It is a strange thing to post at such a well-known techy econo-futurist blog. That's not my usual hat, see. I'm a fantasy writer, and more particularly, a folklorist and historian. It is literally my job to find value in old things, to show people versions of themselves in ancient stories. Nobody asks me what I think about the future.
It's not that I don't have a dog in this race. I am, I know you'll be surprised to hear, a human living in the early 21st century with a vested interest in continuing at least one of those states (human or living in the 21st century--I'm not super picky which). And having just written a time-sprawling posthuman AI novella, it's fairly clear I have thoughts on the subject. It's just that, to belabor a metaphor, your dog is a SuperLabrador with paw-rockets, a tail that can hack wirelessly into the holorabbit whipping around the track, and an honest, loving, loyal cyborg heart. Mine is an old herd-dog, shaggy, dark, beautiful and uncanny, primeval and enormous--and every once in awhile, even though her heart is blood and muscle, she wins as if by magic.
A friend of mine said the other day that he'd surprised himself by starting to write a fantasy novel rather than his beloved SF. He felt it was a story he needed to tell, but also confined by what he saw as the limitations of fantasy: that it is essentially about the past and therefore not concerned with possibility in the same way--in fact, by definition a genre of the impossible. A genre of might-have-been instead of could-someday-be.
Now I've written before about what I see as the hierarchy of realism, where in terms of literary respect SF must come out on top of fantasy but below mimetic fiction, because SF presents a future which might come to pass, and could therefore be merely prescient, not fanciful. We know there are no dragons in the world, but there may be artificial intelligence, thus the latter is more worthy of serious thought than the former, which is merely escapism.
I don't think very much of that hierarchy, but you don't get to choose your paradigms. (Much.)
When I told my friend it was silly to think that fantasy must be a medieval RISK-analogue, he asked what, then, was the difference between fantasy and science fiction. I didn't have a satisfying answer, and maybe I still don't. But I have an answer.
There's only a difference where you want one to be.
The famous defense of science fiction is that while taking place in the future or one imaginable future, it is profoundly concerned with the present, taking current trends and understandings of the world and extrapolating forward to a greater or lesser degree. SF always speaks to the time in which it is written.
I have never understood why fantasy is exempt from this. Why is the opposite not taken as equally and unavoidably true? While taking place in the past* or one imaginable past, it is profoundly concerned with the present, taking currents trends and understandings of the world and exaggerating to a greater or lesser degree. Why do I never hear this applied to fantasy? It's not even interesting at this point to say The Lord of the Rings has a great deal to say about WWI. I don't think it's an accident that A Song of Ice and Fire was first published in the aftermath of the Cold War, during a particularly ugly internecine period of struggle in the Balkans, but achieved its greatest popularity in the political climate of post 9/11 America, when fighting a whole bunch of wars all over the world became a reality for many people. Likewise, I suspect the popularity of Lev Grossman's The Magicians series has something to do with the generation of college students graduating into a dark world they believed was good and bright, saddled with debt and joblessness. And you know, it's noticeable that steampunk came into its own during a period when life is starting to look damned Dickensian again, when the split between rich and poor has widened drastically, when the aristocrats with the pretty clothes have moved the child-devouring factories to other continents so that no one has to see them at all. Magical realism tends to spring up in totalitarian regimes--when actual life has become a trickster play, when the government is run by magical thinking and words no longer mean what they say** books start appearing in which the otherworld is encroaching on reality rather than taking place in another reality entirely.
Fantasy is almost always strongly addressing the present and the future.
And while I'm rarely asked about my thoughts on transhumanism, when I write about immortal pre-scarcity beings who structure their whole world around the avoidance of boredom and the cultivation of psychologies which will stand the test of longevity, I'm not just thinking about the world of 1164--or honestly thinking about it much at all. When I write about a sexually-transmitted city, it's not just because it's a cool elevator pitch, but because I live in such a fully networked world, one in which we all go to this third place where we can be ourselves when the work day is over. When I break the fourth wall to address the reader, it's to tell them what I think I know about real life here on Earth. It has never once occurred to me that in writing fantasy I am not writing directly and profoundly about actual life in the present day--and where that present day might lead us. That I am not translating fairy tales about then into fairy tales about now. Folklore is how humans explain the world to themselves. Fairy tales are a vital part how a culture promulgates itself and instructs the young (and old). They have always been about how to behave and survive right here and now. Magic, like technology, merely foregrounds the stranger processes at work.
And if you think we're beyond believing in magic, you've got another thing coming. I can't count the number of times during the 08 crash I heard someone give my unemployed husband and friends the following advice: "Write down the job you want ten /seven/three times on a piece of paper, fold it up and carry it with you/against your skin/with a dollar bill in your left pocket/right pocket all the time." That is a magic spell by any measure. Apple uses the word "magical" to sell the iPad because they know it works, it appeals to us on that folkloric level.
It goes both ways, too. When I read SF, I am always delighted by the old, old magic in it. And the Singularity is such a glittering, magical thing. When I listen to discussions about the Singularity, when I read stories about it, I hear: one day we will all wake up and turn into fairies. One day we'll all go to Fairyland together. White shores and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise. I hear visions of a world whose technology accomplishes the exact actions that magic strove to: transmutation, transmigration, immortality, altering the body, the granting of wishes, the reading of minds. Something out of nothing, lead into gold. A world whose folk dwell in so much plenty and ease that they might as well be fairies, their countries Fairyland. I hear the same longing for these things that I hear when fantasy authors write about dragons and potions and magic from before the dawn of time.
That, and I hear the ghost of Cotton Mather.
Cotton Mather, for those of you who don't know, was a deeply unhappy man who lived in Boston in the late 17th century. I've heard him referred to as New England's first horror writer, and I think that's about right. He was a pastor and an author obsessed with the Rapture to a level that would surprise even Tim LaHaye and his ilk. Both he and his father predicted it would come just about every five years until he died--and in dying he was still waiting for it, bitterly, bitterly disappointed that it had not come in his lifetime. He sparked a Millennialist fever in New England and, rather more famously, was deeply involved in the Salem Witch Trials.
A year or two ago I came across a dialogue between Cotton and his father Increase in which they discussed what parts of the body they would be able to shed after the Rapture, and which they would keep. The genitals could go no problem, of course, and the digestive tract, since eating would be unnecessary. Possibly the liver as well, since what toxins could survive in Paradise? The heart and the brain posed a problem, however--would we need those organs to think and feel or would we become pure persons, identities intact without bodies?
I said aloud: What you mean is when you upload, Cotton, buddy. Will you need to maintain a connection to your physical body or will you be able to upload completely?
The tone of the conversation was exactly the same as the one I hear now--it's not really a joke at all when we call it the Rapture of the Nerds. The same hatred of the body echoed in Cotton and Increase's urgent debate, the same longing to leave all the troublesome processes of physical existence behind, to enter a world where they and their particular abilities would make them saints and kings, and those who mocked them would be useless devils or worse. (Don't think this isn't the very urge behind planning for the zombie apocalypse.) The same assumption that in Paradise, they would be able to affect reality as one would in a VR world, that their highest and purest desires would become manifest. The same desire to witness the end of the world by whatever definition, the same desperation not to miss it, to be the generation that achieved ascension.
Not only New England's first horror writer, but her first science fiction writer.
And to me, it's all one. Not in a flippant way, but deep, primal, unifying. The herd-dog is an uplifted mind. The SuperLab has old, old bones. I do genuinely believe that stories save us. Over and over, narrative tells us how to get through and get beyond, how to be human and how to be inhuman, too, when it comes time to grow. We are, at our cores, narrative beings. And most especially, science fiction and fantasy save us. They tell us who we are, who we can be, who we want to be and who we don't, what we could be and what we can reject if we are strong enough. It says all these things more boldly and yet more secretly than mimetic fiction, which does not often try to speak to the dreams and terrors of a species on the verge.
Ask me about the future and I'll tell you a fairy tale. Ask me about the past and I'll tell you about uploading. We are always writing about ourselves--we can't help it. The difference between a post-human and a fairy, between a dragon and a lobster, is only in the name.
*Obviously, I don't buy the canard that SF is about the future and fantasy is about the past. I think both are about the Other, how we engage with it, refuse to engage, are assimilated or rejected by it. These things don't play for a particular temporal team.
**For more on totalitarian regimes and how language and fiction changes within them I highly recommend Maguerite Feitlowitz's A Lexicon of Terror. For further reading on the desire to shed the body and transform into spirit/energy as a cultural meme throughout more or less the entirety of Western culture from Athens onward, see Peter Brown's superb and eye-opening The Body and Society. For Cotton Mather and his contemporaries' obsession with the end of the world, including the mentioned dialogue, Jame West Davidson's The Logic of Millennial Thought in 18th Century New England is an amazing, wry, and thoughtful read.