“Our minds have been corrupted in proportion as the arts and sciences have improved … the evils resulting from our vain curiosity are as old as the world.”
— Jean Jacques Rousseau
I recently came across an old Huffington Post article (done in that Buzzfeed list style that was so popular for pop-culture blogs in the 2010s) titled “9 Sci-Fi Inventions We Wish Were Real.” Pop culture lists like this about science fiction are common, usually detailing the inventions science fiction has predicted/invented. This particular Huffington Post list was of not-yet-existent inventions which “we” yearn for, and it bizarrely included the “nursery” from Ray Bradbury’s great short sci-fi story, “The Veldt.”
The "nursery" is a genuinely disturbing invention to wish real. As I read the Huffington Post article, I recalled that in “The Veldt,” the children are turned into cold, unfeeling murderers by their futuristic home, built to give their family everything they could ever need and want. The children in the story become obsessed with the “nursery”—a room that has the power to visualise and simulate the mind’s desires. Through the combined force of the children’s willpower and imaginations, the desires expressed in the nursery become real. The children’s parents, eventually, get eaten by lions—real lions—conjured by the children’s minds:
That sun. He could feel it on his neck, still, like a hot paw. And the lions. And the smell of blood. Remarkable how the nursery caught the telepathic emanations of the children’s minds and created life to fill their every desire. The children thought lions, and there were lions. The children thought zebras, and there were zebras. Sun—sun. Giraffes—giraffes. Death and death.1
The dependence of the parents on the technologically advanced nursery to take care of the children ends with all the adults dying grisly deaths in the jaws of lions, because the children will it to happen.
In [dystopian science fiction], ideas for invention have a kind of dangerous, causal force, but that force emerges on its own, as its own silo of knowledge, away from ideas of “what to do” and “how to act.” This premise takes for granted that the impulses to invent (and ideas about what to invent) are disconnected from questions of ethics: how to fundamentally relate to the world, how to act, what we owe (and to whom), and what a “good” way to live might be.
"The Veldt" is a morally fabulistic and distinctly dystopian style of science fiction narrative about the dangers of technology, which has arguably, since the Industrial Revolution, grown to dominate the genre in a mainstream capacity.2 The earliest, most popular example of a science fiction novel as a warning of “a scientist being responsible for anticipating the future effects his inventions may have on the world,”3 is Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus. This theme—the dangers of invention—can be found in many pieces of science fiction media, from Bradbury’s short story collection The Illustrated Man (of which “The Veldt” is one selection), to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, episodes of The Twilight Zone, long-running, popular shows like Black Mirror, movies like I Am Legend, most of the Godzilla franchise, and the entirety of the Jurassic Park franchise (and more).
The central conceit of predictive science fiction fables is about the dangers of technology/invention and human vice, resulting in myth-like tragedies and harsh lessons learned too late. The parents in “The Veldt” are victims of their own desire for extreme ease, pleasure, and convenience, and their too-high levels of trust placed in the amorphous, thought-surveilling technology of their home. Their home, designed to create an environment of no suffering or discomfort, ends up helping the children murder their own parents in a fantastically violent way. The message in this story, and in many of the fabulistic dystopian science fiction stories is: humans do not have a firm enough grip on their own nasty qualities and vices, and therefore inventions create situations that humans are neither responsible enough to navigate, nor ethically capable of handling.
This message in the dystopian science fiction invention narrative is worth having a closer look at. While the “moral fable” nature of the science fiction trope in fact requires a very active presence of ethics at play, it’s often a reactive one—it comes up after the invention has been made. This trope, that while we may be “scientifically ready” to invent something, our “ethics” have not caught up, betrays an underlying premise: that our ideas for inventions happen “prior to” our ethics, somewhere else from our ideas about how we ought to act and be in the world.
In this dystopic genre, ideas for invention have a kind of dangerous, causal force, but that force emerges on its own, as its own silo of knowledge, away from ideas of “what to do” and “how to act.” The premise here takes for granted that the impulses to invent (and ideas about what to invent) are disconnected from questions of ethics: how to fundamentally relate to the world, how to act, what we owe (and to whom), and what a “good” way to live might be.
I agree that ideas have force.4 But suppose that both of these ideological realms (of invention, and of ethics) were not disconnected from one another, at all? Suppose, instead, that the realms are co-constitutive, informing one another, capable of degrading, or in turn, improving one another? That the move to create or invent is inextricably tied to how to be, how to relate to the world? What if, to take it one step further, it is actually a framework for relating to the world, ourselves, and others, that presupposes the kinds of ideas we get for invention? Meaning, if an ethics of capitalism, or ethics of war, generates endless inventions of capitalism, or inventions of war—then an ethics that robustly affirmed life could generate corresponding life affirming inventions.
Science fiction not only reflects the anxieties and dominant ideas of our present moments, but also, through vibrant, potent, “powerful” descriptions of the future, establishes—and continuously re-invents—a capitalist pre-programmed present.
If what is ideated is co-formed by dominant world-relating ideologies at play, then it makes sense that our stories reflect endless fictional dystopian hellscapes, and inventions that eat/maul/kill/brain control us. We live in a world structured by the peculiar types of relations necessitated through capitalism, through war, and through domination and exploitation. The persistent cynicism and hopelessness present in the trend of dystopian science fiction has been critiqued as self-indulgent pessimism, with the most damning criticisms suggesting that, at such a politically and existentially precarious moment, it should not exist at all. As American historian and journalist Jill Lepore has argued, “It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.”5
To be clear, I don’t think there is anything wrong with telling dystopian, morally fabulistic science fiction stories. Stories like these reflect real anxieties of our current age. However, I want to play around with this trope—the dangers of inventions and unmanageable human vice—to explore the relationships between the stories we tell, and the dominant ideas that shape them, to see what types of new ideas and potentials may be possible in our creations and inventions.
Let’s take the trope that “we aren’t ethically ready for the inventions we create” and invert it to “we actually can’t invent things we are not already relationally or ethically primed to invent.” This inversion, I think, opens up a route to more clearly seeing the kinds of stories we already tell, and brings into question whether or not these stories are imagining a future at all. It may also open routes towards other types of stories we might want to tell—what new powers or new inventions may be realised by these stories—and most importantly, how we might find them.
The Professionalization of Science Fiction: Falsely-Forward Looking Ideas
The stakes of sorting out the relationship between dominant ethical frameworks, science fiction stories, and inventions in these stories, are not purely theoretical. There is a long tradition of inventions and ideas in science fiction stories being built for real use later on. Jules Verne, author of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” is credited by many inventors, among them Igor Sikorsky, the inventor of the helicopter, as being the source of their inspiration for their inventions. The idea of the atomic bomb and its impacts has origins traced to H.G Wells’ 1914 novel “The World Set Free,” and Edward Bellamy is referred to as having the original idea for the credit card, in his late 1800s utopian novel “Looking Backward”.
In the later 2010s, the professionalisation of “innovation,” and specifically the role science fiction plays in that process, can be observed in billion dollar research, hundreds of innovation industries such as academic think-tanks and the non-profit industrial complex.6 An article published in 2015 in The Guardian, written by a lead designer for a think-tank at the University of Lancaster, states that our desires drive discoveries, and that science fiction, being a forward-looking genre, is "fast becoming a science fact”. Modern day capitalist ventures take science fiction inventions seriously through start-ups and fintech firms with mission statements promising to “bring science fiction to reality.” There are even foundations such as Creative Science—an enterprise specifically dedicated to setting aside capital to create inventions inspired by science fiction.
Capitalists and capitalist publications place money and sincere belief in the inventive power of science fiction, and so does the military: Forbes published a recent profile, “Ben Reinhardt is on a Mission to Make Sci-Fi a Reality” focussing on the founder of the non-profit Speculative Technologies. In the article, an overall decline in “scientific progress” was noted, and Reinhardt lays out a vision for a privately funded DARPA—The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a secretive research and development agency of the United States Department of Defense, responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. The reportedly 278 page white paper opens with the call to action, “How can we enable more science fiction to become reality?”
Recalling the guiding hypothesis here, our inverted trope, that our ideas for invention do not precede our ideas of how to be in the world: I’m not convinced that desires push us freely at all. Nor am I convinced that science fiction really is a forward-thinking genre. If the inventions and ideas that are produced only come from the dominating backdrop of already hyper-present ideas, can we really say these stories, or the inventions in them, are looking “forward”? Does, perhaps, the trope of concern here—the trope of the dangerous invention and the ethically irresponsible humans—reveal regressive inventions, because of conservative, militaristic, or regressive ideas about our relations?
Returning to the fabulistic tendencies of dystopian science fiction — anxiety over the dangers of invention is present in neo-conservative talking points — but not evenly expressed across types of inventions. A great deal of modern conservative political rhetoric hinges on anxieties about limits on “freedom.” This anxiety is exacerbated by innovation that results in normative claims. As theorist Jeremiah Morelock puts it, inventions that are seen as “tools for steering society” receive more scepticism and outright rejection in authoritarian populist discourse than inventions about war or killing (and it’s also worth noting that inventions about war and killing7 are not seen as tools for steering society). The pipeline here towards conspiratorial conservatism is a short one: one needn’t spend too much time looking at an anti-vaccine Facebook page to find reference to “Big Brother,” or other Orwellian ideas of an omnipresent “science” and “progress”. The comparison presents an ideologically politically correct, propagandising, surveilling force that implies a regime unilaterally unleashed on populations simply too brainwashed to resist.
Theorists like Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun have both observed the onset of the professionalisation of science fiction and its regressive underpinnings. In “SF Capital”, Fisher writes “What was once satiric prophecy is now blank realism, devoid of any ‘ulterior motives’, devoid, in many important respects, of any interest.”8 In “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” Eshun argues,
To be more precise, science fiction is neither forward-looking nor Utopian. Rather, in William Gibson’s phrase, science fiction is a means through which to preprogram the present. Looking back at the genre, it becomes apparent that science fiction was never concerned with the future, but rather with engineering feedback between its preferred future and its becoming present [...] As New Economy ideas take hold, virtual futures generate capital. A subtle oscillation between prediction and control is being engineered in which successful or powerful descriptions of the future have an increasing ability to draw us towards them, to command us to make them flesh.9
There is a powerful, causal force at play in the stories we tell, and science fiction plays an active and significant role in our inventive capacities—in the sense that it plays a role for the virtual future market. As Eshun puts it, “Science fiction is now a research and development department within a futures industry that dreams of the prediction and control of tomorrow.”10 Science fiction not only reflects the anxieties and dominant ideas of our present moments, but also, through vibrant, potent, “powerful” descriptions of the future, establishes—and continuously re-invents—a capitalist pre-programmed present. The mere act of imagining, and storytelling about possible inventions “command[s] us to make them flesh.”
Better Interventions Towards Better Inventions
In considering the fable of human beings being unequipped for the ethical ramifications of their inventions, I can’t help but think of another trope: the lone “mad scientist”; one singular, genius inventor. I am thinking again of Frankenstein, and the observation that the story is a warning of a scientist “being responsible for anticipating the future effects his inventions may have on the world.”11 But if the focus becomes, instead, how that invention comes about—the pitfalls of one narrowed, individualistic perspective, or one particular dominant, endlessly reproduced relational system, and the conditions that give inflated importance to those emergent ideas as potent forces to be made flesh—we get a cautionary fable about the likelihood of creating bad situations when inventors or “scientists” are unaccountable to a larger community with possibly divergent perspectives.
This reading gives us a need for invention with intervention, collaboration, and push-back from community members and different idea-havers: a differently structured paradigm of invention, and different kinds of spaces through which ideas come to be. How much more potent could descriptions of the future be if they incorporated additional alternative perspectives, ideas, and collaborations? Human beings are not driven freely by their desires, creating a science of the future in these dystopian stories; they are recreating the preprogrammed present in an already-made structure. Science fiction is invention as self-fulfilling prophecy, recreating dominant relational dynamics in their machinations: relations to nature, to “property,” to animals, to “knowledge,” to other humans, to self. I am thinking again of “The Veldt”: while we don’t meet any one particular inventor of the murderous nursery, we don’t really need to, to still see the values of the society that brought about such an invention, and who it was supposed to cater to. The “nursery” is designed to nurture, comfort, and amplify the individual needs of each person within a very specific relational system produced under capitalism—the nuclear family. While it seems like the parents are punished for deviating from this structure through their embracing of the technology, and the delegation of the parental roles to the machine, in another sense, they are simply replaced by an invention that’s only purpose was to recreate the systems it was programmed to recreate. As the mother despairs in the story at her role becoming irrelevant in the home: “I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and mother now, and nursemaid.”12
But what of the inventions we are not yet able to write about or create because we have not gained a more adequate idea of the world—a more plural, more diverse, radical embracing of alternative methods of relating? What of the inventions that we cannot yet conceive of because we do not have an ethics or mode of relation that embraces, and affirms life?
The stories we uplift about the future and the ways we think about them secure the frameworks that brought them up in the first place. But what of the inventions we are not yet able to write about or create because we have not gained a more adequate idea of the world—a more plural, more diverse, radical embracing of alternative methods of relating? What of the inventions that we cannot yet conceive of because we do not have an ethics or mode of relation that embraces, and affirms life? We aren’t moving freely along a progressive line, discovering brand new ideas about the world on our own. We’re limited by our capacities, and the structures that dominate us. The hard work task of changing our relations and working with others to see “what might be involved in the task of developing a counter-force to dissolve and break up an oppressive network of ideas”13 is what is required for equipping ourselves to think of new inventions that affirm life.
In researching this essay, I found a tradition of second-wave feminist literary critique that was specifically committed to the socio-political potentials of science fiction.14 Feminist critic, poet and scholar Rachel Blau DuPlessis argued in particular that women’s science fiction can be seen as a type of didactic writing, a moral map to not “tolerating what we do not find tolerable”:
Breaking with the rules of the known world, these teaching stories may also propose specific changes in values and institutions in, for example, the mother-child (parent-child) bond, or in the way work is organised.15
The point in her text was not a bio-essentialist view that women have some greater or deeper grip on a creative or innovative ability, or that being a woman automatically unlocks “true” innovation; the point is that alternative stories about new material relations and values, empower and embolden new relations and values in reality. Better realities emerge out of collective yearning for something better—and one way to arrive there is via creation of collective diverse spaces that allow for such conversation sharing, ideas, and new creative imaginings to emerge. In the case of the feminist critique above, it is yearning for new and alternative types of relations of reproductive agency and labour outside of patriarchy.
We can imagine there are many other ideas of relating, and telling stories of different types of relations. There are traditions of science fiction and speculative storytelling, like Indigenous Futurism, for example, that challenge dominant conceptions of property and ownership, of familial structures, and notions about what is considered “advanced” technology (and by whom). This alternative story-telling emerges out of a collectively different understanding of the world than what is presented to us in the mainstream dystopian science fiction narrative wherein our inventions create realities of despair. Instead, questions of “what we owe” are woven into the imaginings of what is created. These stories have potency, and deserve (and require) support, platforms, and spaces for collaboration, speculation, and creation; better invention is arrived at through materially and ideologically restructured relational frameworks. We create what we are relationally primed to create.
As Octavia Butler wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” In “The Veldt,”16 The children had thoughts of death and created death; but “The Veldt” can just as easily be read as a blunt metaphor for what I’ve just outlined. The children do not will new, creative desires into existence; their desires, and the structures that shape them, are merely replicated and compounded. The home, in the story, catered to every neurotic desire of the family member until it killed people. But maybe it isn’t that the children thought death and created death; rather, the nursery echoed the children’s claustrophobia, their home, their lack of agency, and their despair. The home already was death, and the invention merely secured that present state. Through establishing (and fighting for) better, new states of life, maybe we can find those new suns.