*Sorry about lateness. I should know better than NOT to blog on Friday night. Saturday morning we always have errands which ends up making the blog very late. I’m not done either, I’m going to need to clean the cat boxes. I’m being glared at by Greebo as we speak, I’ll have you know.*
Yesterday in one of the groups I belong to and check irregularly, someone posted an article from IO9. Full disclosure, I didn’t read the article. Life is too short to hang out at IO9. But this is not about the article, not really. It’s about the concepts which were summarized in the lead, and confirmed by those of my fans/friends brave enough to put on waders and climb down into IO9.
The concept of the article was this: with our communications technology and gene splicing and other goodies, we’re living in a science fiction world. There is no point to science fiction anymore, except to “critique the world.”
This is a point of view I’ve often seen defined in panels too. I call it the “we had to kill science fiction in order to save it” point of view. There was more to that, like there should be no “retro” science fiction. There’s fodder for a post there, and there will be a post, about what is “retro” science fiction and whether there’s a use for it or not.
We will, possibly in a later post get into the whole concept and potential value or lack thereof of critiquing society; what it actually means and what it actually does.
Right now I want to concentrate on WHAT is science fiction after all.
I’m fairly sure I know. I’m also fairly sure these people are spectacularly confused. They seem to hold on to how science fiction was explained to me when I was eleven and stumbled onto it. (I’d already read Have Space Suit Will Travel, at around 9, but it didn’t strike me as science fiction, just as a slightly fantastic present day adventure. Look, guys, what did I know about what America was really like? Remember I thought Denver was by the sea [I think I confused it with Dover. And now I have a story title that’s going to bug me till I write a short story. The White Cliffs of Denver.])
I stumbled onto science fiction with Out of Their Minds, by Simak, which was and wasn’t a problem, because, you know, while it took place in the future, sort of, it was the near future and I could call it “fantastic adventure.” But my second science fiction book was A Canticle for Leibowitz and that I could not just write off as “they made up some stuff, but it’s essentially the world as we know it.” So I asked my brother what weird-*ss books he was reading (my early sf reading was standing up by Alvarim’s bedside, ready to toss the book in the drawer and run into my room at the sound of a footstep on the stairs. you see, he’d told me not to read them, showing both a remarkable care for my innocence [SF in the seventies. Yeshhhh] and a complete lack of knowledge of my character. Yes, I also read Masters and Johnson standing up by his bedside table. Did wonders for my English, it did.]
His explanation was “Science fiction are stories set in a future world.”
While this is, technically, true, of course, it neglects that little fact that making predictions is hard. Particularly about the future. And also that now that we have almost a hundred years of science fiction behind us, it makes a lot of the futures depicted in those books the future of the past. Or in Sir Pratchett’s fantastically appropriate description “the future of another leg of the pants of time.”
I mean, the “The future is now” people are very funny. Yes, we do have a lot of technological marvels (like, when haven’t we? Even if it was just a better plow) and it’s affecting society (like, when hasn’t it?) BUT is it the future depicted in science fiction novels? Pfui? Do I have a flying car? WHERE are my moon colonies, my weekends on Mars?
Second, “the future is now”? Really? I’m no longer surprised at their lack of understanding of gender. I’m somewhat puzzled that they ALSO don’t get verb tenses. I’m told that some very primitive societies have no concept of past or future. Everything is an eternal now. (I don’t know. I never did linguistics field work.) For my money they’re more advanced than people who think there used to be a future, but now we’re living in it and time stopped. (MAYBE that’s what’s actually wrong. Maybe there’s a whole group of people we should never have taught to talk. How much damage could they do by rhythmic blinking, after all. Never mind.)
Do we have things that our parents didn’t have? Bother. We have things that were unimaginable when I was a little kid. More so than your childhood, mine was temporally dislocated from the normal time. I mean, I still remember my mother ridiculing the idea I’d ever afford a house with running hot and cold water. (She built one herself 3 years later. Never mind.) I remember trimming oil lamps (partly because we had electricity — sort of — but it was really unreliable. I am daily humbled by living among marvels of human ingenuity.
What I don’t imagine is that this is the end of the human ingenuity or the human story. I don’t presume to say “we won’t go any further.” And I CERTAINLY don’t presume to say “we should go no further.”
To say “we’re living in a science fiction future, there is no reason to write science fiction anymore” is wrong on EVERY front.
First, yeah, sure we’re living on science fiction future. Just like people in the 1930s were compared to their parents. Your point is, precisely? That’s a tautology on the order of “the black horse is black.” Yeah, and so what, Captain Obvious?
Second, I don’t think science fiction is what you think it is. We don’t each have a crystal ball and write about “the future as she will be.” See part about making predictions and how that’s hard, PARTICULARLY about the future.
So if you think the point of science fiction was to predict the future, then there was never a point to science fiction. It’s sort of like saying the purpose of pigs is to fly because you saw a drawing of a pig with wings. The only answer to that is “You’re not from around here” and by around here I mean reality.
Yes, yes, science fiction dresses itself in future tropes, gives dates, etc, but it’s actual and point of fact purpose, as a branch of fantastic literature, is to give the artist (or the craftswoman, in my case) a broad canvas on which to tell stories that can’t be told in our present-day, limited-to-reality universe. Sure, it makes it interesting, and it’s one of the constraints of the genre (sort of, before you get into alternates and counterfactuals) that you at least do some hand waving at “how we get there from here. The readers of the genre expect it, and it’s polite, kind of like it’s polite not to mention lucrative to meet your readers’ expectations. BUT it’s handwavium for the paying patrons, not a fact of life. Every science fiction universe, even the most grounded in reality is always “what might be” not “what will be.” Because the future and reality are way more complex than you can cram in a book.
So there is a point to science fiction. The same point there always was. The future is by definition not here yet. It never will be. Because that’s the quality of the future. It hasn’t happened yet. (These people probably eagerly believe signs that say “Free beer tomorrow.”)
And I bet you that it surprises you. I bet you there are wonders we can’t even dream of (though we try) waiting just around the corner. And I’ll dream them until I get to see them. And I’ll take as many of you as I can along for the ride.
These people belong to the future of the past. The future that belongs to them (eh) is the future imagined circa 1930s. A future of central control and exact distribution of limited resources.
They’re both disappointed they don’t have it — hence the reason that they think SF should “critique” things — and bewildered by the advances that have really happened, hence the almost forlorn lament that “we’re living in a science fiction future already.”
If you can’t imagine anything more than what we have, I suggest you’re in the wrong field of writing. I hear there is a lot of demand for technical manual writers. It demands no imagination. (Though it does demand a mastery of verbs, of course, which might be a negating condition. On the other hand you can call machinery xyr and no one, not even the machines care.)
If this REALLY is the wildest future you can imagine, that’s fine. Sit down, stay here. Rest (or bitch) a while.
The rest of us? We can imagine a million interesting futures. And we’re going to dream of them until we get there.