Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Future Does Not Have to Be Dystopic (Why I Wrote a Sci-Fi Comedy)

We aspire; we imagine; we attempt     (photo: Stephanie Barnhizer)

Just wriggle your nose
My journey to science fiction began like that of many people my age—as a child watching the original Star Trek episodes during the heady years of 1966 – 1969. During those years I also watched Batman, Betwitched, the Monkees, and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. All sorts of odd ideas about magic and heroism and technology and the world of imagination rattled around in my young mind. I didn’t understand until much later that I was seeing parody and cultural critique and a parable of the Cold War. I didn’t even know there was a Cold War, though I was vaguely aware of the hot one—Vietnam. I didn’t know there was a Civil Rights movement, although in 1968 I was aware people were upset when a King got killed.  I just absorbed the pop culture presented to me, trying to make sense of the world as best I could. Though I taught myself to read at age four, it wasn’t until early 1969 that I tackled a real chapter book (Wizard of Oz!) and entered the kingdom of literature. Up until then television and my family were my prime sources of information.

60's good guys
I knew Bewitched was pretend but thought maybe I might run across magic someday just the same. (At this point I still believed in Santa Claus.) I knew that Batman was silly but it was lively and the goofy villains reassuringly never got the upper hand. I knew that The Monkees were real somehow (I had one of their records) but even at six I knew their show was far too nonsensical to have much relation to reality. I knew when Mr. Rogers’ trolley went into his King Friday puppet world it was pretend but also that the puppet world was much more interesting than the time he spent singing while taking on and off his real sweater. 

And then there was Star Trek, a show I watched with my parents. I knew it was pretend because many of the things they could do were akin to magic (“Beam me up, Scotty.”) But I also understood that Star Trek was more than pretend, because it was about the future, and even though it wasn’t true now, it might be true in the time to come. And so Star Trek created an odd idea category in my developing mind, one that danced back and forth across the imaginary/real boundary.

You have a better phone than Kirk.
And some tech from Star Trek has already turned out to be real. Uhura’s earpiece receiver and computer tablet, flat screen TVs and video chats, flip-open phones/communicators, computer voice recognition and universal translators. Before a new technology can be created, first it must be imagined. And sometimes just the imagining ignites the desire to turn an idea into reality. Science fiction can be powerful stuff.

Happy future
But the best part of creating science fiction goes far beyond imagining cool gadgets and tech. Because of its strange dance across the line of possible future truth, science fiction is a powerful way to examine and critique the human experience. Often this is done through dystopic future-casting, some examples being 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Blade Runner, Childhood’s End, Ender's Game, The Handmaid’s Tale, the Firefly series (TV), the Hunger Games trilogy and The Children of Men. All show a frightening vision of possible trends in human culture. It’s not the advances in science that are so grim in these narratives, it’s what humans do with them. Most of these books/movies/TV shows have little in the way of humor, not surprising when the realities they depict are so bleak. (Yes, Firefly fans, that show has its humorous moments, but you have to admit the Reavers are some of the worst bit of nastiness ever created.) Beware, watch out! the generators of these dystopias say. Their cautionary tales are meant to disturb us, prod us into action to prevent our descent into these various self-created hells.

Of course there are exceptions to the humorlessness of sci-fi dystopia. A mordantly funny, wildly dystopic sci-fi book I admire is The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem. (He also wrote Solaris, the film of which had no inkling of humor whatsoever, but since Lem himself said none of the film versions made an attempt to capture the essence of his novel, maybe someday I’ll be brave and try it out.)

The granddaddy of all modern science fiction, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series had perhaps a dystopic cast to it, but it wasn’t essentially pessimistic. Yes, the grand human empire falls apart, but due to smart men (as far as I can remember it is almost entirely men who take action) the ensuing dark ages lasts only a thousand years instead of thirty thousand. As sci-fi dystopia goes, this is a unicorn and rainbows outcome.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is dystopian in its way (after all the Earth is destroyed by the Vorgons pretty much immediately) but Douglass Adams finds even wiping out humans a comical event, and both the universe and life go on in an entertaining fashion.

My formative years, however, were filled not with sci-fi dystopias, but with cartoonish superheroes, happy witch families, pothead pop stars, and deep Star Trek optimism. The original Star Trek (and also most ensuing versions) was a combination adventure story and exploration of human morality. Anti-war and pro-racial diversity, the show promulgated that humans in the future could unite, live in peace, and explore the universe with mostly altruism and integrity. Gene Roddenberry, the creator, wanted to illuminate humanity’s potential if war and violence on Earth could be put behind it.

Cancelled? You've got to be kidding.
After three seasons the show was cancelled for low ratings. The last episode ran six weeks before humans first walked on the moon. Over the years the initial series has received just criticism for not entirely escaping racism, imperialism and sexism, although, to be fair, it managed a great deal less of it than most shows of its day. During the 70s Star Trek was syndicated, shown as reruns, and gained a much larger audience than it had originally.  It was seen by secondary TV stations as effective counter-programming against the Big Three stations 6 o'clock news. It developed a cult following, the first Trekkie convention was held in 1972, and the rest is history.

My last book, Beaufort 1849, was a cautionary tale, but one couched in historical rather than science fiction. It depicts a society, the antebellum South, that needed to change its slave-based economy and energy source to a wage-based economy fueled, ironically (in my view), by coal. (Water-powered mills would also have been an option.) This transition would’ve meant some loss of power and wealth by the Southern elite. Instead of changing, this elite doubled down on their way of life and lost everything. To me there are direct parallels to our own society (we need to transition to a sustainable economy fueled by sustainable power sources), but I suppose any resemblance is easy enough to ignore. Many believe that the antebellum South was evil and racist, we today are not evil and racist, and so we have nothing to learn from their choices, etc. Ah well. Personally I'm not sure that enslaving millions of people is any more evil than killing off billions through disease and famine, which is on deck to happen quite soon, but history will be the judge of that.

With Universal Time, I was interested not in warning but, like Roddenberry, in imagining what is possible for the future of humanity. What could be achieved if a race of human-like sentient beings put war, over-population, and environmental devastation behind them, and then, over a million years of conscious evolution, created a society that joyously and harmoniously met the needs of all its members? Such beings would still have problems, of course, as the Tivoleans in my book do. (After all, without problems there are no stories.) But in the end they solve their problems on their own terms, according to their principles of non-violence.

I wrote the book at a time when the topics pressing on my mind were health, education and the US invasion of Iraq. Now that we’ve seemingly become inured to endless war and I’m more panicked about energy issues and the environment, I probably would’ve written it differently today, but I’m still happy with the sense of optimism and expansive possibilities the novel presents, and its affectionate rather than mordant humor. After all, imagining that something can exist is the first step to making it possible.


  1. Hello Karen.

    Please forgive this off topic comment.

    I was recently banned from peakoilbarel.com. I posted there as Futilitist. I have been doing some research through the comments section on that site and I encountered this comment by you:

    Karen Allen says:
    MARCH 9, 2014 AT 3:02 PM

    It’s been established that an enormous amount of money is being spent to fund climate change denial. I suspect a few years from now we will hear a certain amount has also been going towards peak oil denial.


    It’s only logical that some of this money goes towards paying people to disrupt websites and blogs that explore these issues so as to discredit and cast doubt on the ideas and data being examined. If I had millions of dollars to spend on denial/disruption of this type, it would be an insignificant part of my budget to hire a few dozen people to do this from home part time in their pajamas.

    Other than being paid, there is no reason to spend hours each day as a gadfly on a peak oil issues site....

    ...In a way, paid blog disrupters are validation of Peak Oil theory. It’s only if Peak Oil is close and the need for adaptive strategies is growing clearer that so much money and energy needs to be spent obscuring it.

    You are so close to the truth. But the reality is even more twisted.

    You are correct that the paid blog disruptors you speak of (aka trolls), are, in fact, paid. And you are correct that their appearance is a natural response of the system to possible undermining of the system that would result from wide spread knowledge of our intractable situation (that we are about to experience collapse).

    But here is the twisted part. The trolls are not outside disruptors. They are paid by, and work for, the house!

    The peak oil "movement" itself is a fictional creation, designed to defuse the energy of true believers and information seekers, while, at the very same time, discrediting the peak oil movement itself. Just like the climate science denial movement, it was a fraud from the beginning. In the case of the peak oil issue, it was even more urgent that the truth be suppressed.

    Long before the peak oil issue could gain much public awareness, sites like The Oil Drum (TOD) were created by the oil industry/government (CIA) in order to define and frame the argument before it could grow organically. When the 2008 oil spike got people curious, (TOD) was there to intercept them with propaganda, using sophisticated psyops techniques derived from social psychology.

    Peakoilbarrel (POB) is the direct offspring of (TOD), resulting from oil industry/CIA budget cuts and downsizing after the initial disinformation effort was so successful and public interest waned.

    The notion that industry might pay trolls is an uncomfortable, but acceptable meme. Even the industry allows people to believe this because it a safe idea that soft-pedals and obscures a much darker truth.

    The real truth (that the trolls are working for the sites, and that the sites themselves are a sham employing psyops mind control techniques) is basically unthinkable to most people. Yet, the Snowden documents would seem to confirm that the unthinkable is true:


    What do you think?


    1. Hi Futilitist,

      What do I think? I think it's possible. The way TOD shut down was odd and didn't pass my smell test. And there were times I felt the main powers on TOD had a specific agenda out of alignment with people truly worried about peak oil. (Most were definitely out of alignment with people worried about climate change.)

      But, even if it were a site dedicated to controlling/shaping/disrupting public understanding of peak oil, much usefulness still came out of it. I learned about growing vegetables, electric bikes, insulation and sealing, and lowering energy use in general from that site. I and many others gained useful knowledge and skills to adapt in a lower energy world. Yes, the site led to no political movement or useful adaptation on a national level but the odds of that happening were always low. (Too much money too be made from continuing the status quo combined with a change in the American status quo requiring a life with more physical effort and some reduction in plastic/electronic/mechanical toys.) But TOD did lead to a diffuse understanding of personal adaptation strategies that in the end I have more faith in anyway.

      On Peak Oil Barrel.com I find there is a lot of noise and limited signal. Maybe this is on purpose. The site allows discussion of climate change but with the basic understanding that it is hopeless and not worth taking any action about. Maybe this is also on purpose. In any event, these days I find myself looking to other sources of information with a higher signal-noise to ratio.

      Continued next comment . . .

  2. Continued from above . . .

    But whatever the millions/billions of dollars spent by corporations (and perhaps governments) to disrupt public discussion and understanding of peak oil, in most respects it doesn't matter much. We've already passed the peak of oil production. That this is obscured by calling things that are not oil, oil, does not change this. Yes, we could be doing much more to intelligently adapt to the predicament. Yes, not cutting our energy consumption in half (mostly just by cutting out ridiculous waste) and using the derived surplus to build out as much renewable energy infrastructure as we can is huge missed opportunity. But the other necessary adaptations will happen inevitably anyway--vegetable gardens; permaculture; reduced consumption of processed/manufactured food and goods; living in walkable, bikeable communities; lowering household energy consumption through efficiency; trucking replaced entirely by rail; the demise of far-flung suburbs; passenger rail; etc. Indeed, they already are.

    It's true that a great deal of future pain could be avoided if we, as a world or even as a nation, put the resources currently applied towards staving off the inevitable into preparing for the inevitable, but the inevitable will happen regardless. I suppose a few people will keep their wealth and power a few years longer, that's what the whole game is about. But in the end, unless these folks have some escape pod and a nice biodome set up on another planet, they will share the same future as we all will, and few will find themselves able to continue to siphon off as much wealth and resources in that future as they think.

    I think much could still be done to avoid catastrophic climate change and hence billions of deaths. So disrupting/delaying action on climate change is more unconscionable. But at this point it looks to me like the fracking financialization game is up; it looks like China is the country to watch because its resource use (or lack of--they finally seem to recognize their coal use is poisoning their people) drives the rest of the world; and it looks like the middle east has at best two years before most of it is in complete chaos (including Saudi Arabia.)

    So we are on a course for a lower energy/lower carbon world regardless of internet manipulation, and once they are no longer needed, the lackeys doing the manipulation will be walking, biking, sticking solar on their rooftops, and growing vegetables just like the rest of us.

    I don't know if this is a comfort. But it's the way I look at it.