It is a well-known fact that science fiction novels say more about the time in which they are written than about what is likely to happen in the future. Science fiction is full of predictions that didn’t come true (Space 1999, anyone?) but, more importantly, how we view the future gives us insight into the present.
With that in mind, I recently read Will Save the Galaxy For Food by Yahtzee Croshaw, a post-modern take on the sci-fi trope of the hero starpilot. In the future, space travel led to a Golden Age of starpiloting, where daredevil adventurers found fame and glory in perilous deep space. Then Quantum Tunneling is invented and overnight no one needs starpilots anyone. The pilots themselves are thrown on the scrapheap and have to grovel for a meagre income selling guided tours of the sites of their past glory.
As I read the book, I realised that it spoke to a key anxiety of our world, namely that technology will make us all obsolete. Last year the Bank of England said that as many as 15 million British jobs could be lost to machine and online shopping has already caused 62,000 job losses in the retail sector. Due to rising automation in the workplace, we could all end up like the pilots in Croshaw’s novel.
If we are facing a jobless world, then there are policies we can adopt to prevent billions of people having to beg to survive, as the pilots do in WSTGFF. One such example is Universal Basic Income, and it is good that these policies are being explored in places such as Finland. What is striking about WSTGFF is not the poverty of the starpilots without an income, but the complete lack of dignity of their post-Quantum Tunneling existence.
The nameless starpilot protagonist is desperate to hold on to his pride, even as it becomes harder to make a living. He is against all attempts to commodify and sanitise the Golden Age of starpiloting, even if this might make him money. Some of the starpilots start businesses and try to move on, but many cling to the identity that their job gave them. Being a starpilot is more than a source of income - it is who you are.
This really rang true for me. We all base our identity on our source of employment. When someone asks me “what do you do?”, I don’t say: “I scour science fiction novels for political insights to post on the internet to make myself feel clever”, I say “I work in marketing”. Both are equally true.
If we lose our employment, we lose a crucial part of our identity. If we all lose our employment then a national crisis of identity will occur. Increasing advancement in robotics and companies eager to cut as many jobs as possible in order to drive up their profits don’t care about this. We need UBI to save us all from starving, but we need a change in the way we define ourselves slipping into depression.
If all our jobs disappear, we might find ourselves like the starpilots in WSTGFF, clinging to nostalgia for a time when our lives meant something, instead of seizing the opportunities of all our new free time. We might think that we were better off in a time when everyone had to toil away for an enormous chunk of their lives to provide an income that (for many people today) doesn’t cover the basic costs of living.
If there was no work, would we be consumed by nostalgia for a time where there was work? Increasing numbers of women are equal breadwinners to men, but now many men are wondering how a man can define himself when he’s not the sole provider for a family. This has led to nostalgia for a time when a man’s identity was simpler. This nostalgia completely fails to engage with the patriarchal oppression that women faced in the past and threatens to recreate it.
Without work, are we risking a similar crisis in identity? A similar nostalgia for a time when one could define oneself through work? A nostalgia that - similar to what is happening with many men - could be taken advantage of by those who have a dangerous agenda?
In WSTGFF, the pilot eventually learns to move on with his life and lets go of his nostalgia for a Golden Age that never really existed. It’s a good lesson, and it shows we can move on and recreate our lives. Our world is not as neat as a book and rarely provides a satisfactory ending that wraps everything up. There is no beneficent author figure resolving things in our world for the best. That’s why we need to heed the warnings of fiction.
To tackle the problems of growing automation and job losses, we need to think not only about how we will eat when there are jobs, but also how we will define ourselves. Our identities need to become more varied, more complex and less tied to what we do for a living. When people are more than what they do, it won’t matter what they do or if they do nothing.