Reconciling Yesterday’s Future with Today’s Past

Metropolis man on clock

A worker tied to “the machine” in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Metropolis posterOur predictions and visions of the future are certainly predicated on our perceptions of the present and the past. So, what happens when yesterday’s “future” collides with today’s past? Well, retro-fiction, alternate history and steam-punk, you quip, eyes askance with mischief: edgy sociopathic Sherlock Holmes with bipolar or obsessive /compulsive tendencies; flying aircraft carriers in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, robot-like workers of Metropolis

But what of the vision itself? History provides us with a panoply of realized predictions in speculative fiction:

In 1961, Stanislaw Lem’s novel Return From the Stars predicted the invention of the touch pad, iPhone, iPad and Kindle. The telescreens that monitored the citizens of George Orwell’s Oceania in his dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was reflected, twenty years later, in the first closed circuit TV (CCTV) installed in the United Kingdom. Almost a century before the Internet was conceived, Mark Twain alluded to the future of a global, pervasive information network. In his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke discussed a future where people scanned headlines online and got their news through RSS feeds. In his 1888 novel Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy describes a “future” society in 2000 where money is eliminated due to the proliferation of plastic credit cards. Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report accurately predicted personalized ads, voice-controled homes, facial and optical recognition, and gesture-based computing. Other advances and usage of technology have been predicted in speculative literature, including body scans, RFIDs, spy-surveillance, and touch screen interfaces.

Minority Report movie

Tom Cruise’s character using gesture-based computing in the film “Minority Report”

FlyingCar 1950s

1950s ad for flying car of future

But there have been many speculations not realized. Where are the flying cars? Where are the moon colonies, rotating space stations and space elevator? What of the envisioned totalitarian states not realized; civilizations not demolished; utopias not developed?

Are those past dystopian or utopian visions failed attempts at predicting a future that eluded their writers? Or is it a question more of defining vision in speculative writing?

Ray Bradbury suggested that “the function of science fiction is not only to predict the future but to prevent it.”

2001 a space odysseyThere are, in most cases, no technological impediments to the flying car, the jetpack, and moon-bases; only cultural ones.  “These SF predictions ought to be viewed as visions of where we could be, as opposed to where we will be, or, keeping Bradbury in mind, visions of where we don’t want to go and, thankfully, have mostly managed to avoid to date,” says Steve Davidson of Grasping for the Wind. “Perhaps it’s all cultural,” he adds.

How and why is it that our contemporary view of dystopian and utopian speculative fiction has shifted from an open-minded imaginative acceptance of “predictions” nested within a cautionary or visionary tale to a knowledge-based demand for largely unattainable predictive accuracy?

GeorgeOrwell 1984 signetGeorge Orwell wrote his dystopian satire in 1949 about a mind-controlled society in response to the Cold War. The book was a metaphor “against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism,” said Orwell in his 1947 essay Why I Write, adding, “Good prose is like a windowpane.” Was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four a failed novel because the real 1984 didn’t turn out quite like his 1984? Hugo Award-winning novelist Robert J. Sawyer suggests that we consider it a success, “because it helped us avoid that future. So just be happy that the damn dirty apes haven’t taken over yet.”

Dystopian and utopian literature, like all good allegory, provides us with scenarios predicated on a concrete premise. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?…

LookingBackward EdwardBellamyA hundred years before 1984, Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward, “a romance of an ideal world”. It tells the story of a young man who falls into a hypnotic sleep in 1887, waking up in 2000 when the world has evolved into a great socialist paradise.  It sold over a million copies and ranked only behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ as the top best-seller of the era. Looking Backward laid out a futuristic socialism, or was it a socialistic future?

At any rate, it influenced a large number of intellectuals and generated an unprecedented political mass movement. The book spawned experiments in communal living and fed socialist movements that promoted the nationalization of all industry and the elimination of class distinctions. Bellamy’s book was cited in many Marxist polemic works. Groups all over the world praised and embraced its ideals: Crusading Protestant ministers, American feminists, Australian trade unionists, British town planners, Bolshevik propagandists, French technocrats, German Zionists, and Dutch welfare-state advocates.

Bellamy’s conviction that cooperation among humans is healthier than competition formed the basis of Looking Backward. He predicted a revolution in retail that resembled today’s warehouse clubs and big-box stores. He also predicted a card system much like a modern debit card and people using enhanced telephone lines to listen to shows and music.

SF vs literary jet pack

“Socialism, of course, had different connotations in the 19th century when it rose, principally as a backlash to the brutalities of industrialization and the exploitation of the workers by the ruling class,” says Tony Long of Wired Magazine. Bellamy’s socialism is perhaps best described as a syndicalism than what most of us think of as socialism today. Long somberly adds, “Were he alive today, Bellamy might note, with interest, that while the worst excesses of the industrial age are gone, the exploitation continues. Had Bellamy lived to the ripe old age of 150, he no doubt would have been disappointed to find capitalism running amok, and his fellow man no less greedy and self-serving than in his own time. But he didn’t live to be 150. In fact, Bellamy was still a relatively young man when he died of tuberculosis in 1898.”

 

So, what happens when history catches up to the vision?

BraveNewWorld-AldousHuxleyIn a foreward to a later printing of Brave New World years after it was first published, Aldous Huxley explained why, when given the chance to revise the later edition, he left it exactly as it was initially written twenty years earlier:

Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is almost an undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.

Art also has its morality, and many of the rules of this morality are the same as, or at least analogous to, the rules of ordinary ethics. Remorse, for example is as undesirable in relation to our bad art as it is in relation to our bad behavior. The badness should be hunted out, acknowledged and, if possible, avoided in the future. To pore over the literary shortcomings of twenty years ago, to attempt to patch a faulty work into the perfection it missed at its first execution, to spend one’s middle age in trying to mend the artistic sins committed and bequeathed by that different person who was oneself in youth–all this is surely vain and futile. And that is why this new Brave New World is the same as the old one. Its defects as a work of art are considerable; but in order to correct them I should have to rewrite the book–and in the process of rewriting, as an older, other person, I should probably get rid not only of some of the faults of the story, but also of such merits as it originally possessed. And so, resisting the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse, I prefer to leave both well and ill alone and to think about something else.

And with that, I leave you with a quote:

“…the past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.”–Eckhart Tolle

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Snowing in New York City (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

Writing About the Truth…and Other Lies: Monsanto’s Big Cheat

 

Farmer spraying pesticide in Thailand

applying pesticide in a field

The June 2019 issue of Walrus Magazine addresses a current publishing crisis in academia. In his article “Fake Science Is the New Fake News,” reporter Alex Gillis reveals the alarming rise of fake and bogus professional journals and how scientists are both duped and drawn to publish with them.

The lure came from frustrations of scientists with the very gate-keeping devices that ensure good science is being conducted and accurately reported: high standards for acceptance; long wait times for peer review and publication; and high expense to the scientist. With the advent of online journals and the open-access model (that allowed free access), many scientists flocked to them, claiming more timely and less expensive publication. Unfortunately, the open-access model that made reporting of and access to science more easy, also permitted its exploitation by unscrupulous entrepreneurs who set up predatory (fake) journals. This allowed scientists with less integrity to publish material of lower standard. Even more insidious, the model and its fake journals also supports fake science with an agenda. Essentially, science as propaganda.

1984Nineteen Eighty-Four kind of science.

An example of the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four kind of science with corporate motive was revealed in 2018 with the lawsuit against Monsanto (now part of Bayer) in which evidence showed that Monsanto had been funding junk studies to discredit legitimate research about its cancer-causing herbicide, Roundup. A terrible example in 2015 is the fake studies that underplayed risks to children exposed to lead from improperly maintained pipes in the drinking water service lines in Flint, Michigan.

So, what is it to write about the truth?

Here’s a bit of truth from seven years ago: New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom in an article on September 19th, 2012, entitled Uneasy Allies in the Grocery Aisle: “Giant bioengineering companies like Monsanto and DuPont are spending millions of dollars to fight a California ballot initiative aimed at requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods. That surprises no one, least of all the proponents of the law, which if approved by voters would become the first of its kind in the nation.”

Let’s dig a bit deeper into this truth: “companies behind some of the biggest organic brands in the country—Kashi, Cascadian Farm, Horizon Organic—also joined the anti-labeling effort, adding millions of dollars to defeat the initiative, known as Proposition 37.”

Strom revealed even deeper truths when she disclosed that these well-known “organic” companies are owned by larger conglomerates like Kellogg, General Mills, Dean Foods, Smucker’s and Coca-Cola. Other food companies who had thrown in funds to help defeat the bill for transparency include PepsiCo., Neslé, and ConAgra Foods.

Strom reported that those who support the bill to label GMO products include Whole Foods, Nature’s Path (a Canadian company) Organic Valley, Cliff Bar and Amy’s Kitchen.

Whenever an issue of importance arises, the truth reveals itself. And sometimes in the oddest way. It often slides in through a back door. I’m not just talking about factual truth; I’m talking about resonating hair-standing gut-grabbing truth.

The kind of truth that resonates through you in a scintillating frisson. The kind of truth that stops you mid-stride, like someone shouting your name. Subversive truth. The kind of truth that vibrates deep inside and radiates out in a flood of epiphany.  The kind of truth that stirs your heart in a relentless wave of flaming light.

The kind of truth that “changes” you.

At first glance it’s rather obvious why those fighting the bill were against it: they had something to lose in transparency. The question is, why do they think that way? These giant biotech food companies are feeding the entire world, after all, with revolutionary strains of super-plants. They are doing a great good, surely. Could it simply be a concern that they may lose some customers who do not wish to consume GE products but who are unwittingly doing so now? That is being dishonestly self-serving as well as short-sighted (the European Union has required biotech labeling since 1997—it’s just a matter of time).

Could it be the bad publicity from findings of the long-term effects of GMO products and Roundup on test animals? (See the incendiary paper by French and Italian scientists in Food Chem. Toxicol., referenced below, that started it all).  Despite the barrage of bad press, the paper’s results could not be refuted entirely or ignored (if only from the basis of scientific inquiry and professional due diligence to do with Type II Error).

Or is it more insidious?

Far more insidious than a lie is to dissemble with a half-lie—or half-truth—a truth that veils a festering lie beneath its candy-coated mantle of equivocation. A “truth” so delicious that we want to believe it, even when we see the lie lurking beneath. Little lies always hide bigger lies.

For more than a decade, consumers in North America have purchased cereals, snack foods, and salad dressings, among other products, blithely unaware that these products contained ingredients from plants whose DNA was manipulated in a laboratory.

Here’s my witnessed truth: The aggressive multi-million dollar campaign waged by multi-national corporations against transparency in food labeling in the USA is the culmination of self-serving protectionism in a most heinous way. Their decade-long silence and current reluctance to label their products (and all this before the Seralini et al. study) points to a far greater lie.

Since the long-term toxicity study by Seralini et al. was released in Food & Chemical Toxicology, a massive campaign to discredit the study was waged on the Internet. This despite the soundness of the 2-year study, its glaringly obvious results (e.g. test animals died 2-3 times more quickly than controls among many other findings) and the fact that it sets precedent by being the longest and most detailed study ever conducted on a herbicide and a GMO to date; all previous studies by Monsanto labs and others were only 90-day trials (and we now know that these studies were fake studies).

So, what is it to write about the truth?

I’ve been a practicing scientist for over twenty years. I did research and wrote papers that were published in scientific peer-reviewed journals. I diligently used the scientific method, hypothesis-testing, objective observation and appropriate statistics to back up my work. I also write articles for magazines, blogs and places like this site. I write short stories and novels. I write how-to books and guidebooks. And I write letters. Lots of letters. In all this, I have made a point to do my research. I try always to go to the source and verify my information through cross-checking, and various other quality assurance procedures I learned over the years to best represent and communicate the truth.

For instance, in writing this article, I perused many articles that presented both sides of the several issues I covered, including the source paper by Seralini et al.

Science is the rational tool for the pursuit of truth. This is why scientists are burdened to proceed under an objective protocol in their premise presentation, experimental design, methodology and interpretation and conclusions drawn. Because the introduction of error and bias is possible in each of these areas, researchers with integrity ensure through design and quality assurance protocol that these errors and biases are minimized. This includes the use of contols, sufficient sample size and statistical power, blind or even double-blind experiments and more. Experiments are reported with sufficient transparency to be replicated (an icon of good science).

Once they are reported in a paper, results transform from science into politics. Objectivity gives way to agenda. That is inevitable. However, what has changed in the last decade is that science itself has become seconded for agenda. Science by agenda to fulfill a propaganda is flooding in as assuredly as the rising seas of climate change.

Gillis writes: “Fake and flawed studies are so pervasive that the presumed authority of an expert or researcher in a scholarly journal is no longer what it used to be…the traditional knowledge-sharing process has been corrupted.”

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Sunflowers in Missouri (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Who are the politicians behind the “soldiers” of science and what are their motives? That is where the truth lies.

In the end, I have found that listening to the conviction of my heart, to my inner “soul wisdom”, best serves the truth. Then again I prefer the resonating hair-standing gut-grabbing truth.

 

Reference:

Gillis, Alex. 2019. “The Rise of Junk Science.” Walrus Magazine, Toronto, ON. June 2019.

Seralini, G.-E., et al. 2012. “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize.” Food Chem. Toxicolhttp://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512005637

Strom, Stephanie. 2012. “Uneasy Allies in the Grocery Aisle.” New York Times, New York, September 19, 2012.

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.