Annalee Newitz: The Future Is Coming to Get You

Interview

Friday, July 04, 2014

Scientists and science writers can rattle off all the sci-fi that inspired them to build great things. But Annalee Newitz, editor of io9, thinks that dystopian science fiction is less inspirational, but more influential.

Dystopian sci-fi cautions against our hubris. For example, when Google bought the robotics company Boston Dynamics — which builds robots for the military — journalists couldn’t help but evoke Skynet, the fictional military software company that gives birth to The Terminator. “1984” has become a shorthand for government surveillance, and Edward Snowden name-checked George Orwell when he addressed the British public on Christmas Day 2013. “Part of the reason that people aren’t rioting in the streets,” Newitz tells Kurt Andersen, “is that we have been prepared for this kind of world, precisely by this science fiction.” Frankenstein is often evoked when we hear stories about scientists tinkering with genetics. But that may be a double-edged sword, she says: Frankenstein has become so embedded in our imagination, the public may not be open to positive developments in biotechnology.

As more and more technology saturates our lives, does that make it harder for science fiction writers to do their imagining? “I think it just means that we’re going to see a lot less of a boundary between science fiction as a genre and just fiction.”

(Originally aired: January 24, 2014)

Bonus Track: Kurt Andersen’s extended conversation with Annalee Newitz


  • 9:52 – Dreaming of Electric Sheep: Newitz explains that Blade Runner came out at a time when we were done with “clean dystopias” like Logan’s Run. Instead, we were looking for a way to imagine a more class divided future — still high-tech but corporate controlled. That vision is still so compelling (Beijing? Shanghai?) but it's time to imagine a new kind future. 
  • 12:28 – Elysium: In the film, unlucky souls (including Matt Damon) are stuck on Earth living a Mad Max kind of existence, while an orbital spaceship harbors the elite. It’s a dream of the future where bodies can be easily repaired, and the prospect of living forever is within reach.
  • 16:27 – The Singularity Is Near-ish: Some high tech gurus can’t wait for computers to become self-aware and help us solve all our big problems. But Kurt and Newitz believe The Singularity will be messier and (to paraphrase William Gibson) not evenly distributed.
  • 18:00 – M-M-Max Headroom: This 1980s TV show, which took place “20 minutes into the future” foretold a social media landscape with hackers and corporate execs watching audience attention second by second — except with clunky 20th century technology.
  • 20:00 – How Should We Judge Sci-Fi: It’s easy to judge science fiction based on its predictive qualifies. But Newitz says it's more important to look at how it shows us engaging with technology and what that implies.  
    Music Playlist
  1. In the Year 2525 (Exordium Terminus)
    Artist: Zager & Evans
    Album: 2525 / Zager & Evans
    Label: Wounded Bird Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Specters of the Future
    Artist: Nicolas Jaar
    Album: Space Is Only Noise
    Label: Circus company
    Purchase: Amazon

Guests:

Annalee Newitz

Produced by:

Eric Molinsky

Comments [2]

Noah Lyons from Berkeley, CA

Robert, relax. (I notice you also went off on Newitz six months ago). Regardless of whether one makes a factual mistake, that is no reason to shred someone's credibility. Besides, the error you point out is a slip of syntax; one can certainly say that the Soviet UNion was still "rising" - in a sense - the ten years prior to 1984's publication; processes are not points on a line, and for all you know, by "rise" can mean the American mentality/awareness of the Soviet Union.

And I personally take offense to your remarks, as a graduate student in the humanities - I work with science fiction, religious studies, and literary theory. It is precisely such haughtiness and polarizing discourse that leads to what you call "low quality of the public's understanding". Ergo I am not going to insult you, but I do feel you would be perfect as a Heinlein protagonist, with all its essentialist, binary, patriarchal hegemony : )

Just relax, and maybe enjoy SF as art / poetics / aesthtics for once?

Jul. 06 2014 06:50 AM
Robert Thomas from Santa Clara

Apparently, a PhD in "American Studies" from the University of California can now be had with the depth of study required to get out of bed and dress oneself, while being an American.

Ms Newitz is not only innocent of twentieth century world affairs (1949 is ten or twenty years late to be the "period of the rise of the Soviet Union"); she seems poorly acquainted with the canon of high school English literature. What a struggle it must have been, earning the lunch money she was paid writing for the _Metro_. How can the dismally low quality of the public's understanding of scientific and technological matters be a surprise when juries recognize know-nothing English majors for having notability in their discourse?

It's a sad day for journalism. Come to think of it, it's been a sad couple of decades for journalism.

Jul. 06 2014 05:24 AM

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