L&Cs: Jill Lepore on Muskism and Science Fiction

Just one item today, after a long afternoon with a screaming baby.

(It’s worth noting that pieces like this, opinion pieces that aren’t tied to the daily news, or book reviews, often appear on the NYT website in advance, sometimes weeks in advance. The item here is in today’s paper but appeared a few days ago online.)

NYT, 4 Nov 2021, Jill Lepore guest essay: Elon Musk Is Building a Sci-Fi World, and the Rest of Us Are Trapped in It.

Print title, today: “Capitalism Is Out of This World”

Lepore is a highly regarded American historian whose big recent hit was These Truths. She’s also, surprisingly to me, moderately well read in, or at least familiar with, science fiction, even if, it seems to me, she misses its point.

The essay is a critique of rich people and their dreams, citing egregious examples of behavior by Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg. She notes that “metaverse” comes from a 1992 Neal Stephenson novel, though the idea had been around for a while, even in Trek TNG’s “holodeck” in the ’80s. Then she goes on: Iain Banks in particular, Douglas Adams, H.G. Wells, though her citations from these authors seem like very selective reading.

But she notes,

Early science fiction emerged during an era of imperialism: Stories about traveling to other worlds were generally stories about the British Empire.

Well perhaps some of them were; certainly Campbell’s Astounding in the 1950s was full of stories about humans exploring and colonizing alien worlds, and defeating any aliens who got in the way. (And Star Trek, to some degree, carried on this tradition.)

Insisting that Wells, Adams, et al were critiquing imperialism (instead of spoofing it, or simply taking it for granted), allows Lepore to note, and then to ask,

This would appear to be exactly what Mr. Bezos and Mr. Musk are up to, with their plans for the moon and Mars, annexing the planets if they could. … How have these men so gravely misread these books?

Her answer is the “science fiction they seem, mostly, to ignore:

…new wave, Afrofuturism, feminist and post-colonial science fiction, the work of writers like Margaret Atwood, Vandana Singh, Octavia Butler and Ted Chiang.

She especially notes Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous essay about “Mrs. Brown,” the “ordinary, humble, flawed human being” that, riffing off Virginia Woolf, is “the subject of all novels.” In contrast to the grandiose SF of Asimov and Heinlein with their “great, gleaming spaceships, hurtling across the galaxy” which Le Guin said could not contain Mrs. Brown.

My reaction: so what? There are indeed stories about the human experience that don’t involve humble, flawed human begins, like Mrs. Brown — the Apollo project that landed men on the moon; the inventors of technology that gave us the internet; for that matter the early European explorers who charted the world. There are stories about big aspirations and grand successes or failures.

Lepore thinks this is a flaw in “Muskism and the metaverse.”

To me it sounds like the old saw about high school English teachers, and university literature professors, who dismissed science fiction because it was about things and not people. Because only stories about individual people, and how they grow and change, matter. A story is, by definition, an event that changes the life of a particular character.

Of course this was not always the definition of literature (think the hero quests of past centuries), and is no longer the definition of literature that teachers and scholars pay attention to.

Their attitudes have in fact changed. But Lepore seems to have missed this.

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