Monday, July 8, 2019

Problems in Science Fiction No. 2

Another problem in science fiction is an old one, but it's becoming more pronounced with each passing moment. The problem is this: with as rapidly as things are changing in the real world, science fiction is in danger of becoming obsolete even before it's published. I'm not sure that anyone can keep up with the rapidity of change in our world. I don't think that even a polymath like Isaac Asimov could have done it. That presents a real challenge to the science fiction writer, whose story may be sound in one area and completely fall apart in another because he or she fails to make proper allowances for new developments in technology. I think of all of those science fiction stories from the 1950s in which people of the future light up a smoke or hand each other sheaves of paper to read. Another example of this perceived problem is in Neuromancer by William Gibson, from 1984, an extraordinary work of imagination and in many ways quite visionary, and yet the Japanese in Mr. Gibson's novel/romance stride over the world of the future (our present, or soon to be). To be fair to Mr. Gibson, many people in the 1980s thought that the Japanese would soon stride over the world. Some even thought that we would come to blows with them because of it. But if we call Neuromancer also a predictive work, then it fails miserably, as the Japanese are, in our current world, rapidly not-reproducing themselves out of existence. The seeds of Japanese decline had already been planted by the 1980s, yet few--if any--people saw it. And if the experts got it wrong, how could a science fiction writer get it right? Even more glaring is a total lack of cellphone technology in Neuromancer. In fact, no one that I know of in science fiction foresaw that we would even have cellphones, let alone described just how dominant and world-destroying cellphone culture would become. We are in effect enslaved by and addicted to this technology and by some perspectives have fallen into Dystopia as a result. And yet no one, as far as I know, foresaw it.*

There's a way around all of that, though, and that is to realize that the purpose of science fiction is not to predict the future but to make projections or extrapolations into it based on the writer's understanding of human nature and the possible effects of science and technology on human conduct and human society. The writers of the 1950s didn't do anything wrong by putting cigarettes between the yellowed fingers of guys in futuristic Kelly Freas-style duds. It might be kind of comical now for us to read these things, but they did nothing wrong. Likewise William Gibson. He got enough right in his projections that the things that he might have gotten wrong--what we might erroneously call predictions rather than properly see as projections--are negligible. Neuromancer, because it is so powerful, has not reached obsolescence. It may yet, but I doubt that it will because it is such a vivid and imaginative look at life in a fully realized future world. And though no one foresaw Cellphone or Smartphone World, many, many writers have successfully described Dystopia, probably none as well as the Big Three, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell. They didn't know about cellphones, but they knew human nature.

I have been thinking about these things because I'm currently working on my own science fiction story. Right now it's novella length. It will probably reach near novel length once I have finished it. I have set my story in the far future, after people have reached the stars. Here's the problem with that or any such story: interstellar travel in convenient periods of time is the last technological problem. If you have solved that problem, you have surely solved all others. All other things will already have been tried. So how do you get your people to the stars and only then have them respond to problems presented by new technology? This is a serious question. Maybe I'm flubbing it.

One possible solution is to do what science fiction has always done, that is, to assume certain conditions for the sake of your story and to proceed from there to isolate just one problem and to address only that problem. In writing a science fiction story, you're not in the business of making predictions. If you get your technological developments out of future-chronological order, or if you get the future just plain wrong, it doesn't matter or shouldn't matter as long as your story is strong and your characters are recognizably human. In other words, we get people into the petri dish of the stars so that we can test them with our material. I think Star Trek is an example of this kind of storytelling. Star Trek obviously got things wrong, but the show wasn't trying to predict the future. It did what science fiction in general does: it projected the people and culture of its own time into the future as a kind of experiment: What will the man or woman of today do under the pressures of future technological developments? The result is a television show that, in my opinion, is exciting, engaging, and entertaining even now, half a century after it reached its end.

In any case, I would like to hear what you have to say about these things, and I invite and welcome comments. I look forward to hearing from you.

*The lowly comic strip has actually been pretty good in the department of predictions. For example, long before cellphones and even before Star Trek communicators, Dick Tracy had his two-way wrist radio. For another, the first depiction of a televised moon landing was not in science fiction but in the comic strip Alley Oop.

Copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Carrington DixonJuly 8, 2019 at 1:13 PM

    Actually, Heinlein mentions portable Phones way back in Space Cadet (1948). The hero gets the phone out of his duffel bag, answers it, puts it away, and we never see it again. To be fair, most of the action is SP takes place where we might expectt cell phones to be forbidden (military academy) or have no service (outer space).

  2. "...In fact, no one that I know of in science fiction foresaw that we would even have cellphones..."

    Well, Blish had the Dirac Communicator, which provided instant voice messages with no time lag to any point in the Universe - and that also had a massive social problem as well, in that ALL messages ever sent on it - past, present and future - were contained in a single atmospheric beep at the start of each communication....

    Arthur C Clarke discussed the concept of mass communication to everyone in the world, but decided that it would never happen because the required number of phone digits to address everybody would be too long to input without mistake!