Nothing new under the sun?

This is the first (and, I expect, the last) time I open up with a Biblical quote, but it’s one that I feel has a certain relevance to both science fiction and the world we live in:

[Ecclesiastes 1:9] What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

“Oh, come on, AA; how can you support that idea? Look at all the new stuff we have nowadays!”

But do we really? If you look at it one way, almost everything you could point to as a ‘novum’ (to use an sf-nal term) is really just a way of doing something we’ve always done for as long as human civilisation has been around.

“The motor car?” It’s a mode of transport. Essentially, it’s just a vast technological improvement on the idea of running – add speed, stamina, the ability to carry heavy loads and other people, shielding from the elements. The car is a metal horse. Old news.

“Computers?” Very very fast and powerful abacuses, which themselves were just an improvement on brainpower and fingers. “Telephones, the internet?” Messengers – non-human messengers, yes, but again just a bigger-better-faster-more way of doing the old ‘he said, she said’. “Space rockets?” Welcome to exploration/colonialism 2.0, baby.

Technology means that we can lose sight of the essential concept of something behind the flashing lights and metallic paintjobs. Here’s an example: right now, I’m blogging away, taking news I’ve found elsewhere and republishing it for an audience that don’t have the time, resources or wherewithal to chase after it for themselves (we’ll leave aside the horrendously addictive nature of this behaviour for now, and just ascribe it to either my intrinsic goodwill or an ego with its own gravity well). Pretty damn zeitgeist of me, huh? Well, yes, but the blogging concept is really a very old one, and not dependent on technology for its execution.

Let me show you. Take a look at this post at Kevin Kelly’s ‘Street Use’ blog (which gets its name from that ubiquitous and more-true-by-the-day William Gibson quote, and justifiably so – it’s all about lo-fi reappropriations of things for purposes their manufacturers never intended):

“…a clever man in Monrovia, Liberia found a way to serve the latest news to those who not only don’t have a RSS reader, nor a TV, they can’t even afford newspapers. He carefully writes headlines on a large community blackboard. This “newspaper” has the largest readership in the city.”

Go read the whole thing. That Liberian guy is a blogger, but he’s doing it with chalk and newspapers, no computer in sight. (Make sure you subscribe to Street Use while you’re at it – if you have the technology available, it’s a shame not to use it, right?)

“OK, OK, so we reuse concepts and improve on their execution, or backpedal to a point where we can do the same thing as best as possible with what we have available. What’s your point, and what has this to do with science fiction, anyway?”

Well, I was thinking last night (as others have done before me) about whether science would be the doom of science fiction. There is an argument that we’re already living in a work of science fiction (which I don’t refute – in fact, I support that bit) and that the more advanced we get, the less interest we’ll have in speculative fiction about the potential futures that await us.

That second bit is, as far as I’m concerned, b*llocks. As a race, we’ve always been fascinated by our future, even back when the art of speculation was far more wild and wooly than it is today (among some writers and scientists, at least). If a certain level of improvement over current circumstances was all that was required, why didn’t we stop dreaming about new methods of transport once we’d learned to domesticate horses? Why didn’t we stick with teepees, instead of learning to bake bricks, pour concrete, assemble steel and glass monoliths?

The answer is progress. We’re progress junkies – we want the same things we always wanted, but more of them, performed more quickly, more efficiently, and with less effort on our (personal) parts. I’m not going to debate the right or wrong of that at the moment (as I don’t have all year), but just throw it out as a point in case.

Until certain laws of physics that are (as far as we know at the moment) unbreakable are butted up against, or we meet a rather sticky end (thanks to an either/or combination of destroying our planet around our ears and not managing to escape its limiting confines), we’re going to keep right on improving the way we do things. But not the things we do – because it’s the things we do that make us human. There may be some gradual drift over time, but our essential human-ness will take a long time to change.

(If you want to use posthumanism or the singularity as a get-out clause here, remember that the former will radically extend lifespan and hence retard the loss of old ideas, and the latter will speed up the clock-rate of the species so that what would seem a fast change now would be the result of subjective millenia.)

What makes us different from primates is our incredible imaginations – our ability to dream beyond the realms of what we already know, to envisage novel answers to old problems without seeing someone else do it first. The problems remain the same, but the answers change.

And that’s a phrase that could be applied equally well to science fiction. Despite descriptions of sf as a ‘literature of ideas’, and the misconceptions of outsiders that it’s just word-porn for technology geeks and people who want to meet aliens, it is actually just a subset of literature – which is just storytelling, no matter how crafty, stylish and weird it chooses to get.

Sf stories are about people surrounded by technology. It is about how those people interact with their technological worlds, be those worlds more or less advanced than our own. The basic formula for science fiction could be stated as ‘take human characters, and expose them to stuff that just isn’t around right now’. The degree of speculation, the impacts of the technology; all of these are important, of course, and are the prerogative of the author. But without people to react to them, it gets nowhere. You can’t write a story about a raygun without a hand to hold it or a person to aim it at. Aliens are usually used as ways of externalising aspects of the human character for detailed examination in an allegorical fashion. And so on.

This is why sf will not die, at least as long as humanity is still in existence. Because for as long as we are still recognisably human (in our minds, at least) we will still wonder what is around the next temporal corner. Ever since we took the almost-magical still-not-understood leap from being smart animals to being men and women, we have always looked ahead to a time when things could be different – maybe (indeed, preferably) better, maybe worse, but different.

We live to dream. Sf is a literature of dreams, based on the notion of technology affecting the world we live in, and hence our place in it. While we still dream, and still have technology, we will still have science fiction. It may not be called that, and it may not be in a format we now recognise as science fiction. But it will be there, nonetheless.

There’s nothing new under the sun, because everything that we see as being new is just a part of ourselves, an externalisation of our desires and our drive to create them in the world that we live in. Science fiction is old news, too. But it’ll be with us forever.

Amen. 😉

Oh, and if you popped over to read this from the Solar Flare blog carnival, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll drop back again some time. Feel free to comment, we’re all friends here.

One thought on “Nothing new under the sun?”

Leave a Reply