Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Don't Prophesy With Your Pen

The Los Angeles Review of Books recently published an interview with Arthur C. Clarke, conducted by Tod Mesirow in 1995, that opens with a useful reminder that the one thing people associate with science fiction isn't the kind of thing that science fiction actually does. Asked why science fiction seems so prescient, Clarke says:
'Well, we musn't overdo this, because science fiction stories have covered almost every possibility, and, well, most impossibilities — obviously we're bound to have some pretty good direct hits as well as a lot of misses. But, that doesn't matter. Science fiction does not attempt to predict. It extrapolates. It just says what if? — not what will be? Because you can never predict what will happen, particularly in politics and economics. You can to some extent predict in the technological sphere — flying, space travel, all these things, but even there we missed really badly on some things, like computers. No one imagined the incredible impact of computers, even though robot brains of various kinds had been — my late friend, Isaac Asimov, for example, had — but the idea that one day every house would have a computer in every room and that one day we'd probably have computers built into our clothing, nobody ever thought of that.'
Every science-fictional future sooner or later becomes an alternate history. Even those set in the near future, and which attempt to guess with reasonable accuracy what life will be like in, say, 2015, 2016. Especially those, actually. And the further away your story is set, the more likely it is that some 9/11 will send history hurtling off in an unexpected direction (someone once wrote a science-fictional trilogy about this). Even those science fictions which may have gotten some part of our present (their future) more or less right didn't predict it: they anticipated it. As Hero anticipated the steam engine (but not the Industrial Revolution). Or to put it another way, claiming that science fiction predicts the future is to unremember all the things it got wrong. And claiming that science fiction has failed to predict the ubiquity of, say, mobile phones and Angry Birds fails to understand what science fiction is actually about.

Which includes, yes, extrapolation.  But also includes a lot more, including wild and irresponsible speculation, satire of some present trend, dreams of utopias, nightmares of dystopias . . . The future is a blank page. It doesn't yet exist. Its worlds may be self-consistent, may be strongly rooted in our present, but they are not representations of reality. They are experiments questioning reality, testing its limits, asking awkward questions about it. So much more interesting that dull, dutiful prognostication.


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