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Where Do We Go From Here?
May 23, 2012 10:01 AM   Subscribe

SF author and Mefi's Own Charles Stross talks about the future of "big idea" Science Fiction: If SF's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?
posted by The Whelk (71 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Isn't there an aphorism about obsoletion being the midwife of innovation?

Off to RTFA now
posted by infini at 10:05 AM on May 23, 2012


So let me pose for you a different question, which has been exercising me for some time: If SF's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?

First, we could stop writing stories about computers.
posted by Ratio at 10:11 AM on May 23, 2012


I enjoyed that, and not only for how well the use of "weltanschauung" fit the flow of the piece. As someone who's almost always preferred the fantasy side of the equation, I've noticed the explosion of fantasy titles over the years and wondered what the science fiction folks were reading. Thanks for the link, Whelk, and thanks for asking the questions, cstross.
posted by catlet at 10:15 AM on May 23, 2012


If SF's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?
Here's a fun experiment. Change "SF" to a different genre of fiction, and let's see if this is a meaningful question for them.
If murder mystery's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?

If chicklit's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?

If historical fiction's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?
In summary: Why does SciFi need to have a core message, as a genre? Why do we expect it to? If it once did, why does it being obsolete matter? Who cares?
posted by Plutor at 10:18 AM on May 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


In fact, the traditional response of traditional-minded SF readers to the rigorous exercise of extrapolative vision tends to be denial, disorientation, and distaste. So let me pose for you a different question, which has been exercising me for some time: If SF's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?

In its more fully expressed form this sounds weirdly like a question that should've been (and was) asked in the '60s, not 2012 — because it's already been answered. Or apparently it's not just the fans but also the critical frameworks that have retreated into antique conceptions of what the genre is about. Haven't we long since put paid to the idea that SF (all SF, that is, its definition as genre) is for engineer-oriented extrapolation of technological futures, that an SF novel is written to work out the impact of some Big New Thing like quantum cryptography. That is, the social SF of the '60s and '70s was the answer to this question; why are we still asking it?
posted by RogerB at 10:19 AM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think future frontiers in Scientifiction will have more to do with human development on Earth based on medical advances and ecological/environmental themes, possibly even the colonization of the rest of the solar system. Also, alternate histories will always be in vogue.

It is becoming quite clear that time travel ought to be relegated to the fantasy section given the sheer impossibility of ever going back in time due to the vast amounts of energy needed.

Nothing will ever get us to the speed of light, so unless the story is about a realistic conquest of the worlds in our own solar system, I think the grand intergalactic space operas' time is past. Alien contact stories are similarly clicheed because now we know there is no possibility of real time communication given the vast distances involved.

For SF to matter, it has to keep pressing the boundaries of what is plausibly just over the horizon. Otherwise it is indistinguishable from fantasy.
posted by Renoroc at 10:24 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Nothing will ever get us to the speed of light

Interdimensional distant descendants of the human race will laugh at such quaint notions.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:27 AM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Phff, they'll have evolved beyond the very concept of laughter.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 10:34 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


"For SF to matter, it has to keep pressing the boundaries of what is plausibly just over the horizon. Otherwise it is indistinguishable from fantasy."

Er ... fantasy doesn't matter? What an odd notion.

Personally, I'm getting rather tired of the concept, which I've heard repeated more than once lately, that there is One Right Way for science fiction to be. You like hard SF? That's nice. Please stop trying to tell me that the stuff I read somehow doesn't "matter" because it doesn't fit your preconceptions. Technological prediction is only one of MANY thematic uses the SF genre is and can be put to. (And to be perfectly honest, it more often than not does that particular one extremely badly anyway.)
posted by kyrademon at 10:36 AM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Orange Pamplemousse:
Phff, they'll have evolved beyond the very concept of laughter.


Indeed, they do this weird snort-cough thing. It's actually quite funny to witness.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:37 AM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Stross should get a cut of the royalties from his SF writing colleagues, or at least set up an amazon affiliate account. Every time I read his blog I end up ordering a bunch of books, and this time was no exception.

He is totally right in one of the points. For the last five years or so science blogs have been stealing more and more of my science fiction reading time.

I would love to see, as an experiment, some good SF writers picking an entry from a science blog and running with it for a few thousand words, without a scientist's constraints.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 10:39 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Publishers do not want big ideas. Big ideas are hard to understand and scare people. Publishers want another teen vampire romance. Writers write what can get published, unless they have a real job and like to masochistically waste time.

This was not always the case, and while the Golden Age of SF may very well have been more of a Ghetto as writers like Ursula LeGuin complain, it was in fact driven by big ideas. Through the 1970's there were publishers that were as interested in big new ideas as they were in bottom line profits; they understood that their charter was not just to make money, but to find and promote books.

These are the publishers who published Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, and Michael Moorcock.

Then all those publishers were bought out by the few remaining ones, which are all interested in nothing but proven properties.

These are the publishers who told Norman Spinrad, a man with a proven audience and long track record, to pound sand.
posted by localroger at 10:40 AM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


*hasenpfeffer*
posted by benzenedream at 10:40 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


He's right about Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief. One of the best books of last year.
posted by bonehead at 10:44 AM on May 23, 2012


That is, the social SF of the '60s and '70s was the answer to this question; why are we still asking it?

Stross holds up examples of "hard" SF as the solution or points of light in the darkness, but I think the obsession with hard SF in the last few decades is the problem. It narrows the focus, and loses the forest for the trees.

In summary: Why does SciFi need to have a core message, as a genre? Why do we expect it to? If it once did, why does it being obsolete matter? Who cares?

Because SF helped inspire generations of people to do amazing things and make amazing advancements. And that's why I think hard SF is so pointless. The value of SF isn't in the nitty-gritty details that will likely be laughably wrong in a few decades, it's these "big ideas" Stross talks about. Ideas, not technical accuracy.

The stuff the scientists who worked on the space program grew up with was largely pulp junk, but *inspirational* pulp junk that made people wonder and want to reach for that future however implausible. Neuromancer may not be an accurate depiction of computing or networking, but the vision it offered resonated with a generation.

Hard SF leads us to masturbatory Singularity bullshit. We need stories that inspire, that point the way to where things should go and what's possible, and damn the details if they get in the way. If works can inspire people to strive to be learn and grow and develop and be great, then the genre will be doing its job.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:45 AM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


If SF's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?

Plastics.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:46 AM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


So, how 'bout that 2312?
posted by Sokka shot first at 10:52 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've thought for a while now that some of the best SF is happening in YA lit at the moment. Uglies, Feed, The Hunger Games, etc. Lots of big ideas there right now. The tragedy of the commons, the looming environmental crisis. the consequences of political and economic repression, the effects of growing up with violence, the crushing weight of technological advancement that fails to consider consequences.

Good stuff.
posted by kyrademon at 10:54 AM on May 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


From article:

What we call "hard SF" today mostly isn't hard, and isn't SF: it's fantasy with nanotech replicators instead of pixie dust and spaceships instead of dragons.

I've been thinking lately that the difference in scientific accuracy between SF and Fantasy is that Fantasy violates naive physics, while SF violates actual physics.

And even in the rare cases that some SF carefully doesn't violate actual physics, it usually violates rudimentary economic logic. (As in: it could be done, but why in heck would it ever make sense for anyone to do it?)

On the other hand I never thought SF had a core message, and if it did, that wasn't why I ever read it. The reasons I read it are about as varied as the reasons I read any fiction at all, from enjoying a darn good yarn, to liking working out puzzles, to pondering on the nature of humanity.
posted by philipy at 10:57 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


some of the best SF is happening in YA lit at the moment

YA seems to be getting remade as a general catch all for good genre stories, possibly as a response to how "adult" options are often now a choice between either the airport-bookstore genre or the writers-workshop genre.
posted by postcommunism at 11:05 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


> He's right about Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief.

For some reason, the very first two pages of that book burned a hole in my mind and I experienced the gunshot wound with the protagonist. That kind of lingered for a few days. Overall, I think that book is a bit too phantasmagorical, but perhaps that's the only way that massive intelligent entities composed of nanotech can be represented.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:14 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait, are we talking about SF, the genre that blossomed between, roughly, the 1950s and the late 1980s, and then disappeared entirely?
posted by Nomyte at 11:14 AM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


From the thread: "Wait, are we talking about SF, the genre that blossomed between, roughly, the 1950s and the late 1980s, and then disappeared entirely?"

From the article: "Historically, almost all civilisations prior to the Enlightenment ran on the mythology of a distant golden age in the past ..."

La plus ca change.
posted by kyrademon at 11:19 AM on May 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


For my purposes, there are two breeds of science fiction. There's space opera, which is basically fantasy with lasers and spaceships and FTL travel. And I love it, just like I love my fantasy. It makes for good inspiration and escape and expands the vistas of the imagination.

Then there's speculative fiction, the other SF. At the core, SF has always been more or less about the future tools of currently tool using monkeys. We are distanced and made strange from our hairier brothers hanging out under the banyan tree by our tools that shape us as much as we shape our world with them.

The never-ending exploration at that intersection of humanity and the possibilities of tomorrow will always yield up nuggets of awesome so long as we are curious primates tinkering with the universe to see what makes it tick.
posted by envygreen at 11:23 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think there needs to be an annual award for most cyberpunk moment of the year. The past year can be Wikileaks' role in feeding the fires of the Arab Spring. This year it's holographic Tupac at an event attended by many young people momentarily escaping from an impending higher education bubble that threatens to burst.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:25 AM on May 23, 2012 [10 favorites]


Renoroc: For SF to matter, it has to keep pressing the boundaries of what is plausibly just over the horizon. Otherwise it is indistinguishable from fantasy.

I think this is funny because both had overlapping origins back in the pulp era.

Sangermaine: Because SF helped inspire generations of people to do amazing things and make amazing advancements. And that's why I think hard SF is so pointless. The value of SF isn't in the nitty-gritty details that will likely be laughably wrong in a few decades, it's these "big ideas" Stross talks about. Ideas, not technical accuracy.

Star Trek is good science fiction because, in spite of copious amounts of plot-driven handwavium, it inspired engineers to develop new propulsion systems, mobile communications, and portable diagnostics.

Star Trek is great science fiction because it imagined a future human society, in which, the global, racial, and gender conflicts of the 70s turned out to be downright quaint.

Neither the technical nor the social vision of Star Trek were perfect, it never is in science fiction. I think Asimov got almost everything wrong about machine intelligence, but his Robot stories are still visionary, and have their fingerprints of influence on many things that came afterward.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:26 AM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Er ... fantasy doesn't matter? What an odd notion."

That's the wrong way to take that statement. What he means, or at least what I read it as, is that if the label "science fiction" is to matter, then it has to be distinguishable from fantasy. Kind of like how if fantasy is going to matter, it has to be distinguishable from historical fiction.
posted by klangklangston at 11:28 AM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


The first unquestioned assumption is the post-18th century Enlightenment concept of progress.

Wait, how does dystopian SF fit into this?. An absolutely conventional and good SF story I read recently was ORYX AND CRAKE. Modern science. All do-able, probably. Does not fit the concept of progress. Long lineage too - FRANKENSTEIN.

what do we do next?

What about economic SF? Ken MacLeod's books all feature scenarios where scientific and technological and political change render conventional free-market economics irrelevant or foolish. Iain M. Banks' CULTURE books do a similar thing on a Space Opera scale. We're living through an exciting time for economics that has effects all around us - the triumph of capitalism, over-production, physical goods effectively becoming free while positional and service goods become the measure of wealth. Add in environmental damage, climate change, and there's at least as much stuff to play with there as "hey, what if our rockets can get to Mars?"

Although it won't be much fun. Hmmm. We're back to dystopian SF...
posted by alasdair at 11:28 AM on May 23, 2012


I think there needs to be an annual award for most cyberpunk moment of the year. The past year can be Wikileaks' role in feeding the fires of the Arab Spring. This year it's holographic Tupac at an event attended by many young people momentarily escaping from an impending higher education bubble that threatens to burst.

Oh man you'd to break it down into a series a awards for various types and authors just to keep up.
posted by The Whelk at 11:39 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's the wrong way to take that statement. What he means, or at least what I read it as, is that if the label "science fiction" is to matter, then it has to be distinguishable from fantasy. Kind of like how if fantasy is going to matter, it has to be distinguishable from historical fiction.

I think it's entirely possible to do so without imposing ideals about realism that would exclude almost every work identified as science fiction in the last century, and certainly almost all of the great works. Science Fiction is a genre that uses science and technology as inspiration for its characters, settings, and plots, while fantasy tends to tap into history, folklore, and myth. To the extent where they do cross over (Book of the New Sun) so what? If either is unrealistic, so what? It's literature and not a grant proposal.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:40 AM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, that was only about the label and not the content?

... Then who cares?
posted by kyrademon at 11:46 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some writers have even described authors taking liberties and readers discovering them as a central part of science fiction as a discourse between writer and reader, in the same way that a mystery can be viewed as a race between the reader and the narrative to discover the guilty parties, or a horror story as a game of guessing who (if anyone) will survive.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:47 AM on May 23, 2012


For clarifications' sake, let me state that I love fantasy works, played a ton of D&D as a youth and that Klangklangston hit the nail on the head as far as what I was trying to say.

Also, it is important to note that the boundaries of SF and Fantasy are always always shifting. For example, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Balloon Hoax" fit the criteria for science fiction at the time of writing, because hot air balloon technology was relatively new there was no way for people to know that one could not travel to the Moon in such a fashion. In fact, he wrote it so well that it was published as actual news!

There is no way such a story could be written today and classified as anything other than fantasy. In fact, it would mesh quite nicely with AD&D's Spelljammer Universe.
posted by Renoroc at 11:50 AM on May 23, 2012


Part of the problem is that we're living in a future, one which none of the SF writers predicted. I went to the Makers Faire last weekend and saw a bunch of stuff from SF novels- robots, automatic manufacturing, hydroponics, etc., and a bunch of stuff authors didn't predict. So the predictive value of SF seems very limited.

We live in a SF future-what do people in SF futures read and write about?
posted by happyroach at 11:58 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree that they predictive value of SF seems limited, mainly because true progress seems to not mirror that of fantasy. Ideally in some cases you wish it can (such as worlds in the Star Trek universe, peace on Earth anyone?) but how humans think they will progress and how we actually do will differ a lot in the coming future. The dissonance is too great, most people struggle with the reality of innovation and progress today, I imagine it similar in the near future, albeit with more emphasis on educating those in the new technologies.

I will say I think SF is a great cornerstone to where the human mind can take us, and that some ideas have become commonplace because of it, but as an accurate depiction of humanities future, not yet anyway. Maybe one day people will want to build an enterprise, that would be cool wouldn't it?
posted by Prudentia at 12:12 PM on May 23, 2012


I just read "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang. I found it striking that, even though the time travel device in the story is basically magic, it adheres to hard SF rules for time travel, e.g., there's only one timeline, you can't travel back before the time machine was created, etc. I'd be interested in more of that type of SF, as opposed to stories trapped in the utopian/dystopian dichotomy or ones that are essentially fantasy + lasers. At its best, SF should expand the boundaries of human experience and thought; in other words, it should be good fiction.
posted by Cash4Lead at 12:14 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Didn't William Gibson answer this question by gradually writing stories set slightly less far into the future each time?

Insofar as we "live in the future" already, I have a horrible feeling that we are destined to be the wise ancients, venerated by our descendants as they try to decipher our languages and reconstruct our technology. Perhaps living in the future is distracting us from the fact that we've always been living in someone else's past.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:18 PM on May 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


(such as worlds in the Star Trek universe, peace on Earth anyone?)

(Obligatory reminder that canonically, Star Trek's postscarcity socialist utopia comes after decades of socioeconomic-inequality-based ghettoes and riots, genetic engineering missteps, and the most hellish nuclear war humanity can imagine)
posted by Greg Nog at 12:19 PM on May 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


It is a good thought exercize and I like that he wants to answer these questions. However, every time I read one of Charlie Stross' essays, I get depressed, worse than the bleak 'hard sf' stories depress me.
posted by Fuka at 12:22 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why does SciFi need to have a core message, as a genre? Why do we expect it to?

SF, historically, has been a conversation between authors and ideas to an extent not really present in other genres. That's one of the big reasons even excellent authors of non-SF often stumble so badly when trying to write SF; they haven't been part of the conversation, they don't grok it, and they don't know what's Been Done and what's current. That's not exactly an answer to your question but I think it's at least tangentially related; SF has been a cohesive thing for a large chunk of the past century.

Who cares?

Stross, for one. Me, for another. Next question?
posted by Justinian at 12:29 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Didn't William Gibson answer this question by gradually writing stories set slightly less far into the future each time?

The best description of Gibson's work I've ever read was that his books were always set in the year 2000. Whether they were written in 1982, 1992, or 2002. Looking at it this way worked quite well until very recently.
posted by Justinian at 12:31 PM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


The ST universe should, by all rights, be at least proto-Culture. The Federation is scared of bioengineering and AI and they're very unimaginative with how they use replicators, transporters or fields. TransMetropolitan is lower tech in most ways than the Federation, but it's a lot like the Culture than the Federation appears to be.
posted by bonehead at 12:36 PM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


(Obligatory reminder that canonically, Star Trek's postscarcity socialist utopia comes after decades of socioeconomic-inequality-based ghettoes and riots, genetic engineering missteps, and the most hellish nuclear war humanity can imagine)

Almost as if that's what it would take such to attain "socialist utopia". Post-scarcity is a very real possibility, how the world will deal with it however is another matter, and will we even make it at all? (Alluding to all the horrors you listed) I think we can, peacefully though, we can hope so.
posted by Prudentia at 12:36 PM on May 23, 2012


This quote from a great interview with Lem seems relevant:
The issue of whether there can be a fantastic mathematics or a fantastic biology depends on our willingness to stretch the term "fantastic". From the viewpoint of l9th-century physics, the "flavors" of elementary particles or the "magical number" of atomic physics or qualities such as "strangeness", etc. are sheer fantasy. Nevertheless, some names for the newly discovered attributes must be given, even though we realize that the particles in question are not particles in the sense of our macro-world — i.e., they are not like stones or billiard balls. After all, isn't a "virtual" particle — that is, one which definitely is not; what is, is the potentiality (probability) of its existence — something completely fantastic, according to the gospel of our human ways. It would appear that the fantastic transmutes itself into the real when we have no choice but to concede its existence, as was the case with the flavor of quarks.
Of course Lem wasn't your average science fiction author.
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:49 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


"For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something."
posted by doctord at 12:52 PM on May 23, 2012


I think it was Warren Ellis who recently pointed out that a lot of "mainstream fiction" is in fact set decades ago when it comes to a lot of technology.
posted by Zarkonnen at 12:53 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


For one, I think the future depicted by some of the SF of the 70', with all the dystopian eco-nightmares is closing in on us fast, ignited by the energy transition, with its two ugly heads Climate Change and Energy Crisis. So for me any SF that doesn't try to figure up scenarios for that change is just scapism (which I love, btw), also if you go the hard SF route the consequences of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics should be of importance, there are limits, you know...
posted by samelborp at 1:22 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


We have robots fighting our wars, crazy billionaires launching things into space, every citizen carries around a high speed datalink in their pockets, odds are that you have a "smartglass" sheet computer that you carry around that is better than any desktop computer 15 years before, people just invested 100 billion dollars in a company that just does something on web that no one really understands...

Turns out we do live in the future.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:01 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The ST universe should, by all rights, be at least proto-Culture. The Federation is scared of bioengineering and AI and they're very unimaginative with how they use replicators, transporters or fields.

Another key difference:

Party in the Culture: drug-fueled hyperorgy. Probably multispecies.

Party in the Federation: boring space-violin recital. Bring formal attire.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:07 PM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Outside the Federation is more drug-fueled space orgies, the only people who go into the Federation are wonky do-gooders who get excited by long, thick operating guides telling themselves they're doing the IMPORTANT work while everyone else is out ENJOYING THEMSELVES.
posted by The Whelk at 2:10 PM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Everyone else is happy that the prigs are all off-world, it's win win.
posted by The Whelk at 2:10 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was watching some STTNG episodes last week and noticed that while human/alien sex was cool, it had to be white humans with white aliens, or black humans with black aliens. Didn't notice that as a kid.
posted by ryanrs at 2:12 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'll bet the Federation doesn't have anything like Republican Reservations. Drug-fuelled orgies and RepubReses go together like dicks and apple pie.
posted by bonehead at 2:18 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


the only people who go into the Federation are wonky do-gooders who get excited by long, thick operating guides telling themselves they're doing the IMPORTANT work

So it's "Lame Circumstances" rather than "Special Circumstances"?
posted by Chekhovian at 2:31 PM on May 23, 2012


"Oh, that was only about the label and not the content?

... Then who cares?
"

That's weirdly dismissive. Sci-fi has different expectations and different lineage, just like any other genre. I mean, unless you're off on some kinda, "Why can't we just call it all 'fiction,' man?" tip, or want to deny that labels influence content, I'm not sure why you'd feel snotty about making distinctions.

"The ST universe should, by all rights, be at least proto-Culture. The Federation is scared of bioengineering and AI and they're very unimaginative with how they use replicators, transporters or fields."

I just finished Player of Games, which I enjoyed, but I was always kinda aware that as a 21st-century liberal, I was totally being pandered to.
posted by klangklangston at 2:41 PM on May 23, 2012


I think my comment is being taken out of context. I was not saying that labeling something science fiction has no purpose or conveys no information whatsoever.

I had initially replied to a statement which I took to mean was saying that science fiction was irrelevant unless it "[kept] pressing the boundaries of what is plausibly just over the horizon".

When I took exception to that, I was informed that this was intended to refer not to the content of fiction, but rather to the labeling of fiction - that is to say, that for the label "science fiction" to be useful, it must be restricted only to subject matter which "keep[s] pressing the boundaries of what is plausibly just over the horizon".

To me, at least, that is a statement as bizarre as "for it to be considered fantasy, it must have dragons in it". So I replied basically, um ... really? Who cares?

It was not an objection to the concept of a label for science fiction. It was bafflement at a statement that the label should only properly be applied to a bizarrely limited subset of the field, and that anyone would be a torchbearer for that particular concern.
posted by kyrademon at 3:22 PM on May 23, 2012


(No offense intended to Renoroc, and sorry if I may have been getting a bit snippy ... I recently had a conversation where I was inundated with people who were playing No True Scotsman with science fiction, trying to impose definitions that would have left out, say, Le Guin, Zimmer Bradley, Willis ... heck, Asimov and Heinlein, for that matter. It left me a little on edge, and I should probably cool off before posting more.)
posted by kyrademon at 3:31 PM on May 23, 2012


... if the label "science fiction" is to matter, then it has to be distinguishable from fantasy ...

Perhaps, but no categorizations are definitive, there are always gray areas between them, and no one makes such a fuss about it in other genres, do they?
posted by me & my monkey at 3:44 PM on May 23, 2012


I wonder if Sturgeon's Law comes into play here. Most Science Fiction in any decade is crappy genre wank that's not visionary or insightful. We probably won't know the answer to that question before Hollywood starts butchering it.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:18 PM on May 23, 2012


(Obligatory reminder that canonically, Star Trek's postscarcity socialist utopia comes after decades of socioeconomic-inequality-based ghettoes and riots, genetic engineering missteps, and the most hellish nuclear war humanity can imagine)

Let alone the danger to people like me who like red sweaters.
posted by ersatz at 5:06 PM on May 23, 2012


> Publishers do not want big ideas. Big ideas are hard to understand and scare people. Publishers want
> another teen vampire romance. Writers write what can get published, unless they have a real job and
> like to masochistically waste time.

So, the future belongs to fanfic.


> if the label "science fiction" is to matter, then it has to be distinguishable from fantasy. Kind of
> like how if fantasy is going to matter, it has to be distinguishable from historical fiction.

Labels don't matter, what matters is lurid covers. Whatever genre-bending goes on between the covers, since the era of the pulps you have been able to rely on sf-flavor lurid covers being recognizable--and recognizably different from fantasy lurid covers, horror lurid covers, murder-mystery lurid covers, western lurid covers, bodice-ripper lurid covers, and all the rest. This is the only thing that really worries me about the future of sf: in the day of the e-reader, how can you even have genres if you can't tell a book by its cover?
posted by jfuller at 6:05 PM on May 23, 2012


The best description of Gibson's work I've ever read was that his books were always set in the year 2000. Whether they were written in 1982, 1992, or 2002. Looking at it this way worked quite well until very recently.

Gibson just elegantly slid into contemporary fiction...

Just like Atwood might be poised to do...
posted by ovvl at 6:45 PM on May 23, 2012


in the day of the e-reader, how can you even have genres if you can't tell a book by its cover?

Charles Stross has some thoughts about that too.
posted by overglow at 9:26 PM on May 23, 2012


The ST universe should, by all rights, be at least proto-Culture

Protoculture?
posted by MartinWisse at 3:03 AM on May 24, 2012


This was interesting, thanks for posting.

Reading over the comments --- of course and definition of genre gets fuzzy at the edges, but still I think you can identify core traits that define it (even if any particular example doesn't exhibit all of them).

But to me it seems like the core shift that the genre is struggling with us that, as cstoss points out, science fiction has since its birth as a distinct form been pondering on what progress means and what it will make of us --- how the tool changes the user, and how much of the monkey is left after each iteration on the technological curve. There's been a yin-yang to it (progress will make us inhuman, strangers to ourselves, destroy what is valuable in our culture: Brave New World, Blade Runner vs. progress will wipe away the devils of our nature, bring us peace and prosperity and new knowledge undreampt of: Star Trek). But the cstoss is right, grappling with the Enlightenment idea of progress is at the core of it.

But lately, I think --- see the apocalypse thread above --- society is spending more time grappling with the probability of limits. Space was the first to go down, though it took an awful long time for Einstein's truths to really penetrate popular consciousness. You can't go faster than light, and so we will never go skipping among the stars. We're stuck on this planet, most likely. And we're getting worried that we may be big enough to wreck this planet, but not to save it. There have been huge revolutions in the past 30 years --- but mostly concentrated in one field, telecommunications. We haven't invented a new power source since nukes, and that's proved too dangerous to rely on...otherwise for the most part we're burning dirt. And even that's getting more difficult to do. The Concorde turned put to be too expensive to run; i get to Paris in about the same amount of time as Don Draper did, 40 odd years ago. Even our minds --- to some extent i wonder if the recent mri studies on the unconscioys and irrational nature of human thought and morality don't provide a check on a speculative fiction depiction of radically alternative forms of society. Perhaps all those things help explain why post-apocalyptic society (endless zombies)is a much more popular vision for the future than post scarcity nowadays...apocalyptic stories aren't quite sci fi, because they grapple not with progress but regression, descent into primitivism and brutality.

There are plenty of frontiers of progress out there still of course --- biotech springs immediately to mind, and robotics, artificial intelligence. But it may be if science fiction dwindles as a genre it will be because the quandaries and concerns prompted by advances there are dwarfed in society's attention by the fears and changes prompted by facing resource constraint.
posted by Diablevert at 7:22 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Historically, almost all civilisations prior to the Enlightenment ran on the mythology of a distant golden age in the past, which bequeathed us a bunch of moral precepts and firm knowledge about how the world works which we poor degenerates living in the debased relics of a higher civilisation should turn to for guidance."

"If only because when you stop moving you're dead, and reverting to a late palaeolithic lifestyle looks like it would be a drag, and that's the most likely alternative long-term future for our species if we burn all the coal and oil, wreck the climate, and turn our back on the Enlightenment's ideological values."

Wait, whut?

Shouldn't be examining the thing after the Enlightenment?

I think that's a pretty damned good 'next step.'
posted by Tevin at 10:42 AM on May 24, 2012


"What do we do next?" is just another way of saying "What if?..." which has been the core of SF for generations. It's appropriate to speak of SF writers coming in waves. Right now the wave of the future has crashed down upon us with such speed that we living in the simple present are still sorting out applications for it. Old notions such as the telephone are disappearing in favor of other devices that do more than transmit a voice. Already kids in classrooms in small towns are linking in real time to kids in classrooms half way round the Earth. The technology that provides this equipment is sort of like an alphabet that lets a culture form its ideas into words, but it is the speakers who organize words into ideas. I won't belabor the analogy. The social implications of this technology have barely begun to blossom. But whatever fruit it may bear is still beyond reckoning. Writers such as Gibson don't see technology as our salvation. But then, not all writers in the 50's and 60's thought that either.

Science gives us windows for speculation. Archeologists look at bones and see dinosaurs. Writers look at bones and wonder "what if someone could get this DNA to..."

We are in a lull--dog paddling in the foam of the wave of the future that has just crashed down upon us, as it were. Emerging technology seems to be eroding, no, shattering our collective paradigm: no more simple telephones, for one example. People are warming up to the idea of multiple tele-presences and avatars in virtual setups. Privacy is now a variable notion. Caps have been designed so that the wearer can control machinery by thought. Exo-skeletions multiply a person's strength, and conceivably could allow a paraplegic to regain his mobility--maybe even allow people to fly. Who knows?

The core question for any writer is "what if?." Our imagination is draped around the paradigms we accumulate as we grow up. But it's not imprisoned there. A so-called mainstream writer may poignantly show us how we are, illumination the human condition, warts or no, but a science fiction writer may show us how we might be, if only....

I don't see why a space opera can't do that job, or a coming of age tale. You may notice that cautionary tales can become quickly outdated...that's what happens when the demons drop off, for example, their commie robes to become terrorists. My favorite writers rise above the ideology and address the human condition that wields it.
posted by mule98J at 10:50 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Which is why the genuine classics are still readable in a way that many "moment in time" ones are not.
posted by infini at 11:16 AM on May 24, 2012


Let alone the danger to people like me who like red sweaters.

Speaking of mefi's own scifi, you might be interested in this upcoming novel: John Scalzi's Redshirts!

(Disclaimer: I haven't read anything by the dude, so for all I know it'll be awful, but I'm always excited about deconstructions of Star Trek, and am very much looking forward to picking it up in a couple weeks!)
posted by Greg Nog at 12:46 PM on May 24, 2012


An interesting "What if" doesn't even have to be something that could happen.

For instance there's many interesting ways to play the "What if we could travel in time?" game without anyone having to believe it could really happen.

That's why I'm perfectly happy to allow faster-than-light travel as well. Because I'm more interested in for example "What if there were an alien civilization like so, and humanity came into contact with it?"
posted by philipy at 12:50 PM on May 24, 2012


"That's why I'm perfectly happy to allow faster-than-light travel as well. Because I'm more interested in for example "What if there were an alien civilization like so, and humanity came into contact with it?""

For example.
posted by Tevin at 1:14 PM on May 24, 2012


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