Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Getting There From Here

When I delivered the manuscript of Something Coming Through, my editor asked several times when it was set. In which year? How far from now? Ten years? Twenty? There are aliens, and half the story takes place on another planet, amongst ruins left by alien cultures, so it was obvious -- wasn't it? -- that it had to be set in the future. Here in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, no one has yet set foot on another planet, and human exploration of the Moon is receding into history. Apart from fantasies of dreaming yourself to Mars or revisionist histories in which the Space Age didn't die with the Cold War, the future is the only place where easy travel to other planets is possible.

But if you take the future seriously, it has to be seriously different from the present. And that's a problem if you want to explore the ways in which the weirdness of life on other planets can warp and twist your characters: it can be difficult to foreground alien weirdness if the background is equally estranging, equally unfamiliar. That's why 2001: A Space Odyssey uses the trademarks of familiar companies, a space station interior that resembles an airport lounge (the Djinn chairs were a contemporary 1960s design), a dull corporate meeting, and banter about the authenticity of chicken sandwiches to undercut the future shock implicit in a journey to the Moon. The domestication of the future heightens the reveal of the monolith in its moon-pit because it is an alien irruption into a setting rendered as banally as the present, rather than being just another strange artifact in an unfamiliar landscape littered with dozens of equally strange artifacts. Likewise, Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye use the familiar cliche of a space navy that resembles the Royal Navy to throw the weirdness of its aliens into stark relief.

But too often the deployment of a historical paradigm to furnish the setting of a space opera or planetary adventure -- the Roman Empire, the Wild West, India during the British Raj, so forth -- is either a lazy default or a comforting simplification. A nostalgic reinterpretation of a Golden Age that never was. A historical espirit d'escalier (all those endless replays of the Vietnam War...). And too often domestication of the future not only strips out its inherent strangeness, but also elides the strangeness and strange complications of the present; too often, futures are less futuristic than the here and now.

In an essay about Andrei Tarkovsky's film Solaris, Philip Lopate points out that in shots of freeways the director 'disdains showing any but contemporary cars, just as Godard did with the buildings in Alphaville: why bother clothing the present world in sci-fi garb when the estranging future has already arrived?' Likewise, Something Coming Through isn't set in any specific future, with a clearly defined path that leads back to the here of now, but in a free-floating present that's no more than a slightly heightened version of the actual present, where we all live. I didn't want the weirdness of a fictional future to be a distraction from the weirdness I wanted to write about. I wasn't interested in the descriptions of voyages and vessels which often take up a large part of science fiction novels about other planets. I wasn't interested in the how and the why of travel to other planets; I was interested what happened to the voyagers after the end of the voyage. Better, I thought, for this little fairy tale about gifts that aren't what they seem to start where we are now, in a familiar place inhabited by people like us, with concerns and histories and desires and failings like ours. The alien worlds and the aliens, living and dead, were estrangement enough.


Blogger Rob said...

Beautifully written. The familiarity within Something Coming Through was very effective. I felt it more on the colony world than Earth.

I might have described the setting more simply though: Something Coming Through diverges from about when you wrote it. As, I suppose, all science fiction does unless an explicitly earlier branching point is chosen. But recently reading your earlier novel Fairyland, it struck me that the divergence point was clearly pre-9/11. Not in some grand philisophical sense, just that no-one in the nearby future of Fairyland would precis the past events in the story without the upheaval we've had in the early 21st century.

So this is the problem of familiarity. Start too close and too specific and you risk being dated not just by technology (failing to predict self-driving cars), but also by history (Soviets on Mars) and, if you're very close, even by familiar life - brands and places that have changed between the writing and the setting.

Perhaps this is acceptable, but I can see the temptation to set stories in some sort of galactic commonwealth 300 years hence with no-one discussing much history.

March 09, 2016 11:14 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Yes, every science-fiction novel -- even if set in the far future -- becomes a historical artifact sooner or later. As does every other novel, with their embedded assumptions and received notions. All you can hope for is to stay relevant in some way (which is why we still read Philip K. Dick, for instance).

March 17, 2016 1:23 pm  

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