Last week, my editor at Gollancz, Simon Spanton, asked a question on Twitter: ‘Can anyone think of an SFnal future that has an explicit reference in it to that future's own SF?’ A few of us responded, mostly referencing alternate history novels nested within alternate history novels; it was Malcolm Edwards who pointed out that Vernor Vinge’s Tatja Grimm’s World
featured a mobile publishing house that, as it turned from producing fantasy to science fiction, helped to bootstrap its own civilisation. Tatja Grimm’s World
was first published in 1969. More than forty years later, examples of science fiction in fictional futures are still rare.
As Walter John Williams pointed out in his blog
, just a month earlier, ‘For almost the entire history of science fiction, the one thing you would never find in a science fiction novel was, well, science fiction. Every person in a science fiction story behaved as if science fiction itself was never invented.’ There are a fair few depictions of science-fiction novelists in science fiction set in the present: Kurt Vonnegut’s recurring character, the hack SF author Kilgore Trout, is probably the best known example; in Barry Malzberg’s Herovit’s World
, an SF author finds himself in his imaginary future; an SF author tours and escapes Hell in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno
; a failed SF author, after surviving burial by remaindered copies of his novel during an earthquake, helps save a remnant of humanity in the disasterous disaster flick 2012
(although more by his driving skills than any deep knowledge of SF tropes); the hero of Walter John William’s cyber-thrillers This Is Not A Game
and Deep State
is not only a former SF writer but also an RPG gamer. And so on.
But in the futures it has made its own, SF itself appears to have died out. Worse, the novel itself appears to have died out, too. There are poets (Rydra Wong in Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17
; the Kid in Dahlgren
); musicians (the touring orchestra in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Memory of Whiteness
; the discorporating singers in Thomas M. Disch’s On Wings of Song
; any number of revived/cloned rock stars); painters (the evolving robot artist in Alastair Reynolds’ ‘Zima Blue’); and sculptors (J.G. Ballard’s ‘The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D’), but precious few far-future novelists. The only one I can call to mind is Katin Crawford, the moon-fixated perpetual student in Delany’s Nova
, who wants to revive the lost art of the novel and after endless false starts finds his subject matter in the adventure on which he embarks, and writes the novel you, the reader, hold in your hand (although doesn’t that make it a memoir?). I’m sure there are other examples, but on the whole, writers of fiction about the future don’t believe that written fiction will survive into the future, even as eBooks. In The Quiet War
, I hinted that novels had been rolled up into immersive role-playing sagas, but even RPGs and their descendants may have a limited shelf-life: Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel, The Quantum Thief
, features an obscure cult that’s preserved otherwise forgotten archaic computer games. It seems that as far as SF writers are concerned, the future is inimical to fiction of any kind ...