Science fiction’s future-flinch

It occurred to me that, although I mentioned it at Futurismic, I didn’t plug my induction to the hallowed Locus Roundtable blog here at VCTB. So consider this an attempt to redress the issue: should you be interested, you can observe me firehosing my overly verbose and underinformed opinions around in the company of people far more knowledgeable, well-read and concise than myself, covering such topics as the aesthetics of science fiction, sf’s troubled relationship with the (un)foreseeable future, and the travails of genre taxonomy. You can also read my very own “origin story” about how I found my way into the scene (which is a high-water mark of self-indulgent introspection, even for me; selah).

The real purpose of this post, though, is to take the opportunity to post the full text of my response to the “SF vs The Future” question, which – thanks to its prodigious wordcount and numerous digressions – was shaved down somewhat before being included in the final article. To be clear, I had no objections to it being shortened, especially as, in light of the other responses, some of my points were inverted or rendered redundant; I include the full copy here primarily for the sake of adding it to my online archive of critical writing (which I mean to expand with a lot of my as-yet-uncollected reviews and essays in the months to come, time permitting). So, feel free to get stuck in – comments, curses and cries of “what the hell are you on about” are – always – more than welcome. 🙂


OK, so: those of you who follow cyberpunk’s very own apostate chairman-in-voluntary-exile Bruce Sterling with even a shred of the obsessiveness with which I do so (fanboy is as fanboy does, after all) will have encountered his word for the “problem” that sf (and almost every other sphere of human endeavour) is having at the moment: atemporality.

Paraphrasing somewhat (and confessing to considering myself to have the open licence on rewriting the concept to suit my needs that said concept implicitly embeds within itself): atemporality is basically end-case po-mo (and has also been labelled as “altermodernism”). It’s what the world looks like when the conceptual space you inhabit is – and always was – saturated with po-mo’s erasure of metanarrative; when you’ve learned from birth that if you don’t construct your own narratives pretty fast, someone else will construct them on your behalf. (And then charge you for the privilege of featuring in them, most likely, unless you’re on the lower tiers of their freemium package, in which case you’re getting some sort of intangible and easy-to-scale benefit in exchange for reinforcing said narrative. But I digress… which is very unlike me, I know, and your indulgence is appreciated.)

The Future (caps deliberate) was old-school sf’s metanarrative; The Future used to be somewhere awesome and clean which we could either build, conquer or travel to. But the closer we got to the real (uncapitalised) future, the more it looked like… well, a lot like today, really, or even yesterday, only faster, more ruthless, more worn at the corners, and packed full of grim new threats alongside a remarkably persistent cast of old classics (Teh 4 Horsemen Haz A Posse). The future isn’t somewhere that anyone – except possibly the more hardcore transhumanists, who are getting intriguingly vocal and self-assured of late – wants to escape to. Indeed, I think most of us, at some level or another, are more interested in escaping from the future.

So there’s your crisis… and to paraphrase the late Doug Adams, it’s a difficult crisis for us to see for the very same reason that a tourist in Trafalgar Square struggles to see England. What’s interesting is the schism between the two responses to it, which I’m going to hastily label Consolatory Nostalgia and The Future As Engineering Problem (and doubtless regret the choice of labels later, but hey, this is how the altermodern critic works – it makes sense to me at the moment I’m writing it, and that’s pretty much the best I can hope for).

Interestingly, you can see these same responses cropping up in a lot of other arts, though sf’s history of speculating about the future gives it a set of tools which, while available to many other types of artist, it has a unique familiarity and aptitude with. As such, Consolatory Nostalgia pretty much rules the world of music right now: a pandaemonium of subsubsubcultures, all based on reappropriating the nice idealised aspects of bygone eras (and, of course, glossing over the nasty bits, which tend to be spookily mirrored by events in The Now) by mimicking the sounds of that moment. (Interesting, though, how the 80s revival in music and fashion started long before anyone but the smarter economists saw our latest financial shitrain nudging its way over the horizon; a smart person with time on their hands could probably learn to read these things like tea-leaves… though monetising it – as always – would be the real challenge.)

Indeed, music seems to be going through its own double-dip creative recession; even the traditionally futurist field of electronica is deep in a trough of retro. Electronica was pop music’s High Modernist moment, the point after which the ultimate experimental possibilities were, if not actually exhausted, then at least demonstrated to be little more than intellectual curiosities. There’s only so much you can do with words of English on a page and still have it entertain and fascinate the average non-academic reader; in the same way, there’s only so many different things you can do with the frequencies between 40Hz and 40kHz, which is why pop music is increasingly homogenous, retro revivalism (ironic, faithful or otherwsie) and genre mashups are ubiquitous, and the only true groundbreaking steps being made in music are – quite literally – painful to listen to.

But back to sf, where the Consolatory Nostalgia approach gives us steampunk, increasingly baroque space opera and increasingly violent mil-SF. It’s nostalgia for The Future, for a future we now know we’re never going to get: a future where the imposition of White Western Male-brand hierarchy and order (and maybe a bit of empire, even if only economic in nature) automatically led to Better Things (if only for People Like Us).

Now, what’s interesting to me is that the writers and editors who stand accused by the traditionalists of breaking (e.g. Jetse de Vries) or abandoning the genre (e.g. Bill Gibson) are the ones cleaving most closely to the underlying impetus (if not the intellectual machismo and cryptoracism) of the original Cambellian vision of competent folk solving existential risk problems… or, in other words, of The Future As Engineering Problem. Now that it’s become plain that strong-jawed men with toolkits going places in rockets won’t change much for anyone but the strong-jawed men themselves, then that dream of strong-jawed manliness becomes Narcissus’ reflection. Why look at the real future when The Future we dreamed up before was so much more user-friendly? Much space opera and much mil-SF, as has been pointed out by far smarter folk than me many times before, is actually fantasy with rayguns, and is becoming more and more so; steampunk is fantasy with, er, steam. It is escapism. And there is nothing wrong with that, either; diff’rent strokes, and all that.

But you can get a fairly decent idea of what the future will look like if you stop staring into the mirror of The Future and turn your eyes to The Now. It’s not a pretty picture, granted, but from a writer’s perspective it’s packed full of interesting and genuinely terrifying ways to place your characters – and the rest of their species – in some very deep shit indeed, and without the need for any of the implausible aliens or FTL-powered empires or other stuff from The Future. But the sort of inquisitive mind that spots those potholes in the turnpike is probably the sort of mind that finds itself wondering if there’s a way to swerve and avoid them… or even take another road (the ultimate Route Less Travelled) entirely. We’re going to end up in the future whether we like it or not… so why not think about how we can make it slightly less terrifying? Or, like jaggedly gloomy gadfly Paolo Bacigalupi, become a sort of mudlark prophet, digging around in the slimiest recesses of our planetary psyche for the end-games of our wilful ignorances. “If this goes on…” is another classic sf riff, but the guy plays it on a guitar strung with cheesewire.

(I should note at this point that it seems eminently possible to use classic widescreen skiffy tropes to examine The Now in pertinent ways, and I would offer David Marusek as an example thereof; likewise, I’m sure there’s steampunk that does more than yearn for a past when the future was still full of promise, and that there’s small-m mundane sf that falls into every consolatory drinking-den it passes. These patterns are observed generalisations rather than proscriptive divisions, so tell the villagers to douse the torches and put away the pitchforks, mmmkay?)

So, to answer – at long last – Karen’s question: is sf struggling to catch up with the future we’ve found ourselves in? I don’t think it is; I think a non-mathematical half of it has lost all interest in the future (because it doesn’t look like The Future, refunds are not forthcoming, and re-runs are as comforting for the viewer as they are cheap for the broadcasters), while the other half is doing its best to not get sucked across the singularity and into the future before managing to come up with a way to survive the experience (with being able to walk away afterwards considered a definite bonus).

Sf isn’t struggling to catch up with the future; on the contrary, it’s schism’d and reeling from having met the future in person, unexpectedly and with some considerable threat of violence, in an alley behind a franchise restaurant in downtown Mumbai.

2 thoughts on “Science fiction’s future-flinch”

  1. The problem is we need to turn the cold eye of science onto science fiction.

    There is SF:BST and SF:ASW

    Science Fiction: Before Star Trek and Science Fiction: After Star Wars

    LOL

    The “strong-jawed men with toolkits going places” were from long before Star Trek. Things started getting more complicated in the 60s. But Star Wars taught lots of people that there was LOTS OF MONEY to be made with stuff that wasn’t very scientific and wasn’t very smart. So now we have googleplexes of people who claim they like science fiction but it doesn’t take much conservation with them to notice that they are not very scientific in their thinking and don’t want to be, but they will proudly call themselves geeks anyway. They are mundanes with a veneer of Star Wars.

    But the laws of physics are the same in the present as they were in the past and they will be the same in the future. So if a sci-fi reader doesn’t understand basic Newtonian physics what does that say about our real future.

    Ray Bradbury said he wasn’t trying to predict the future he was trying to prevent it. Is the present the result of a FAILURE of enough people to read and UNDERSTAND good science fiction? Arthur C. Clarke said that politicians should read science fiction.

    So what so called sci-fi sells versus what science fiction does a good job of projecting, or warning about, the future may be two very different things. So we have a present full of computers and lots of unscientific people using them for social networking. It’s the TWITTER Future. But The Space Merchants from the 50s gave us a more useful but scary vision.
    .

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