The Seduction of Numbers, the Measures of Progress

My grandmother thinks of her father’s lifespan with awe. “He went from the horse and buggy to a man in space,” she repeats wistfully. “I don’t think anyone will ever see progress like that again.” And my mother nudges her, gently, that humanity’s not done yet; and I think about progress like that again, especially when I go to a talk with Navajo weaver TaNibaa Naataanii and find that her grandmother leaned on the same motif in telling her that she had to be a weaver across the transition for her culture. Progress like that is pretty powerful if it can grab such disparate people.

Meanwhile, speaking of disparate people, on the other side of the family, my husband’s grandfather shakes his head in awe too. “When I was young, everybody assumed you would marry another Dutch person, everyone Dutch, always Dutch, and now I have grandkids and great-grandkids with ancestors from every continent on the planet except Australia and Antarctica! It’s just amazing!” he marvels. I think he knows that trying to set the remaining grandkids up romantically with people of Australian descent just to complete the set would be deeply uncouth, too much to ask.

My great-grandfather didn’t live to see that kind of progress.

When Patrick Stewart intones, “Space: the final frontier,” it’s easy to believe him. And not just believe him! It’s hard to see where you are believing him. It’s hard to spot the axiom at all. Transportation is such an easy progress to measure. We went one mile, now two, now twenty, now two hundred thousand. Progress. Obvious. Easy.

But we’re not being realistic about all the other things progress can include. Reality is much more multifaceted than that. We have a bias toward the easy number, but it doesn’t always mean what we want it to mean. And if we’re going to think about it clearly—and write the kind of science fiction that shows real progress on all fronts, not just one—we need to think of different ways to measure it, different ways to draw it in. If we can measure not just miles but good miles—not just good miles but the people who travel them with us, the places we have preserved along each of those miles—then we’ll be another step closer to understanding what progress can look like in the futures we imagine.

I’m not immune to this problem. When Grandma and I return to the progress we’ve seen in her lifetime, I inevitably try to talk about things that are linear and numerical: family members who have survived not one, not two, but three forms of cancer, where a single, hypothetically less dangerous form took a relative’s life two generations ago. Or the distances involved in my regular worldwide communications, the number of countries. “Remember how hard it was to get a good connection to the relatives in Sweden, how expensive?” I’ll ask. “And now you can get on Skype and see their faces any time you want, across all those miles.” A little broader than just travel—but not enough, not yet.

We’re taught to want metrics, miles, percentages, numbers healed, lives saved. Even in Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, whose subtitle is “Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think,” he wanders off into the weeds when it comes to DDT. No humans have died directly because of DDT, therefore, he grumps, it is less dangerous than we think! Well… direct human death was not what we were trying to prevent there, Rosling. That number may be easy to measure and upbeat, but it is not the only factor of interest. And birds not killed, habitats not devastated, by DDT is nearly impossible to measure—or at least much harder to be sure the measurement is correct. Even harder to be sure it’s inspiring and vivid.

Science fiction has a similarly hard problem. Low infant mortality is so obvious to most readers of the genre that portraying a future in which all countries have lowered their infant mortality even further is almost impossible within a narrative. The death of a child is a dreadful but dramatic plot point. The life of a child is now our status quo. How do we show the reader that it’s everyone’s status quo in a more positive future? How do we not only dramatize the kind of changes that lift most of the world out of extreme poverty but make it clear that we’re not portraying an exception but the norm?

How do we avoid focusing on very simplistic math without going the other direction, into bad math? I wince every time I hear a TV character intone, “If this procedure saves even one life,” because the reason we do the math of numbers saved, numbers lost, is that it really is possible to do more harm than good. The very same seductive math that leads to travel as a major index of progress is what tells us whether a procedure is saving more lives than it’s taking. That’s worth knowing. It’s just not the only focus worth having in a story.

And once we figure out how to do that—even if we do it in infodumps, which is the traditional way of our genre—even if we put it in little faux encyclopedia article headings at the beginning of each chapter, or speeches a character gives before an assembly—how do we get it to emotionally register as truly positive, optimistic science fiction, compared to the shine of a spaceship going farther or faster? Even the ones that go boldly where no one has ever gone before have moments where they have to go to a higher warp number so that the viewer will know: this is the really crucial part. This part is very exciting, you should know they’re doing something awesome here.

One of the obvious answers is doing both at once. But it’s a catch-22; if major transportation is in the story, it will get the credit for being the sign of progress, and if it isn’t, there won’t be anything that does.

Quite rightly, writing advice often assures young writers they don’t have to have the exact details of their warp drive in place. (If they did, we’d have functional space travel by now.) Instead, we are told, let the readers feel the spaceship’s controls in their hands, the way they get disoriented when the stars change locations around them. I believe that kind of vivid sensory detail will help us rethink what progress in science fiction looks like.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a nature writer and a botanist who draws on her personal, artistic, and cultural experience of plants as well as her scientific training. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, she talks about how her background and ongoing ties to the Potawatomi Nation are complementary perspectives to her botanical training when she’s observing a particular plant/moss ecological system. The book is rich with detail that allows the reader to see how Kimmerer can not only observe an ecosystem but help it recover—a vision of future progress that could be inspiring to science fiction writers whose ideas of progress are not measured in kilometers per hour.

One of the most promising avenues for making this kind of progress vividly visible is exactly where Rosling fell down with the DDT: the birds. The wildlife. Images of how the Zone Rouge in France has grown back vibrant wildlife despite the environmental devastation of World War I are a kind of progress that’s very easy to see as such; stories of a future that works like that can feel richly, strongly like a progress we can touch and feel and connect to.

I inherited my grandfather’s bird book, along with the rest of his books when he died. I looked at it intently, trying to learn what I could of my grandfather from it—as I did reading the rest of his varied collection, slowly. It’s been almost a decade now, and I’m on the last 200 pages of the last volume: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. If there has ever been a volume less inspiring to warm fuzzy feelings of progress in 2018, I cannot think what it is. And yet.

And yet. And yet taken as a whole, it points an arrow, the way we want to go and the way we don’t. It shows a way not only with the birds, but also with the people. My grandfather’s books were mostly by white American men. When he was an eighteen-year-old Marine, newly enlisted and stationed in Hawaii, he went looking for a book of Hawaiian stories to find out about the people around him. Instead he found racist jokes by white people. Fifty years later he returned with me and helped me pick out a book from native Hawaiian sources.

Sometimes progress is not how fast we can get past each other, or how far, but how well we have access to speak to each other, or even more importantly to listen. When we’ve broadened our definition of progress to include a multifaceted and not always linear reality, we have a better measure of how much we’ve actually gotten done—and a better way to show our dreams of how much farther we can go.


Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen is among the top science fiction and fantasy writers in the world who were named after fruit. She has many opinions on Moomintrolls. She has been known to cross international borders in search of rare tisanes. Her personal relationships with bodies of water are intense though eccentric. She lives atop the oldest bedrock in the US with her family, where she writes, if not daily, frequently.

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