The Better Angels of … Science Fiction?

In August of last year I wrote, somewhat crankily, that

…Our technological society’s one big blind spot is that we can imagine everything about ourselves and our world changing except how we make decisions.

By this I meant that we avidly consume stories where the entire Earth is eaten by nanotech, or where bio-genetic revolutions change the human species, or where cheap space flight opens up the universe—but these futures are almost always ruled over by autocratic megacorporations, faceless bureaucracies, voting democracies or even hereditary aristocrats. (After thousands of years of civilization, that galaxy far far away still keeps slaves.) Technology changes in SF, and even human nature gets altered by implants and uploading and perpetual life—but how governments work? Not so much.

I said I was accusing society in the above quote, but actually the people I was accusing of being most vulnerable to this blind spot were science fiction writers. It’s true there are plenty of Utopian futures in SF, but the vast majority of books within the sub-genres of cyberpunk, space opera and hard SF contain regressive or static visions of human conflict in the future. We’ve given them license to break the barrier of lightspeed, but not to imagine that some other organizing principle could replace bureaucracy or—even worse—to imagine that we could without tyranny reduce human conflict down to a level of ignorable background noise.

All of these futures now face a problem.

It would be convenient to dismiss Steven Pinker as a lone voice in declaring that human violence has vastly declined over the past half-millennium and continues to do so; the problem is that he does not bother to make that argument in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Instead, he lets the numbers do it for him. Better Angels contains literally dozens of graphs where the line starts at the top left and ends up literally bottoming out on the right; no form of human violence has been exempt from a nearly 100-fold reduction in the past thousand years. (The past was demonstrably not better than today: where ever you live, the murder rate 100 years ago was probably ten times what it is today, and 1000 years ago, it may have been 100 times what it is now.) There may be a lot to argue over in The Better Angels of Our Nature—and there is in fact much that deserves to be argued about—but the overall trend is not one of those things. And if you write science fiction about the future, this is going to present you with a problem.

Certain facts and ideas become constraints on us when we write SF. In Dune, Frank Herbert famously invented the Butlerian Jihad—a war against artificial intelligences and robots in the distant past—so that he could write about a future in which humans still use other humans as servants and slaves. Ever since Asimov, writers who use robots have had to contend with the possibility of the 3 laws or their equivalent. And currently, anybody writing about the next fifty years has to either have some sort of technological singularity, or at the very least explain why one hasn’t happened.

Of course fiction runs on conflict, as Larry Niven archly pointed out in his classic short story “Safe at Any Speed.” A conflict-free future is hard to write about. Nonetheless, this is exactly what humanity may be facing, because while once again there may be many things we can argue about in Pinker’s book, the overall trend is not one of them. Almost the entire world is participating in a trend whose line is direct and clear. It’s incomparably safer out there than it was a century ago, or even ten years ago. Pinker shows that even when you factor in the genocides and millions of deaths from events like the Second World War and the famines in China and Russia in the 20th century, that century was still less violent than the 19th; and the 19th was less violent than the 18th and so on. (His numbers become dodgy when he pushes them past antiquity, because while a large percentage of prehistoric humans died violently, many of those injuries are of the same type that are incurred today by rodeo riders, implying that hunting big game was as likely a source for bashed-in skulls and shattered limbs in that era as war. Nonetheless, while we can accuse him of exaggeration at times, the main trends within historical time are not exaggerated.) The 21st century is, so far, the least violent period in all of human history, and the trend is continuing.

Nobody knows where or whether this trend will stop. What we do know, according to Pinker, is that many of the easy explanations for it are wrong.  Access to weaponry does not itself cause violence (it turns out that it really is true that guns don’t kill people, people kill people). Resource clashes (the classic cause in geopolitical thinking) are only loosely connected to violence in history. Affluence itself does not make people less violent, nor does poverty make them more so. And religion’s effect on violence throughout history has been, well, neutral when taken altogether. What this means is that you can’t justify a general future that’s more violent (or even one that is still as violent as the present) by making it the product of nuclear proliferation, economic depression, or religious fanaticism. If society is decaying, as some conservative thinkers would have us believe, then it is decaying in the direction of universal peace and harmony. Even the looming catastrophe of climate change contains no inevitable amplifier of the known causes of violent behaviour in humans.

Pinker takes a stab at defining those causes. He’s probably not entirely right; it’ll take a lot more anthropology, economics and cognitive science to root out the real reasons for the decline in violence. What does seem clear, though, is that those reasons are so deeply rooted in who we are as people today, and how we experience our world, that almost no conceivable event could immediately reverse them. (A global nuclear war or comparably extreme event might put intolerable pressure on our civility, but it would take something on that scale because whatever it is, it has to simultaneously strike at multiple reinforcing trends.) Fascism and communism and the industrialization of mass murder; vast governmental corruption and statewide propaganda systems; centuries of demonization of the enemy by states and churches; depressions, famines, wars and plagues—none of these factors either singly or in combination have been strong enough to reverse the steady trend toward civilization and peace among human beings.

For us as SF writers, this fact constitutes a new constraint that we have to acknowledge. These days, if you write an SF story set thirty years in the future without either having a technological singularity in it, or having an explanation as to why one hasn’t happened, then some fan is going to call you on it. After learning about the scope and robustness of the historical trend towards peacefulness (and once again, Pinker’s not the only author of this idea) I’m not going to buy into any SF story about a future where societal violence or war are even holding steady at our level, without the author at least coming up with some mechanism stronger than ideology, religion, economics, resource crashes and poverty, or a proliferation of arms to explain why. Pinker’s analysis suggests that multiple mutually-reinforcing virtuous circles are driving humanity to greater and greater degrees of civility. In order to write a credible violent future, you’re going to have to show me how these break down. And because the steadiness of the historical trend shows that these reinforcing circles are not vulnerable to the obvious disruptions described above, that’s not going to be an easy task.

Is it time to add the decline of violence to the Singularity and other constraints on the credibility of our futures? —Of course we can write about any damn future we want, and we will. But after Pinker’s book, it’s at least going to be clear that when we read about futures involving unexplained endemic social, governmental and personal violence, that what we’re reading is probably not science fiction, but fantasy.

Karl Schroeder has published many novels through Tor Books. He divides his time between writing science fiction and consulting in the area of technology foresight. He is currently finishing a Masters degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation. Karl lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter, and a small menagerie.


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