Lindsay Ellis: How Science Fiction Makes Sense of the Present

Posted by Cybil on July 13, 2020
Until this summer, Lindsay Ellis was mainly known as a super smart and witty film critic and YouTube essayist, making videos that range from a series that takes an academic approach to the Transformers movie franchise to her analysis on Independence Day vs. War of the Worlds, which explores the history of invasion literature that eventually turned into the alien invasion trope. 

This month, Ellis’ debut science fiction novel, Axiom’s End, arrives. A first contact, government corruption page-turner set in 2007, Ellis’ first book quickly became one of the most anticipated titles of the season among Goodreads’ 105 million members. So who better to tell us why science fiction resonates so much with readers, and why the genre is a necessary rubric in 2020.


I was eight years old when Lois Lowry’s The Giver was released in 1993, and it became an instant turning point for me, not only for my relationship to books in general, but to science fiction in particular. Anti-authority narratives for children are extremely common—it’s pretty much the basis for all of Nickelodeon’s marketing—but narratives for young children tend to have cartoonishly evil authority figures who are obviously in the wrong. The Giver, in contrast, presents us with what appears to be a utopia, challenging the young reader with a simple, comforting authority structure that over the course of the narrative the protagonist Jonah learns not only has sapped his community’s members of their humanity, but does monstrous things in its bid to maintain control.

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One of the main hallmarks of science fiction is the use of social constructs, technologies, and futures that do not yet exist—and may never exist—as a means of exploring our present. In the case of The Giver, it was the first book I read that used science fiction to create (to an eight year old, anyway) mind-blowing revelations about the nature of society and the individual’s relationship to it. The Giver is one of those books that serves as a perfect gateway for children who are just beginning to learn that change is inevitable, that well-meaning people can be wrong, and that solutions to problems are not always obvious. 

I try to read widely, but ever since then my heart has belonged to science fiction. It’s a genre uniquely tied to the idea of the future, our future, that at the same time functions as an exploration of the present—of society, of technology, of personal identity. As a genre it has the potential to present some of the most challenging ideas and narratives by calling into question both where we are headed and current status quos. 

But we’re living in a strange time—canceled trips, parties, graduations, conventions, weddings, and other mass gatherings that normally mark our lives have vanished, creating a future that looks less like a series of events on a calendar than a miasma of uncertainty. Words like future and even time itself have begun to lose meaning as our futures become more and more foggy. We are in a time of great cultural shift and potential for change, but we are as yet uncertain how the pendulum will swing. It is for this reason, however, that science fiction is not escapist literature, but a necessary rubric to remind ourselves that our ability to imagine futures, either to work toward or against, is more necessary now than ever.  

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Every generation has some level of apocalyptic thinking, but it has been understandably more common in recent years. As long as we’ve had civilization, we’ve had people speculating on what it would look like if and when the version we know crumbles. Dystopia is arguably its own subgenre of science fiction, but one tied deeply with the time it is written, and the time it is popular.

A key theme with dystopian books is often about how our relationships to our bodies might change, or might be dictated by the state. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is similar to The Giver in that it begins with what looks like a fairly benign future authority system, which is eventually revealed to have an entire class of people who exist to serve as organ donors for the wealthy. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has shot back into the zeitgeist because of the popular Hulu show, but was a breakout hit in its time for exploring a dystopian future America where a totalitarian patriarchal government has mandated that fertile women must act as “handmaids”—in effect, breeding stock. 

This is a running theme in many of Atwood’s speculative works; her MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam) depicts a hypercapitalist dystopia instead of a religious fundamentalist dystopia that effectively consumes itself to death when a plague overruns the population. Atwood’s books can be challenging reads, but her vision of possible futures feels increasingly relevant with each passing year.

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But my favorite from this subgenre and one of my favorite books of all time is Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, which depicts a 2020s California that is disintegrating for a variety of reasons, from climate change to class inequality to religious fundamentalism to a nascent totalitarian administration. In the face of all of this, Parable’s protagonist, Lauren Olamina, becomes a figurehead for her ability to integrate hopeless circumstances with the idea of embracing change. Lauren’s greatest asset is her ability to see past the present and to envision a greater future for all of humanity, that there are possibilities beyond the smoldering ruins of the society she knew.

But near-future science fiction need not always be dystopian; Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway depicts an also-crumbling future controlled by wealthy oligarchs and marked by mass inequality, but focuses on the possibility of a post-scarcity gift economy through its lead characters, who choose to turn their backs on this society, or walk away.

John Scalzi’s Lock In duology takes place in a near future in which a pandemic has left a portion of the population completely immobile, necessitating that they interact with the world using remote androids, or “Threeps.” Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy likewise takes place in a rebuilt society that lives alongside a zombie horde once everything has settled down a bit after the whole plague of the undead thing. Both show that, even after a major crisis, civilization finds ways to pull it together, create a new normal in the wake of mass disruption, and move on.

But one omnipresent subsect of science fiction focuses on the far future instead of the near future. Joe Haldeman’s seminal novel The Forever War, about a war against aliens, is told from the point of view of a soldier who, by virtue of time-dilation from near lightspeed travel, lives through all of it. The novel was heavily influenced by Haldeman’s experience in Vietnam, and it shows—the “forever war” is a seemingly eternal conflict that started over nothing and, in the end, fizzled out when it became untenable.

But endless conflict can be an opportunity to forge connection, as we see in Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s remarkable novella, This Is How You Lose the Time War, a semi-epistolary book about two agents from warring factions, both of whom have weaponized time travel. The novella is both gut-wrenching and heartfelt, following an enemies-to-lovers relationship that is alternately hopeless and uplifting.

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Some of the most iconic science fiction novels, both classic and contemporary, deal with visions of far-future totalitarian regimes—Frank Herbert’s Dune (the first one, anyway) functions as a fairly standard hero’s journey narrative, but sets itself apart not only through its unique aesthetic and memorable world-building, but also deconstructs the idea that one man can truly be the savior of society without destroying not only himself, but also the very people he is trying to save.

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire blends a murder mystery with a far-future dissection of colonialism, juxtaposing the personal and the political. Memory’s protagonist, Mahit, works as an ambassador to an empire that may or may not have an eye on her own home station, and she must navigate the quirks, politics, and decorum of the culture in order to survive it.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice series also centers on a far-future totalitarian empire, with its protagonist, Breq—what’s left of the AI from a destroyed spaceship called Justice of Torren—vowing revenge on a corrupt empire. Both series are remarkable for creating cultures that feel fleshed out and organic, having grown from their own respective histories, in some ways familiar and in others completely alien to our own civilization.

But far-future narratives encapsulate far more than dystopia and totalitarian empires, and can show a wide array of visions of human expansion, often using history and culture to speculate on possible futures. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy explores a future in which humans are part of a galactic community, and the central character must navigate not only her place as the rare human in a much wider universe of nonhumans, but also find a sense of her own identity within her comparatively small community in West Africa.

James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, beginning with 2011’s Leviathan Wakes, creates a sprawling near future that feels lived in and extremely human, with different and often clashing political and corporate factions emerging as humans begin colonizing farther and farther into the solar system, from Earth to Mars to the asteroid belt to Jupiter’s moons. The setting Corey depicts shows a wide, well, expanse of different cultures that have evolved from this colonization, all with their own set of biases and tribalism that feels all too familiar in our own present. Despite the length of the series (and of the individual books themselves), it has only surged in popularity since its debut nine years ago.

John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy was partially inspired by the question of what if, during the era of European colonization and exploration, the trade winds simply ceased to exist? This series asks the same question on an interstellar scale in a far future where the trade wind equivalent that allowed interstellar travel called The Flow begins to break down, and eventually ceases to exist, with wide repercussions on the civilization that has grown to depend on it. Heartfelt, humorous, and prescient, this series is one of those that will likely always find a way to be timely no matter what era the reader might find it.

Being able to speculate on possible future outcomes is part of what makes us human, what drives our ingenuity and our ability to create. While engagement with the present is integral, so too is our ability to imagine different futures—both the kind to strive toward, and cautionary tales we hope to avoid.

Right now it’s easy to become obsessively entangled in an endless present, unable to envision tangible futures in a way that was so easy even a few months ago. Given that my debut novel is released in July, I did not expect to spend my entire year stuck at home, not knowing when the life I had built might resume normalcy, or what that normalcy might look like. But that is part of what makes fiction important right now—there needs to be room to step outside of the nebulous, uncertain present and imagine possible futures, for good or ill, to remind ourselves that there is always a future to look forward to, even if we don’t know what it will look like.

 
Lindsay Ellis’ debut novel, Axiom’s End, will be available in the U.S. on July 21. Be sure to add it to your Want to Read shelf!

 

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

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message 1: by Dave (new)

Dave Collins Don't bother with Mira Grant's Feed. It is dreadful. I doubt Lindsey read it, she certainly doesn't have much to say about.
It's popularity must be artificially inflated.
Imagine two unlikeable narcissist siblings, doing the least important job while constantly congratulations themselves, in one of the most poorly imagined post-zombie apocalypse worlds. Try it if you like self insert characters, eye rolling technobabble and cringe.


message 2: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Dave wrote: "Don't bother with Mira Grant's Feed. It is dreadful. I doubt Lindsey read it, she certainly doesn't have much to say about.
It's popularity must be artificially inflated."


Sorry you didn't like it. Imagine that not every book is for every reader -- I loved Feed. :)


Annie (Sad Water Bottle) Dave wrote: "Don't bother with Mira Grant's Feed. It is dreadful. I doubt Lindsey read it, she certainly doesn't have much to say about.
It's popularity must be artificially inflated.
Imagine two unlikeable n..."


She is a video essayist who has built her career on reading books. Just because her opinion differentiates from yours does not mean she has not read it.


message 4: by Joyce (new)

Joyce Guillén I was instantly pulled in by a mention of The Giver at the beginning, I would have liked to have seen an inclusion of one of my favorite sci-fi books Ender's Game which I also think explores the idea of invasion, but I guess it wasn't as relevant as the other books mentioned here.


message 5: by Jaimy (new)

Jaimy Can't wait to read this. I always thought science fiction wasn't for me, but I've loved everything Lindsay has done so far, so I'm ready to take on the challenge!


message 6: by Tito (new)

Tito Athano What? No mention of Asimov, Philip Dick, or A. C. Clarke? These three stand head-and-shoulders above the field when it comes to using possible futures to ask questions about today.


message 7: by Laramie (new)

Laramie Graber Honza wrote: "This is a good, thoughtful essay. Naturally, I've a quibble, and it's somewhat related to the author's secondary theme of trade-offs and non-obvious, even fraught, choices.
Margaret Atwood used to ..."

I don't think I quite understand your point. Sure some sectors are producing less C02, but it's hardly a 'green dream'. A 'green dream' would involve replacing non-renewable energies with renewable ones, while, yes, restructuring economies to be more efficient. But to call the current moment of pandemic a 'green dream' is blatantly misleading. Though, perhaps that it is the point, as you imply that California's green economy somehow has to do with creating wild fires, but it is really due to drought and mismanagement on the part of PG&E, California's utility company.


message 8: by Sophia Boyd (new)

Sophia Boyd I do not agree with this article


message 9: by Adam (new)

Adam James Joyce wrote: "I was instantly pulled in by a mention of The Giver at the beginning, I would have liked to have seen an inclusion of one of my favorite sci-fi books Ender's Game which I also think explores the id..."

I believe Lindsey has said before that she avoids endorsing Ender's Game because the author, Orson Scott Card, is a homophobic bigot who uses his money and fame to actively advocate for laws banning gay marriage and same-sex relations, and who has frequently linked homosexuality to paedophilia and child abuse. That makes it a morally iffy situation if buying his books means some of your money therefore goes to such projects (compare that to authors like Lovecraft, who are bigots but who are dead so your money doesn't fund their bigotry).


message 10: by Lotte (new)

Lotte Van Der Paelt Dave wrote: "Don't bother with Mira Grant's Feed. It is dreadful. I doubt Lindsey read it, she certainly doesn't have much to say about.
It's popularity must be artificially inflated.
Imagine two unlikeable n..."


I don't think you know Lindsay or her work very well. She built her whole career on reading books. If she says she has read it, there is no doubt whatsoever that she has.


message 11: by Katie (new)

Katie Kennedy Lovely essay on sci-fi from an excellent video essayist.


message 12: by TMR (new)

TMR What a collection.


message 13: by Tshepiso (new)

Tshepiso Am I the only one who read this in Lindsay It's Lit voice?


message 14: by Sofia (new)

Sofia Sorrentino I've always left Lindsay Ellis's videos and felt a connection to her as she has been a source of so much knowledge and inspiration for me. And now I find out that she too loves The Giver, it also opened her up to the world of science fiction, and we both read it when we were 8? Coincidence?! I think not! Okay fine, it probably is. Probably


message 15: by Olav (new)

Olav Dave wrote: "Don't bother with Mira Grant's Feed. It is dreadful. I doubt Lindsey read it, she certainly doesn't have much to say about.
It's popularity must be artificially inflated.
Imagine two unlikeable n..."


Largely agree with this.

Additionally, I was working as a copy editor at a major-market daily newspaper when I read it. It includes every possible cliched mischaracterization of journalists and journalism. On a professional level, I found it insulting.


message 16: by Peter (new)

Peter Tillman Thank you for your interesting essay. I've read many of the books you mentioned, loved a couple, liked more, didn't care for some. Science fiction is my reading home, so I'm pleased to welcome a new writer to the field! I've put your debut on the TBR list.


message 17: by Kirsten (new)

Kirsten Dave wrote: "Don't bother with Mira Grant's Feed. It is dreadful. I doubt Lindsey read it, she certainly doesn't have much to say about.
It's popularity must be artificially inflated.
Imagine two unlikeable n..."


I read Feed while I was in graduate school (earning my literature degree with a focus on nature writing). I thought it was brilliant and deserved more accolades and credit than it had received. I don't know why Dave hated the book so much, but I guess I am constantly reminded of the fascinating nature of different human opinions.


message 18: by Dave (new)

Dave Collins Kirsten wrote: "I don't know why Dave hated the book so much..."

Lol I told you why. Acting baffled when its in front of you in black and white makes me question the quality of literary degrees these days.
You said it deserves more praise and rewards and didn't give single reason. So, I can honestly say, I don't know why you liked the book so much. Sadly, I'm reminded not very many opinions are fascinating.


message 19: by Brennan (new)

Brennan Tito wrote: "What? No mention of Asimov, Philip Dick, or A. C. Clarke? These three stand head-and-shoulders above the field when it comes to using possible futures to ask questions about today."

We're in the 21st Century now. In general, I agree, I'm saddened that younger readers won't take the time to read the older classics but I understand. Only so much will stand the test of time. This by someone who was saddened by Harlan Ellison's recent death (who also fought against older stuff in his day). Time moves on.


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