Friday, December 24, 2010


One of the more irritating strawmen arguments used against science-fiction writers is that because they didn’t spot (say) the way that mobile phones would transform society in the near future, they’re pretty much failures when it comes to the prediction lark. As if we’re supposed to be equipped with fission-powered crystal balls, or to somehow do better than futurologists who can draw on the resources of the multinational corporations they work for (and still get it wrong most of the time). It’s been raised yet again by Russell M Davies over at Wired UK, who claims that SF writers have given up on the future because they aren’t in the prediction business any more. Fellow columnist Warren Ellis does his best to knock it down by arguing that SF writers are more into hazy hand-waving extrapolation than hardcore prediction, but that’s not quite it, either. Here, by way of illustrating the kind of thing SF writers actually do when thinking about the future, is an example of my own so-called world building.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Science fiction writers write ripping good novels, with stuff that smacks of scienciness (to steal from S. Colbert) dripping from the pages. They make up a bunch of crap that sounds cool, but is utterly meaningless. (I mean, in Star Trek, in the scripts, they just go "Geordi, tech the tech tech, recalibrate the tech and we'll tech the surface party out of tech danger!" and replace 'tech' with something that sounds cool later on.)

Why do some works of science fiction have stuff that comes true (A la the communicators of Star Trek becoming our flip phones)? Because nerds grew up on that shit, think it's cool and work to make them come true.

Sci Fi doesn't have any predictive power, it has cultural shaping power.

While we may eventually have 'warp speed' starships, they wont be using dilithium crystals. It will be called warp drive because of Star Trek's enduring, iconic imagery, but wont have anything to do with the warp drives as described in Trek. If ships end up looking like Trek ships, that will be a conscious design choice by the nerds building them and not a sign of Trek's predictive powers.

December 24, 2010 10:31 pm  
Blogger Marilynn Byerly said...

I've read several articles recently about the new DOCTOR WHOs.

The show producers and head writers now say that WHO isn't sf, it's fantasy along the lines of a fairy tale.

It sounds like Davies is protecting his no-SF-here butt by going after the other side of the equation.

December 27, 2010 4:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Science fiction writers are primarily story tellers and only secondarily might be used for a glimpse of what the future might hold. Murray Leinster in 1946 published a story, "A Logic Named Joe" that got the World Wide Web right, connected computers, data mining, computers that acted as councilors giving children sexual advice, etc. and other advances right.This story more than makes up for not mentioning mobile phones. But what was Dick Tracy of the 40,s comics with his ever present wrist phone if not a mobile phone.

December 28, 2010 3:11 am  

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