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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

the predictive purpose of science fiction?

This has come up on a couple of mailing lists I'm on recently, and I'm afraid my reaction is a profound and heartfelt "ehn."

More specifically, I tend to think of science fiction--or speculative fiction, if you prefer, since I'm cheerfully embracing papersky's definition of SF as a more limited subset of fantasy and mimetic fiction as a more limited subset of SF--as the literature of testing to destruction. Science fiction is the genre that lets the writer break stuff--the rules of physics, cultural expectations, mores, planets, societies--in an assortment of interesting ways, and look at the consequences.

I'm not interested in predicting the future. I'm writing for now--and, well, hopefully people fifty years on will find what I write interesting, but sister, I know it'll be dated. Litfic dates too. It doesn't signify--it really doesn't. Some stuff dates more troublingly than others--generally because it's accepting of cultural mores rather than questioning of them--but if it's any good, the questions that it addresses are significant enough that they don't get hashed out in a generation or two.

Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that I'm not really all that interested in second-guessing the future, although I do engage in a good bit of of-this-goes-on, and I try to ground my near-future scenarios, at least, in semiplausible geopolitics.

I used to get very bogged down in creating believable science, rather than in making the science I invented believable. It was actually Brian Aldiss who broke me of that particular bad habit, because I realized that if he could get away with giant space spiders spinning webs between the earth and the moon, well--the sky's the limit.

I think that's what sensawunda is about. Not possibility, but plausibility. Possible stuff does not create sensawunda.

Sensawunda comes from "holy-bugaboo, that is the shit!"--Steve Brust's Cool Shit Theory Of Literature, in other words. In other words, yeah, yeah, Ringworld engineering problems, FTL doesn't work, ESP and time travel are not science, nit-pick nit-pick.

Yeah, we know. But the thing is, we're engaged in telling stories, not providing blueprints.

Yeah yeah. I know. I'm on it, already. Gimme the giant spiders and the positronic brains and the jaunting--or the teleportation of Mars as a plot device. (I'd say gimme slow glass, but AFAIK slow glass is still possible as well as plausible.)

Which is not to say there's not some real good writers doing real good work with the possible, or the nearly-possible, or the only slightly handwaved--but that's not my patch. I'm over here breaking stuff, just to see what happens when I do.


The thing about slow glass though, is well, the glass I think would become blindingly bright. Imagine 10 years worth of sunny days stored in an inch thick piece of glass. That's a lot of sunshine, baby.

I'm just saying. :-p

Ken, Not A Physicist
SF's predictive capacities have not been all that stellar, if you'll excuse the pun. 60s and 70s SF, for example, completely failed to anticipate the increased miniaturisation of technology, though the genre may have scored slightly better on environmental predictions (time will indeed tell).

I've always been more interested in exploring people in particular social environments - contemporary or futuristic - and exploring those environments themselves, than doing the scientific community a service that it doesn't really need or, God knows, appreciate ("You and your doom-mongering!")

It's slightly depressing, perhaps, that the book of mine that has sold best in the US is the one that doesn't really go in-depth into anything (POISON MASTER - except possibly drugs). Go figure...
SF's predictive record stacks up well against the records of futurologists and other experts: If there is ever another Europe-wide war, it will be conducted in a much more civilized manner than the Great War. After WW II ends, the parking problem in American city's will be solved completely.

On the other hand, SF often misses what has already happened. Example: Arthur C. Clarke and other English writers in the 1950s tended to take for granted that England would continue to be a great power.
Though I enjoy reading predictive stuff that goes into scientific ideas, and extrapolating possible repercussions, what I like writing about are what-if scenarios involving social change. In that sense, a very modest, sense, it could be considered predictive . . . but so could the great novels by female authors of the 19th century when they posited subtle what-ifs within the contexts of their times, what-ifs invisible to us today because people obviously tried on their ideas and fitted them into lives.
what I like writing about are what-if scenarios involving social change


One thing I find odd about this theme is that it seems that the advocates of SF-as-technological-prediction seem to put the rest of us on the defensive. By any standard, otoh, I don't think the other side has made its case. Be it market share, impact on society or lasting interest, engineering porn's about as marginal a subgenre as there is, I think -
Good example - the Mars trilogy is an almost perfect case of fictionalized science. Sit down with the proceedings for the Case for Mars III conference, and you can pretty much map the articles to the story.

It does open up the prospect of a whole genre of textbook novelizations :P

But what got missed in there is exactly the "testing to destruction" Bear mentions - you could take the social consequences of his technology and *push* a lot harder: long-lived people holding onto political power through centuries of inconceivable technical and social change, the consequences of an underground mystery religion - you'd have to wonder if they'd turn all that biotech capability to psycho-/theo-pharmacology....

So there you have the next ten years of *my* career... :-)
Shelley's work is very much extrapolation. She's drawing her science from Galvani and his dead jumpin' frogs. I mean, yes, the monster appeared in a dream, but without the experiment everyone had been talking about, it wouldn't've been nearly as compelling.
I think the best SF/F is a combination of social commentary and an elaborate game of "what if". Others' tastes may vary. ;-)
A future I use as a setting has to be one I can believe in, at least for long enough to write the story.

And I don't want to do the equivalent of getting a story about the Soviet Union taking over the world published right after the Soviet Union breaks up.

"Possible stuff does not create sensawunda." Offhand, I'd say that predicting the current Internet in 1950 would've created more sense of wonder than using FTL as a plot device. Possible stuff which most people don't realize is possible beats "It's lovely space gadgets for dinner again."
Offhand, I'd say that predicting the current Internet in 1950 would've created more sense of wonder than using FTL as a plot device.

I'm not entirely convinced, but that raises a terrifically interesting question -

I think there's a delicate balance between intriguing - engaging, stimulating, encouraging of taking a next step - and excessively alien - overwhelming, distancing, causing a retreat back into the familiar.

An example of this principle is the "everyday" technology in SF TV/movies, which is typically about ten years from current, rather than what anyone would seriously extrapolate. Star Trek's communicators, eg. Ditto social behavior.

At its worst, the principle is applied as "change one thing and keep everything else constant." At its best, tech and social elements are used to create a bridge between the reader's here-and-now and the radically new element.

I mean, imagine a story built around a contemporary suburban day delivered to a 1950 audience - half-naked, tattooed and body-pierced kids sexually active with their same-sex partners, Viagra ads on the flatscreen TV interrupting shows in which people eat pureed rats, 6000-square-foot, million-dollar homes paid for by people whose work seems to consist of talking on tiny radiotelephones all day, where the government's conducting an $80 billion/year war against Oceania but can't put people into space, while plucky desert rats can....

Heads would explode, authors would be lynched. We're definitely not talking bestseller territory here.

But take the self-concept, the myths, of *that* society, repackage them in shiny-new, tell them how wonderful they are but hint at a touch of darkness behind the glittering facade - or play to their darkest fears, fears grounded in their reality, not in the horror of the unknown... There you have the stories that resonate.

Offhand, I'd say that predicting the current Internet in 1950 would've created more sense of wonder than using FTL as a plot device

I don't see that. Gibson created (to me) sensawunda with The Matrix, and considerably later than the 50s. Vinge didn't create sensawunda really with someting pretty close to the current Internet. Considerably more so than Gibson's vision. I'd take true names and other dangers over Neuromancer as a more accurate version of the Internet. And Vinge pre-dated Gibson by quite a bit.

Then again, I read True Names well after Neuromancer.
Apropos of all this, from Sci Fi Wire...

Straczynski added that he felt that the current stewards of the [Star Trek] series have been too cautious in their stories, and the franchise has suffered as a result. "Over time, Trek was treated like a porsche that's kept in the garage all the time, for fear of scratching the finish," Straczynski said. "The stories were, for the most part, safe, more about technology than what William Faulkner described as 'the human heart in conflict with itself.'

What the man said...
Possible stuff does not create sensawunda.

The defence calls Greg Egan, m'lud!

(I'm all for story first, science second, and lord knows I agree that sf ain't about prediction [1], but I don't buy I don't believe that possible science is less mind-expanding than the made-up stuff. Sometimes the reverse is even true.)

[1] Although tangentially, I've always thought that Brave New World holds up better than 1984 because Huxley nailed an enduring social truth, whereas I always felt that Orwell got the implications of his technology ... not wrong, exactly, but not as right as he might have done.
Greg Egan's got a better imagination than I do. Also, it's been established, I believe, that he's an AI.