Monday 8 October 2012

On Mediocrity

It's been said, with some truth, that SF writers have given up thinking seriously about the near future. The problem, so the commonplace wisdom goes, is that so many elements of the real world are now changing so rapidly, and so unpredictably, that there's no sense of a clear path before us. By contrast, writers used to have it a lot easier in the past. They could see the way things were going, they could sense the winds of change. The pace of technological and social change was quickening, but it had yet to turn into a blizzard of endless innovation and rapid obsolescence. The foundations of the present seemed surer.

I'm not sure about this. I agree that serious speculation about the near future has, with some honorable exceptions, been generally neglected - and I've scarcely got good form in this regard - but I'm not convinced that there is anything particularly difficult about writing about the future now, as opposed to twenty or fifty or a hundred years ago. That, it seems to me, would be making a claim that there is something exceptional about our own time, and I'm not sure that this is the case. There is a very powerful interpretive principle in science which says that it is unwise to make any exceptional statements about one's own viewpoint. In cosmology, for instance, insisting that the Earth is at the center of things leads to a cockeyed view of the universe in which the celestial clockwork has to be jigged to make the Sun go around the Earth. It is much simpler, and more elegant, to assume that the Earth occupies no special position within the solar system. Just as powerfully, demoting the Sun to the status of being merely another star leads to a richer appreciation of our own unexceptional place within the Milky Way galaxy. And assuming that the Milky Way is itself an unexceptional spiral galaxy leads to the staggering appreciation that the Big Bang was the creation not just of matter, but of the very fabric of reality, spacetime. Heady stuff, indeed - and what does it have to do with SF? Not much, perhaps, but I'd suggest that that same Principle of Mediocrity - the rejection that our viewpoint is priveleged - ought to apply just as squarely to history as it does to observations of planets and galaxies.

Whether or not SF is the literature of the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution, it has existed in the form that we currently recognise it for only a couple of centuries, and perhaps rather less than that. I would argue, in fact, that there has been almost no point in the last 150 - 200 years in which the future has been any easier or harder to prognosticate than is now the case. 2012 is an astonishingly difficult thing to get a handle on - but then again, 1912 must have seemed much the same. HG Wells, who was born a century before me, lived to see electricity, mechanization, powered flight, two world wars, atomic weapons, radio, television and the dawn of the jet age. That's an astonishing number of things to cram into one life - but I don't think Wells' life was exceptional in that regard. Much the same could be said of almost any writer born since the start of the nineteenth century. The future has always been arriving faster than we might wish, and it certainly has no requirement to make life easier for SF writers.


  1. It's not that it's harder to write about the future now, it's just much easier to forget about all the crap writing that was done in the past and only recall the luminaries.

    Just as, in a decade or so, no one will remember Twilight or the 50 Shades of Grey series, no one remembers the Twilight or 50 Shades of H. G. Wells' era.

    1. I wouldn't necessary agree, remember Lady Chatterley's Lover?

  2. This makes me optimistic, especially because so many more people these days seem to think our kind of doomy capitalistic viewpoint in America is how things work (unless that's me privileging my political viewpoint as I get older and more aware). I want to just tell these depressed people about evolution, that "survival of the fittest" only means that what we have the best out of what happened right before, not the best out of every possibility. Optimism takes some imagination and I dig science and your books for that.

  3. Hi Alastair,

    I would be very interested to know who the 'honorable exceptions' are regarding near future sci-fi, assuming I haven't read them already I'd love to give them a read. I've got to admit I really like near future fiction, perhaps even more than space opera; I like to think that 'I could live through this' and it really get's me thinking about where we're immediately headed.


  4. Anons: I didn't want to get into naming names particularly, as I was bound to forget someone. But if you look at very recent British SF, say last five years, Ken Macleod, Charles Stross and Ian MacDonald have all done serious near future stuff.

    As I said at the top of the post, my own track record is not very good but it's certainly something I'm more and more interested in. BRE was at least my attempt at something a little closer to the present, but I'd like to do more of it.

    Re: the other comment, I'm not sure this is about something as polar as optimism versus pessimism. My point was more that it's a cop out to argue that the future, doomy or otherwise, is in some way less knowable than it was in the past.

  5. I think the problem is that most of us would like to think that we will technologically advanced in the future - we see sci-fi films and series that give us an idea of the future they think we may have but the reality is far less glamourous. Planet hoping, dark matter drives, and teleportation to name a few still seem to be as far off now as they were in the 80's when Blakes Seven used them!
    30 years on, have we made any real advancements?
    OK, so we have a rover on Mars - when does the colonization start?
    Not in my life time (and I hope to have at least 60 more years!)

  6. The future creeps up on you, though. If you showed someone form 1982 a snapshot of the headlines from 2012, I think they would find much of it adequately science fictional. People with neural implants, operating prosthetic limbs - surgeons visiting trauma wards via telerobotic avatars - cars that drive themselves, now legal in Nevada - brain scans that can begin to reconstruct visual memories - smartphones, ipads, autonomous drones ... where do you want to stop? All this stuff is here, now, in the real world. Oh, and there's a machine wandering around on Mars that can make decisions for itself...

    1. Which is in some form a precursor itself to the robotic construction crews depicted terraforming in the Mars triology by Kim Stanley Robinson, released in 1993, set in 2026, which puts it as written 19 years ago and starting in 14 years... He seems pretty on the money.

  7. I guess living with technology makes you less aware of the advancements we have made!
    You are right - 1982 Pete(Me) we be astounded by 2012 Pete and his gadgets and gizmo's!

  8. James Davis Nicoll11 October 2012 at 08:03

    Having just listened to the entirety of X Minus One, Exploring Tomorrow, and Mindwebs (to the extent their entireties exist online) I can assure current SF authors they cannot possibly do a worse job predicting the near future than SF authors did on average in the past.

    (I was a bit surprised when mobile phones turned up in a reread of Armageddon 2419 A.D. and even more surprised when someone linked to an article from the 191xs pointing out mobile phones would mean never being more than a couple of seconds away from work)

  9. Mobile phones show up in Heinlein somewhere, if I'm remembering rightly.

  10. James Davis Nicoll11 October 2012 at 09:54

    Yes, in Space Cadet and other places (Armageddon 2419 A.D. predated Space Cadet by a fair piece).

    As an example of the pitfalls of prognostication, what Heinlein didn't imagine was a phone that could be turned off. This is because The Phone Company in olden days was really hostile to the idea and they owned the phones people used so could dictate terms.

    On a related note, in one his futurist books Herman Kahn demonstrates a familiarity with what we'd call Moore's Law but he didn't make the jump to lots of small powerful machines. Instead he thought there would be some extremely powerful mainframes and people would link to those.

  11. If I had to guess, maybe Western society just grew up with skewed futurological expectations.

    The "Golden Age" (more like the Leaden Age in terms of prose and characters) was all about whitebread teen engineer heroes taking a bus-trip to Zeta Reticuli and defeating/bringing culture to the Other, based on so-so extrapolation of the progress of transportation speed,PR of the technocratic movement and the fact you couldn't let your heroes credibly travel to traditional strange shores like Lilliput or Utopia.

    When the Great Space Civilization failed to come into being frustration set in and people who were good in physics, economics and engineering spoke about the elephant in the room (let's call them the Strossists).

    The technosphere shifted focus from the macro- to the micro-realm (microelectronics and consorts). After a period of knowledge development in these fields we may be able to turn our attention towards megascale projects ('cause then we will have sufficiently smart robotics and computer modelling to realize space habitats, etc. in an energy- and money-efficient way).

    Till then, however... It's entertaining to read about manned asteroid-mining ships in 40 years from now or a colonized solar system in 150, but I don't have much hope they will rise above the level of fiction in these timespans.

    As for good near-futurists, I suggest John Brunner (especially "The Sheep Look Up") and Bruce Sterling.

  12. James Davis Nicoll12 October 2012 at 13:24

    Note that the people who are working on exploiting asteroids are using robots, not tinned ape....

  13. Well, all I can see from Cameron and the Google goons behind Planetary Resources is CGI-heavy press conferences and outsourcing of work to nameless astronomy teams who catalogue asteroids discovered by third-party hardware, and all that in an effort to give themselves a visionary image and win the public's favour...

  14. Mobile phones (or at least the mechanics and usage thereof) really appeared in substance in the original star trek. Basically, Kirk used speaker-phone all the time. Actually, if I can actually find gainful employment and generate some actual free-time therefrom, I plan to upgrade my original star trek medical tricorder replica with a flat-screen from my old HTC Touch smartphone, and install a sensor or two in the cool little cylinder that came with it to make it really real. Mr. Reynolds, please continue to work on your prose and produce more excellent sci fi. As a fan, I feel the genre is not dead (or future-shocked, as indicated in your earlier blog). Only, it seems to be reaching a saturation-point. Too many cooks. Too many crooks. Luckily, you were a genius of the genre before there were so many cacophonous 'geniouses' nattering on. Sorry to spout my own ideas again: I do remember in your only (treasured) personal communication to me that that was my annoying habit and Achille's heel. This post will probably never appear, so what the heck: here goes nothin' again. Altruism and the greater good is such a crappy business model. To whit: