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[GUEST POST] Brenda Cooper on How Science Fiction is Full of Warnings

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 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

13 Comments on [GUEST POST] Brenda Cooper on How Science Fiction is Full of Warnings

  1. Depends what you mean by ‘warnings’ as ‘warnings’ implies that something can be done to prevent that which may happen. 

    I’m not sure that The Windup Girl constitutes a warning because I’m not sure that Bacigalupi believes that there’s an out.  There’s no obvious thing that could have been done to prevent the world of TWG coming to be and when the characters in the book try to change things for the better, it actually makes things worse.  The book also has quite a neat leitmotif of suggesting that not only are better worlds not attainable but that their sole purpose is as a means to an end by either justifying brutality or allowing the unprincipled to manipulate the naive.

    Think of the clockwork village in the hills, the year zero of the red turbans, the world of breeding windup people suggested at the end of the book by the genetic engineer.  All of these are ‘solutions’ to the problems of the world and all of them are lies.

    I’m not sure that Paolo is in the business of issuing warning.  I think he’s in the business of telling us that humanity is utterly fucked.

  2. One of the newer authors wqho I really like is Cory Doctorow, he has written some great ‘Warning novels’, where he mixes his warnings with a healthy dose of people trying to fix things and meeting the kind of objections we are meeting.

    Part of the problem i think we have with dealing with predicitions at the moment is that 95% of us know what the problems are and we know roughly what needs to be done to try and fix things, but the vast majoriy of us are beyond caring for a number of reasons – we don’t have faith in the system (politicians / the needs of big business), the problems aren’t affecting us directly and they are so scary its easier to ignore them, we have some crutch to fall back on that makes us think we are ‘safe’.

  3. I agree with both of you.  Yes, Andy, Cory is fabulous and interesting, and could easily have been on this list.  And Jonathan, yeah – that’s probably why Paolo is so tough for me to read.  But I’m an eternal optimist even though I find a lot of what we are doing as a species so scary it’s hard to think about.  So I have trouble hearing what you’re telling me Paolo is saying!I still think we have a chance at a good future.  We may need to be scared into some action.  Climate change and overpop are like being the frog in the warming water with the heat on under us.


    Thanks for commenting!




    There’s absolutely nothing subversive about SF now. It’s probably the most politically correct genre in publishing.


  5. I thought Windup Girl was overhyped … that it was nothing more than a disjointed collection of unlikeable characters with no real story behind it.  People reviewed it as a “dark and edgy masterwork” and when I read it it came off as tired and cliched, (dont get me started on the inconsistent internal logic).  

    Politically Subversive? Not so much…

  6. Jonathan Eli // September 9, 2010 at 1:39 pm //

    Isn’t that part of the escape of the whole thing of reading? Even if it is to trade one set of problems for another. Plus we all figure we’ll be dead before much in the Si-Fi world comes true, I hope I don’t live that long! Plus there are a few positive stories out there, it’s just the real world right now is so full of negatives,  maybe it’s what we want to read and that’s what good writers are giving readers.

    Even the Foundation had a negative level to it. and depression has become so much more prevalent in the world these days. Hopefully some day and somebody will swing it the other way. But for right now it’s what we have to enjoy.

  7. The stories in Shine show that problems have been solved, though none says how.  And given that in all the stories humans have abjured genetic engineering but not immersive VR and its brethren, one wonders how they produce and cool all these giga-servers.  More opinionated details in my review of Shine in SFSignal.


  8. @Athena:

    The stories in Shine show that problems have been solved, though none says how.”

    I disagree: most show *how*. You may disagree with the method or solution, but these are certainly given.

    And given that in all the stories humans have abjured genetic engineering but not immersive VR and its brethren, one wonders how they produce and cool all these giga-servers.”

    Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Seeds” is about genetic engineering.

    The main theme of Jacques Barcia’s “The Greenman Watches the Black Bar Go Up, Up, Up” is that the protagonist decides *against* a VR-technology that requires more giga-servers, at the cost of losing his long-lost lover.

    Finally, the utmost majority of the stories does not involve ‘immersive VR and its brethern’ at all. ‘Immersive VR’ is handled in the Jacques Barcia (as mentioned above: the protagonist decides *against* more gigaservers), “Russian Roulette” (a story that also warns against the overuse of it), and possibly “The Church of Accelerated Redemption” (although I think this is more about how Artificial Intelligence might interact with the real world, not how humans would interact with an artificial world), and possibly “Ishin” (even if in that one the electronic gizmos are mainly used as a manner to interact, and gain a deeper understanding of, the *real* world).

    I don’t see any ‘immersive VR’, nor ‘it’s brethern’ in the other 12 stories, but obviously I’m biased…;-)

  9. Come now, Jetse, I gave Shine four stars overall and read it several time before I wrote my review.  The stories decidedly don’t show how — their length partly mitigates against it, of course.  Nevertheless, VR is omnipresent in them (as your own examples make even clearer than my general comment) with little regard to the environmental consequences.  The Moreno-Garcia trickster/blowback story, the shortest one in the anthology, doth not a trend make.

  10. dadafountain // September 10, 2010 at 11:51 am //

    Jonathan M, I didn’t read the Windup Girl that way.  Especially if you read his short stories, like “The People of Sand and Slag,” I think Bacigalupi’s body of work gets across the idea that if you mess with the world as much as we have, the only hope is to give way to something better adapted for this new world.  Even if it sounds pretty damn depressing from our point of view.  As I forget which big name Golden Age SF writer said, even a depressing future is optimistic because that means there IS a future.

    How is “the world of breeding windup people suggested at the end of the book by the genetic engineer” a lie?  If anything, that’s the world I think Bacigalupi as an author is hinting might be inevitable.

  11. Sean O'Hara // September 10, 2010 at 12:32 pm //

    If you’re going to do a Dire Warning book, you need to know the facts and use them correctly in the story. The Windup Girl fails miserably at this. The book is full of scientific howlers — the springs could not wok the way they’re described, and frankly don’t make a lot of sense even disregarding that — logical howlers — does it really cost less to replace an expensive bio-engineered organism than to transport it back to Japan — and cheats — where’ the solar power, the nuclear reactors, the hydro plants, etc? It wouldn’t be so bad if people weren’t going on about it’s realism.

  12. If you want a real dire warnings novel read Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children….

  13. Science fiction is fiction.  Hopefully the science is decent, but none of us are perfect at our science (except maybe Kim Stanley Robinson, who pretty much adds in all the sceince.  Love his books, but while they’re good, they aren’t page turners partly becasue there is so much science). 

    I think Paolo did a great job describing his future, but I also doubt exactly that future can or would happen.  But the futures in 1984 or Brave New World were also a bit allegorical.  I’ve never talked to Paolo about The Windup Girl, so I don’t know his intention writing it, but it feels like one of the great warning books to me.  I doubt it will cross as far into popular culture as the two books mentioned above, but it was a NYT recommended read, I think.  Or at least something like that.  It got notice outside of our world of geeks.

    I’m glad this post generated so much comment.


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