The question is often asked:

The future of sci-fi

Is science fiction dying, asks Marcus Chown

What does the future hold for the genre of science fiction? We asked six leading writers:

Margaret Atwood

Stephen Baxter

William Gibson

Ursula K Le Guin

Kim Stanley Robinson

Nick Sagan

You can read what actual, you know, writers have to say on the subject, or you can read an opinion from a wannabe like myself.

I’ve turned to writing because there’s nothing out there that I want to read. And I’ve started writing for screens both big and small for the same reason. I have scattered pieces of different projects here and there, pieces of a historical fiction novel that is to begin a trilogy, a pilot and treatment for a TV show that sets Faust in the Mexican Mafia along the Texas border, and I’m trying desperately to ignore an idea for a show that explores the paranoia of the Cold War from the inside out (think, “Red Forman was right!” + COINTELPRO + experimental hallucinogens). But my first love was science fiction, and I’ve got two projects, in pieces, that return to what I loved about sci-fi when I was a kid, thirty years ago.

Naturally, as soon as I turn my hand to a genre, it goes and dies on me. Or rather it died while I was too busy studying medieval Europe, a decade when I just plain stopped reading anything for fun.

“Science fiction” has come to mean “soft” science fiction, and the problems of “soft” science fiction can be summed up in two words:

as if you had a fucking choice

as if you had a fucking choice

Especially onscreen, “sci-fi” has become synonymous with “SPACE OPERA.” Ten-thousand year empires. Epic struggles. Ancient prophecies. Desperate, star-crossed lovers. A spectacular climax. Always with the spectacular fucking climax, like the seagull cries of pornstar women, perpetually on the verge of an orgasm. A neverending orgasm of blah.

Yawn. After decades of Berlioz, Philip Glass would almost make sense. “Soft” science fiction reigns for two reasons:

  1. Quotidian technology is so amazing that it’s hard to think up really amazing amazing things and still bother with how they’re supposed to work, especially since …
  2. … science and math education in the US is a sick joke, so most American writers are utter morons when it comes to practical things.

Now, an aside, or perhaps a gentle reassurance: I know that “hard” sci-fi has a bad reputation, especially among female sci-fi fans. “Hard” sci-fi has a hard time living down its reputation for manly men with short, Anglo-Saxon names doing manly things with gadgets that they can only just be bothered to explain to some female foil’s pretty head before the gadget has to be deployed against the Thrasgar from Ultius IV. I don’t want to read that shit, so I’m not about to write that shit.

My problem with “soft” sci-fi is that, with the science removed, you’re left with fantasy with mechanical toys.

Today’s audience has a different relationship with technology than people did when Star Wars finally killed the dystopian paradigm of mid-20th century science fiction. Actually, George Lucas had been trying to kill it for years. THX-1138, Lucas says, was meant to be a comedy, a deliberately over-done sendup of all things “O, what a world!” that had made science fiction so maudlin and inaccessible. You could also say that the ultimate space opera was a return to the silly action serials of the pre-TV years, where Flash Gordon could open up a space ship’s engine and tell the pilot “throw on more uranium!”, like a choo-choo to the stars. But don’t you dare go thinking that there’s something cyclical at work, here. That kind of soft-headed dreck will have you reading “soft” sci-fi, and anyway why are alien societies so often monarchist? And what’s with all these humanoids?

Strange.

But back to the neverending orgasm. TV used to have an advantage in its disadvantage. Since you couldn’t blow anyone away with 24″ of 4:3 aspect ratio and mono sound, and since TV shows went on for years instead of 2-and-a-half hours, max, they had to rely on character and story (don’t laugh) while the movies were experimenting with seizure-inducing bullshit like this. This is odd when you consider that big-screen actors supposedly look down on small-screen actors as cut-outs, hacks, and one-trick ponies.

But now that even modest homes can be re-mortgaged to purchase home theater systems, 16:9 is everywhere, and TV is fumbling for our mind’s clitoris in much the same way Total Recall did, with stale lines and a total absence of foreplay. We are supposed to at least fake a climax, which weak-ass writing never earned, a buildup that was never built. We are supposed to at least pretend to be surprised that there’s this big buildup in the first place, you know, like the Supremes, and WOW!

Getting sick of the WOW, now.

Just so you know.

Science fiction can thrive in scenarios where the technology driving the story is no more alien (sorry) to the audience and to the characters than is the technology of the jet engine in those thoroughly annoying Airport movies. Yes, it drives the story. No, it’s not necessarily novel. Yes, the people of the future will be spending all their time trying to get by, pay the bills, and maybe have a little fun, but they’ll still be people much like you know them now. They just have different toys.

There. I said it. But it had to be said. If sci-fi writers are paralyzed with the fear of being wrong about technology in the very near future (think William Gibson writing a scene in which his protagonist runs past a row of payphones), if that’s why people think the genre is dead, just think how stupid your suppositions about future societies are going to look! If you knew anything about the nature of human societies, anything at all, you would have hidden from it in terror. In Saturn 3, Harvey Keitel’s character (or rather, the voice-over they used to hide his accent, since no one is from Brooklyn in the future) claims that Farrah Fawcett is illegally withholding sex from him, since in the future we all get to fuck people just as soon as look at them, right? Spock’s space hippies? Bradbury’s world of conformists? OK, maybe Ray was on to something there, but at this point, Joss Whedon’s Alliance/Browncoat struggle starts to look just plain sensible.

Your average person isn’t just dumb about technology, they’re likely to be dumb about history, too, and that can lead to some really bad writing. Think Elizabeth: The Golden Age. “We are no match for the Spanish guns!” Gah!

A common assumption of your everyday moron is the teleological course of history, usually invoking some notion of “progress.” Sure, things change. Sometimes they even change for the better. But they can also change back. Women are liberated from the gender roles of primitive society. Then, they may lose their rights as part of a broader social change (this is a common saw when discussing the Norman Conquest, and may be overdone). Open-minded societies tend toward violent, reactionary backlashes after catastrophes. Being homosexual in Constantinople in 1076, for example, would be easier than in small-town Alabama today. But by about 1078? Fuggedaboutit! The Turks have taken your bread basket, which means that God is mad at you, so now it’s time to hate on the gays … for hundreds of years.

Rather than thinking of a human world that is making “progress” on these issues, it’s more useful to imagine different societies having different positions on the continua of these issues, and for different reasons.

And then it gets more complicated.

People don’t live in the present, they live in the past. Badly. Their sense of the past is a garbled, self-serving algorithm intended to produce TA-DAAAA! themselves at the end, as the climax vegetation of All That Has Ever Been Done. We are inevitable. We are central. We are necessary. We are normal. The End.

Vanishingly few people live their spoken values. In fact, the less they live them, the more they speak them. The louder a morality is proclaimed, the lesser the likelihood it is being observed. People lie to themselves about themselves, about their past, about their own children, and they love other people who are good at lying to them, too.

So, when sci-fi takes me to planet A, where the B race lives, and princess C explains that this is how they live and these are their guiding principles, I take the book to Half Priced Books and sell it. First, you build a world. Then, you figure out how your characters are going to get it wrong. Then, you show how your characters are getting each other wrong while getting their world wrong. If you haven’t made it that far, you haven’t written shit. If you can’t map out a story around unintended consequences, which most consequences are, turn off the world processor and go watch truTV.

I know: big talk from an unpublished (outside of academia) writer. I know. But I stand on the pique of giants, or at least one.

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