PayPal cofounder complains about 'the collapse of science fiction'

Contributed by
Dec 16, 2012

The outspoken Peter Thiel, who cofounded PayPal, funded Facebook and has invested in multiple startups, has once again spoken out. In addition to holding that Americans aren't embracing technological change, he believes that science fiction has taken a dystopian nosedive.

The article that quoted Thiel, from the New Yorker, is behind a paywall. But here's the quote in question, thanks to the new issue of Ansible:

'One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it's either about technology that doesn't work or about technology that's used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, "Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon," and in 2008 it was, like, "The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun."' (PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, profiled in The New Yorker, 28 November 2011)

What science fiction anthologies in the 1970s was Thiel reading? One of the best-known anthologies of the '70s was Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions, and the stories there were not cozy views of the future. (You could argue that the story "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ was extremely optimistic ... but let's just say that one disturbing change happened to make it possible.)

As for current science fiction stories, they do what they've always been doing: reflecting on what's happening in the world today, and Islamic fundamentalism is frequently in the news.

Also, there are many authors currently writing about technological change, such as Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow. They frequently describe scenarios of technological progress and follow their impact on society to their logical conclusions.

It seems surprising that Thiel, who has contributed to such far-thinking projects as the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Seasteading Institute, regards the world of science fiction as a genre in a downward spiral.

But Thiel also advocates abandoning higher education in favor of going straight to work and created businesses. Some would consider this world—where you couldn't pursue a path you love because you have to pursue a career that has to make money—as dystopian a future as any written today.

One terrific anthology Thiel (and you) should check out is the annual Year's Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois. Yes, some of the stories there can be pessimistic. Some are optimistic, too. But they are always interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking. And that's what science fiction is really about.

(via Ansible)