Science fiction is a Luddite literature

My latest column for Locus Magazine.

Cory Doctorow


My latest column for Locus Magazine is “Science Fiction is a Luddite Literature,” and it’s my contribution to the burgeoning movement to rehabilitate the reputation of the Luddite uprisings, overturning the libel that Luddites were motivated by a fear of technology:

The Luddites were a 19th century guerrilla movement that smashed textile machines, burned factories and threatened their owners. But they were not motivated by a fear of technology, and they were not irrational.

Rather, the Luddites — who took their name from the mythological General Ned Ludd, whose legend included the smashing of weaving-frames — were engaged in the most science-fictional exercise imaginable — asking not what a technology does, but who it does it to and who it does it for.

The Luddites, you see, were skilled weavers, whose intense physical labor produced the textiles that clothed the nation. The difficulty of their trade — both in terms of esoteric knowledge and physical prowess — allowed them to command high wages and good working conditions.

All that was threatened by the advent of textile machines, which produced more fabric in less time, and required less skill. The owners of textile factories bought these machines with profits derived from the weavers’ labor, and then used those machines to grind down the weavers. Their hours got longer, their pay got shorter, and many of them were maimed or killed by the new machines.

Here’s where the science fiction part comes in. If you were a Martian looking through a telescope at Earth, it would not be obvious to you that these new weaving machines should benefit factory owners, rather than workers. There’s nothing inevitable about that arrangement. The machines could just as easily have shortened weavers’ working hours, increased their hourly pay, and made more fabric available at lower prices to the public.

One of my favorite stfnal aphorisms is that “all laws are local.” The genre can be a toolkit for revealing the contingency of our innate assumptions, forcing us to confront our deeply ingrained biases and…