speculation. Mix it up with a dramatic story and you could call it Speculative Fiction. Could you really call it anything else?

The classic Chinese failed to conceive all three. And so while their superior culture failed, it could not face a transformation crisis only because it never had the physical powers to do so.

But  here we are at the turning point of our Transformation Crisis in Bummer Land. Nuclear weapons. Economic weapons. Democracy degenerating back into popularist tribalism or worse. . Woke verses Maga.  Worst of all, so called climate change which is really already a climate chaos which will last for centuries. Any or all of which are capable of destroying our modern cultures, ourselves, our planet’s biosphere.

None of this can or should  be ignored in the speculations of speculative  fiction.  But at the same peak of our transformation crisis, we can see that we have escaped nuclear destruction for almost of a century.  Slavery, while still around, is universally illegal. Science can beat the worst of plagues. We are on the bridge of becoming a multiple planetary species. Of eventually living for centuries. Of feeding everyone. Of war itself already being rendered obsolete by its own technology. Science itself and moral evolution can pass us safely through our Transformation Crisis if we look beyond the possible future in more than decades or even centuries.

Bummer land of the current and nearby future capable of failing our Transformation Crisis forever. Or successful passing through our Transformation Crisis into the possible long-range future.

Our species, our cultures, the literatures thereof, need the speculative fictions of both.

We need to acknowledge and face to the current dangerous mess we have made in the present and immediate future, but we also need to imagine the speculations of our possible long range futures beyond. Because whether we can or if we don’t, we cannot escape the certainty that what we do in the present creates our future, whatever it may be.  If there will be any future for us at all.

History stands in the past looking backward from the stern of the boat. Speculative fiction looks  forward from the prow through the mists of what may be coming.

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