The Value of Science Fiction

By Hill – Giuseppe Gerbino (Self-published work by Hill) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction is often given a bad name.  It can have connotations of strange people in jumpsuits or bizarre prosthetics, sprouting technobabble, involved with stories which have no relation to the modern world.  Yet, I believe that science fiction offers an opportunity to look at our world from a different and new perspective.  Your Great Gatsbys or Macbeths may give a deep commentary on the world we live in and human nature, yet they’re inevitably constrained by being stuck within that which they seek to criticise.  Science fiction can remove itself and look down on these issues, which makes it a unique platform for expressing such comments.

This post has been prompted by reading Iain Banks’ Consider Phlebas, which I’ll focus on – although much of this will apply to other science fiction work.  Consider Phlebas covers a wide array of themes and idea.  The most immediately apparent is war; the book is set during a galactic war between two groups: The Indirans and the Culture.  We see a form of total war, seemingly without boundaries, as entire planets are destroyed and races wiped out.  This is the logical extension of human warfare.  During the 19th and 20th centuries we ‘advanced’ from a form of war involving large armies, where the result would usually be decided on the battlefield, to a situation where factions would try to win at whatever the cost.  Wars became more a matter of crippling the enemy’s economy rather than routing their armies which, through aerial bombings and the use of submarines, had a direct impact on the civilian population.  This developed into the utilisation of mass destruction, whether through nuclear weapons, chemical or biological, to achieve a victory.  In Consider Phlebas, Banks pursues this to its logical conclusion.  The destruction of planets is a terrifying concept, but largely because you can imagine it would actually happen if people had the capability to do such a thing.

This commentary is less subtle in places; the final act of the story is set on a proscribed ‘Planet of the Dead’, in this case a preserved world which perished during a nuclear war.  The characters journey through underground bunkers, the only remnants of a civilisation which destroyed itself.  They could easily be burrowing into the bowls of the Earth at some distant time in the future*.

The Indirans and the Culture are fighting almost purely on ideological grounds.  The Indirans are a religiously devout, warmongering race, while the Culture have developed a secular, anarchist, planned consumerist economy which seeks to extend its influence across the galaxy.  Conflicts between ideologies is another fascinating aspect of human nature we’ve seen develop in the 20th century, which Banks captures in his novel.  There’s a brilliant line where the protagonist Horza, fighting on the side of the Indirans, describes a seemingly innocuous bit of technology as “the real representative of the Culture on this planet.”  This line resonates with anyone who has ever drunk a bottle of coke or eaten in a Macdonalds.  Imperialism by commercialism against imperialism by military force are ideas which have conflicted in human history, which Banks shines new light on by portraying in a new scenario.  I found myself siding with the Culture, which is a testament to the realistic civilisation Banks forced considering the story is narrated from a viewpoint biased against them.

There’s another small, easily missed mention to ideologies I quite enjoyed.  After a raid on what they expected would be an unarmed temple was repelled, the crew of the Clear Air Turbulence discover that it was situated on the border between two warring states, one Socialist and one highly religious.  No other details are given, but I love the possibilities for stories that creates.

Technology is another area where science fiction thrives.  The image I chose for this is an artistic rendering of the Culture’s Orbitals which, as you can see, is a remarkable idea.  They serve as artificial worlds for people to reside on, equipped with terrain, climates, ecosystems, etc.  They look utterly bizarre and totally artificial, yet I could imagine how they would actually work.  I’d question the economic viability of such structures when there’s a multitude of planets to terraform and explore, but that’s another issue.  Perhaps the best technological prediction in the book is that of drones, fully sentient machines who are considered individuals – to destroy a drone is tantamount to murder in the Culture’s eyes.  This is explored wonderfully in Consider Phlebas.  My favourite instance was the drone Jase, which develops an infatuation on Fal ‘Ngeestra.  This is never developed, but just the small reference to Jase taking a sound recording every time Fal laughs tells us so much about the depth of these drones’ personalities.

It’s no secret that technological predictions, above all else, have made an impact in the real world.  The main example I can think of is Arthur C. Clarke pretty much inventing the idea of geostationary satellites, a good decade or so before they became reality.  You can see more here.  Today, ideas like space elevators, which have so far been imagined only in science fiction, are perfectly plausible.

These are just a few examples of how science fiction can be immensely relevant to our modern world.  This is why the genre, along with fantasy, has always existed in some form and I expect always will.  There’s never an end to the things it can give insights into, forcing us to see things in ways we might not expect or be prepared for.

*In the epilogue Banks reveals that the events take place in our past, yet the simlarity remains.

 

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Mohammed Morsi Removed From Power: Revolution 2.0?

Mohammed Morsi has become the second president of Egypt in as many years to have been forced out of power by popular protest.  Contradictory rumours have been flying about all day concerning the state of Egypt’s leadership but, just now, the army have announced Morsi’s removal and the suspension of his Islamic-tinted constitution.

Well, that’s twice now I’ve been wrong about Morsi.  It’s fair to say I did not see this coming.  But, in some ways, it should come as no surprise.  In the first round of the 2012 Presidential Election, only 24.78% of people voted for Morsi as their first choice.  It was only when he entered a run-off with former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, who served under Mubarak, that Morsi won the vote – and even then only with 51.73%.  While Morsi undoubtedly will have taken the Islamic vote in this election, I’m pretty certain he also relied on the liberal and secular vote to assure a victory.  It was Morsi’s hubris and his ignorance of this fact that led to his downfall.  By pursuing a broad Islamic agenda, despite declaring himself a moderate, he has alienated the section of society which got him into power.  That is how protests larger than those which deposed Mubarak rose up against him.

One thing that strikes me, as a statistics geek, is just how brief his leadership has been.  Egypt has a history of long-lasting strongmen – Nasser (1956 – 1970) served 14 years, Sadat (1970 – 1981) 11 years and Mubarak (1981 – 2011) a staggering 30 years.  Morsi’s solitary year is very feeble in comparison, making him certain to go down in history as one of Egypt’s most ineffectual presidents.  Well, alongside Muhammed Naguib – Egypt’s first President – who was kicked out by Nasser after a similar amount of time.

One issue being fiercely debated is whether this action by the army constitues a coup.  On one hand, the definition of ‘coup d’etat’ is: “A sudden and decisive action in politics, esp. one resulting in a change of government illegally or by force”.  This is most definitely sudden and decisive, and Morsi’s government has been changed by force.  Therefore, it is a coup.  But does it deserve to be counted as one?  Coups typically unfold as the army, for its own ends or for its misguided view of the national interest, force the acting government out of power.  In this case the army has responded to an overwhelming outpouring of public opinion.  I’ve read one comment where someone ironically stated that Egypt is one of the few countries where the public are actually in control.  Let’s have no misunderstandings, the army has little interest in democracy.  What the army wants is stability and influence; it merely sees encouraging democracy as the means to achieve these goals.  But, really, the army had few options.  The anti-Morsi camp is significantly larger than the pro-Morsi camp, and Morsi is characteristically unwilling to negotiate his way through anything.  They could have tried to set up a unity government but, to be realistic, that would have been a guaranteed failure.  Removing Morsi must have been seen as a cleaner, easier option.

So where does Egypt go from here?  New elections for both the president and the parliament are due to be held, perhaps in 2014 – three whole years after the initial revolution.  In the meantime, the head of Egypt’s Constitutional Court, Adly al-Mansour, will be the interim president.  Hopefully Morsi’s supporters will choose to voice their opinions in the election rather than take more immediate, drastic action.  I fear Paul Mason has it right: “For everyone belatedly discovering Arab Spring has parallels with 1848, please note it is now 1851.”  It’s being argued that the army stepping in to depose Morsi will set a precedent for the army, much as has become the case with Pakistan’s modern history.  However, I have faith that these new elections will at least attempt to be free and fair and.  So long as the new President is careful not to disgruntle the army to a great extent (though bear in mind it will be unwilling to stage another coup), they’re probably safe.  But then, I now have a track record of being wrong!  So has everyone, in fairness.  This situation is completely unpredictable.

I wonder how the election will go.  While I doubt this is the end of the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force, their popularity has been dealt a severe blow and I find it unlikely that they’d dominate these elections as they did 2012.  Could secular coalitions, who have now had the time they need to organise and mobilise, grab a victory?  A moderate liberal actually willing to listen to people would be my preferred option.  But, lurking in the shadows, a third possibility lies in wait.  Remnants of Mubarak’s regime, which came so close to grabbing victory in 2012, may yet play a significant role.  With the ancien régime’s obvious alternative ending in such failure, will the Egyptian people now sacrifice some ideals of the revolution for stability?  Considering the uncontrollable force which has been awoken, an influential youth movement accustomed to its new freedoms and willing to defend them – as we’ve seen time and time again – I find this unlikely, but it’s not impossible to imagine Egypt may now take a step back.

Well,  see you next time I find myself compelled to blog about Egypt.  This seems to be a regular occurrence.