8

In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Ursula K. Le Guin describes the future as "a safe, sterile laboratory":

But the task of science fiction is not to predict the future. Rather, it contemplates possible futures. Writers may find the future appealing precisely because it can’t be known, a black box where “anything at all can be said to happen without fear of contradiction from a native,” says the renowned novelist and poet Ursula K. Le Guin. “The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in,” she tells Smithsonian, “a means of thinking about reality, a method.”

My question is about the particular combination of the words safe, sterile, and laboratory. I'm looking for an answer that explains why Ursula K. Le Guin, in the context of this interview, describes the future as a "laboratory", and why the laboratory is "safe" and "sterile." I would prefer answers that perform a close reading of the article. Answers that draw on Le Guin's other works will be helpful as well.

Some things that I'm not interested in:

  1. I know that laboratories are associated with being "sterile" for various scientific reasons; I don't need answers that point this out. I'm interested in the literary qualities of the word "sterile". Sterile implies a lack of unwanted life. Answers should explore all of the implications of the word "sterile". Remember that Le Guin isn't actually talking about a laboratory (where the word sterile should be accepted without question) but is making an analogy between a laboratory and science fiction (every aspect of the analogy can be debated, including the use of the word sterile).

  2. The article Why Sci-Fi Keeps Imagining the Subjugation of White People is in many ways a critique of Le Guin's claim that "the future is a safe, sterile laboratory." As with any idea, understanding the critique of the idea leads to a better understanding of the idea itself.

  • 1
    To be fair, most of the article is quite irrelevant to this quote, so it's not an "interview". Also, the link to the second article is wrong. – Gallifreyan Jun 2 '17 at 13:29
3

Ideas can be frightening, and can hurt those who produce them.

See for an example the ideas of Galileo, and where they got him - house imprisonment, banned from discussing the heliocentric view. Science fiction, on the other hand, can be frightening, but it is contained. It is fiction. Yet still, like all literature, it contains an idea - it conveys the author's point, but more subtly than outright stating it.

Samuel R. Delany [says], “The variety of worlds science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is training for thinking about the actual changes—sometimes catastrophic, often confusing—that the real world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob-smacked.”

It conveys the idea, more subtly than explicitly stating it.

If the author is asked about that idea, they can say that it was merely to explore, merely to write a story for people to enjoy, by no means to propound an idea. By nature, it is a way for a writer to explore an idea, but with less impact on themselves. Le Guin also said in the quote you provide

Writers may find the future appealing precisely because it can’t be known, a black box where “anything at all can be said to happen without fear of contradiction from a native,”

Precisely because it can't be known, where anything can be said to happen without fear of contradiction. Because the future can't be known, we can talk about in the format of a science-fiction book without fear of repercussions.

Also interesting is a later quote in the article:

“I really like design fiction or prototyping fiction,” says novelist Cory Doctorow [...] "It’s like an architect creating a virtual fly-through of a building.”

It's also safe in the sense that nothing is going to blow up while writing - it's all on paper. It's an exploration of what could be that examines the consequences, before it's built.

So much for the term safe; now for laboratory. Laboratories are places where experiments are done, tests are made, theories are explored. Likewise, a science-fiction novel is a laboratory for the future. What if this is true? How does that affect the plot? Look at some of the questions on Worldbuilding.SE and you will see that the world that is constructed imposes restrictions on things that can be done in that world, and it affects how the people in that world operate.

And finally, the term that is I think the strangest in that quote, sterile. The fourth definition of sterile as per Webster is

"fig.: Barren of ideas; destitute of sentiment; as, a sterile production or author"

So in this case: a laboratory barren of previous ideas, so it is therefore open to the creation of new ones. If you want to explore the absence of government, you can write about it while ignoring previous stances on the subject. You can introduce out there things like warp drives. It allows you to be more open to new ideas by taking them away from the backdrop of the old ones. As the book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (google books link) says:

fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction

Semi-recent examples can be found in the Mary Tyler Moore show or the Bill Cosby show, which improved how people thought about working, single women and African-Americans respectively, in a fictional format. With this in mind, the science fiction novel is a laboratory that is sterile, totally clean, from other ideas and impressions. The world can be born anew in it.

So, my overall interpretation would be: a science fiction novel is a place to explore ideas about the future in a way with less repercussions and with less interference from current ideas than a non-fiction book or opinion piece might have.


With regards to the critique of the original article, I'd point out this quote, which sums it up:

Sci-fi, then, doesn’t just demonstrate future possibilities, but future limits—the extent to which dreams of what we'll do remain captive to the things we've already done.

With this in mind, I see it less as a critique of the original article/quote and more as an extension of it. Sci-fi is still a safe, sterile laboratory, but it's being used to explore limits as well as possibilities.

  • "Ideas can be frightening, and can hurt those who produce them. Science fiction, on the other hand, can be frightening, but it is contained. It is fiction." Can you elaborate on this? – user111 Aug 12 '17 at 19:34
  • I understand what you mean by those sentences, but I don't think you've adequately supported your claims, even with the edits you just made. – user111 Aug 12 '17 at 20:36
  • In the question, I say The article Why Sci-Fi Keeps Imagining the Subjugation of White People is in many ways a critique of Le Guin's claim that "the future is a safe, sterile laboratory." As with any idea, understanding the critique of the idea leads to a better understanding of the idea itself. Could you edit this answer to incorporate this critique into your discussion? Doing so will help you better understand what Le Guin is saying. – user111 Aug 13 '17 at 6:32
  • "Science fiction, on the other hand, can be frightening, but it is contained. It is fiction. Yet still, like all literature, it contains an idea - it conveys the author's point, but more subtly than outright stating it." Could yoiou elaborate on this? Why is a story where the sun orbits the earth any different from a sscientific paper? – user111 Aug 13 '17 at 6:40
  • "Perhaps instead of free from bacteria, we should think of it as free from the restraints of our society." That is not any definition of sterile that I am aware of. Right now your just making a wild guess about the meaning of sterile, could you support that guess with evidence? – user111 Aug 13 '17 at 6:42
-1

In computer work, there's a type of system called a sandbox. It's a model, a toy, a place to try things that could cripple or destroy a working system. You create a sandbox to let a student make mistakes or conduct experiments. A sandbox isn't connected to other systems and can be reset any number of times.

In this interview Le Guin uses the same general idea to describe science fiction. You can create a world to any specification and try out new ideas. If the world is destroyed, well, it was only make-believe, no harm done. That's a common strategy in SF: extrapolate a current trend to an absurd degree to show the danger.

Another strategy is to create a culture with one exaggerated trait. What happens when a species gives up emotion and devotes itself to logical behavior? You won't find a large group of people willing to try the experiment over a long period of time. In SF, though, you can present such a culture as a fait accompli and explore the ramifications.

Other genres (except fantasy) assume that your story takes place in a more-or-less real world. That limits the leeway you have in stretching the boundaries of what is possible. That limits the questions you can ask about the preconceptions we have about the nature of humanity. Good fiction can make you re-examine your place in society. Good SF can make you re-examine your place in the universe.

  • In the question, I say The article Why Sci-Fi Keeps Imagining the Subjugation of White People is in many ways a critique of Le Guin's claim that "the future is a safe, sterile laboratory." As with any idea, understanding the critique of the idea leads to a better understanding of the idea itself. Could you edit this answer to incorporate this critique into your discussion? Doing so will help you better understand what Le Guin is saying. – user111 Aug 13 '17 at 6:32
  • "Other genres (except fantasy) assume that your story takes place in a more-or-less real world." Are you sure? There's a very good argument to be made that science fiction does not actually do the exploring of alternative scenarios that you claim it does. See, for example, stanislaw lem. This isn't necessarily wrong, but you need to argue rather than assume. – user111 Aug 13 '17 at 6:37
  • Could you include a discussion of the words safe, sterile, and laboratory in this answer? – user111 Aug 13 '17 at 6:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy