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“Elon Musk is, in a quite literal sense, the most important sci-fi storyteller on the planet today. And also, I should add, its most important protagonist.”
A few days before I began to write this introduction, Elon Musk tweeted his thoughts about the state of the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) genre. ‘The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable,’ he wrote. ‘Can they please just make sci-fi/fantasy at least *mostly* about sci-fi/fantasy?’ That Musk’s opinions reach an order of magnitude more people than the musings of critics or authors is a reason to take his thoughts seriously, especially given that the question of whether science fiction and fantasy is too ‘woke’ is of immediate relevance to this SFF-themed edition of a digital platform dedicated to the diverse future of British literature. But at the same time as answering that, I want to use this opportunity to stake a bolder claim. It’s this: Elon Musk is, in a quite literal sense, the most important sci-fi storyteller on the planet today. And also, I should add, its most important protagonist: he is the real-life Iron Man.

Thomas Edison was his own greatest invention. The first technologist to employ his own press office, he seeded the media with stories of his genius and inspired an entire sub-genre of boy wonder-themed science fiction stories. In truth, he was a ruthless crook whose behaviour disgusted even the gangsters of Victorian New York. Without wishing to cast any such aspersions on Musk’s character, I do want to suggest that he has inherited the mantle of the scientific-industrial complex’s most skilful self-publicist. In a recent interview with TED’s Chris Anderson, he promised us a future worth getting excited about – not a commitment to the grimdark adolescent dystopias that populate SFF today, but instead a throwback to the ray guns and rocket ships vision of the American SF magazines published in the 1940s, the fabled Golden Age of the genre. Musk has declared himself the ‘Technoking of Tesla’. He told the internet that he would make robot catgirls. And most famously, he promises that he will take the human race to Mars.

Whether or not this happens is beside the point: these are science fiction stories, told not through the medium of prose fiction or effects-laden cinema but through public relations techniques. That Musk is, by his own admission, entertaining us to get free advertising for his products rather than win literary awards does not make his practice of SFF less legitimate than stories in more traditional media. Musk’s claim that he will build an independent Martian colony that will enable the human race to survive a global catastrophe is not different in kind to George Lucas asking us to accept that a laser sword can outmatch a good blaster. And just as Lucas’s fantasies allowed him to sell toys and become a billionaire, so too Musk’s stories have helped him to sell cars and become the world’s richest man. I suspect most of Musk’s admirers know this, too, and are willing, like Star Wars fans, to go along for the ride. Lucas told stories with the help of his special effects company Industrial Light and Magic, while Musk is an actual industrialist whose company builds real rockets. That does not separate Lucas as a science fiction storyteller from Musk as a businessman on a serious personal quest to protect the human species from an extinction event. Making fictional futures feel plausible is part of the SF writer’s job description. While many science fiction authors are quick to recognise how inaccurate SF is as a form of forecasting, and stress in preference its funhouse-mirror reflection of the zeitgeist, other well-known storytellers in the genre – ranging from SF’s great-grandfather, Edgar Allan Poe, through to its embarrassing uncle, L. Ron Hubbard – have presented science fictions not as predictions but as fact – or, in Hubbard’s case, articles of faith.

A definition of science fiction and fantasy that can accommodate movies, TED talks, tabloid journalism and religious cults expands our everyday understanding of these terms. Such a definition runs the risk of becoming so broad it is effectively meaningless. Nevertheless, in an age when SFF has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, we owe it to ourselves to attempt such an expanded definition. The answer lies, I think, in understanding SFF not only as a genre of fiction, but as a way of seeing the world. Its qualities include a childlike openness to imaginative possibilities; a common vocabulary of signs and symbols built upon familiarity with the ongoing conversation between genre authors; a tendency to extrapolate from and remix social, historical, and technological trends in new ways that show the past and present from an oblique angle; the treatment of scientific and mythological frameworks as both metaphysics and metaphor; and an interest in the revelation of the numinous.

This way of seeing is in no way limited to SFF authors and has at least as much to do with how we read as what we write. By way of example, let’s take the Musk tweet quoted earlier: The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable. Read conventionally, he is griping about too much progressive politics appearing in his favourite TV entertainment. But treated as a piece of genre fiction,The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable is the story of a new kind of disease spreading across the world – transmitted not as a biological virus, but through streaming on our laptops and smart TVs. Those infected adopt a controversial new ideology centred around social justice; and only the political right believes in the disease’s existence. It is a distillation of our zeitgeist: a satirical gesture fusing the pandemic, the dominance of streaming services as our number one entertainment platform, and the emergence of new progressive movements. It evokes classic SF elements such as brainwashing, paranoia and the emergence of new forms of social consciousness under the influence of technological development. It is, in short, legitimate science fiction, and certainly not out of place in a collection of short stories written during and obliquely reflecting the long tail of the COVID pandemic.

Part Two – Is SFF too woke?
Let’s return to treating Musk’s claim as critique: is there too much wokeness in SFF? He wants ‘sci-fi/fantasy’ to be mostly about itself; a cryptic demand that presupposes that ‘wokeness’ is incompatible with whatever SFF truly is. Previously, Musk has given a few hints towards his personal definition of the genre. ‘Science fiction’, he has tweeted, ‘cannot remain fiction forever!’ In other words, science fiction is fuel for the imagination of scientists and engineers.

Science fiction and science have been in a feedback loop at least since Werner Von Braun was inspired to become a rocket scientist by Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and his contemporary Leo Szilard pressed for the development of the atom bomb after reading H.G. Wells’s The War in the Air (1908). For his own part, Musk has cribbed many of his most famous business ideas from the space operas of the late Iain M. Banks. His company Neural Link is attempting to build a crude form of the ‘neural lace’ Banks’s characters use to digitally back-up their personalities. Musk’s hyperloop is a proposal for a vacuum tube-based train system resembling those Banks’s characters use to whizz around their space station habitats. He named his family trust Excession after the title of the fifth entry into the Culture series (1996); and his ex-girlfriend, the Canadian singer-songwriter Grimes, wrote a song inspired by and named after the second Culture novel The Player of Games (1988), which implicitly conflates the protagonist of that novel with Musk himself.

Musk is far from alone in his view that SF ought to inspire real scientific achievement. In a conversation with Kazuo Ishiguro, Neil Gaiman recalls being invited to speak to delegates at a state-sponsored science fiction conference in China, the purpose of which was to overturn a long-held suspicion of speculative fiction and instead support and nurture a community of science fiction authors and readers, on the understanding that America’s culture of innovation owed something to the childhood enthusiasm of many of its technologists for SFF works. That Gaiman is primarily a fantasy author with few stories offering blueprints for new gadgets seemed not to matter to the conference organisers. If their ambition was simply to cultivate cultural products comparable to those that American engineers and technologists say shaped their personalities in childhood in the hope that they will work their magic on Chinese youth, no underlying theory of a feedback loop between fictional science and future inspiration is necessary for the project’s success.

SFF is a spectrum, offering at its extremes ‘hard’ science fiction, which is largely true to current scientific theories, and ‘fantasy’ that evokes elements of a pre-scientific worldview. Practitioners and consumers alike are frequently fluent with the whole of this spectrum, and much of the most loved SFF sits somewhere in the middle. Indeed, many of the most popular franchise ‘science fictions’ of the last century – Dune, Star Wars – are more accurately described as science-fantasies.

Widening the ‘science fictional ideas inspire real scientists’ school of thought to include the full SFF spectrum is surely gratifying to any fantasy fiction reader used to receiving condescension from the literati, suggesting as it does that their favoured form of fiction is important and powerful in ways that conventional mimetic literary fiction simply is not. However, we ought to be careful not to overstate the case. The inspirational quality of SFF is a by-product of an art form whose appeal primarily lies elsewhere: no-one in their right mind would suggest that when HG Wells invented three-legged Martian killing machines in The War of the Worlds (1897), he did so in the hope that a plucky young engineer would build a real one. They might, however, reasonably suggest that he did so to create a powerful metaphor for colonialism in Asia, intended to convey to us something of the horror inflicted by the British on others – a view that remains politically progressive today, and inconvenient for anyone wishing to argue that SFF has lurched, suddenly, to the left.

Musk is not the first person to throw this accusation at the SFF community. From 2013-17, an online activist group calling themselves the Sad Puppies attempted to hijack the Hugo Awards – the Oscars of science fiction and fantasy literature – in order to ensure that stories offering ‘child-like entertainment’ consisting of ‘visceral, swashbuckling fun’ won out over those perceived to be ‘niche, academic, and overtly to the left in ideology and flavor’. The white supremacist author and editor Theodore Beale, who writes under the pen name Vox Day, ran an adjacent campaign to promote his own works and others he deemed compatible with his far-right worldview – to the dismay and disgust of many of the authors themselves. The Puppies were summarily rejected by the SFF community, and the rules of voting in the Hugos were changed to stop this sort of nonsense taking place again.
The Puppies were undoubtedly correct to note the diversity of contemporary SFF. A genre once associated almost exclusively with the US and Britain now flourishes around the world, with more available in translation to English language readers than we could have dreamed of 20 years ago. Lavie Tidhar, the Israeli-born, London-based novelist, whose story ‘Terrible Things Are Happening to Donkeys’ features in this collection, has been an instrumental part of this trend, editing several collections of World SF and an affiliated website, The World SF Blog. Afrofuturism, a term coined in 1993 by the critic Mark Dery to describe African-American science fiction, is now such a thriving part of popular culture that a splinter term – Africanfuturism – has been invented by the Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor to describe science fiction and fantasy in African and African inspired settings. Within the US and UK, there is also more new writing by ethnic minority writers than at any previous time. In addition to those in the UK’s thriving scene who have contributed to the riches of this edition of WritersMosaic, noteworthy books include Anglo-Nigerian psychiatrist Tade Thompson’s award-winning Rosewater (2016) and its sequels; Temi Oh’s Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (2019); Jeanette Ng’s postcolonial faerie romp Under the Pendulum Sun (2017); science fiction short stories and the novel A River Called Time (2021) by Courttia Newland; and much else besides.

Insofar as these and other contemporary works of SFF are political, several are (to quote the OED’s definition of ‘woke’) ‘alert to racial or social discrimination or injustice’; but whereas naturalistic authors engaged with the politics of the present moment tend to write straightforward political and moral treatises in the guise of fiction, the nature of SFF is to bend and distort until the familiar becomes weird, rendering that same present moment so strange we see ourselves from a new angle. To take one example, Newland’s aforementioned A River Called Time depicts an alternate history in which colonialisation never happened and European and African culture, religion and magic are fused in mesmerising ways. This is not evidence of woke ideas being stamped onto SFF but rather SFF doing what it has always done – being, truly, most like itself.

Radical progressive politics is not an abrupt departure for the genre. Musk’s favourite science fiction author Iain M. Banks died before the beginning of the current culture war, but in many ways the liberal-progressive values of his own fictional Culture series of ten books conform neatly with the tenets of wokeness. It is possible for the citizens of the Culture, for example, to change their biological sex simply by thinking about it, without any social taboo, and to synthesise drugs in their own bodies for a safe and legal high whenever they so choose. Police are not ‘defunded’, but non-existent; and any real work is done by artificial intelligences, leaving humans to focus on leisure activities. Having previously cited Banks’s Culture as the best expression of his personal political views, we might assume that Elon Musk either does not understand Banks, does not live by his beliefs, or has simply subsequently drifted rightwards with age, as his wealth and power have grown to heights that would make him a villain in the Culture universe.

Part Three – This Edition
In 2022, literary science fiction and fantasy are at a strange juncture. As the world becomes more science fictional – both because its fans in Silicon Valley are bringing its ideas into realisation, and because other new technologies have contributed to new social logics with a science fictional feel – established literary novelists like Jeanette Winterson and Lionel Shriver have begun to produce explicitly science fictional work, writing for their existing audiences rather than the SFF community. Pandemics, too, are well trodden science fictional terrain and the last two years have inspired a glut of SF-infused stories told by such authors. The stories in this collection were not commissioned with any explicit instruction to write about the pandemic or ‘the present’ – indeed the authors were asked not to cling too closely to the headlines. But the world outside bleeds in; and it’s interesting to compare the responses of the SFF community to the pandemic to those of the traditional literati.

For Lavie Tidhar, the experience of lockdowns has been transmuted into ‘Terrible Things Are Happening to Donkeys’, a surreal fable more reminiscent of the absurdism of post-war European theatre than the medieval high adventure that springs to mind when readers think of generic fantasy – a reminder that fantasy can and ought to be unbridled, not limited to repeating Tolkienian motifs that were already realised perfectly by him 70 years ago and in no need of further iteration.

Covid-19 lockdowns seem mild compared to the quarantine dreamed up by Naomi Ishiguro in ‘Why Can’t We See Him?’ – a horror story about a weird disease that deftly demonstrates why she is considered to be one of the most exciting emerging voices in any genre of fiction.

Priya Sharma is one of the authors in this collection whose story is not obviously inspired by disease or lockdowns, although she is a practising physician as well as a bright light in the weird fiction firmament. The isolation depicted in her story ‘The Short History of My Mother’ is of a different nature: the experience of an immigrant beginning life in a new country. In a tale reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s best work, her protagonist brings myths and magic from across the ocean and encounters the gods who are already here. The reader cannot escape the lingering sense that, in the imagination of Priya Sharma, all stories and all legends are real.

Chikodili Emelumadu’s ‘Big School’ is also a story of a mother and child – though in this case it is the child who finds herself in an unfamiliar world. The eagle-eyed reader may notice another point of commonality between Emelumadu and Sharma’s stories – the use of a trope of fantastical storytelling older than the idea of a fantasy genre, older indeed than Britain itself. But not wishing to spoil two beautiful tales, I will leave you to identify it yourself.

Wrapping these themes together, Polly Ho-Yen’s ‘Gabi and Clarice’, the most science fictional of the collection, is a story of parenting a child in isolation and the effects of technology on the children we raise; both a classic genre premise and, like the earlier stories, an oblique depiction of our present moment.

From Isaac Asimov to Paul McAuley, practising scientists have written science fiction for as long as the concept has existed. To their distinguished number we can now add Togo-born, Peckham-raised, Oxford-educated, US-based Femi Fadugba. Fadugba is both a physicist whose work has appeared in the same academic journal that once published Albert Einstein, and the author of The Upper World (2021), a young adult science fictional thriller that collides Einstein’s insights with the experience of growing up in South London – and is soon to become a major Netflix movie. He spoke to me about the experience of becoming a writer.

My second podcast interview in this edition is with the fantasy novelist Zen Cho. A Malaysian expat educated and resident in the UK, Cho’s first two novels, Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) and The True Queen (2019) are landmarks of post-colonial fantasy, fusing the Georgian setting and faerie magic of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004) with the experiences of ethnic minority characters navigating the upper echelons of life in Regency London. In the course of her research for those books, she uncovered the period word ‘hag-ridden’, meaning worried and tormented; and in her next novel Black Water Sister (2021), this metaphor takes a literal turn, as an American-educated, queer Malaysian heroine must contend with the spirit of her illiberal grandmother inhabiting her body and invading her thoughts. All three books deftly demonstrate that, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, fantasy is equally adept at playfulness and seriousness, narrative fireworks and thematic sophistication.

Together, these stories testify to the diverse character of contemporary British SFF, and to the strength of a genre that, besides being often progressive in a political sense, is also progressive as an aesthetic movement: a genre that continues to evolve, building on past ideas and reworking itself anew to reflect the world around it. Not a ‘woke mind virus’, then, but perhaps a ‘mind virus’ nevertheless: a disease of language capable of subtly altering the way you perceive the world, revealing something of the weirdness in the quotidian of everyday life, exposing you to the strangeness of the human condition in its present form. I urge you to spread it.

Vassili Christodoulou

Vassili Christodoulou is a creator and producer of cultural programmes, including festivals, live shows, podcasts, journalism and films. He has an MPhil in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine from Cambridge, and lives in London.

© Vassili Christodoulou