We Lost Control a Long Time Ago

Sue Burke, whose novelette “Life From the Sky” is in our current issue, graces us with a deeply thoughtful and intriguing post that covers a far-ranging set of issues including self-realization, technology, anonymity, the changing nature of truth, and the power of science fiction.

by Sue Burke


We all need to achieve self-realization. We’ve been told this by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, and several Eastern religions.

We should know ourselves deeply, they say, to understand who and what we are. When we do, we’ll awaken our potential and fulfill the latent possibilities of our character and personality. With self-realization, we’ll achieve our ultimate goal as human beings and find inner peace.

On the other hand, Martians could suddenly land and blast all of humanity into ashes. Knowing our true selves will not save us.

This way of thinking about things—that external events matter more than individual self-realization—might account for the difficulty some people have with science fiction. Its stories tell an uncomfortable truth, according to Barry N. Malzberg. He began writing in the 1970s, and the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls him “a master of black humor.”

In a 1980 essay titled “The Number of the Beast” in the book Breakfast in the Ruins, Malzberg tried to define science fiction. He said it “holds that the encroachment of technological or social change will make the future different and that it will feel different to those within it. In a technologically altered culture, people will regard themselves and their lives in ways that we cannot comprehend.”

The concept of science fiction as the literature of change wasn’t new. Then he took the definition into perilous territory.

“The effects of a changed technology upon us will be more profound on us than change brought about by psychological or social pressure. . . . Lasting, significant change, science fiction says, is uncontrollable and coming in uncontrollably; regardless of what we think or how we feel, we have lost control of our lives.”

That idea is, he contended, “inimical to the middle class (which has been taught that increased self-realization is increased control) because it tends to trivialize if not actually mock the vision of the modern novel and drama (the shaping of experience is its explanation).”

Malzberg’s writing has been called bleak. What could be bleaker than believing we are at the mercy of technology and its out-of-control changes? Yet that belief could be a step toward understanding an important truth. Malzberg continued: “It will be these changes—those imposed extrinsically and by force—which really matter.” He concluded that this was why the genre hadn’t been critically accepted. “Science fiction is too threatening. At its center, science fiction is a dangerous literature.”

He wrote this in 1980. How much has technology changed in our lives since then? How much control have we lost?

I was 25 years old in 1980. I had a touch-tone phone, a manual typewriter, a hand-held calculator, a radio/cassette tape player, an analog television that got all four national networks, and a library card. I had the standard technology and access to knowledge available at the time, and it was okay.

Meanwhile, the future prowled, ready to attack. Life back then was quieter but did not seem more pleasant and deserves no nostalgia. We were isolated in a way that, given an alternative, we instantly and joyously discarded. We embraced the internet: the noise of greater connection and easier access to information. And the future marched on.

I assure anyone half my age that this world is better. Now I have a smart phone, and I long for an even smarter phone.

Every advance, though, becomes weaponized. We who loved science fiction expected this. Even if we had never heard of Malzberg, we knew what change meant because our authors had taught us well. They had warned of the dangers of nuclear war, overpopulation, stifling gender roles, biological engineering, robots, and totalitarianism, often with a Malzberg-like bleakness. We knew that an ecological apocalypse would fall as hard on the self-aware as the self-oblivious.

Cyberpunk appeared in the 1980s as computers became more common, and it criticized electronic society and the way it might control us. If its dystopias haven’t become real, these warnings weren’t in vain because the future isn’t over yet. In my tally, we’ve enjoyed gains but face increasing losses.

We’ve lost anonymity, for one thing. Now anyone can be famous whether they want to be or not. You can, deservedly or by accident, get mobbed on Twitter, sometimes including death threats and being doxxed. You can’t hide, and nothing is forgotten.

Charles Stross takes that loss one step further in a rambling essay called “Dude, You Broke the Future!” Toward the end he explains how your cell phone can identify who you are and where you are. Enormous amounts of information have been collected about us by corporations: your gender, your religion, your political beliefs, and often your location. It’s already being used to target ads, but imagine it being used to target you for abuse by identifying you to people with an antagonistic agenda.

“Or imagine,” Stross said, “you’re male and gay, and the ‘God Hates Fags’ crowd has invented a 100% reliable Gaydar app (based on your Grindr profile) and is getting their fellow travelers to queer bash gay men only when they’re alone or outnumbered 10:1. (That’s the special horror of precise geolocation.)”

Your phone can be turned against you as a weapon to kill you. No one liked anonymity—it was painfully lonely and degrading to be a nobody—but we can never have it again, either.

Another thing we seem to be losing is truth. In the 1980s, what we knew about the world was what we saw on the nightly news, read in newspapers, magazines, and books, and maybe heard from a speaker who came to town. It amounted to an agreed-upon consensus reality that was full of official lies, and we knew it. At the same time, however, unofficial lies had a hard time spreading.

The barriers to retelling lies have fallen. Besides that, it’s more fun to tell exciting lies than dull truth, as an MIT study showed. No one trusts the media anymore, which isn’t a new trend, but then, who can we trust to bring us accurate and complete information?

Truth has become weaponized and sometimes lost by changes in technology.

My point with this digression about things you already knew is to set up a Malzberg-inspired question: What can we do about the loss of anonymity or truth? Not much. Even if you don’t use the internet, the internet won’t stop using you.

Let’s keep going. Technology also affects the climate, military weaponry, medicine, legal and illegal drugs, and the economy, including our ability to earn a living wage. Our world is changing, and we have problems.

Yet we keep on telling science fiction stories in the face of knowing that our lives and the lives of our characters are in many ways beyond our control. We’ve been at it for a century. Despite that knowledge, we do something puzzling: Some of our stories don’t spiral down into despair.

I suggest that’s because deep down we understand what Malzberg said: self-realization won’t save us. But we’ve observed that something else might. Understanding our world and universe, rather than merely understanding ourselves, helps us fight despair and even dabble in optimism. Science fiction looks more outward than inward.

I may know my true self perfectly, but that won’t stop the Martians. If I have a phaser and set it on stun, I can hope not just to survive but maybe to slow down the Martians long enough for peace talks. I can hope for a happy ending.

Literary fiction sneers at science fiction for being “plot oriented.” Yes, it usually is. Science fiction explores the constantly changing external world, a place where what you do matters more than how deeply you achieve self-realization.

You should try to know yourself, of course. It will bring you benefits including increased self-control, which we all need. But that wisdom alone won’t save us from out-of-control change. Our understanding of science and technology might. We can imagine how to respond effectively. Ultimately, that kind of knowledge is power, and it fuels our genre.


Sue Burke is a writer and translator who has lived in Milwaukee, Austin, Madrid, and is now in Chicago. She has published short stories, poems, and articles in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and her novel Semiosis was published by Tor in February 2018. More information is at her website, https://sueburke.site/.


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