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Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology
Daniel Dinello
University of Texas Press, 329 pages

Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology
Daniel Dinello
Daniel Dinello is Professor of Film and Video at Columbia College in Chicago.

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A review by Paul Kincaid

During 2006 there has been an alarming increase in the incidence of measles in the UK (there are even reports that one boy has died). This follows on from an increase in mumps noted during 2005. The return of childhood diseases that had declined to almost negligible levels before now is a result of mass technophobia. Earlier this century it was claimed that the standard MMR vaccine (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) could cause autism. This claim remains unproven, indeed evidence to date tends to suggest it is untrue, but the rumour was enough for parents across Britain to refuse the jab for their children. Much as experts in child health might protest, they are viewed with suspicion by the population at large (most experts, in any field, are viewed with suspicion these days), and so children are again suffering these serious diseases. Technophobia wins the day.

Part of the responsibility for this must lie with science fiction, or at least those parts of science fiction which affect popular culture, Frankenstein, The X-Files, the novels of Michael Crichton, the innumerable films about technology gone astray. As Daniel Dinello shows in this readable study, science fiction has a long history of showing, in graphic detail, what happens when good ideas go wrong. Science fiction is, he would claim, primarily a technophobic genre.

This, of course, is a good thing. Or at least, so Dinello argues. Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology is essentially a long polemic against what he terms the techno-utopians, those technologists who promise us immortality, plenty, leisure thanks to the glories of robotics, cybernetics, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and the like. Their claims, he suggests, come close to holy revelation, and indeed he provides enough quotations from a wide variety of sources to indicate that religious language is widely used in this context. He then stresses the point by unfailingly referring to K. Eric Drexler, Raymond Kurzweil and a host of their lesser known fellows as techno-prophets, -priests, -gurus, -apostles and so on.

Dinello's abjuration of this unholy techno-faith follows a fairly constant pattern in chapter after chapter. He will lay out the utopian dreams of the visionaries: mankind achieving immortality by uploading our consciousness into computers, for example, is one that has become popular with a wide variety of current science fiction writers. He will then proceed to rubbish the idea by calling on science fiction to show all the ways it might in fact be bad for humankind (immortality in a computer, for instance, would deny that part of our identity that comes through the flesh and the senses -- but this breed of techno-visionaries are remarkably cavalier about what they dismiss as "meat"). His greatest ire, however, is reserved for any conjunction of such a technological belief system with military-industrial power and cash. Any instance in which commercial interests and militaristic ambition come together is, in and of itself, bad in Dinello's book (and in all the books and films he chooses to quote). Our basic liberal sensibilities are so swept up in the rightness of his overall cause that it is easy to miss some of the smaller problems with the book, problems which are largely inherent in the very nature of polemic in which what comes first is the fervour of the argument to be followed as a poor second by the search to find supporting evidence.

Dinello is a filmmaker and a Professor of Film and Video, so unsurprisingly most of his examples come from television and the cinema. That he takes pains to point out that he has drawn his literary examples from major award winners (he cites the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K Dick and Arthur C. Clarke awards) suggests that his knowledge of the written genre is not particularly broad. Though he uses his examples well, and discusses those books and stories he does use thoroughly enough to indicate a good understanding of them, nevertheless it is a little disturbing to come upon a reference to how the Martian invaders in The War of the Worlds were eventually defeated by a virus, and find Dinello quoting the 1953 film not the 1898 novel. And in a work of this nature the complete absence of writers such as Cory Doctorow or Charles Stross, and the reference to only one work by Greg Egan, for example, must count as a weakness.

Even so, this is a vividly and entertainingly argued book that makes many telling points. Actual robotics, for example, has not so far come anywhere close to providing the "safety catch" on robots that Isaac Asimov imagined with his three laws, a safety catch that has allowed any number of pro-robot stories. Indeed, there is nothing to indicate that anyone working in robotics is at all interested in providing such a safety catch, or sees the need for it. Against such complacency, as Dinello would characterise it, he cites any number of stories that detail how much of a threat robots might present. But Asimov's laws were not devised as a serious contribution to the science of robotics but as a plot device.

There is a broader point here, most science fiction writers are no more experts in any of these fields of technology than anyone else who reads the popular science journals, and when they look for technology they can use in a story they are probably looking primarily for something that will provide a plot. Threat makes for a good plot.

Having said which, it would be easy to recast this book to argue exactly the opposite of Dinello's position. At the moment, we are presented with a work in which the wild aspirations of the techno-utopians are tempered by the technophobic warnings of science fiction. By re-ordering the contents but without seriously rewriting anything, this could easily become a book in which the fear-mongering technophobia of those wild sci-fi writers and B-movie makers is countered by the more optimistic outlook of those technologists who are experts in the subjects. One wonders which interpretation would better serve the interests of a child suffering the return of measles?

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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