Some thirteen years ago, inspired by images captured by the two Voyager spacecraft and the Galileo and Cassini orbiters, I began a series of stories set in the outer reaches of the Solar System. A postwar scenario that eventually morphed and mutated into two novels, The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun. I wanted to explore the various, exotic, and unearthly moonscapes. I wanted to be as true as possible to reality, but I also wanted to measure them against some kind of human perspective.
I’m known, I guess, as a writer of so-called hard science fiction. Fiction that plays within the parameters established by current science, even if it pushes and distorts those parameters as hard and as far as possible. But very little science fiction is truly ‘hard’. For one thing, it’s fiction. It may be based on currently accepted scientific fact, but its tone and direction are shaped to some degree or other by the subjective judgements of the author. By bias, exaggeration, and whim.
And I think that’s necessary. Because if you try to work up any kind future history by logic alone, you’ll mostly likely end up some kind of sterile and hermetic thought experiment. Because as soon as you insert a figure into the hard reality of, say, the moonscape of Dione, you drag in the whole mess of human life and history. Who is she? Where is she from? What is she doing there and what does she want? An entire society springs up at her back as she treads down the dusty ice slope of some shattered crater, at the apex of a double shadow cast by saturnshine and attenuated sunlight. And unless it’s some kind of bubble utopia, rigidly bound by logic and as fragile as blown glass, that society is shaped, like ours, to some degree by chance. It’s full of frozen accidents, from the decimal system to the gauge of the railways system. Betamax v. VHS. MiniDisc v. CD. Why is this hard to understand? A whole subgenre of SF, alternate history, is based on the idea of history as accident.
So, when I started to build the society of the outer system, I did it partly by trying to work out the logic of how people could live there -- the kinds of technological fixes they’d need - and partly by trying to think my way inside of the heads of people who might live there. Trying to work out how they’d be affected by living inside a completely artificial environment surrounded by a hostile landscape that would kill them instantly if they made a mistake. Wondering if some kind of society based on the way contemporary scientists work and interact was viable. And quite frankly, sticking in all kinds of stuff I stumbled on more or less at random. That seemed to fit into the gestalt of my so-called future. Serendipity is a powerful, and powerfully underestimated, tool in the worldbuilding kit.
SF isn’t predictive. And it isn't utilitarian. It isn’t about telling us what we should build, or where we are going. Claims otherwise are unhelpful. At best, it attempts to extrapolate from where we are now to some distance in the future - and the greater the distance, the greater the chance of deviation from what will happen. Especially in times like these, where it seems anything might happen at any moment. No, SF isn’t about what will happen. It’s about what might happen. The vast range of what-ifs, from wondering about what might happen if just one thing changes the day after tomorrow to full-blown satires and crazed mutant visions of cosmic apocalypses. It asks hard questions about the future, but it doesn’t promise definitive answers. Anyone who claims otherwise is speaking with a mouth stuffed with straw.