Author Topic: IS SCIENCE FICTION DYING? by Marcus Chown  (Read 1926 times)

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Sci-fi special: Is science fiction dying?

12 November 2008 by Marcus Chown

YEARS ago, on one of my first assignments for New Scientist, I was sent to London's Dorchester Hotel to interview Carl Sagan, the American astronomer. Sagan was famous for his popular science books, the blockbuster TV series Cosmos, and his science fiction novel Contact, which was turned into a film starring Jodie Foster. Rather overawed by Sagan's palatial suite and by meeting the man himself, I asked him which he preferred - science or science fiction? "Science," he replied without hesitation. "Because science is stranger than science fiction."

That was two decades ago. Since then, we have discovered that 73 per cent of the mass-energy of the universe is in the form of mysterious "dark energy", invisible stuff whose repulsive gravity is speeding up cosmic expansion; we have discovered micro-organisms surviving in total darkness kilometres down in solid rock and even around the cores of nuclear reactors; and we have seen the rise of superstring theory, which views the ultimate building blocks of matter as impossibly small "strings" that vibrate in a 10-dimensional space. If science was stranger than science fiction at the time Sagan spoke to me, it is even more strange now.

This has led some to claim that science - and its handmaiden, technology - are changing so fast that it is impossible for science fiction to keep up. In the past, science fiction notably failed to predict the transistor, whose year-on-year miniaturisation has enabled computers to conquer the modern world. In the future, goes the argument, it is going to be even harder for science fiction writers to predict the technological developments which will transform our lives. Science fiction, claim the doomsayers, is dead - or, if not dead, in terminal decline.

"The discussion of whether science has made science fiction obsolete has been going on at science fiction conventions as long as I have attended them," says John Cramer, a science fiction writer and a physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle. "I even recall, perhaps 15 years ago, a prominent editor of science fiction novels asserting that the space programme had made science fiction based on space travel unnecessary."

Such claims seem reminiscent of the perennial claims that science is dead or dying, most famously expounded by the prominent physicist Lord Kelvin in 1900, when he declared: "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." This, of course, was just before the atom came apart, the quantum genie burst free and all scientific hell broke loose. In the case of science fiction, the premise of the doomsayers' claims is that the genre is about predicting the future. In fact, very little of it is.

The question "What is science fiction?" is often the subject of heated debate. However, at its most basic level, science and the extrapolation of science simply provide alternative worlds in which to set a story. Storytellers have invoked different worlds ever since hunter-gatherers regaled their companions with tales that took them out of themselves and gave meaning to the events of their daily existence.

As well as a mere storytelling device, science fiction often articulates our present-day concerns and anxieties - paradoxically, it is often about the here and now rather than the future. As Stephen Baxter points out (see "Stephen Baxter"), H. G. Wells's ground-breaking 1895 novella The Time Machine - famous for popularising the idea of time travel - was more concerned with where Darwinian natural selection was taking the human race than with the actual nuts and bolts of time travel. In the 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner imagined the dire consequences of overpopulation. Arthur C. Clarke's The Lion of Comarre explored the terrible allure of computer-generated artificial realities, which - god forbid - people might actually choose over the far-from-seductive messiness of the real world.

All of these books are about imagining where present-day, often worrying, scientific and technological trends might be leading us. They can act as a warning or, at the bare minimum, cushion us from what American writer Alvin Toffler so memorably described as "future shock".

Science fiction is the literature of change. It is no coincidence that it emerged as a recognisable genre with writers such as Jules Verne in the late 19th century, an era when, for the first time in history, children could expect to grow up in a world radically different from that of their parents. As change accelerated in the 20th century, science fiction mushroomed. As long as change is an integral part of our lives, science fiction is likely to survive. Even the fact that science may be stranger than science fiction should not deter writers. "We simply have to keep our thought processes lubricated so as to avoid imagination atrophy," says Cramer. "It's something we 'hard' science fiction writers do as a matter of course."

As long as change is an integral part of our lives, sci-fi is likely to survive
There is, though, a sense in which science fiction, rather than dying, is changing. From the 1930s to the 1950s, science fiction existed in the ghetto of the lurid pulp magazines, with their covers depicting bug-eyed aliens pursuing scantily clad heroines. Thereafter it managed to break free of these shackles, and the modern, semi-respectable science fiction novel was born. Latterly, we have not only seen sci-fi novels hit the mainstream best-seller lists, the genre has reached truly gargantuan audiences through gaming and films such as Star Wars and The Matrix.

Sci-fi themes have infiltrated mainstream fiction too. Malorie Blackman, in her best-selling Noughts and Crosses trilogy for teenagers, explores a world in which the situations of black and white people are reversed. Kazuo Ishiguro, in his beautifully written novel Never Let Me Go, recounts a heartbreaking tale of people who have been cloned specifically to donate their organs, one by one. And what of Nobel-prizewinner Doris Lessing and the "space fiction" of her wonderful Shikasta novels, and Haruki Murakami, Japan's most famous novelist, to whom critics attribute science fiction themes in novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? The lines between what we define as science fiction and "mainstream literature" may be increasingly blurred, but the genre will no doubt always have its own a section in the bookstore, even if only for the mind-bending stuff - aka "hard" sci-fi - that isn't everyone's cup of tea.

Like the dinosaurs that, far from vanishing from the Earth, changed into the birds which still populate the length and breadth of the planet, science fiction has morphed into a multitude of forms, many of which are alive and kicking. The speed of change, highlighted by Sagan, has simply raised the bar for the imagination of the current generation of writers. There is no reason to believe that they will not rise to the challenge.

Sci-fi special: Margaret Atwood
12 November 2008

Is science fiction going out of date? No point asking me - I'm too old - so I had a talk with Randy-at-the-bank, who looks to me to be about 25. (That may mean he's 35: as you get older the young look younger, just as when you're young the old look older. Time is relative. I know that from reading sci-fi.) I knew he was a sci-fi fan because he said he liked Oryx and Crake. So as he was setting loose the key I had somehow got stuck in my own safety-deposit box, I asked him what he thought.

The first part of our conversation was about the meaning of the term science fiction. For Randy - and I think he's representative - sci-fi does include other planets, which may or may not have dragons on them. It includes the wildly paranormal: not your aunt table-tilting or things going creak, but shape-shifters and people with red eyeballs and no pupils, and Things taking over your body. It includes, as a matter of course, space ships and mad scientists and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong. Plain ordinary horror doesn't count - chain-saw murderers and such. Randy and I both agreed that you might meet one of those walking along the street. It's what you would definitely not meet walking along the street that counts, for Randy. And he doesn't think these things are going out of date.

I agree with him. Not all of science fiction is "science" - science occurs in it as a plot-driver, a tool, but all of it is fiction. This narrative form has always been with us: it used to be the kind with angels and devils in it. It's the gateway to the shadowiest and also the brightest part of our human imaginative world; a map of what we most desire and also what we most fear. That's why it's an important form. It points to what we'd do if we could. And increasingly, thanks to "science", we can.

Sci-fi special: Stephen Baxter
12 November 2008

It's true that many of the old dreams of science fiction have been fulfilled, or bypassed. And it does feel as if we're living through a time of accelerating change. But science fiction has - rarely - been about the prediction of a definite future, more about the anxieties and dreams of the present in which it is written. In H. G. Wells's day the great shock of evolutionary theory was working its way through society, so Wells's 1895 classic The Time Machine is not really a prediction of the year 802,701 AD but an anguished meditation on the implications of Darwinism for humanity.

As science has moved on, a whole variety of science-fictional "futures" has been generated. In 1950s and 1960s we had tales of nuclear warfare and its aftermath, like Walter Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz. The 1980s saw an explosion of computing power that led to "cyberpunk" fantasies such as William Gibson's Neuromancer. Today we have the possibilities of a trans-human future opened up by information technology and biotechnology - see books like Paul McAuley's The Secret of Life as a response. And the great issues of climate change are explored in, for instance, Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capitol series and my own Flood. Science fiction is a way of dealing with change, of learning about it, of internalising it - not so much prophecy as a kind of mass therapy, perhaps. Of course nowadays you get a book like Maggie Gee's The Flood, a disaster story of the near future, published without any reference to the genre at all. I don't particularly think this is bad. In fact it shows the success of sci-fi and its methods. Science fiction has been assimilated, but it's still there, still serving the same function.

In the coming years, whatever else we run out of - oil, fresh water, clean air - change itself will not be in short supply. So there will be no shortage of raw material for science fiction, and a need for it, however it's labelled in the bookshops.

Sci-fi special: William Gibson
12 November 2008 by William Gibson

The Future of Science Fiction? We're living in it. Those "Future History" charts in the back of every Robert A Heinlein paperback, when I was about 14, had the early 21st century tagged as the "Crazy Years". He had an American theocratic dictatorship happening about then. I hope we miss that one. Otherwise, I'm assuming these are those years.

The thing called science fiction that we do with literature will always be with us. The genre we've called science fiction since about 1927, maybe not so much. That's something to do with the nature of genres, though, and nothing to do with the nature of science fiction.

The single most useful thing I've learned from science fiction is that every present moment, always, is someone else's past and someone else's future. I got that as a child in the 1950s, reading science fiction written in the 1940s; reading it before I actually knew much of anything about the history of the 1940s or, really, about history at all. I literally had to infer the fact of the second world war, reverse-engineering my first personal iteration of 20th-century history out of 1940s science fiction. I grew up in a monoculture - one I found highly problematic - and science fiction afforded me a degree of lifesaving cultural perspective I'd never have had otherwise. I hope it's still doing that, for people who need it that way, but these days lots of other things are doing that as well.

A few years out from discovering Heinlein's Future History chart, I adopted, as a complete no-brainer, J G Ballard's dictum that "Earth is the alien planet", that the future is pretty much now. Outer space (as far as science fiction went) became metaphorical. Became inner space.

When I started to write science fiction myself, in my mid-twenties, I found I could only leave Earth in a self-consciously nostalgic, low-orbit sort of way, the future having migrated into different emergent constructs, one of which I decided to call "cyberspace".

When I was twelve, I wanted nothing more than to be a science fiction writer. Today, I'm not sure I ever really became one. I suspect I was already something else when I began - probably what Donald Theall (1928-2008) defined as "paramodernist", meaning any cultural text that is neither modern nor postmodern, but can be classified as either/both). I took it for granted that the present moment is always infinitely stranger and more complex than any "future" I could imagine. My craft would be (for a while, anyway) one of importing steamingly weird fragments of the ever-alien present into "worlds" (as we say in science fiction) that purported to be "the future".

If I could magically access one body of knowledge from the real future, I think I'd choose either their history of the ancient past or whatever they might have that most resembles science fiction. The products of two different speculative activities. They'll know a lot more about our past than we do, and trying to reverse-engineer history out of dreams, as I recall, was quite a uniquely exciting activity.

Sci-fi special: Ursula K Le Guin
12 November 2008 by Ursula K Le Guin

It's daunting to try and talk about "the future of" any kind of fiction, even the future of books themselves, when publishing is in such a tumult of technological change. Will print-on-demand save the book? Will we all soon be reading novels on our cellphones like the Japanese? R U redE 4 prose to devolve into interactive texting? Or is the letter dead? Nobody knows. But I'd guess that some interesting science fiction will turn up in such forms as the graphic novel and the animated film. "Live" sci-fi films with expensive effects got stuck in the dumbo blockbuster mode, but graphics and animation are as supple and free - almost - as writers' and readers' imaginations, and we've barely begun to see the intelligence and beauty those forms can embody.

Science fiction that pretended to show us the future couldn't keep up with the present. It failed to foresee the electronic revolution, for example. Now that science and technology move ever faster, much science fiction is really fantasy in a space suit: wishful thinking about galactic empires and cybersex - often a bit reactionary. Things are livelier over on the social and political side, where human nature, which doesn't revise itself every few years, can be relied on to provide good solid novel stuff. Writers like Geoff Ryman and China Miéville are showing the way, or Michael Chabon, who foregoes the future to give us a marvellous alternate present in The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

The distinction between science fiction and realism was never as clear as the genre snobs wanted it to be. I rejoice to think that both terms are already largely historical; they are moulds from which literature is breaking free, as it always does, to find new forms.

Sci-fi special: Kim Stanley Robinson
12 November 2008

Science fiction is now simply realism, the definition of our time. You could imagine the genre therefore melting into everything else and disappearing. But stories will always be set in the future, it being such an interesting space, and there is a publishing category devoted to them. So there is a future for science fiction.

It will get harder to do, though, because it needs to spring from the realities of the time, not from some past decade's ideas. These days rapid technological change, volatile global politics and inevitable climate change all combine with contingency to make imagining our real future impossible. Something will happen, but we can't know what.

One solution is to jump past the next century to the familiar comforts of space fiction. If we survive we'll get out there, and it's a great story zone. Without the next century included, though, the imagined historical connection between now and then will be broken, and space fiction will become a kind of fantasy. We need to imagine the whole thing.

So we have to do the impossible and imagine the next century. The default probability is bad - not just dystopia but catastrophe, a mass extinction event that we will have caused and then suffered ourselves. That's a story we should tell, repeatedly, but it's only half the probability zone. It is also within our powers to create a sustainable permaculture in a healthy biosphere.

The future is thus a kind of attenuating peninsula, running forward with steep drops to both sides. There isn't any possibility of muddling through with some good and some bad; we either solve the problems or fail disastrously. It's either utopia or catastrophe. Science fiction is good at both these modes. Will it be fun too? Fun, entertaining, provocative. Yes.

Sci-fi special: Nick Sagan
12 November 2008

For a genre that's about looking to the future, science fiction has sure been looking backwards lately. Nostalgia is what sells best, with readers spending their money on movie tie-in novels and sequels to long-running series. Yes, there have been trailblazing new sci-fi books (as a look at the past few years of Hugo winners will attest), but more readers seem to prefer established universes like Star Wars and Dune. Even the writers who have broken through have benefited from a sense of nostalgia - John Scalzi's magnificent Old Man's War series is unapologetically Heinleinian, a touchstone to the glory days of sci-fi. We're snacking on comfort food. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as some of it is excellent. But it does raise the question of where science fiction is going.

British and Canadian sci-fi strikes me as more forward-looking than its American counterpart, as evidenced by the success of Iain M. Banks, Charlie Stross, Robert Charles Wilson and Cory Doctorow. American sci-fi has fallen into the doldrums in part because of the anti-science sentiment that's so prevalent in our culture lately.

We've been pushed to care more about aesthetic engineering than the wonder of science ("How cool is the new iPod Touch?"). We have not been asking the serious questions about the future of our species, questions sci-fi regularly explores by showing us the best and worst of what could be. When the world is inspired by a bold new scientific initiative on the scale of an Apollo programme, say, renewable energy to protect our planet from climate change, or a crewed mission to Mars where we actually set foot on another world - then a sweeping resurgence in science fiction will usher in a fresh generation of readers, and the genre will move in exciting, unexpected new directions.