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what the voices in my head tell me to write

Friday, August 31, 2007

Is writing science fiction futile? 

I was talking with Rae last night about Sci-fi in general. Rae isn't a sci-fi fan at all but is quite curious about some of the weird and wonderful books I read.

I mentioned that every older sci-fi book that tried to predict the future we are living in now turns out to be comprehensively wrong as the author doesn't know that technology X is coming along which changes everything.

From Jules Verne through the golden age of Asimov and Clarke to the modern day cyberpunks and post-cyberpunks sci-fi authors have tried to write books set 50 years in the future (The millennium was always a good date too). Jules Verne's astronauts traveled to the moon in a giant artillery shell as he didn't predict the advances in rockets. Clarke wrote stories of spaceships flitting across the void with hardly any communications between them and William Gibson wrote about cyberspace but didn't know mobile phones would revolutionize communications.

As I see it there are 3 routes open to a modern sci-fi author.

  1. Complete fantasy. Make up anything you like. Lets face it more or less anything might happen so why not make up stuff. Telepathy, faster than light travel, Gods walking the earth as Neil Gamain writes in American Gods and Anansi Boys.
  2. Set your book more or less in the present or only a very short time ahead. William Gibson and Neal Stephenson have used this well in books like Spook Country and Cryptonomicon.
  3. Try and predict the future like those that have gone before you. Something like Bruce Sterlings later books such as Heavy Weather and Distraction.

Where sci-fi is really good is when it uses the future to tell us important things about the present. Asimov's I Robot stories told us about the human condition using a robot to explain what it is like to be human. Neuromancer tells us about the breakdown of society in the face of mega-corporations and how the fringes of a society are its most interesting parts.

Writers like Charles Stross who believe in the singularity and transhumanisim have an even harder task. They believe the future is totally and utterly unpredictable past a given point but they still try to write about it but not in terms of complete fantasy. At the same time Stross' imaginings of more or less immortal transhuman beings living in facilities orbiting distant brown dwarf stars in the distant future can provide insights into our current lives and condition.

I have always loved sci-fi ever since I used to get all the books with yellow covers from the mobile library when I was about 13 (Gollcanz' Masters of Sci Fi series of reprints always had bright yellow covers, you could judge a book by its cover back then). Sci-fi makes important points that "serious literature" often misses as it dismisses sci-fi as "genre fiction" and lumps it together with crime novels and romantic fiction etc. Crime novels have been "rehabilitated" to some extent in the last few years. Its time to come out of the shadows for serious sci-fi.

Permanent link and Comments posted by Rob Cornelius @ Friday, August 31, 2007

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