The future is already here – what is science fiction doing about it?

As a number of you have probably already noticed, sf author and critic Gwyneth Jones has an excellent article in the Guardian discussing how reality has caught up with science fiction:

“It was called “cyberpunk” […] The manifesto went like this: in the forseeable future there will be no aliens, and no trips to distant planets. Digital technology, however, will get better and better at an incredible rate, throwing up fantastic new gadgets that will not remain in the hands of the wealthy. They will immediately be adopted by “the street”. Every punk will have a supercomputer in his pocket (and this was before desktop PCs, mind you, when video-camera, Wi-Fi internet access phones weren’t even a twinkle in a Finnish eye). And everything else in the world will get much, much, worse.

Much of the science-fiction establishment hated the cyberpunks. Science fiction was supposed to be about progress, and how advances in technology will inevitably create a better world. But they were right, and the truth they told is highly relevant to this new century of sci-fi come true.”

Although clearly written for a lay audience, the points Jones makes are important ones for fans and writers of science fiction, because they highlight what is sometimes described as the genre’s existential crisis – in other words, how does one write insightfully about the future when the future is already here – albeit, as Bill Gibson said, not evenly distributed as of yet?

It’s a singularity of sorts – not like Vinge’s version (at least not entirely), but in the sense that there’s a very near point in time beyond which it is increasingly hard to speculate with any sense of plausibility.

Which is why, I would contend, that the stronger (and arguably more literary) works of science fiction are exactly those which look closer to home in a temporal sense. It’s increasingly hard to write old-fashioned space-opera without it coming across as hokey and dated, not to mention wilfully ignorant of technology, science, economics and politics – at least to an audience that demands more than pure escapism, which I’ll freely admit is not the whole audience by a long shot.

The stuff that is really staying true to the extrapolative agenda, the speculative roots of the genre that grew from the compost of the early pulp material, is the stuff that looks at the issues which we’re already facing – cloning, nanotech, life enhancement and extention, exponentially-increasing power and ubiquity of computing, climate change, resource shortages, socio-economic changes and crises – and looks at them as more than backdrops and props for tales of derring-do and dastardly deeds, treating them instead as characters, forces and players in their own right.

It’s also the only stuff that has a hope of keeping an audience among a cynical younger generation that, when given the chance and not patronised to, are more than smart enough to pick holes in the top layer of any story. They get plenty of practice from watching TV and browsing the web every day, after all.

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