Science and Speculative Fiction

An editorial on Science and Speculative Fiction By Derek Newman-StilleCanada Day

Although as a society, we often create an impenetrable barrier between the arts and sciences, seeing each as separate and distinct from one another, these barriers are historically created and are social inventions. The origin of science is through philosophy, remember. Science Fiction (or more widely, Speculative Fiction) is one of the arenas where there are still obvious bridges between the arts and sciences – being a production of artistic endeavor, but also dealing with ideas coming out of technology and sciences.

Several Canadian SF authors including Julie Czerneda, Scott Fotheringham, and Nina Munteanu have operated in the field of science, noticing the opportunity that SF provides to explore critical questions around science. Czerneda has even used science fiction as a mechanism for teaching students about science, allowing them to play out scientific ideas in a science fictional setting.

SF allows authors to explore the social implications of science, the social contexts and ideological underpinnings that accompany scientific endeavors. SF explores the social ramifications of scientific ideas and developments, exploring what could happen, where things could go, what social issues could develop in correspondence with technological invention, seeing the sociocultural aspect of science rather than viewing scientific ideology as separate from the social sphere and divorced from its ideological implications. SF can provide a critical lens to scientific pursuits, providing writers and readers the opportunity to insert the deeper questions into scientific explorations: asking “Why?”, “What happens if…?”, and “What could come from this?”.

So often, scientists are wrapped up in the act of invention, in the process of discovery, that they ignore what the implications of their research could be, how it could be used (and for whom), and how it could be made to serve purposes for which it was not intended. The research for research’s sake mentality sometimes cultivates an ideology that ignores social implications. SF can provide social warnings about where things could go, bringing ideas back into the world and seeing how they could play out within a political, societal sphere.

SF often displays scientific ideas magnified, extremified, exaggerated to illustrate possible implications, highlighting the dangers as well as the potentialities that could be embodied in the process of discovery, and the hazardous places that society could take scientific invention to. SF can be a place to explore moral issues in relation to technology – what are the implications of invention? How will inventions shift our consciousness and the way we view the world? Will we still capture what is fundamentally human if we switch our basic behaviours, our patterns of thought, or even our bodies themselves?

Writers can use SF as a medium for exploring whether the social or the technological will be a greater mechanism of change. Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence explores whether social change or technological change will be the thing that will deter the destruction of our natural environment and deal with the development of pollutants. Will we be able to shift our way of thinking about the world to be more ecologically safe, or will we once again try to rely on a technological invention to solve our problems?

SF can illustrate the limits of science to repair our social problems. We tend, as a society, to put a lot of faith in the idea that science will solve our problems, whether they be environmental (as illustrated by our trend to introduce new species into ecosystems as an attempt to control those ecosystems) or medical (believing that the medical profession can solve our bodily ills).We often take science as a given solution, as an ideology founded in concepts of “Truth”, rather than a set of theories that is open to challenge and is historically contingent (formed from a specific line of thought that has developed over time). SF provides a space to question the unquestioned authority of science and our social belief that science can solve our world’s ills.

One of the fora of scientific exploration that SF has been doing a great job of critiquing is the field of medicine, and, particularly, the ideologies that are created from viewing the body mechanically (as something that can be fixed through forced normalisation). One of the areas that is most affected by the medicalised ‘normalcy’ forced on bodies is the area of diverse bodies, and people with disabilities, who are often subjected to painful procedures in an attempt to normalise their bodies rather than shifting social ideologies to allow for more diversity and more accessible spaces for diverse bodies. Leah Bobet does a great job of critiquing the medicalised body in her YA novel Above, where she presents readers with a group of individuals who are mutated or bodily different in certain ways (either with crab arms, the ability to transform into a bee, lion feet, or the ability to speak to ghosts) who have escaped from medical facilities that broke their feet, cut off their arms, and subjected them to harsh medical drugs in order to force their bodies to resemble the human ‘norms’. These people created a community called “Safe”, a place of safety away from the “Whitecoats” (doctors, scientists, psychiatrists, and other medical practitioners). The ideas of healing used by the Whitecoats were shaped by the idea that only certain bodies are normal, and any others are threatening and would be changed (even in painful and destructive ways) to represent that norm.

Camille Alexa, in her short story “All Them Pretty Babies” (from OnSpec Vol 24, No 3) takes this idea even further, presenting a future in which the population is limited, and yet, the society that is fighting for its own survival is still willing to cast out those who are bodily different, those mutations that threaten ideas of the normal. Scientists cast bodies out into areas of intense radiation while they try to preserve their ideas of what is and should be human, allowing anyone who deviates from that idea of humanity to rot in radioactive woods.

In Sparkle Hayter’s naked brunch, a doctor tries to medicalise the werewolf. Rather than accepting it as a figure of legend, he ascribes a disease to this different body: “Lycanthropoic Metamorphic Disorder”. He treats these medically diverse bodies as threatening, trying to force the werewolves to pass as human, subjecting them to harsh treatments that lead to chemical addictions and often death in an attempt to have them be more like ‘normal’, ‘regular’ human beings. He and his society deny the possibility that diverse bodies are useful and even necessary in a social system, that this diversity can be healthy.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake illustrates the extremes of danger that could be involved in the economicisation of medical technology. Her future is one in which pharmaceutical companies have solved all of the medical problems, but periodically release viral epidemics to spur the social need to buy more advanced cures and spend more money on medical advances to fuel the pharmaceutical industry. She shadows the issues we see in our society now where a great deal is medically possible, but the access to that medical technology is often restricted by wealth, and where often research is focussed on treatment (which is a greater long term investment) than on cures.

Canadian SF can also point out our reliance on technology. Joseph Macchiusi’s The Betelgeuse Oracle shows a world after the release of a massive EM pulse and the challenges of a world without technology. Urban spaces become deserts cut off from the modes of production, and characters have to adapt to a world that is different from the one that suffused their existence since birth. One character is so dependent on his connection to technology and particularly to communications technology and the need to be connected that he carries his dead cell phone everywhere with him and spends precious moments alternating batteries to try to re-activate it. Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence illustrates the world’s reliance on plastic and the social breakdowns that occur when plastic is removed from our society.

One of the issues with science is that it often limits things into easy (and uncritical) categories (such as binary notions of gender), and good Canadian SF complicates these theories, disrupts this boundaries and categories and shows the complexity of the issues involved. It questions the foundations of categorization altogether.

SF doesn’t just critique scientific endeavours, SF also provides the opportunity for creative thought. So often people become limited in their outlook, navel-gazing within their own field and looking only at what is currently possible instead of what is impossible. Often it is in the sphere of the impossible where new ideas are found, new visions of things, and new ways of considering things outside of what is ‘normal’. Reading and writing SF allows for the development of insights into the impossible, the places of new innovation and new ways of thinking about the world.

SF explores the “what ifs” that are the foundation of scientific hypothesis building.

Science and SF can provide a powerful conversation with each other, changing, questioning, and challenging each other.

Here are some points that SF authors have raised about Science in their Interviews on Speculating Canada:

SCOTT FOTHERINGHAM

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/interview-with-scott-fotheringham/ )

Scott Fotheringham: I wanted to use what I had learned of biology to perform a thought experiment: What would happen if plastic began to disappear? Because

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringham

Author photo courtesy of Scott Fotheringham

that probably won’t happen because we choose to make it happen, I wondered if organisms could digest plastic.

Scott Fotheringham: “much of science is goal-driven or product-driven. Scientists create things that are worth a lot of money but have little social value or actually harm us.”

Scott Fothertingham: “The questions I’d like to see asked – particularly by the scientists themselves – are, What value does the work I’m doing have to society? How will this be used and, if it has potential for harm, should we pursue the research at all? So often scientists shrug their shoulders and say it’s not up to them how their inventions and discoveries are employed. This is a grievous abdication of their responsibility.”

Scott Fotheringham: “Right now our intention is to use technology to make money. Only if that changes will we able to work to heal what we’ve wrought.”

Scott Fotheringham: “Reading gives us insight into how other people view the world. If all I had was my experience, and that didn’t include reading, my view of how the world works would be narrower than it is.“

JULIE CZERNEDA

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/interview-with-julie-czerneda/ )

Julie Czerneda: “From the beginning, to me, biology and science fiction differed in degree, not substance. Biology filled me with wonder and curiosity.  All science

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

Photo of Julie Czerneda by Roger Czerneda

does. The universe does. Reading science fiction did that. Writing it? Ah, there was the legal, moral, and fun way to answer my own questions.”

Julie Czerneda: “what I write, the stories I tell, come from what interests me. So there are cool real bits of biology everywhere in my stuff. I couldn’t make up the weirdness of real life.”

Julie Czerneda: “Because nothing lives in isolation, an ecological approach gives a writer the opportunity to fit the puzzle together. To have alternative points of view and unintended consequences. All the intricate and messy ways things happen.”

Julie Czerneda: “The more the merrier! Or, in the case of living things, the more stable and resilient the community. It’s interactions that interest me. The interface between any two or more creatures is full of change and adaptation and lovely icky bits. In storytelling — and real life — I’d rather toss a problem at a group of people (or whatever I have in mind at the moment) who’ll each have a different approach to a solution, if they see it as a problem at all.”

Julie Czerneda: “I believe, passionately, that science fictional thinking is a crucial survival skill. We all need to ask questions, to speculate about possible consequences in an imaginative, yet as close to real fashion as possible, and to become able to assess incoming  information in a critical, not cynical manner. Imagination is of immense use, too often undervalued. We who live and breath SF rarely appreciate what a strong and active muscle our minds have developed. I’d like everyone to have the same advantage. To ride society’s changes, rather than be swept away. To decide where and how technology best fits our needs, before it’s in our homes.”

Julie Czerneda: “I’ve had success using science fiction with students to get them “talking science.” SF provides useful vocabulary, presented in context.  Story dialogue gives examples of conversations centred about science as something immediately important to the characters.“

Julie Czerneda: “I’ve also worked with a professor who, for many years now, has used science fiction as an integral part of his first year astronomy course. Students take what they’ve learned about the science and apply it to alien world-building as an SF writer would do it. I’m proud to say this class has been using Beholder’s Eye (my second novel) as part of this process.”

Julie Czerneda: “We need people who can bring science to life, who can clearly express complex ideas in meaningful ways to a varied audience. SF? Does it all the time.”

Julie Czerneda: “What we can’t imagine, we can’t create, so there’s one. What we can’t imagine, we can’t prepare against or for, so that’s another. Imagination is essential to our survival, as individuals and as a species, and has been for eons. The sad thing is that it can atrophy from lack of use or be stunted by those who’ve lost their own. The best? The more it’s used, the stronger it becomes.”

Julie Czerneda: “What technology is to science, I suspect curiosity is to imagination.”

Julie Czerneda: “I take pleasure and pride in what makes science fiction a speculation about the real world, by asking that one “what if …” then building a story framework that lets me play with an answer, while keeping as much of what we know factual and true to life. I’ve no problem inviting a reader to play along with FTL and aliens, but I won’t mess with anything more and there’s always a science question at the heart of my plot. What if life evolved this way or that? How might biological imperatives affect technological civilizations? Who might we become in the future? What cost is too high or risk too great, when manipulating genetics? I love how science fiction gives me insight into these and any other questions I might have.

KARL SCHROEDER

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/interview-with-karl-schroeder/ )

Karl Schroeder: “We spend much of our lives programming ourselves to react automatically rather than to think. It’s faster, costs less energy. Part of that process involves the ossification of our basic categories: man/woman, human/nonhuman. SF deliberately blurs these categories in order to almost literally wake us up. It’s strangemaking, which is a very valuable capacity, especially in the present situation when the world needs innovative new solutions to some pretty dire problems. It’s not that SF presents, or even can present, the solutions to big issues like global warming or global poverty; it’s that it helps educate us in the kind of thinking that can lead to them.”

Karl Schroeder: “Realism, in literature, painting, and science, is just the rule of the lowest common denominator.  It’s not actually a successful stance in science, for instance; strictly realist approaches to quantum mechanics fall into paradox pretty quickly. Realism achieves some stability in understanding the world by simply discarding 99% of all the available data (whether that be measurements, opinions, or political stances). That’s what the muggles do in the Harry Potter stories… They only think about, and therefore can only see, those things they’ve decided are ‘real.’ What’s that saying? “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s muggle thinking.”

Karl Schroeder:  “There’s lots of technologies that are flashy, or might have this or that big effect on the world. Nuclear fusion, augmented reality, nanotech… yeah, they’re all great. But we don’t need them. There’s only one development that we need at this point in our history: better methods and systems for decision-making, both individual and collective.”

Karl Schroeder: “We have all the technologies—all the tools and capabilities and understandings—to create a Utopia on Earth now. We can absolutely solve the problem of global warming, for instance; we even know how to reverse it with technologies we currently possess. What’s become abundantly clear in the past couple of decades is that the only thing we lack is the ability to make, and follow-through on, the right decisions. So much of my work right now is dedicated to asking what we need to do to get to such capabilities.”

Karl Schroeder: “Do you imagine or write a future where anything is possible except the invention of prostheses to compensate for the inadequacies of human decision-making? Does your worldbuilding encompass universes with star flight, robots and nanotech—yet accept royalty, corporations and bureaucracies as inevitable?”

NINA MUNTEANU

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/interview-with-nina-munteanu/ )

Nina Munteanu: “The literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy… explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.”

Nina Munteanu: “Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”:  “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society. Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, speculative fiction takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living colour. It is the ghost of future, present and past to our Scrooge. The arm of speculative fiction reaches far. This is its power over realist fiction and why, I think, mainstream realist authors like Margaret Atwood have discovered and embraced this genre (her latest three books are all speculative fiction). Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.”

Nina Munteanu: “Both ecology and science fiction explore consequence in a big way.”

Nina Munteanu: “My ecological interests and experiences have influenced my writing in every way: in providing me with ideas, in world-building, and in the interactive fractal nature of plot, theme, character and premise. For me, the two are intertwined. Writing science fiction has opened the doors of creative problem solving in my scientific pursuits; and my science has opened windows of possibilities in my writing. It’s a win-win situation, really.”

Nina Munteanu: “Most science and technology presents itself in literature through premise or plot, which influence various characters in their life journeys. Ecology—like setting—manifests and integrates itself more in theme. This is because, while most of the hard sciences study the nature and behavior of “phenomena”, ecology studies the consequences of the relationship of these phenomena and the impact of their behaviors on each other and the rest of the “world”.”

Nina Munteanu: “Environmental issues are largely a global phenomenon—concerns like water quality and quantity, air pollution, resource acquisition, allocation and sharing, wildlife extinction, etc. Science fiction is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind; it can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness. Literature in general has always served as a cultural reporter on themes important to humanity….The science fiction genre—and speculative fiction particularly—explores premise based on current scientific and technological paradigms. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?… These are conveyed through the various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”) to dystopias (e.g., Huxley’s “Brave New World”).

JEROME STUEART

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/interview-with-jerome-stueart/ )

Jerome Stueart: “Speculation is about seeing natural consequences, about thinking about choices and figuring out where they will lead, and about large-scale

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

societal consequences.  I think speculative fiction is the reason we don’t condone cloning, or have nuclear war—science fiction showed us that there are no good ways of having those, and we believed them.”

Jerome Stueart: ““I would put MORE speculative literature in the classroom…. I would teach kids to imagine their own futures—what will they be doing 20 years from now, and what will society be like.  What do they WANT society to be like?  And where do they see the forces in control trying to lead us?  Kids can be taught to think speculatively and use it wisely. “

Jerome Stueart: “I think SF can help us get ready for change, and see change as positive and desirable.  We get in our ruts.  If we want the Star Trek universe—we’re gonna have to work for it.  LOL.  But I think it can examine multiple paths for us—examining all possible scenarios and showing us a positive path.

Jerome Stueart: “Maybe that’s the greatest strength of SF—it has a wide angled lens.  SF is about commenting on societal problems more than character problems.  Maybe that’s why the characters can be more universal, and sometimes flatter, because SF is interested in the “what if” of the story—the what if of the society.  It can handle a universal character because the society is what we want to examine in SF, and the choices a society makes.”

Jerome Stueart: “I think the current problems with getting the world to understand climate change is directly related to an inability to speculate—or see the future from the evidence you have.  Society has equipped scientists to extrapolate from their research, but we don’t take their recommendations because we don’t trust science anymore, or intelligence.  Unless the majority of the population respects knowledge, has a healthy speculative mind, they can’t see consequences.”

DOUGLAS SMITH

(https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/interview-with-douglas-smith/ )

Douglas Smith: “That’s the power of SF and fantasy (and I’d put SF as a specific subset of fantasy)–there are fewer (no?) limitations to the types of stories that I Douglas Smith with Impossibiliacan tell.”

Douglas Smith: “If there is a social issue that a writer wishes to explore and bring attention to, speculative fiction provides the freedom through its “distorted mirror” to let a writer bring whatever focus they desire to that issue.”

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Interview With Karl Schroeder

An Interview With Karl Schroeder
by Derek Newman-Stille

Karl Schroeder is the author of several novels including “The Claus Effect”, “Ventus”, “Permanence”, and The Virga Series. In the following interview, much as in his fiction writing, Mr. Schroeder asks his readers the tough questions, calling on them to question their limited views of reality and helping readers realise that they have a role in making the world a better place. He calls on us to think about a possible future in which humanity develops better decision-making capacities. I hope that you find this interview as enlightening as I did.

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Karl Schroeder:  I’m an author and futurist based in Toronto, though I was born and raised in the prairies. My family comes from the same southern Manitoba Mennonite community that A.E. van Vogt came from. In 2011 I acquired a Master’s degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation; as well as writing SF, I consult about technology and social futures for clients such as the provincial and federal governments, and the military.

Spec Can: Do you characters ever take you to places you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?

Karl Schroeder: No, and yes within limits. If you’re writing novels of character, then letting your heroes and villains take on lives of their own is good. If you’re writing any other kind of story, character, like setting, plot and style, is subordinate to what you’re trying to communicate. Characters should seem real to the reader, just as the settings and situations you write about should seem real; but there’s no advantage in them seeming real to you.

As with everything else to do with writing fiction, you must remember that it’s not a sign of success if you get swept away by your own storytelling; that’s actually a sign of poor discipline. If your characters are taking on lives of their own, you’re too close to them and need to step back to objectively assess whether they’re properly serving the story you’re trying to tell. If they are, then great. If they’re not, then you probably need to rein them in.

This probably sounds cold and heartless to beginning writers who feel that there’s something romantic about writing. The fact is, you want your readers to feel the romance of storytelling, but it’s utterly unnecessary—and often counterproductive—if you do.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write Speculative Fiction?

Karl Schroeder:  No one thing; there was no Damascus Road moment that made me a writer. Above all, it was my family, and specific incidents when I was growing up.

My mother published a couple of novels when I was very young, so I grew up with these in the bookshelf. Becoming a writer was obviously a viable option. My brothers and sister also inspired me at different times with their creativity and the possibilities of storytelling.

To give just one example of the many small events that pushed me into being a writer: when I was about eleven my dad brought home a big roll of brown wrapping paper from work. My brother and I unrolled this on the basement floor and began covering it with doodles, art—and cartoons. From there I started filling notebooks with short graphic novels, and after a couple of years of that, began writing in prose. I started my first novel when I was fourteen, and I finished my first one when I was seventeen.

Spec Can: In what ways does your Canadian identity influence your writing?

Karl Schroeder: I’m sure there’s lots of ways that being a Canadian influences me, but somehow the question seems odd. Do we ask American authors how being American influences their writing? Or British authors how being English influences them?

One clear discovery I’ve made is that I was never influenced by certain key authors who loom large in the reminiscences of some American SF writers that I know. I never read Heinlein, for instance. –I tried. His attitudes and politics were too alien to me, even at age fifteen, for me to feel comfortable in his stories. On the other hand, I was avidly reading Stanislaw Lem at that time, so I never missed Heinlein.

Nowadays, my Canadian identity—like my Mennonite background—probably shines through most in my attitudes toward violence as a valid political tool. I.e., it isn’t one. I do write ripping pirate yarns, such as the Virga books, but those are cartoonish in their depictions of war. When I’m serious—as in books such as Lady of Mazes or the forthcoming Lockstep—I am careful to present nonviolent paths to resolving conflict as the superior option.

Spec Can: What do you see as distinct about Canadian Speculative Fiction?

Karl Schroeder: The fact that it asks itself what makes it distinct.

Spec Can: What role can Speculative Fiction have in changing the way people think about the world around them?

Karl Schroeder: We spend much of our lives programming ourselves to react automatically rather than to think. It’s faster, costs less energy. Part of that process involves the ossification of our basic categories: man/woman, human/nonhuman. SF deliberately blurs these categories in order to almost literally wake us up. It’s strangemaking, which is a very valuable capacity, especially in the present situation when the world needs innovative new solutions to some pretty dire problems. It’s not that SF presents, or even can present, the solutions to big issues like global warming or global poverty; it’s that it helps educate us in the kind of thinking that can lead to them.

It’s important to know that the style of thinking SF promotes isn’t limited to science fiction. If you read current thinkers such as Timothy Morton, for instance, you’ll encounter the same strangemaking process, but highly honed for specific purposes and politically and socially pertinent.

Spec Can: Your work alternates between various Speculative genres. Is it tough to alternate between genres? Are these genre categories that separate?

Karl Schroeder: Genre is a marketing tool. I don’t think in terms of genre, only about what ideas I want to communicate (or strange-make). This determines the kind of story it’s going to be. I’d say the only reason that my novels have, to date, all been science fiction, is that I’ve had particular things to say that SF is optimized for.

I could simultaneously write a hard SF novel and a fantasy epic, without the stories interfering in any way with one another.

Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “realist” fiction can’t?

Karl Schroeder: Describe the real world.

Realism, in literature, painting, and science, is just the rule of the lowest common denominator.  It’s not actually a successful stance in science, for instance; strictly realist approaches to quantum mechanics fall into paradox pretty quickly. Realism achieves some stability in understanding the world by simply discarding 99% of all the available data (whether that be measurements, opinions, or political stances). That’s what the muggles do in the Harry Potter stories: it’s not actually that they lack some magical gene or other that wizards have (like the midichlorians in Star Wars); it’s that they literally can’t see the magical in the world around them. They only think about, and therefore can only see, those things they’ve decided are ‘real.’ What’s that saying? “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s muggle thinking. (And by the way, having the Force be created by midichlorians makes the Star Wars universe a very muggle place.)

In contrast, there’s some very interesting philosophy these days that goes way beyond realism to engage with both science and society in new ways. Bruno Latour is a good one to read for this: his Irreductions presents the idea that everything, from atoms to Santa Claus, is equally real: nothing can be reduced to anything else… and, anything can be reduced to anything else (if you’re willing to put in the work to connect them). As an artist, that’s much more like the world I live in than any realist world.

Spec Can: You collaborated with David Nickle in writing The Claus Effect. What is it like to collaborate with another author? What were some of the benefits and drawbacks?

Karl Schroeder: Collaboration is easy, with the right person. Also, attitude is everything. David and I wrote The Claus Effect for fun and we weren’t under contract. The deadline was tight, though: three days, because we were doing it for the Three-Day Novel Contest, which was held over labour day weekend. That explains some of the zany energy in the book, because parts of it were written at 3:00 a.m. on some very questionable formulas of caffeine and sugar.

Spec Can: In The Claus Effect, you tackle the issue of over-consumption around the holidays. What inspired you to write about the figure of Santa Claus and, in particular, the concept of greed surrounding the holidays?

Karl Schroeder: Oh, Lord, there was no cunning calculation to this! We were just both sick and tired of the overcommercialization of the holidays, and Santa is the perfect symbol. Anyway, anything precious gets distorted when filtered through David’s mix-master of an imagination; it didn’t take us long to come up with our present vision of Santa once we turned our attention to him. Maybe a minute.

Spec Can: What ideas of the mythic do you bring into your work? And what role can the mythic have for the modern Canadian audience?

Karl Schroeder: What we lack today is a mythic dimension of the real. There’s plenty of sense-of-wonder available from fantasy, but why should we have to escape reality in order to experience the mythic? Much of my work consists of examples of things that are perfectly possible, but as magical as anything you can find in fantasy. My world of Virga is an example: it’s a steampunk, gaslight environment complete with pirates and conspiracies, ancient monsters hiding in the forgotten corners of the world… and it’s a zero-gravity world where the hero rides around on a wingless jet engine with handlebars and a saddle on it. All perfectly possible.

Spec Can: What is the importance of imagination and a sense of wonder for our world?

Karl Schroeder: Everyone in the world today is caught between what they believe to be true, and what they know to be real. We’ve been taught that the real is not the realm of magic or of the imaginative. In fact, most of us are utterly incapable of reconciling what we believe to be true and what we know to be real. But if I said that for the most part, what I believe is true is also what know to be real; that for me, reality is the realm of the imaginative, and that magic and wonder dwell here with us and not in some separate realm… well, would you believe me?

Return again to Virga, and to the picture of Hayden Griffin arrowing through lemon-coloured skies on a wingless jet—or to Spire, a thousand-year-old, open-ended cylinder twelve miles wide rotating to provide gravity on its interior surface. Ancient, bits falling of it, holes in its surface known as airfalls, and strange isolated estates where ancient families enact eccentric rituals and shoot anyone who strays onto their decaying little patches of real estate… In the Virga books, the mythic dimension is explored by strictly obeying the rules of Newtonian physics. Spire is entirely at the mercy of Newton’s laws, which is what makes it so strange a place.

I wrote the Virga books to illustrate just how much novelty and wonder were still possible within science fiction with just what we knew a hundred years ago. The so-called ‘ordinary’ is an inexhaustible wellspring of wonder. To know that is to be comfortable living in this world.

Spec Can: What new technological advances most interest and excite (or frighten) you as an author of Speculative Fiction?

Karl Schroeder:  There’s lots of technologies that are flashy, or might have this or that big effect on the world. Nuclear fusion, augmented reality, nanotech… yeah, they’re all great. But we don’t need them. There’s only one development that we need at this point in our history: better methods and systems for decision-making, both individual and collective.

We have all the technologies—all the tools and capabilities and understandings—to create a Utopia on Earth now. We can absolutely solve the problem of global warming, for instance; we even know how to reverse it with technologies we currently possess. What’s become abundantly clear in the past couple of decades is that the only thing we lack is the ability to make, and follow-through on, the right decisions. So much of my work right now is dedicated to asking what we need to do to get to such capabilities.

It’s ironic and sad that people within the science fiction community can imagine any future—ones where robots run amok, where nanotech eats the planet or biotech creates new species or aliens arrive… any future, except one in which humanity redesigns and improves its ability to govern itself. This is a ridiculous blind-spot, a very telling prejudice toward what we think is possible; it’s a remarkable and disappointing failure of our collective imagination. So that’s what I want to address in my new work.

Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to our interview, any ideas or thoughts to close our discussion?

Karl Schroeder: Let me deploy that old, inflammatory question: are you part of the solution, or part of the problem? Do you imagine or write a future where anything is possible except the invention of prostheses to compensate for the inadequacies of human decision-making? Does your worldbuilding encompass universes with star flight, robots and nanotech—yet accept royalty, corporations and bureaucracies as inevitable? Is Terminator your only model for computer-assisted decision making? Or are you tracking developments like dotmocracy, statistical demarchy, decision support software and the iPhone SuperPAC app? Because to those of us following such developments, the future looks entirely different than it does to mainstream SF—even, dare I say it, any SF of the present generation.

I’ll retract that statement when I’ve read a novel that shows how new governance systems and methods solve global warming.

I want to thank Karl Schroeder for being willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada and for asking readers tough questions, and questions that need to be asked.

As an educator who uses Speculative Fiction as a way of helping students to question taken-for-granted notions, I, personally, really appreciated Mr. Schroeder’s interest and incredible ability to evoke questions in the minds of readers and help us to expand our worldview. 

Upcoming Interview With Karl Schroeder on Wednesday, January 23

I first heard Karl Schroeder talk at The Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2009 and have looked forward to the opportunity to talk to him. I am pleased that I will be able to share that conversation with all of you readers on Wednesday, January 23, when Karl Schroeder talks about his work consulting about technological and social futures, the role of SF in promoting non-violence, the flexibility of reality, collaborative writing, and the potential of SF to help readers to question the world around them and develop better methods for decision-making. This is definitely an interview that opens up new worlds of experience for readers.

Here are some teasers from our upcoming interview:

Karl Schroeder: “Nowadays, my Canadian identity—like my Mennonite background—probably shines through most in my attitudes toward violence as a valid political tool. I.e., it isn’t one. I do write ripping pirate yarns, such as the Virga books, but those are cartoonish in their depictions of war. When I’m serious—as in books such as Lady of Mazes or the forthcoming Lockstep—I am careful to present nonviolent paths to resolving conflict as the superior option.”

Karl Schroeder: “We spend much of our lives programming ourselves to react automatically rather than to think. It’s faster, costs less energy. Part of that process involves the ossification of our basic categories: man/woman, human/nonhuman. SF deliberately blurs these categories in order to almost literally wake us up. It’s strangemaking, which is a very valuable capacity, especially in the present situation when the world needs innovative new solutions to some pretty dire problems.”

Karl Schroeder: “It’s not that SF presents, or even can present, the solutions to big issues like global warming or global poverty; it’s that it helps educate us in the kind of thinking that can lead to them.”

Karl Schroeder: “I could simultaneously write a hard SF novel and a fantasy epic, without the stories interfering in any way with one another.”

Karl Schroeder: “Realism, in literature, painting, and science, is just the rule of the lowest common denominator.  It’s not actually a successful stance in science, for instance; strictly realist approaches to quantum mechanics fall into paradox pretty quickly. Realism achieves some stability in understanding the world by simply discarding 99% of all the available data (whether that be measurements, opinions, or political stances).”

Karl Schroeder: “What we lack today is a mythic dimension of the real. There’s plenty of sense-of-wonder available from fantasy, but why should we have to escape reality in order to experience the mythic? Much of my work consists of examples of things that are perfectly possible, but as magical as anything you can find in fantasy.”

Karl Schroeder: “Everyone in the world today is caught between what they believe to be true, and what they know to be real. We’ve been taught that the real is not the realm of magic or of the imaginative. In fact, most of us are utterly incapable of reconciling what we believe to be true and what we know to be real.”

Karl Schroeder: “I wrote the Virga books to illustrate just how much novelty and wonder were still possible within science fiction with just what we knew a hundred years ago. The so-called ‘ordinary’ is an inexhaustible wellspring of wonder. To know that is to be comfortable living in this world.”

Karl Schroeder: “Nuclear fusion, augmented reality, nanotech… yeah, they’re all great. But we don’t need them. There’s only one development that we need at this point in our history: better methods and systems for decision-making, both individual and collective.”

Check out Speculating Canada on Wednesday, January 23 for Karl Schroeder’s philosophical insights as well as his thoughts and speculations about the writing process. This is definitely an interview that will challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of the way we define reality.

Big Red Suit Scare – A Midwinter Cold War

A review of The Claus Effect by David Nickle and Karl Schroeder (Tesseract Books, 1997)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the authors

Cover photo courtesy of the authors

Every child wishes they could go to the North Pole to become one of Santa’s elves. What child wouldn’t want to get everything that they want? David Nickle and Karl Schroeder take on the spirit of the holidays in The Claus Effect and explore what the personification of the holidays would be like. They cast a critical eye at the materialism of modernity and the overwhelming impulse of desire in Western society, and its particular expression of indulgence around the holiday season.

Santa Claus becomes the personification of capitalist desire – the manifestation of the idea that everyone should get what they want rather than what they need even when what they want is destructive to the society around them. Nickle and Shroeder’s Santa becomes a figure that seeks overall destruction by giving children access to weapons that would do harm to them and others, gleefully indulging in the destructive impulse of desire.

The Claus Effect begins with the short story “The Toy Mill” (originally published in Tesseracts 4) in which a young girl named Emily, obsessed with the mythology of Christmas and the desire for belonging asks Santa Claus if she can become an elf. Santa is wordsmithed with a predatory quality, described as having “an endless quest for girls and boys”, and licking his lips when he encounters them. His desire is for workers for the mill, children transformed into elves to work in his industrialist nightmare – a factory with huge smokestakes and enslaved workers. The factory itself is described with a predatory, consumptive quality – drooling cables and iron spiderwebs.

Emily struggles to find out why Santa doesn’t always give children what they desire, not reading their requests in his letters and points out to him the horrifying possibility that he may benefit from reading the words of children. Santa has become embittered from not receiving the thanks he feels he deserves for giving children what he thinks they should want. Santa lives in ignorance, believing he is above hearing the requests of children in letters, above the need to learn anything new. But when taught about the opportunity presented in this letters, when told that it could be research on giving children the very items that would allow for the full manifestation of their self-destructive consumptive impulse, he pays attention to this “market research”. He finds letters from children who wish their whole town would catch syphilis, who wish they owned M-16s, AKMs, and other munitions, and thousands of requests for their parents to die.

Emily begins to realise the horror of giving The Claus access to the full extent of children’s wishes and empowering the maliciousness that gave manifestation to him. Mrs. Claus has been preventing Santa’s wrath by telling him that letters were complaints from children about his gifts, indicating their displeasure.

Wishes and desire become the means for The Claus to manifest his love of destruction. He realises that the most harm he can do to the world is to give people what they want. He realises that consumption is consumptive, that over consumption and desire is destructive.

Despite her realisation that giving people what they want can be destructive, and her attempt to end Santa’s destructive regime, over-consumption is something that has become too enmeshed in our society. Santa can’t be destroyed, and Shroeder and Nickle re-visit Santa in The Claus Effect, which examines a clash of ideologies as over-consumptive capitalism meets communism.

Neil Nyman views war as a means of expressing American Western ideals of “the right way” and as the ultimate expression of ideas of masculinity and concepts of honour, particularly when that violence is directed toward a perceived communist threat. His uncle, a soldier teaches him at a young age that vengeance and violence are expressions of patriotism and that Christmas can be a time of vengeance.

After becoming a soldier himself, Nyman discovers some of the horror that militarism can wreak when he realises that Santa is in a conspiratorial relationship with the U.S. government: a weaponry wishlist delivered by the military to Santa each year. Santa has become a manifestation of the capitalist industrialist-military complex.

In order to keep his secrets, Santa targets Emily, now a grown woman who remembers his weaknesses. Emily is continually reminded of the horrors of working for Santa while she works for ValueLand, another commercial empire profiting from greed and, particularly, seasonal greed.

Neil and Emily eventually meet each other, both suspicious and questioning of the status quo and both having discovered secrets surrounding Santa Claus and his relationship to the American government. The two of them come into contact with another figure from Christmas mythology, Krampus, a figure that mythologically existed in contrast to Santa Claus in Germanic countries and was responsible for capturing and punishing children who were naughty. Krampus is an ideological figure, one who believes that human beings shouldn’t get everything that they want, but rather should be focused on their needs. Krampus had once discovered a copy of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and saw in it a potential for the balance between punishment and reward, a way to balance the greed embodied by Santa Claus. He travelled to Russia and joined the Russian revolution.

In The Claus Effect, the extremes of capitalism and communism come into ideological conflict, embodied by mythic figures surrounding the Christmas as an ideological time that focuses both on the extremes of capitalist greed and also ideas of community and working toward a common good. Christmas for Schroeder and Nickle is a time of contradictory impulses, a battle of extremes of ideology – a winter cold war of conflicting messages.

You can discover more about Karl Schroeder at his website at http://www.kschroeder.com/ and you can discover more about Dave Nickle at his website at http://davidnickle.blogspot.ca/ . To explore The Claus Effect for yourself, visit the Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing site at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/clauseffect/ce-catalog.html