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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Science Fiction is Not Immortal

Having spoken of the non-death of science fiction, it occurs to me that I should also talk about the would-be-death of the genre. Because, unlike general fiction (or “literary” fiction, if you want to call it that, though that would be unfair), science fiction does have a limited lifespan. To be fair to SF, that lifespan is a long one, since the inevitable death of SF cannot occur until one of two things becomes true (and I have mentioned these before): a) we are incapable of imagining the future any longer; or b) the future ceases to exist.

I don’t know how either of these possibilities will ever worm their way into existence short of the apocalypse descending upon us, since, after all, the physical end of human history as we know it would constitute a complete absence of the future. But then, SF wouldn’t exist because there would be nobody there to think about it. So that is not a possible solution to the problematic nature of SF’s mortality.

Instead, and I think I have touched on this at some previous point, science fiction will cease to exist in the first instance when some measure of hope (or the utopian ideal of such a thing) no longer occupies us as a bulk entity of fleshy masses, when we literally cease concerning ourselves with the present’s pursuit of the future. How? Perhaps through the creation of a utopian state, as much as one can exist, in which the needs of each man and woman are attended to, in some fashion or another. It’s hard to say what could produce the incapability of imagining the future, but when that occurs, SF dies.

In the second instance, however, the future must cease to exist because the limitations of the future itself are as mortal as science fiction. The future is not indefinite, but is replaceable, recycling itself over and over, in a cycle that is finite. It is not a perpetual motion machine, but a machine with a long, slow, drawn out cease-ment-of-living. The future, thus, ends for mankind when there is nowhere else to go. Perhaps that is at the end of life as we know it, or at the end of the universe (the collapsing of the energy that created us all, which would then restart the cycle, restart time like a battery). More than likely, it is at the point in humanity’s inevitably long existence in which we simply have nowhere else to go. Imagine that, if you will: after all those centuries, we come to a point where technology cannot progress, where what is around the corner is little more than the same thing that we saw yesterday, and nothing we do changes anything in a significant manner whatsoever (on a global or galactic scale). That is where science fiction dies.

But, a simpler approach, one that is less “philosophical,” if you will, is to try to think about the place we will eventually be in, where science fiction cannot possibly offer us anything else. If we already have space ships and aliens and AI and robots and all of those imaginative constructs, then, really, where else is there to go? Science fiction simply cannot exist in that sort of environment. It will cease to be speculative and forever become the present, the every-day. We'll stop calling it "science fiction" and, instead, shove it in with all those mainstream and "literary" novels. That is, of course, if literature can survive the distant future.

And that’s all I have to say on that. What do you think?

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  1. I think you're missing a key third possibility: 3) The way in which we define and imagine the future changes entirely.

    This has already happened at least once in the course of human existence: from religion/prophecy to science fiction. Originally, the future was considered to be determined through a mixture of metaphysical/spiritual elements: god(s), fate, karma, prophecy, etc. The Book of Revelations is basically your very definition of science fiction, minus the science and (so far as those who wrote it believed) the fiction.

    Even with the advent of the basic sciences, the future was considered inseparable from gods, fate, and the like. That was how humankind viewed and defined the future for centuries (millennia, even).

    Eventually, we'd chronicled our own progress as a species and series of societies that the future became more a conception of our continual progress, of our invention, abuse of invention, or proper nurture and use of invention. Hence, the imagined future became science fiction.

    It's important to remember that prophecy and religious futures were largely things that at least some if not all could avoid - they, like science fiction, were always cautionary tales, filled with dread and hope in equal measure. Same with SF.

    So what comes after science? What will next become the guiding light to the imagined future? It's much more likely that science fiction will simply become something radically different, but serve the same purpose: chronicle our hopes and fears of the near or far future. Those who wrote prophecy could, likely, never have guessed what science fiction would be today. Likewise, I think what will next replace science, while merely an extension of science just as science is an extension of religious thought and philosophy taken to its next obvious stage (physical/cosmic existence), will be the "death of science fiction".

    Like all things, it's much more likely/true that it evolves, rather than outright dies and is replaced.

  2. Dave: That would be true if those "old" future concepts no longer were true. But they are, and have been since their inception. A lot of people still believe Revelations will come true, and soon.

    And the future as visualized through science has been around for centuries. Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, wrote a proto-science fiction novel about civilizations on the moon, and many big-time names in science from centuries back wrote science fiction novels. So, visions of the future have been around in multiple formats for a long time, and they generally don't change, except in minute elements.

    The assumption that the future is separated from gods, fate, etc. just isn't true. It's only true for some people, but for the majority, who do believe in God, etc. there is always a spiritual or supernatural operator behind everything.

    Science fiction can't exist without a future, though. It's not possible. It will simply become the literature of the every day when the future ceases to exist. That's the point. When there is no future, then there cannot be science fiction.

  3. I have to (respectfully) disagree on nearly all counts here, Shaun. I understand that of course religion, the concept and even belief of gods, fate, etc. have gone nowhere. Additionally, I understand that science fiction isn't a 20th century invention. However, what I'm arguing is the replacement of science fiction over religion in respect to our LITERARY (or other creative/artistic/expressionistic) imaginings of the future.

    Religion is still around, but very few have been birthed in the previous few centuries (not counting the branching off of already extant religions). We no longer use religion to gauge the specific fears and/or hopes of the future as defined by modern specifics (which is what all religion was when it was originally penned - the future as written in accordance with the details, faces, names, places, and understandings of the then-present). While religious elements are still played with by the non-religious and adhered to or explored by the more devout, this is now the past, by and large, which we have to continually reconcile with the present in order to satisfactorily use it to seek the future.

    Science is the usurper to religion, though perhaps that's too loaded a word, I think "hereditary next of kin" is more appropriate. It doesn't even have to be at odds with religion, however the future can no longer be understood without what we now call science fiction, thought it CAN, arguably, be explored without religion. In that sense, which is the only sense at hand here, science fiction has taken over. It is the new literary/artistic mold our wonder of the future takes, by necessity, as our world and culture are saturated in science.

    The future as visualized through Science may have been around for centuries, but mankind and our visions of the future have been around for a lot longer than that. Science Fiction still was a thing that did not define our vision of the future at one point. And so it's only logical to suspect that a time will come it no longer does and something ELSE will come along just as science fiction did.

    A final point, it's too clean-cut and unrealistic to argue (and so I'm not) the idea that there is only one thing and one thing in existence serving any purpose at any given time. If religion is the supposed "older generation" and science fiction is the "younger generation", well, it's still viable to say that SF is indeed the next generation to do what religion did even though religion is still around and vocal and strong, because the old and the new always do live side-by-side next to each other for far longer than either would like. That's how the universe works, far as anyone has ever experienced.

    On your final point: "When there is no future, then there cannot be science fiction." I think that's putting the emphasis on the wrong half of the equation. Science Fiction didn't exist at one point, but the future did. Therefore, the future can exist without science fiction. Sure, not vice versa, but I don't think SF will last until the future blips out. It's highly, HIGHLY more likely that the future will go ever on even though SF fizzles due to the nature of our understanding of the future. Anything else seems too mired in present-day thought: either dystopia or uptopia with nowhere left to go? Those are the only options? Kind of a black/white, good/evil argument isn't it? Reality is always that things just move forward, balanced and unbalanced in relatively equal measure.

    The future and our wonder of it will long outlive SF. Unless we don't live. That's probably the only absolute instant death of SF. Along with, oh, the rest of us. :P

  4. Dave: I've got a response coming to this. I'm just a bit indisposed at the moment. But it's coming!

  5. I's patient. Lookin' forward to it.

  6. Dave: I would agree with you if not for the powerful emergence of Bible-based literary imaginings of the future. If the Left Behind series, and numerous others, even those not readily identified by their religious leanings, had been financial blunders, I would completely agree, but that's not the case and probably won't be for a while to come. If you were arguing films, an area where science fiction has done remarkably well, on top of maintaining a certain state of dominance, then I would have nothing to refute your claim with; there are few, if any (and I can't think of any) religious-based, financially successful film imaginings of the future.

    I think the problem here is that you see the future as having to always be aware of a persistently moving present. Religion, thus, loses on that front, because it's present does not exist; religion lost its present practically at its inception (at least in its Christian vein). There are no real new figures representing or dispersing a religious future. Only science fiction can do that, because it's present is constantly entangled with scientific discovery and with the encroaching of the present upon the end of history. In that sense, you are right, though I think that is somewhat unfair to those of religious inflection who write novels with religion as the envisioning element of the future.

    I wonder how you would work in what will inevitably be a rush of creationist-inspired science fiction. Some has already been written, but where does that fit?

    "Science Fiction didn't exist at one point, but the future did. Therefore, the future can exist without science fiction."

    Yes, this is true, but my original statement is just as true. Science fiction cannot exist without the future. It's impossible. Since science fiction is about what might be, it is always stuck in the construct of the future. It can't exist in any other form.

    I also disagree that science fiction will cease to exist before the future ceases to exist. I think they have to go at the same time. We might call science fiction something else in one hundred years, but ultimately it will be the same thing, just with different themes, writers, etc.

    And that's enough from me :P.

  7. Agreed, agreed, agreed, agreed, agreed.

    Save for the closing statement (dammit! So close! :P).

    IF (it's a big "if", but it's my argument here) religion really is/was science fiction's precursor, then there comes the question of whether the complete acceptance of science and science fiction will one day mean religion's death...or not. If it does, then whatever will come after SF - whatever we might call it - won't be seen as (and arguably won't be at all) the same as SF. It won't be SF with a different name, but literally what comes next.

    Yet even if it doesn't, I suppose the argument is that - much as religion is still around and even somewhat strong in the face of SF's rise - whatever comes next to consume the lion's share of our future culture's concept of their own future - SF will simply be outmoded. It will probably even linger, much like religion, possibly indefinitely as religion does now. But the future will be alive and strong no matter what.

    S.M.D.: "Yes, this is true, but my original statement is just as true. Science fiction cannot exist without the future. It's impossible. Since science fiction is about what might be, it is always stuck in the construct of the future. It can't exist in any other form."

    True, but it's an arbitrarily incomplete statement: Science Fiction cannot exist if it lacks all number of elements, not just the future. For one thing, if it lacks science. Science Fiction is about what might be VIA SCIENCE.

    It's interesting to note that your current definition of science fiction is "It = the future" without the science qualification, or you feel the science aspect is besides the core point of it representing any fictitious imagining of the future. Which is the crux of what I think you're unfairly dismissing: that science fiction literally is about the future only through science. Period.

    On the subject of science, then, there already exists debate on whether many modern scientific theories are "science" at all, as they don't follow the scientific method. Writers are nevertheless absorbing these new discoveries into their SF, but it's perhaps the beginning of the schism - a way to understand a larger future without what we've forever known of as "science" in the classic vein. What comes next may be as unique a way to consider our ultimate origins and fates as science was after religion. And likely, there will be many adherents to the classic sciences regardless.

    But ultimately, there will be only one central, core element to any given present-day culture's imaginings of the future. Right now, that's science (a la scientific method and its many direct derivations). Heck, as you noted in another blog post, more and more modern literary authors are finding it difficult to write books of worth without sliding into Sci-Fi. That's because it IS our culture, world, and definition of existence for the present. So much so that writing on the whole is swiftly moving SF beyond a mere genre. Perhaps that's the ultimate test.

    But I think it's fair to call what comes next nothing more than SF's natural heir. Not just SF under a different nome de plume. I certainly wouldn't calls science "religion with a different name". It's more "what drove religion but refined, evolved, and re-imagined."

    Oy, think I'm rambling now. Had to write this one quick in a flurry of as-I-thought-it. Got work to do now! But if you have more thoughts, happy to hear them.

  8. I don't presume that science fiction is only the future, just that the future is the one element that it cannot exist without. Any alteration of the past to include what might be called "science fiction tropes" would only serve to present an alternate history, not a science fiction story. While science and other factors play a role in creating the entity of science fiction, if the future fails to be one of those defining factors, then it is nothing more than alternate history or a technologized fantasy. Science fiction is about so much more than disconnecting the past or present from itself. That's what will happen to science fiction when we are no longer capable of envisioning a future beyond just saying "there is tomorrow." Tomorrow is a future without substance.

    "Which is the crux of what I think you're unfairly dismissing: that science fiction literally is about the future only through science. Period."

    Thinly designed, yes. A heck of a lot of dystopian novels have very little to do with science, yet are still science fiction in some manner (science generally is nothing more than a vague after though).

    As for your other points: Yeah, I generally agree, mostly, I just don't want to nitpick every point :P. Although, I'm curious how you figure the shape of the something that would follow science fiction, since, as you said, science is changing, in some way. It doesn't cease to be science just because it's different. SF today is vastly different from SF in 1932, yet we still call it SF...

  9. "then it is nothing more than alternate history or a technologized fantasy."

    Hmmm...not entirely sure those aren't just sub-genres of SF. Arguable either way, to be sure, though it's entirely dependent on the foundational definition of SF - which like most definitions isn't universally agreed upon. Personally, I see SF as F utilizing S, anything else, such as molding a possible future, doesn't have to necessarily be this. It could be any genre.

    "Although, I'm curious how you figure the shape of the something that would follow science fiction, since, as you said, science is changing, in some way. It doesn't cease to be science just because it's different. SF today is vastly different from SF in 1932, yet we still call it SF..."

    It actually does, given enough time and enough divergence from classic science. Science is a matter of understanding things through the scientific method, and usually this umbrellas any/all output that stems from this.

    Knowledge/understanding gained from anything that is not the scientific method, is not science, or so the argument goes, and there's merit to it. Hard not to keep devolving back to the religion/science proposed connection, but many religious thinkers devalue science as just another religious belief. The connection is sincere, since science DOES operate on a similar structure and for a similar purpose, but the differences are still profound, and pronounced. Science changed fundamentally how we learned, what we chose to learn, and what we did with our learning.

    Same with what comes after science - it will both be similar in function and in partial form (things evolve more than they freakishly warp) yet also radically different in integral ways. If scientific method is ditched, but we yet continue with the mathematics and conceptual logic that science has taught us, we have the same foundation as religion and science both - imagination, wonder, analysis, synthesis, critical thought - but the manner in which we craft these elements in our mind will be changed. It won't be dependent on the same methods, the same regulations and boundaries.

    Here's a thought: the new "science" is closer to science fiction than to classic science. So the question is: if SF more-or-less replaces science itself, what will replace science fiction to continually challenge and push the boundaries on IT?

  10. Dave: We could probably get into an endless argument about whether or not alternate history is a subgenre of, let's not have that argument :P.

    I disagree with the argument that anything prior to the scientific method is not science. It's not science today, but at the time, it was, and anything written then under what was understood to be current science is still science fiction. We don't actually stop calling 1940s SF by the appropriate SF title despite all that is wrong with what was written at those times. The science of those books is wrong, but they're still SF. That's the point. I just don't buy the "it's only science if the scientific method was used." No. Sometimes science is just bad science.

    What will replace SF is just more fiction. That's it.