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Science Fiction and the Technology of Irony

Working at Big Think was a constant kick in the pants of my imagination. As a writer, I couldn’t have asked for a job that provided more and stranger ideas to play with. This was true across all the fields the site covers, but particularly so in the sciences. I’ll never forget listening to Biotechonomy CEO Juan Enriquez predict a cheerful Frankenstein future, in which the next generation will wind up as 100-year-olds “running on the beach…on regrown body parts”:

Nor can I forget computer scientist David Gelernter’s dystopic prophecy of a world of obsolete “designer” children—a nightmare he believes will require all our moral strength to avoid:

Well, moral strength begins with moral understanding, and moral understanding begins with good stories. What are stories, anyway, if not a special kind of simulation? Through them we model what went wrong in the human past and what could go wrong again in the future. We contrast this mess with some notion of the good life, the best possible outcome for ourselves. And unlike in laboratory simulations, we don’t have to confine ourselves to the conditions of our ordinary, teleportation-free reality. We get to muck around with facts, confident that decency and love on any other planet would probably look a lot like they do on Earth.

That’s why I’m excited to see that Big Think is holding a science fiction contest, and that they plan to make it a tradition. So many of the ideas the site features cry out for narrative exploration. I’m excited, too, to learn that Nathan Englander (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges) will be judging this first competition; he’s one of the premier talents in contemporary fiction and is sure to bring a keen eye for irony as well as imagination.

We may think of the latter quality sooner than the former in thinking of science fiction, but as I’ve argued before, irony is our most sophisticated technology. It’s the only one the world gave us for free and the one that acts as corrective to all the others. It measures the distance between the human and the godlike, between unreasonable optimism (or pessimism) and stubborn reality. If not properly understood it can seem to become sentient and rise up against us. On the other hand, its best applications are truly elegant and can help prepare the ground for a more humane world.

I look forward to seeing how Big Think readers apply this ancient technology to new ones, and I look forward to reading some great stories in the process.

[Image via Shutterstock.]


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