On Thursday, June 4, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University, and New America—will host a debate in Washington, D.C., on the future of jobs. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
On a desert planet baked by two suns, a young man contemplates the sky, dreaming of a life beyond the workaday tedium of his family farm. He imagines that the robots his aunt and uncle have recently purchased—apparently sentient beings that work without compensation—will take on his burdens. You know his name as well as I do, and you know as well as I do that he will spend the weeks and month ahead on the run, fleeing this world of tasks and troubles as much or more as the evil empire that chases him.
Science fiction is a genre of dreams, and Luke Skywalker may be the most emblematic of all its dreamers, emblematic not because he longs for the stars, but because of what those stars represent. Above all else, Luke is a slacker, and when he looks to the heavens, he imagines release from the obligations that bind him to the surface of Tatooine.
Luke is not alone in his aversion to work: As a rule, science fiction may be the laziest of all genres, not because the stories themselves are too facile—they can be just as sophisticated and challenging as those of any other genre—but because they often revel in easy solutions: Why walk when you can warp? Why talk when you’re a telepath? Technology in such stories typically has more to do with workarounds than it does with work.
When I asked my friends about other science fiction slackers, they offered a parade of names, characters from stories both serious and silly. In The Matrix, as one of them put it, “Neo’s hacking leads him to realize that his desk job is a sham.” Once he breaks through, he effortlessly learns a host of new skills that would normally take years to develop—the ultimate slacker fantasy. And then there are characters like Futurama’s Fry, a lackadaisical delivery boy whose most representative act may be spending 1,000 years in cryogenic slumber. (He awakes only to become a delivery boy in the new millennium, too.)
It would be a mistake to say that science fiction as such is “about” laziness—no genre reducible to such a singular point of significance can flower long—but it is uncommonly good at animating fantasies about avoiding labor. To be fair, those dreams aren’t always happy ones: Consider the case of Blade Runner, a film whose ostensible hero spends much of the narrative’s duration trying to track down a group of rogue “replicants.” Though they are charged with illegally descending to Earth, their real crime is their attempt to escape the tasks for which they were built. By the end of the film, we are led to suspect that they were its true heroes all along—not least of all because we're encouraged to sympathize with their refusal to work.
Resistant as they are to their programmed jobs, Blade Runner’s rogue replicants may count among the most reassuring robots in science fiction. Typically, robots play a more antagonistic role in the way we imagine work: In his new book Rise of the Robots, for example, Martin Ford lays out a set of fears that correspond strangely with Luke Skywalker’s fondest hopes. Ford warns that advances in both automation and artificial intelligence technologies threaten us with a jobless future. These changes, he proposes, won’t simply affect manufacturing or agriculture, as they have in the past. They’ll also cut into the service industry and even into previously safe professions like medicine and education. The robots are coming, Ford predicts, and they’re going to leave us with nothing to do.
In light of such fears, what could be more comforting than the possibility that those robots might not actually want the jobs they’re taking? Call it Batty’s Law: Any sufficiently advanced android will hate its job just as much as you hate yours. Blade Runner is a rich narrative in part because it is awash in the ambivalences that distend our everyday experience of labor. On the one hand it acknowledges that few of us really want to do our jobs, while on the other it suggests that the only true escape from them is death.
There’s a rough distinction to be made between those science fiction narratives whose stories end well and those—like poor Roy Batty's in Blade Runner—that turn out badly. In dystopian science fiction, characters face punishment for trying to avoid their jobs, while utopian tales are all about getting away with doing as little as possible. More honest than Star Wars, less enmeshed in fantasy, Blade Runner acknowledges the difficulty of really breaking free from our ideas about employment.
Generally speaking, we’ve been taught to believe that work is an essential good, a belief that undermines every attempt to imagine a form of life unbounded by labor’s strictures. In The Problem With Work, Kathi Weeks, associate professor of women’s studies at Duke University, argues that the very idea of employment has become a kind of blackmail. She writes, “The social role of waged work has been so naturalized as to seem necessary and inevitable, something that might be tinkered with but never escaped.” Convinced that paid work is the key to human flourishing—that we can only become valuable by producing value—we’ve made it all but impossible to imagine life without labor.
Maybe this is why science fiction presents us with a parade of slovenly heroes: to help us think the unthinkable. Brazil’s hapless Sam Lowry, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s bathrobe-clad Arthur Dent, Jupiter Ascending’s reluctant maid Jupiter Jones, and so many others all become avatars of a largely subsumed desire to leave work itself behind. Science fiction is for the slackers. And that’s the way it should be.