“Marxism, Science Fiction, and the Poverty of Prophecy: Some Comparisons and Contrasts”

The review series on the essays in Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds continues.

Review: “Marxism, Science Fiction, and the Poverty of Prophecy: Some Comparisons and Contrasts”, Brian Stableford, 1984.Opening Minds

Stableford looks at two attempts to prophecy the future.

The first is Karl Marx’s theory of communism and future social and economic developments.

The second is science fiction though, as Stableford notes, only “some of its early apologists – especially Hugo Gernsback” ever claimed to be prophetic. Still, a lot more hands and a lot more perspectives have went into trying to imagine the future in science fiction rather than Marxism.

I have not read enough Marx and none of his critic, Karl Popper, to comment on the accuracy of Stableford’s interpretation of either. He uses Popper’s criticisms to comment on science fiction’s abysmal record of prognostication.

I think Stableford is right in dismissing Popper’s claim that Marx confused law and trends. Marx’s “laws” are what others would simply call trends and predicting the future based on trends is done by a lot more people than just Marx’s disciples.

Still, Marx did get his trends wrong. Some that he saw shaping the future simply ceased to be factors.

Stableford agrees with Popper that Marx was too dismissive of “moral restraint” in human affairs and that was part of a greater tendency to think his laws operated without free will. He thought his future was historically inevitable.

In particular, this shows up in Marx’s view of technology and its relationship to the “means of production”. Popper pointed out that Marx didn’t account for increasing knowledge, the knowledge that would change technology including the means of production.

Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle, a Marxist in his younger days, remarked that Marx had some valid things to say about historical development. However, at the time he wrote, technology was enabling more workers to own the tools of production. Stableford points out that Marx wrote in a peculiar time of industrial development when factories relied on massive, centralized, technologically complex and expensive steam power. Marx simply didn’t believe that technological developments would alter his view of capitalism future.

Science fiction authors have tended to take a very different tact. Changes in technology and their effect are very central to science fiction.

Several successful technological predictions have been made by science fiction. Yet, as prophets, science fiction writers largely fail because they very seldom get the social effects of their imagined technologies right.

There is another factor argues Stableford – the effect of the prophecies themselves. He dubs this the “Oedipus effect”. Did Marx’s prophecies fail because capitalists feared the worker’s revolt and mended their ways? Did all the science fiction horror stories of the “if this goes on …. “ variety change the future because people were presented with a warning that was heeded?

Stableford concludes:

It is possible that the real utility of clever anticipation of the future (whether in human science or in fiction) has nothing to do with the likelihood of their coming true, and everything to do with their power to affect the choices and collective decisions that people make.

“If this is so, then the poverty of prophecy might, after all, be its virtue and not its sin.

I’m not sure it is true even when expanding science fiction to include other media. Yes, people, with varying degrees of credibility and aptness, drag out Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or George Orwell’s 1984 and, occasionally, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as touchstones for worlds we are headed for unless we change course. The films Gattaca and the Mad Max series sometimes are evoked as dystopian and apocalyptic metaphors.

But, despite many authors firing their literary flares up to see the wasteland lying in front of us, literary illuminations that actually effected course correction are rare.

There is, of course, another example of the “Oedipus effect” which has become more prevalent: scientists and engineers striving to bring fictional technologies into the real world.

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