Anti-technological sf

I'm sometimes surprised by how often sf stories are all about the evils of technology, and how much better unmodified humans are than technologically aided humans.

I shouldn't be surprised by this. Sf that's about the dangers of science goes back to Frankenstein, or arguably Prometheus. And even in classic pulp sf, there was often a streak of belief in the supremacy of the human soul over cold sterile machines. It's not that I really think that science fiction should be or has always been primarily focused on how cool technology is.

But at some gut level I'm nonetheless still a little surprised each time I come across yet another story in which (for example) the future is a soulless world of machines, but one child encounters an ancient low-tech thing known as a "book" that imparts wisdom beyond the ken of the cold rationalist future world. Or a story in which an unmodified human beats a cyborg at sports or smarts.

I wrote a satirical little short-short showing what this concept might have been like if it had been written in the past:

It was the far future year 1990, and everyone was using the remarkable new devices that aided vision, devices known in the vernacular of the day as "glasses."

Everyone, that is, except little Timmy.

Little Timmy knew that using artificial devices of cold unfeeling metal and glass to aid sight was only another form of blindness. He understood that true vision came from the heart, not from the eyes. And so he refused to wear the "glasses."

And even though the cold harsh unfeeling world mocked him for it, the day came when everyone's "glasses" went on the fritz, and the only person in the world who could see was Little Timmy, who had not become dependent upon technology.

And thus dawned a new era, an era in which people set aside their "glasses" and learned from the one who could see without them. An era of Vision.

. . . I wrote this entry about three weeks ago, but put it on hold 'cause it kind of got away from me; it ran aground on an attempt to discuss the story (and songs, etc) of John Henry. (See also The Legend of John Henry.) I originally wrote:

He was a steel-drivin' man, and they set the steam drill against him, but he was pure of heart and he beat that steam drill in a fair fight, proving once again the supremacy of man over machine.

At least until the Terminators show up.

(...And then there's Wallace Peters.)

But in most versions of the John Henry song that I've encountered, he dies in the end. ("He laid down his hammer and he died" is a line in some versions; also "He died with his hammer in hand.") So the song is not an unambivalent statement about human capabilities being inherently superior to machines. In fact, I sorta think it exhibits some of the tensions between the ideals of progress and a healthy skepticism toward the effects of new technology that some sf manages.

Anyway, all of that is beside my original point, which is that there's a lot of sf that goes way beyond ambivalence and healthy skepticism into the realm of deep-seated technophobia. And it's not that there's no room in sf for technophobia; it just surprises me sometimes to see it there.

This entry is still flawed, and relies on all sorts of probably false assumptions and ideas about science fiction, but I'm gonna post it anyway. No doubt if it had been written by an AI, it would've been better.

6 Responses to “Anti-technological sf”

  1. Cheryl

    Well, I guess that people who write stories like that could be trying to emulate Michael Crichton. OTOH, I never cease to be amazed at how people from outside the community assume that all SF is technophobic. Take this book, for example.

  2. Jed

    Good review, Cheryl–thanks for the pointer.

    Especially good point about sf movies vs sf books–now I’m wondering if there are very many sf movies that aren’t opposed to technology. Arguably the Star Wars movies; sure, the Force is better than technology, and sure the cyborg is the bad guy, but there’s lots of cool tech used for Good as well. Certainly Star Trek; the Indomitable Human Spirit generally still trumps tech, but again tech is often used for Good (“Earl Grey, hot”). But yeah, there are an awful lot of movies that show the downsides of technology.

    I also liked this from your review:

    John Shirley […] said that he viewed SF more as a modeling tool. Science fiction writers use their books to think about how the world may develop. The argument is often of the form of, “things could go this way, or that way, depending on choices we make.”

  3. o_0Crazed

    I find your satire summary quite funny. I love sci-fi, but by time I open some books, I know the story, the ending, and every plot twist, if I could find any that don’t have predictable plotlines, I would read them for the rest of eternity.

  4. Vardibidian

    Well, and there are trends in this, as you’d expect. I’ve read a bunch of early-seventies stuff where Our Hero was in a soulless society, smothered by overwhelming technological and cultural forces, fighting for just one moment of human connection. In vain. So sad. On the other hand, it was clear to me (and therefore the only correct interpretation) that the technological stuff wasn’t to blame, but the culture, and in particular the Man, just used whatever was available to keep down the free-thinkers. That’s somewhat different from the Story of Little Timmy, I think.


  5. Tom Galloway

    I’m a bit fuzzy on the details at this point, but I’m sure that one thing that (deliberately) set Asimov’s robot stories apart from others at the time was that he portrayed robots as a positive force rather than things trying to take over or destroy humanity. While the stories were about problems with the Three Laws, these were clearly exceptions to their standard behavior. Details are probably in v1 of his autobioraphy.

  6. Peter Hollo

    Wait… you aren’t an AI?


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