Faith in Science Fiction

When we read science fiction do we only expect great stories, or do we read science fiction for great expectations?

For many, I think science fiction is just another genre to escape into, but for some, especially us older fans, science fiction inspired us about the future.  Science fiction was a belief system, and science fiction sold us a philosophy about the future.

Reading Rich Horton’s introduction to his latest The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2013 Edition led me to read Paul Kincaid’s review of last years best of the year anthologies in the  Los Angeles Review of Books.  Kincaid’s key paragraph:

The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended. At its historical best, science fiction presented alien worlds and distant futures that, however weird they might seem, were always fundamentally understandable. The basic plot structure often involved the achievement of understanding. But somewhere amidst the ruins of cyberpunk in the 1980s, we began to feel that the present was changing too rapidly for us to keep up with. And if we didn’t understand the present, what hope did we have for the future? The accelerating rate of change has inevitably affected the futures that appear in our fictions. Things happen as if by magic (one thinks, for example, of Matter by Iain M. Banks, in which a character has casually assumed the appearance of a bush), or else things are so different that there is no connection with the experiences and perceptions of our present.

Kincaid says a number of things about the state of our genre by reviewing the three best of the year anthologies:

  • “…the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion”
  • “In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.”
  • “but it is almost anti-SF in its affect: the future has run its course and come to an end; what was one of the most exciting aspirations of science fiction—the promise of life on another world—is here made available only to those looking backward to a former time. It is a story that makes manifest the exhaustion that is immanent throughout these three collections.”
  • “And yet the stories would all have a feel of the past about them, the sense of a genre treading water, picking up shiny relics from its own long history as though they were bright new ideas.”
  • “This one story illuminates the exhaustion that seems to have overtaken SF and fantasy, the sense that the future is something to be approached wearily because we have already imagined it and rubbed away anything that was bright and new. Judging by these three books, the genre is now afraid to engage with what once made it novel, instead turning back to what was there before. We might tinker with the details, but it seems that no-one has much interest in making it (a)new.”

I find Kincaid’s criticisms fascinating, and I often agree with him, but I’m not sure if it’s not just science fiction writers that are exhausted and have lost faith in the future.  Readers too, don’t see the same future as they did in the 1950s and 1960s.  Part of this is due to manned space flight going nowhere for forty years after such a promising start.  We’re also getting older and realizing the futures we expected as teens won’t be coming true.  And let’s face it, after reading science fiction for fifty years we’ve also wised up about its bullshit.  Then there’s the problem of readers becoming jaded – the more stories you read, the more good ones you find, and the average becomes mediocre, and eventually even the exceptional becomes tarnished by reading real masterpieces of literature.

I’ve yet to become an atheist to my science fictional beliefs, but I have become more skeptical and agnostic.

But some of this criticism for science fiction story writing should really be applied to our personal beliefs in science fictional concepts.  When we were young it was easy to be gosh-wowed into a sense of wonder.  But if we look back on those concepts we loved back then, we might find our past futures weren’t all they were cracked up to be.  Adolescent dreamtime isn’t very discerning.

Kincaid criticizes contemporary science fiction writers for not being as original as those writers back in the 1950s and 1960s because modern writers no longer seem to comprehend the future, but I think the shift in story construction is not because we can no long comprehend the future, but because we’re lost faith in futures we grew up hoping to find.

Strangely enough, I just read, “Close Encounters” by Andy Duncan in The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 5 edited by Allan Kaster that emotionally resonates with what I’m saying, and maybe with what Kincaid is saying too.  Sorry, “Close Encounters” is not available online to link to, but if you click on “Click to LOOK INSIDE!” at the Amazon site I linked to above, you can read most of the story there.  It’s very well written, with a wonderful voice, and yes, it looks backwards, nostalgic for the good ole days of science fiction.

The story is about a Mr. Buck Nelson, of Mountain View, Missouri, who in 1956 during the peak of the flying saucer craze had a close encounter with a visiting alien and his dog.  The story takes place in the late 1970s, when a young lady reporter tracks down Mr. Nelson to follow up on all the close encounter folk from the 1950s.  Andy Duncan gives us a sentimental account of science fictional faith struggling to survive with skeptical science.  I loved this story even though I think flying saucer people are a bunch of nuts.  Yet, as a kid back in the 1950s, I remember flying saucers being pretty damn far out.  By the later 1960s and early 1970s we pretty much knew those close encounter people were crazy even though Steven Spielberg gave their kind new lease on life with his famous movie.

Paul Kincaid suggests that older science fiction was more creative because the writers back then believed in powerful shiny futures of hope.  That newer writers often don’t see shiny futures and have retreated to past visions of the future to find their hope by writing retro-SF.

This makes me ask:  Was the science fiction back then really that great at understanding the future?  Kincaid clarified himself by saying about modern science fiction, “… perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.”

Anyone who has read the books of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, especially the brilliant The Black Swan, knows the future can not be predicted.  Nor would any sane science fiction writer claim they are predicting the future in their stories.  Quite often science fiction writers present futures we want to avoid, but for the general run of science fiction fans, we like stories that we can vicariously imagine living in via exciting adventures.  We don’t expect cushy, or even nice futures to inhabit, but we do prefer them thrilling.  Few science fiction books then or now try to comprehend our actual future.

Although it is impossible to predict the future, that doesn’t mean science fiction writers don’t want to promote the future.  Most of us want interplanetary and interstellar travel, and many of would like a future that includes intelligent robots, life extension, human clones and contact with aliens that hotrod around the galaxy.

Like me, I imagine many kindred spirits who want to write the next great American science fiction novel.  What kind of future do you want to imagine?  Are you going to play futurist, and extrapolate on current trends, or will you riff off from some classic science fictional future that already exists?  Or can you imagine a wholly unreal future, like The Hunger Games or Ready Player One, and pile up that bestseller money in the bank.

I just read The Next 100 Years by George Friedman, and it makes me wonder about what the future means to science fiction writers.   Friedman’s book came out in 2009, and it’s already suffering the fate of all predictors of the future – the future is everything we never imagined.  Friedman expects more of the same based on the past, and it’s all rather boringly mundane.  If you read Kincaid’s essay, and I recommend that you do, I think he’s suggesting that reality of the last several decades has confused current SF writers about the possibility of getting the futures we wanted.  He suggests that science fiction has become recursive, with new stories being born out of past visions of the future, rather than being inspired by wholly new visions of the future.

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Like I’ve said many times, only a nut would claim they can predict the future.  But the meat and potato of science fiction writer is the future.  I grew up in the 1960s with a serious science fiction habit that addicted me to the future, ones that have never come true.  There are real futures, and then there are fictional futures, and they have seldom overlapped.

But what great past SF novels clarified any future?  The Foundation TrilogyChildhood’s EndDuneMore than Human?  The only science fiction stories that I wanted to become my future were the Heinlein juveniles.  But didn’t Heinlein give up on those futures with Strangers in a Strange Land, and all the other weird-ass books he wrote after that?

Kincaid claims we’ve given up on science fiction futures, and science fiction writers have turned to fantasy.  I think this is well illustrated if you ask:  when and where is The Game of Thrones set?  Kincaid thinks that SF/F writers have given up on real futures, and gone for straight fantasy, or quasi-science fictional fantasies.

Robert A. Heinlein’s most famous novel, Stranger in a Strange Land is set in a future that’s already past, and one I don’t remember living through.  Heinlein is also famous for writing his Future History series of stories, where he set many of his 1940s tales in a common imagined future that has already become our past.  How did this old science fiction help us comprehend our futures?  Did it ever mention anything you see on the Nightly News?

Because Heinlein was a major success as a science fiction writer, I don’t think writing failed extrapolations of near futures was a bad career move.  However, George R. R. Martin’s success at creating a totally fantasy non-future suggests that it’s a much better career move.  However, like Kincaid, I feel that giving up on science fiction for fantasy, or even writing science fictional fantasies is giving up on the future.  Has our faith in the future died?  Or has our faith in science fiction died?

Some SF books like The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, are still diamond sharp visions an extrapolated futures.  Few SF writers are ambitious enough to paint a detailed picture of a near future like Bacigalupi’s.   The only comparison that comes to mind is 1968’s Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, about an imagined 2010, which I would propose as science fiction’s best novel of extrapolation.  Brunner got most of his crystal balling wrong, but of all the science fiction novels I grew up reading in the 1960s, it’s the only one I felt like I lived through.  The Windup Girl reminds me of the gritty post-colonial novels the British wrote in mid-20th century to understand their fading empire.

But that’s not what Kincaid was talking about when he claims we’re losing our faith in the future.

Some futures are more appealing to science fiction writers than others.  Take Military SF.  Most military SF stories are set in a future that reminds me of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  This is actually a fantasy future, but it’s so real feeling that science fiction writers turn to it again and again.  Some fans just can’t get enough grunts in space.  Other fans can’t get enough post-human super-science space operas.  Then there are legions of fans for romantic aristocracies set in galactic empires.

Star Wars reminds me of Asimov’s galactic empire, as do the stories of Lois McMaster Bujold, but were any of them about realistically possible futures?

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Dystopian futures are quite popular for young adult science fiction novels right now, but what if you wanted a different kind of future for the setting of your novel?  Although I do think the word dystopian is overused, and maybe even misused.  Common definitions for dystopia included “An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror” – American Heritage, and “an imaginary place where everything is as bad as it can be” – Collins, to “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives” – Merriam-Webster.  Wouldn’t those definitions describe Westeros, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire?  Or most horror novels, and probably war novels, as well as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and most Shakespearean tragedies?

utopiadystopia

Then we have PKDickian futures.  PKD often imagined the little man trapped in an insane world.  Jack Bohlen, the repairman in The Martian Time-Slip is not your typical action hero.  How many SF readers expect to read about unions on Mars?   And Rick Deckard is not the Harrison Ford in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book Blade Runner is based on.  I think Dick imagined a fucked-up 1959 future where animals were gone and we had robots that could pass for humans and animals.  Other than that his future seemed a lot like 1959, as did most of Dick’s 1960s novels.  It was the movie makers that colored Dick’s future so fantastically that I believe many readers now use those visuals to color in his novels.

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But how do you see the future?  When you write your science fiction novel, will it be inspired by the real life world you live in, or from a favorite fiction world you read about, or one you loved in the movies?   I think late 1950s Marin County California inspired many of the fictional worlds that Philip K. Dick created.  I think 1920s and 1930s America shaped Heinlein’s sense of the future.  Like it’s commonly expressed, science fiction is often about the present.  But more than that, it’s about the person who writes it.  My view of a lunar colony will be shaped by my personality and life, and will be different from Heinlein’s.  And even if I try to extrapolate hard science like crazy, will anything I write really help readers comprehend their future?  I don’t think so.

Probably living on Earth with our big screen TVs, computers and smartphones is more exciting than the reality of living on Mars.  But where does this leave science fiction?  Is turning to fantasy stories the right path after all?  What we all have is a fiction habit.  Science fiction used to be the fictional drug of choice, but it doesn’t give us the high we used to get.  Watching Breaking Bad, blows away every science fiction novel I ever read.  The reason why George R. R. Martin has legions of fans is because storytelling itself has gotten better.  It’s not comprehending the future that will rekindle excitement in science fiction, but convincing writers with storytelling abilities like J. K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin to write science fiction.

When Kincaid criticizes the SF/F best of anthologies it shouldn’t be because of the state of the genre or the writers’ ability to comprehend the future, but just lack of story telling skills.  When I gorge myself on short stories from the best of anthologies, I’m always exhausted by long info dumps, techno babble yakking, and characters that feel like they are puppets on a string trying to mime out some ridiculous idea the author has.  Too many SF stories try much too hard to rationalize razzle-dazzling concepts, and don’t spend enough time on standard storytelling techniques or realistic emotional character building.

That’s why I loved “Close Encounters” by Andy Duncan so much.  It was just a well told story.  It has real emotions.  But is that what we really want, nice nostalgia about our old dreams?  But then science has taught us that old science fiction only offered us Santa Claus futures.  I think Kincaid was onto something, but I haven’t worked out the exact nature of the problem.  I had faith in science fiction back when, and I have nostalgia for those memories now, but I’m not sure what science fiction should become next.

JWH – 8/22/13

5 thoughts on “Faith in Science Fiction”

  1. Interesting article, and it’s provided me with much food for thought.

    I wonder if part of the reason for the change is the death of big historical narratives. We are less and less inclined to see progress as a linear thing, humanity driving ever onwards to a greater destiny in the future, and so we are less inclined to speculate on where that might end. Fantastic and dystopian narratives might seem easier tools to use when exploring a more negotiated, muddled and uncertain reality, one less driven by rationality and understanding.

    Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl certainly fits that view, with a future that is in some ways more advanced than our own, and in others seems to be taking retrograde steps in the erosion of transport networks and emergence of new forms of more subtle colonialism. Regardless, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in ages.

    1. For many people now, progress is the next generation iPhone. And at the movies, science fiction has become a CGI thrill ride. And hasn’t the new space opera really rejected near futures for far futures where science is more like magic? It’s a shame America didn’t continue on to Mars after Project Apollo, it would have at least given the PR impression we were a nation on the move, instead our focus is Homeland security.

      1. I’m with you on the Mars project – it would be nice to have something positive, something built around hope, to give people shared purpose, as opposed to the unity through fear of others that comes with so much modern politics.

  2. Jim, it’s science fiction, and science is all about progress. If science fiction had a belief system, it was only that the future would be different from today (not necessarily better, but that potential for progress was always there).

    That idea of progress – certainly, the expectation of progress – is relatively recent. Ancient civilizations typically saw human society as sadly degraded from some glorious past. Christianity saw it as our punishment for some ancestor’s disobedience (and as unimportant, anyway, compared to the eternity awaiting us in the afterlife).

    But with science, we started to believe in progress. Well, we had good reason for that, didn’t we? We could see our knowledge advancing in every generation. We could expect that our children would not only survive childhood, but have a better life than we did. And despite our troubles, western society today really would be a paradise for most of our ancestors.

    Science fiction was the literature of that idea, that we could learn more every generation, that we could progress to fantastic heights – not that we would, necessarily, because disastrous futures were always a danger, but that progress was possible. That’s why we dreamed of the future.

    Of course, it’s also fiction. Science fiction is more about ourselves than it’s about the future. Certainly, it’s not prophecy. That misses the whole point.

    But it seems to me that our society, more and more, is losing that feeling that progress is even possible. I don’t know why. Look at the immense changes we’ve seen in technology, just in our lifetime. Why would we expect that to end?

    We have problems, but they don’t seem to be worse than what past societies faced. The Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War – those were all pretty scary times.

    And the neat thing about the future is that we don’t know what will happen. We have no idea what scientific discovery is just around the corner, so how can we be so pessimistic? Maybe I’m wrong, Jim, but I see pessimism on the one hand and pure fantasy (which is just another form of pessimism) on the other.

    Nice post! It gives me a lot to think about.

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