Brenda Cooper is a technology professional, a science fiction and fantasy writer, and a futurist. Her recent books include the Endeavor award winning Silver Ship and The Sea and a sequel, Reading the Wind. See www.brenda-cooper.com for more info, and for periodic reading recommendations.

Science Fiction, Full of Warnings

I remember hearing Ursula LeGuin talk about science fiction as politically subversive. It was a short answer to a question posed at the end of a reading, and I can’t remember her exact words any more, but the heart of them was that science fiction is a wonderful medium for commentary about true and scary dangers. Science fiction can be a warning against the worst possible futures, a place to make our mistakes in our imaginations instead of with the real world.

We have our standby favorite examples of course. We’ve all read Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 and Brave New World. These days, Dune is looking prescient – no pun intended. Just replace “spice” with “oil” and consider the sandworms as window dressing and the Fremen as people living in the caves of Afghanistan. If anyone reading this hasn’t read these works I highly suggest a trip to the library or your favorite bookstore. They are all still in print for good reason. They spoke to us a society.

So who is warning us against what in science fiction today?


Let’s start with Paolo Bacigalupi. The Windup Girl depicts a world that is destroyed by a combination of for-profit companies that are too big, the greed of an over-populated world, and some nasty mistakes driven by the hubris of tinkering with the genetics of major food crops. I won’t say more since if you are one of the ten people in the sf world who hasn’t read it, you should, and I shouldn’t spoil it for you. I don’t believe The Windup Girl won so many awards because it was well-written. It is, especially for a first novel. Paolo is good. But there are a lot of other good writers out there. The stand-up strength of the The Windup Girl is the warning implicit in the world Paolo has written about. His collection, Pump 6 and Other Stories, is also full of good warnings. I’m sitting here writing this at a table with Cat Rambo, who recommends Barth Anderson’s The Patron Saint of Plagues as good subversive work that deals with genetic engineering of crops.

Paolo writes dark. I often feel almost like I’m reading horror when I read his short work – real horror as opposed to chainsaw massacre horror, but horror nonetheless. Let’s go to a horrible topic, and books that are written in a different style. Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate change series that begins with Forty Signs of Rain is a detailed and very science-driven look at what we might expect to deal with in climate change, and a pretty realistic look at the best we might manage with our political system.

There are a ton of great subversive stories that operate on a smaller – but no less important – level. Another Hugo winner from this year, Will McIntosh’s short story “Bridesicle,” is a warning for those of us seeking to live forever through cryogenics. No, that’s not most of us – at least today – but it’s a lovely warning for the Extropians. Mary Rosenblum’s “The Egg Man” pokes at the way we deal (badly) with the border between Mexico and America.

Maragaret Atwood had been writing explicit warnings from The Handmaid’s Tale to The Year of the Flood. For all that we like to poke fun at her for not always admitting she writes what we write (science fiction), she’s terribly good at it, and an environmental activist to boot.

I could go on and on. Since this is supposed to be a guest post and not a guest novel, I’ll stop with one more. I’m a believer in the carrot as well as the stick, and at heart I’m an optimist. So I wanted to mention an anthology that belongs on this list. Jestse DeVries’s Shine anthology is specifically about science fiction that depicts a positive future. And yet many of the stories are positive because we’ve fixed some of today’s problems.

Thanks for dropping by! I also blog once a month at Futurismic, where I write a column called Todays Tomorrows and about once a week I post a reading recommendation or other bit of nonsense (only sometimes subversive) at www.brenda-cooper.com.

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