Sunday, February 24, 2008

Again With The Future Is Here!

I've kept my trap slammed long enough. I just read this article:
or about the seventeenth one like it and it's time to spout. The following is my comment to that post, although the blog is moderated so I don't know that it will show up there:

This conversation starter runs amok all across the science fiction blogiverse. It's not the job of science fiction to predict the future. Science fiction's obligation is to fiction, not science.

Fiction consists of millions of simulations (stories) which help humankind understand itself. "What would I do in a situation like that?" "If I did that, what would happen to me?" "That guy acted like a complete ass, I hope he gets his comeuppance!" It serves one of the most basic needs of human beings, the exploration of themselves and others as they interact with one another. Fiction is a brother to gossip, but throws the net of possibilities much more widely.

Science Fiction goes wider still, exploring human actions, interactions and reactions in situations that cannot happen in the current reality due to technological limitations. The speculation is fun. It isn't meant to predict.

Occasionally, from the tens of thousands of science fiction stories that have been written, a speculated technology might come to pass in reality and we gasp and assign "genius" labels to the writer. This is how astrology works too.

We are not running out of ideas in science fiction. The future is not closing in to clamp shut upon us and create a nightmare of forever present. What is happening is the fruition of extremely tired science fiction tropes, beaten to death in literature and film. Films dominate American popular culture and the studios won't bank on ideas that are too outlandish. We've strapped ourselves to the wrecking ball weight of our past good ideas and we don't want to be set free because the unknown is too uncomfortable. Then we marvel at how science-fictiony our lives have become when capitalism catches up with ideas that were new decades ago. "Hey look, I've got a PC and a cellphone! I'm living Star Trek!"

There are thousands of ideas out there in science fiction literature that have not yet popped into existence. More are being created every day. The human imagination is unlimited. There are even ideas that might confuse a television audience. But don't worry, they'll catch up when today's ideas are adapted for the mass media audiences twenty years hence. They'll seem new to the public then.

I'm astounded that science fictional folk like ourselves get drawn into these conversations when we're the people that are reading about the fresh ideas on an almost daily basis. We know the score. We know the reality. Why are we feeding the Big Media Bimbos?

And one last thing: If the future is here, then where the fuck is my flying car?


CodeMonkey said...

I allowed your comment. It was well written and a worthy argument. I appreciate you taking the time. I Didn't realize that this was such a touchy subject with people.

I would agree that Hollywood lacks imagination and is rehashing old ideas because the general public has a hard time grasping most of what is going on in the world of science and technology. This lack of understanding and the increasing advancements further alienates Science Fiction and makes its audience smaller still. I do believe that Science Fiction is a driver of future technologies. Scientists and Engineers often state that they chose their fields because of the stories they read as children and the movies and shows they watched.

I would be interested in knowing some of the great modern science fiction of which you speak that is not dealing with old re-used ideas or is not dealing with ideas of humans merging with the technology. I haven't read your stories yet, so maybe some of that is here on your site. I will start reading your stories and see if I can learn something new from them.

Rebecca Necker said...

I rather agree with codemonkey. Sword-and-sorcery fantasy has been usurping science fiction's corner of the bookshops, and even most SF anthologies seem to contain at least 50% fantasy. Meanwhile, most SF that's not actually fantasy seems to be set in the present, or even in the past (sometimes the past of cold war spy fiction and hardboiled detective stories, sometimes the Vietnam War or WWII, sometimes the past of warring medieval kingdoms -- and now we have steampunk, with its nostalgia for the Victorian era), but with the added silliness of flying cars (which have been technically possible for a long time, but have no realistic market niche), the pyrotechnics of "blast" guns, and the impossible nonsense of intergalactic empires. These elements are nominally sci-fi, but they're just there for the sake of bigger bangs. To me, these things add nothing but a rather pointless layer of implausibility, and the stories that employ them would be equally good (or bad) without them. The other thing that crops up in far to much SF for my liking is "psionics", and especially breeds of people who have an innate talent for it. Grrr. If people want to write mystical fiction, why not be upfront about it, instead of dressing it up as sci-fi?

You say "it is not the job of science fiction writers to predict the future". I don't care what anyone thinks the job of science fiction writers is, I just wish I could find science fiction writers who were seriously interested in imagining credible high-tech futures in which to sett their fictions. I'd be more than happy for the rest -- those who write nostalgic space opera, psionics fiction, steampunk, and so on -- to go on doing their job, whatever that may be, while I continue to do my best to avoid them and all their tropes, if only I could find the future science fiction that I've been looking for these past several years.

Matthew Sanborn Smith said...

Thanks for the comments. Have you tried Vinge, Stross, Doctorow or MacLeod? They may be what you're looking for.

There are loads of speculative stories that aren't really Science Fiction, that's the nature of the diverse field. We can still find plenty of good stuff out there. We just need to look a little harder, past the best-selling and most popular. It's there, I know. Wasn't it so much easier to find stuff we loved when we were kids?

Rebecca Necker said...

I haven't read ay of Vinge's fiction. I've had a try at Stross; his "Accelerando" turned out to be a catalogue of geek ideas, and so extraordinarily badly written and disorganized that it was a serious pain to read. I'll grant that it does seem to be a serious attempt on his part to imagine a plausible future, not that I buy his vision.

Cory Doctorow's "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" is set at least 100 years in the future, but it describes a world that is very precisely early 21st century, except for a moneyless anarchy and brain back-ups. I don't see it as a serious attempt to imagine a likely future, and therefore it doesn't qualify, as far as I'm concerned. "Little Brother" doesn't qualify because it predicts the present. It doesn't seem to be science fiction at all.

I read something by MacLeod, the title of which I don't at the moment recall. It was space opera on a grand scale. That's one of the things I said specifically that I am not looking for. Perhaps there are other books of his that are not space opera.

"Wasn't it so much easier to find stuff we loved when we were kids?" It's not me that's changed, but SF. Until the 1960s, it was to be part of the definition of SF that the "novum" was scientifically plausible (to contemporary readers). An author earned more plaudits the more inventive they were within what was scientifically plausible, whereas if they failed on the plausibility point, that was a serious flaw. Unfortunately, this idea seems to have died, and increasingly since the late 1960s, science fiction ignores science, and has become just another genre, specifically, a style of fantasy. Science fiction has become, in the hands of most writers, nothing more than an arsenal of convenient tropes that licence certain kinds of fantasy.

It's easy to imagine weird worlds (especially if you rely on borrowed tropes and schemes). It is hard to imagine weird worlds that are scientifically plausible, and harder still to imagine weird worlds that are compellingly plausible as worlds we might find ourselves living in a few decades in the future. I can't blame writers for not trying, but I can mourn the scarcity of efforts.