Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Near, Far

Fiction about the near future, as many people have noted, is most often like a funhouse mirror of the present. It distorts and exaggerates our current fears and preoccupations; it takes current trends and pushes them as far as they'll go without breaking down into incoherence.  It's science fiction in its most purely satirical mode.  Like costume drama films, it contains the fingerprints of the time in which it was composed.  It doesn't go out of date; it loses context.  It's also becoming more and more difficult to do, as the present increasingly becomes its own self-engulfing parody.

Fiction about the far future, on the other hand, digs deep into the past.  Given all the problems of attempting to predict the near-future - black swans, non-linear dynamics, the law of unintended consequences - it certainly makes no sense in consciously trying to project any part of the present on to the far future.  Instead, writers suggest that archetypal human narratives and historical principles will survive every kind of technological change, and reappear in different forms.  James Blish's Cities in Flight series, for instance, is underpinned by the theories of Otto Spengler.  Isaac Asimov's Foundation series was inspired by Gibbons' The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Frank Herbert's Dune and Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun are different takes on Messianic figures.  Old-school space opera, with its palaces and empires, its sword-wielding heroes and princesses, echo Hollywood's romance with medieval history.  And so on, and so forth.  Like fantasy, the narratives of far-future science fiction are shaped by patterns of Story.  Unless you believe, like those who champion the technological Singularity (aka Rise of the Machines, or the Rapture of the Nerds), that the far future lies on the other side of an intellectual event horizon. That the far future will not only be impossible to predict, but also impossible to comprehend.  That it is an end to Story and the heat death of science fiction, and we cannot utter a single syllable about what follows.  But where's the fun in that?


Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Fiction about the near future, as many people have noted, is most often like a funhouse mirror of the present.

Having just read a near future novel (Tobias Buckell's Arctic Rising), I think there is a lot of truth to that.

February 29, 2012 4:33 pm  
Blogger SpeakerToManagers said...

One way to write about the far future is to borrow other kinds of story structure and other basic stories from other cultures than the ones the majority of your audience comes from. That's what S. P. Somtow did in The Inquestor series ("The Light on the Sound", etc.): he took a mix of myth, legend, and history from his own Thai culture and set it in a far future at the Galactic Center.

Cordwainer Smith did something similar by taking stories from the Catholic hagiography and applying them to the far future. Then writers like Damien Broderick and Paul McCauley took some of the tropes that Smith used, like the Underpeople, and based other far future writing on them.

March 01, 2012 1:39 am  

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