In January The Verge launched Better Worlds, a new series of short fiction and animation that explores how technology could shape our society and environment in better, more equitable ways. Here’s a Q&A about the series with The Verge’s Andrew Liptak.
MIKE GLYER: There are many ways of defining science fiction — one is that SF tells about the implications of science on humanity. How much emphasis do you place on the technical aspects of a story and how much emphasis on the human element?
ANDREW LIPTAK: As a science fiction writer and commentator, I certainly want to see cool future technology — handheld gadgets that we might someday hold ourselves, futuristic vehicles to take us from place to place, or advanced suits of armor that might someday protect soldiers and contractors on the battlefield. That’s always been at the heart of science fiction, ever since people like Hugo Gernsback began turning over pages of his electronics magazines to stories.
But at the same time, writing about futuristic technology on its own is just a technical manual. You need to have someone to press the button, and with that human (or alien, or robot) action, you need to have something behind it that gives it meaning. I’m a big fan of Isaac Asimov’s collection I, Robot, which explores what are very technical subjects in very emotional ways — Asimov worked through the various logical flaws with his Three Laws of Robotics, and in many instances, they hinged on ways that weren’t mechanical flaws, but emotive ones; Robbie saves a little girl, Herbie wants to try and make sure that nobody’s feelings are hurt, while Nestor’s overseers are desperate to find him when he takes their orders literally and hides. Each of those stories in the book deal with the impact of technology through a larger societal context, and that’s why that book has endured so well over the decades, because it frames those logical puzzles from the human perspective.
I think what’s most important about this balance is that science fiction at its best explores the ramifications of those technologies you’re imagining. I’m reminded of a quote from Frederik Pohl: “a good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile, but the traffic jam.” I recently read a fantastic book about the history of the iPhone that reminded me of that — The One Device by Brian Merchant. The book delved into all the technical details of how various components that make up the iPhone were invented. But alongside that, he explores the human cost of the device, from the engineers who were berated by Steve Jobs to the workers who are paid very little do mine the raw materials, or to assemble the devices. There was an anecdote that really stuck with me from the book — as the iPhone (and to be fair, other smart phones) came into widespread use across the country, there was an uptick in deaths of the workers who were installing and maintaining cell towers, because of that increased demand so that you could watch YouTube whenever you desire.
MG: “Better Worlds” is keynoted by words like inspiration and optimism. What ripple effect do you see the project having on the SF genre?
ANDREW LIPTAK: I hope that there are a lot of ripple effects! When we were designing the project, something that we came to quite a bit was that we wanted something that was essentially an anti-Black Mirror. I really love Charlie Brooker’s show, because it’s an example of really good science fiction storytelling, particularly when it comes to exploring the ramifications of technology. But it’s also so damn bleak. It’s not a show that I can binge watch, because I have to step away and decompress after watching each episode.
If there’s any big impact, I’m hoping that this highlights that “science fiction” doesn’t equate to “worst case scenario.” Charlie Jane Anders published a really excellent op-ed in The Washington Post the other day, where she highlights the need for science fiction to imagine what the future holds, and how we can get there. It’s not just parading in disaster porn where rugged survivalists find a way to survive amidst the collapse of society, but figuring out how people collectively come together to navigate a world in which the rules are continually changing.
Plus, the world is incredibly bleak right now. There’s a lot to be worried about when it comes to any number of issues, whether that be climate, politics, privacy, massive corporations, and so forth. But there’s still a lot of good that’s going on right now. The Better Worlds series isn’t about utopian futures — not by a long shot — but they do show how people coping with terrible problems can make the world better in their own ways.
MG: This is a beautifully-designed collection of multi-media works – how much of a collaborative process was involved, or were the different components produced autonomously?
ANDREW LIPTAK: With each story that we’ve published so far, I’m constantly blown away by the creativity in the fiction, videos, artwork, and audio that come together. I was primarily involved on the editing side of this project, but I will say that it was a highly collaborative puzzle.
On one hand, you have all the authors who came up with the stories and put them down to paper (figuratively speaking), and the editors who take those stories and provide feedback and editing to make them the best that they can be. You’ve also got the artists, animators, and voice actors who interpreted those works and brought them to life.
On the other hand, you have all the unseen efforts that go on in the background: our managers, our fantastic copyeditor, business partners, social media people and our site’s leadership who help turn those stories into the fantastic finished stories that are on the website, but who also helped champion and encourage and otherwise make the series a reality that you can now read on our website.
Like any film, book, or TV show, nothing happens in a vacuum, and without the efforts of everyone involved, the series wouldn’t be what it is.
MG: What’s your advice for aspiring science fiction authors?
ANDREW LIPTAK: There’s a lot of advice out there that’s good — read a lot, write a lot, and read what you’ve written out loud, and so forth.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how incredibly valuable it is to break out of your shell / community / circle of writers / group to discover new ideas and viewpoints. I recently moderated a panel on the implications of artificial intelligence at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and I came out of that three-day experience with a notepad full of ideas for potential stories, based on what I’d seen and heard.
A lot of that came from the fact that I was surrounded by experts in military affairs, artificial intelligence, and robotics, and while a lot of them were certainly science fiction fans, they weren’t hung up on the genre’s long-standing conventions. I certainly think that if you’re out there writing science fiction, having a really solid familiarity with your subject matter is essential, even if you only use 1 percent of that. Go directly to the experts when it comes to science and technology. Spend a weekend at a conference for geologists or astronomers! Read a ton of nonfiction books about science and technology. Attend talks about ethics and social sciences that might be near you. (And take notes.) That type of multidisciplinary study and research will help bring new and useful perspectives to the genre.