Sunday, May 22, 2011

Our Fictionless Futures

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 ...


Anonymous Robert Hanks said...

Not quite the same thing, but Kingsley Amis's "The Alteration", set in an alternative history where the Reformation never happened and the Church reigns supreme, mentions alternative history novels. One of these, "The Man in the High Castle", is set in an alternative history where Pope Germanicus I remained plain Martin Luther and started the Reformation.

May 22, 2011 5:54 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

And there's an alternate history novel embedded in original The Man in the High Castle... Come to think of it, Keith Robert's alternate history Pavane is a kind of metanovel - a message from a grimmer history much like our own. Alternate histories, playing games with the story of history, often plays games with its own story too...

May 22, 2011 6:04 pm  
Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Its near future SF, but there are references to as-yet-unwritten Pratchett Discworld novels and imaginary fantasy novels by imaginary authors in Vinge's RAINBOWS END.

May 22, 2011 7:42 pm  
Blogger Farah Mendlesohn said...

There are romance novels in Ken MacLeod's Cosmonaut Keep.

May 22, 2011 9:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As in so much else, Doc Smith got there first. In "Children of the Lens" Kimball Kinnison not only joins a writers circle (full of longhaired men and shorthaired women), he pens his own space opera. I always enjoyed that scene, feel he was gently sending up his own genre, as well as its critics.

May 22, 2011 9:22 pm  
Blogger Ken said...

It's a very good point. Trust me, only writers will notice. A friend of mine asked why nobody ever picked up a guitar and sang a song in The Star Fraction. I just looked blank. He was the only person I'd ever met (since university) who did that.

I think The Cassini Division counts as a novel in which the characters are conscious of SF. As I said to you (Paul) on the Monday of a particularly fannish Eastercon long ago, it's about the apocalyptic genocidal destruction of the uploaded descendants of SF fandom.

And I've just written a short story about SF writers, 'The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three', a title I've wanted to use for a short story ever since I saw it on the spine of the paperback anthology back in the 70s.

May 23, 2011 8:26 am  
Anonymous Al R said...

Blowing my own trumpet (why not) but two of the spaceships in Pushing Ice - Star Crusader and Cosmic Avenger - are named after fictional spaceships featuring in TV shows in the PI future.

May 23, 2011 1:12 pm  
Anonymous Nicholas Waller said...

If I remember right*, the father in the Heinlein juvenile Space Family Stone aka The Rolling Stones is a writer of space adventure TV shows, or whatever the equivalent was-willbe in 1952's futurity.

*Doing a bit of googling, I see it was "The Scourge of the Spaceways," starring Captain John Sterling, and his mother, Hazel Stone, took over his writing role acc to Wikipedia.

May 23, 2011 8:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fictional SF television programme is a major thematic motivator for the protagonist of Peter F. Hamilton's "Fallen Dragon". In it the hero is actively trying to emulate the life of a future SF hero.

Also, a question: I recall a short story in which a nerdy space freighter captain sees himself as a Space Opera hero from the fiction he reads. He's betrayed by his crew and left for dead. The implication is that he survives and actually becomes a daring space captain along the lines of his fictional role models, perhaps seeking revenge.

Does anyone remember who wrote that? It's nagging at me now.

May 24, 2011 3:16 am  
Blogger Theophylact said...

In Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe, the protagonist, an editor of SF pulps, is translated by an enormous electromagnetic explosion into an SFnal world that he imagines one of his fannish readers would think up. (The world the editor comes from would seem to be ours, but the device clearly doesn't exist here.)

May 25, 2011 2:18 am  
Blogger Wm. Luke Everest said...

Let's not forget video games. I know there've been references, but rarely, I find, has much thought been put into anything beyond the game technology itself. Their sociological significance is usually underestimated, and they're the largest sector of the entertainment industry by far (a fact universally acknowledged amongst sociologists).

Likewise, referencing fiction/writing (something Heinlein did all the time) and entertainment tech isn't enough--is, I believe, meaningless on its own. It's the sociological significance that matters.

May 25, 2011 10:38 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Books were an important element in one of the four novella's in Ursula LeGuin's "Four paths to forgiveness", although there was a hint of fighting against the darkness in that story too, as the patriarchal authorities skipped straight to the TV/internet media.
Anonymous, was the story that you were thinking about "The death of captain future" by Allen Steel? I read it in one of Dozois' Year's Best in the 90's but can't remember the details anymore.

May 25, 2011 11:45 am  
Blogger PeteY said...

There's John Brunner's The Dramaturges of Yan, in which the hero is a dramatist staging a play. Come to think of it, his Productions of Time also deals with an attempt to stage a play, but not an SFnal one.

May 25, 2011 4:39 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Thanks for all the examples. Knew there'd be a few... Some very nice examples of recursive science fiction in various forms, but not that many novels. I haven't read any E. Doc Smith, f4f3, but the idea of the hero writing space opera inside a space opera is boggling. He'd surely wear out the exclamation mark on his nuclear typewriter. Likewise the idea of romance novels surviving into the nearish future of Cosmonaut Keep (I assume that's where they're found; it's a book of two halves). Take yr point about only writers noticing the absence of writers, Ken, but aren't we supposed to write about what we know? There are dozens and dozens of contemporary novels about novelists and publishers, after all. Maybe the future of fiction is TV. Bah.

May 27, 2011 9:28 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Anonymous to Anonymous: thanks for posting a suggestion as to the identity of the story that was nagging me. The title rings a bell. That was an obscure one. No idea why it's lodged in there.

May 30, 2011 12:47 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Characters compare their Skip Drive to (written) science fiction jump drives, revealing a knowledge of future SF, in John Scaliz'a Old Man's War.

But wait, this is dead now, isn't it?

May 31, 2011 8:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan Simmons's Hyperion features far-future literature and publishing in some depth.

June 08, 2011 1:33 pm  
Blogger ANDON said...

Another thing that is missing is references to current fiction, maybe because of copyright issues? Sci-fi is full of references to classic fiction, like moby dick and other public domain works, but it tends to pretend like the last 50 years of scifi didn't happen.

June 12, 2011 7:25 am  
Anonymous Nicholas Waller said...

Jo Walton, in a comment following her own blogpost on, mentions Judith Moffett's Pennterra as containing "one of the few examples of anybody in a science fiction book admitting to having read any science fiction!"

June 25, 2011 6:31 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts