Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Week 2: There Is No Such Thing As Science Fiction


Okay, the title is a bit of a tease.  Of course, there are plenty of books labeled “science fiction” and lots of people writing in that genre.  But, for anyone who thinks the point of science fiction is to predict the future, I’d like to say: there is no such thing as science fiction.  And here are three reasons why.

First: you can’t do it.  No one can predict the future with any degree of accuracy, no matter how many issues of Wired or Technology Digest one reads.  Even in the cases when SF writers seem to foretell a future development, it often seems more like the way a broken analog clock is still right twice a day.  Throw enough predictions around and some of them are bound to come true (I believe this is the secret behind fortune telling).  More than most genres, science fiction can quickly become dated, as one era’s vision of the future is quickly superseded by unforeseen political and technological developments.  As others have noted, the most old-fashioned part of Walt Disney World is always Tomorrowland.

Second: science fiction is about the present…  I know, that’s counterintuitive, but stick with me.  What science fiction does best is to give us tools for thinking about the implications of the world we live in today.  What should we worry about?  What should we celebrate?  Where should we invest (financially and emotionally)?  We are always in our historical moment, and we can’t help but be driven by the questions that concern us at a given time.  In this regard, science fiction should be read alongside literary realism.  They have more in common than is usually assumed. 

Third: …except when it’s about the past.  As I’ve said before, good science fiction should read like narrative history, charting out a series of beliefs and preoccupations that make us question our own.  But if we try to guess what those beliefs will be like in the future, we are likely to simply project from where we stand.  The past is likely to be a better guide, at least to the extent that it offers an endless supply of ideologies and practices that are distinctly not our own.  Hence, the popularity and pleasures of steampunk, the most successful offshoot of the cyberpunk movement.  Steampunk began with a simple proposition: what if the industrial revolution and the computer revolution happened at the same time?  From there, it has spun out a fascinating and complex series of texts that have nothing to do with predicting the future but which have evolved into their own stylistic subculture (check out this great steampunk style slideshow).

As I’ve been writing my novel this week between snowstorms, all of this has been in mind.  A novel that takes place in the future does not have a burden to predict, but it does have a burden to be plausible.  It is the very plausibility of set-in-the-future writing that can make it compelling and can make us question our present and our past.  I decided to add a new opening section to the novel when I realized that the most intriguing science fiction often takes existing social relations and asks how they could be technologically represented (and, subsequently, how that representation would change the relation).  Okay, in English, that means we should take something we do now or want to do and consider what kind of technology would make it possible.  And, then what would happen?

My new introduction is about a woman suffering from “caregiver fatigue,” who purchases a temporary clone so that she can send her avatar on a vacation without her family without their knowing about it and can later choose to have the avatar’s memories replace her own (it’s a kind of riff on the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” theme).  But then I have to ask, what would be the appeal and risks of such a technology, what would be it’s implications, and how would someone respond emotionally to such a thing?  I don’t believe I’m foretelling the future, and I can’t know if this concept will seem dated in a few years, but I can hope it will make for a compelling opening.

7 comments:

  1. Loving your posts! Your opening shares a similiar premise with the movie "Surrogates." Yes, Bruce Willis plays a cop in the future, but it's actually a pretty compelling film: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0986263/

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  2. Interesting about the "caregiver fatigue" - I think that could resonate with a large group of readers, as would the idea of sending an avatar to take your place when you'd rather be somewhere else. I think a risk of that technology would be largely emotional, as they would be missing out on those experiences, and also the thought of the woman's family finding out . . . I have a feeling they'd be hurt. I can't wait to keep reading your posts - how exciting!

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  3. Jennie, I'll have to put Surrogates on my ever-growing viewing list. Amanda, maybe you can see the future. There's a followup section (only in my head so far) from the point of view of this woman's daughter, where some of the issues you mention will play out.

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  4. You need to be careful invoking the idea of cloning. As the science stands today, although we can clone, the clone begins at square one, so a mother would need to clone herself in utero to have a believable clone of her 40 year old self - and of course there's plenty of baggage there. I see where you're going with the cloning, but you may need to imbed some exposition to explain the advances that allow a 40 year old to go for a clone today and have a 40 year old clone of herself in a week's time.

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  5. Really enjoying reading this so far. I'm eager to see where you're going with things!

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  6. Jim, point taken. I was using "clone" as a shorthand in the blog post. In the novel, it's a biomanufactured host body, and the character would "have her choice of several of today’s most notable celebrities, of whichever sex, for the temporary body."

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  7. For an interesting discussion on the ethical implications of celebrity likenesses in artificial lifeforms - such as you have proposed - you may enjoy and episode of the animated sit-com "Futurama," Season 3's "I Dated a Robot." It's created by Matt Groening, the genius behind "The Simpsons" (well, there's John Schwartzwelder and James L. Brooks and... but I digress).

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