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Saturday, April 02, 2011

Can Science Fiction Survive the Future?

I've been thinking a lot about this question lately.  It has nothing to do with the publishing industry, sales, or anything like that (at least, not directly).  What I'm really curious about is the ability for science fiction to be science fiction as time progresses:  will we always have science fiction, or will it die because the genre ceases to have a setting which sets it apart from the present enough to make it recognizable as a distinct genre?  Since I don't consider alternate history to be science fiction (it fits in its own genre, in my mind), there is a very real possibility that our future will make setting SF in a radically different environment (a defamiliarized zone, to link this whole discussion to Fredric Jameson) near impossible.

Or will it?  Would we still consider books about alien encounters science fiction even if the means to travel between worlds becomes relatively simple?  Or would such stories become fantasies?

When I first began thinking about this question, it occurred to me that many of the definitions we use to describe SF, even in a fairly general sense -- such as Darko Suvin's "cognitive estrangement" or Fredric Jameson's own manipulation of that concept -- become obsolete as the present encroaches on the allegorical past/present/future commonly associated with SF.  How can something be SF if it represents our immediate reality?  That, to me, seems more like mimetic/realistic fiction than anything else.  How do we define a genre like "SF" when it is indistinguishable from realistic fiction?

These are the kinds of questions I'm curious about.  Maybe you all will join in and give me your thoughts.  Comment away.

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15 comments:

  1. It is an interesting question, but I think it is one that has already been answered.

    Jules Verne and H.G.Wells are still science fiction, although much of what they wrote is now either commonplace or wrong.
    This of course goes for much of the science fiction written more than five years ago.

    And starting with Wells and Verne, we can see that science fiction has always been in development, and probably always will.
    If we discover a propulsion system for travelling between the stars 20 years from now, that will not change anything. There will still be things we can't do, or that hasn't happened yet, that will belong to science fiction.

    For example, if we have already encountered alien race x and y, stories of encounters with alien race z will still be science fiction.

    I don't think science fiction will ever be obsolete, it is only limited by human imagination, and will exist for as long as humans have imagination.

    And as for your question:
    "How can something be SF if it represents our immediate reality?"

    If it does that, it is not science fiction, and it never has been. That genre is called contemporary fiction, however philosophical it is. If it incorporates things not present in our reality, it would be fantasy or contemporary alternate history (alternate reality).

    And speaking of alternate history, I would classify that as science fiction, but only just. I would have no problem with it being a separate SFF genre from the usual science fiction, fantasy and horror.

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  2. As long as science continues to progress, SF will be available as a writing genre. At this moment in history, fantasy has taken over as a more popular genre. Up and comers in spec fic look to fantasy first because it is what's selling. I look at writer's like Buckell and Rajaniemi and Sanford, and they're writing stories that will define SF for the next 20 years, but the field is still dominated by people who broke into the field over a generation ago. Until we can control the four fundamental forces of nature using an Xbox controller, SF will be a viable genre.

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  3. I don't think I really understand the question - are you considering if past SF can still be called such after true science catches up? Or are you suspecting that we'll stop dreaming up fictional science and only dwell upon modern, existing technology?

    It SEEMS like you're considering past SF fantasies (a wired world, space exploration, etc.) and wondering what happens when we can actually accomplish these things. But I don't understand how that can possibly mean there won't be further dreams of fantastical science. 20th century SF was derived from what we suspected lay in the future. Are you honestly suggesting that in the 21th century we have no more dreams of the future? Or in other words, just because the 21st century quite logically becomes the future of the 20th century, how does that even raise the question of whether they'll be a future beyond this for SF to speculate upon? That seems...kind of silly.

    Science Fiction doesn't have to be about the future, in any event. It's fictional science, period. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN is SF, and in no way is concerned with the "future", but like all fiction simply with a possible scenario that is "the future" only because it hasn't happened yet, but COULD easily happen in the here and now.

    Some science fiction that is concerned with the future, and then has real, present science catch up with it, I suppose becomes, technically, alternate history. Because it's a fictional account of a concept that has now happened.

    I would argue, ultimately, if there's fictional science involved as a core concept, then it's science fiction, period. Dwelling on "the future" is simply one kind of SF.

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  4. I think I might have made myself unclear. I'm not talking about whether older SF is still SF. I'm talking about whether literature which contains the tropes of SF in a period where those tropes are actual (i.e., part of our material reality) is still SF, or if it is just realistic fiction. I wouldn't argue that SF from 100 years ago ceases to be SF because the times have changed. You have to take the text seriously within its historical context, rather than its comparison to a later text's historicity.

    Put it this way: if a story about a genetically modified alien super virus escaping and killing millions were to arrive on our shelves AFTER such an event had already happened, would it be SF?

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  5. "....if a story about a genetically modified alien super virus escaping and killing millions were to arrive on our shelves AFTER such an event had already happened, would it be SF?"
    No. it would be historical fact.

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  6. Right, so what you're saying is that science fiction can't survive the future. It ceases to be science fiction when its tropes/concepts/processes are no longer talking about something beyond our immediate present in a direct way.

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  7. Adam has it right. There will always be room for SF so long as scientific knowledge continues to progress. As science progresses, our future capabilities change, and so does our outlook on the world.

    The hypothetical end to all this would be complete knowledge of everything. But that's only asymptotically achievable. There's always stuff to the right of the ascending line.

    Perhaps a true believer in the 'singularity' might disagree. But it's always seemed to me the singularity was more inchoate fantasy than clear fact. Of course, were we to achieve something singularity-like, our lives would be sufficiently different than the ones we lead now, such that it's hard to say which of our present concepts we might retain.

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  8. "Put it this way: if a story about a genetically modified alien super virus escaping and killing millions were to arrive on our shelves AFTER such an event had already happened, would it be SF?"

    If it were originally written as fiction, then it would remain a work of science fiction; Del Rey's Rocket Jockey is still SF, even though its version of the first moon landing is not the historical one (even if Lester did name his astronaut Armstrong).

    In reality, your hypothetical virus novel would be removed from the shelves because of its unfortunate prescience - or - would be a #1 times best seller because of its amazing prescience.

    We don't pull a 1910 physics text from the reference section and stick it in the science fiction aisle come 1911....

    SF is always groping after a future that will never be. Move the real yardstick and the fictional one follows.

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  9. Douglass: Right, but science fiction isn't about the future. It's about the present. I'll concede that science will likely always progress, but that progression will become less and less noticeable over time. Think of technology today: a new iPhone comes out and it's really not that terribly advanced from where we were before.

    I agree about the singularity. I don't know if that will ever happen. We'll approach something close, but never exactly reach it.

    Crotchedy: Rocket Jockey arrived on shelves BEFORE the moon landings occurred. I'm talking about a novel about a fictionalized version of events that have already occurred. If we've already experienced an alien virus and are writing about a different one, does that remain science fiction simply because we think of that as science fiction now? Seems to me that becomes a kind of realism.

    And, again, SF isn't about the future. It's always about the present. It simply uses the vehicles of future history to defamiliarize our present world. Read some Jameson :P

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  10. "And, again, SF isn't about the future. It's always about the present. It simply uses the vehicles of future history to defamiliarize our present world."

    If you use that definition, every book ever written is about the present, and the only genre that exist is contemporary fiction.
    It's a silly philosophical argument that is used to start a discussion, and has no place in defining what is set in the future or not.

    And a "fictionalized version of events that have already occurred" is historical fiction.

    If you are talking about a different event, but with some of the same events - you use alien virus - then YES it is science fiction.
    Just because we landed on the Moon, it doesn't mean that a book about landing on Mars becomes less than science fiction at the moment. Although humans landing on another celestial body is no longer science fiction in itself.

    And realism is not something that is excluded from science fiction, as you seem to argue in your last comment. Science fiction changes because the boundaries of what is realistic changes as science progresses, at least this is true for hard science fiction.

    Your argument about iPhone is not valid. They don't release a new one because technology has gotten better. They do it because to tech-heads will buy the newest one no matter how little has changed.
    Technology is not really progressing as fast as it seems, but in today's world we get news of every little tweak and upgrade.

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  11. As I put on-line in 2004, as part of what is now a 15-year-old deomain getting 15,000,000 hits/year:


    Definitions of "Science Fiction"
    http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/thisthat.html#sfdef


    And what do we even mean by "science fiction" anyway? In one sense, the
    first article to define the field was published over 150 years ago, before
    the field was widely ackonwledged to exist:

    New Species of Literature

    "We learn that Mr. R. A. Locke, the ingenious author of the late
    'Moon Story' or 'Astronomical Hoax,' is putting on the stocks the
    frame of a new novel on a subject similar to that of his recent able
    invention in astronomy.... His style is nearly as original as his
    conception. It is ornamented and highly imaginative. He may be said
    to be the inventor of an entirely new species of literature, which we
    may call the 'scientific novel'.... We have had crowds of 'fashionable
    novels'; but fictitious history, founded on the discoveries and
    scientific hypotheses of the day has seldom been attempted until
    Mr.Locke did so. In fact, Mr.Locke has opened a new vein, as
    original, as curious, as beautiful, as any of the greatest geniuses
    who ever wrote. He looks forward into futurity, and adapts his
    characters to the light of science." [New York Herald, 5 September 1835]

    see the page for the many definitions I've curated, and then link to the many Fantasy definitions.

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  12. SMD: thanks for the response. Actually I don't think I agree that SF is about the present; not in the relevant sense anyhow. Sure, all fiction in a sense is about the present since all our ideas are present-centered. (Our future is the future of our present, after all). But SF is the form of fiction that looks to the way the present will or might change due to scientific and technological advances.

    (One may quibble that this or that work of SF doesn't quite fit the definition, e.g., steampunk situates the present in our own historical past, but I don't think it's deniable that most SF is that way).

    As to whether in the (near) future technological advancements will be less revolutionary and more marginal than the ones we've seen in the last century: that's an empirical question, and one I don't think we have any particular reason to believe. Sure, any given new gadget (like the iPhone 2) will be only marginally different from what came before. But we have a long, long way to go before this is all played out. Looking at the recent gadget risks missing forest for trees.

    Moreover, current SF notwithstanding, I don't think we have any good handle on how future developments in neuroscience, genetics, artificial intelligence, etc., will really impact society or even our sense of self. I think these will take centuries, even millennia to play out. And what we'll be at the other end, who knows? Probably very similar in some ways and very different in others ...

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  13. Okay. Big comments coming, since I now have time to actually substantially engage with everything being said.

    Weirdmage:
    Saying that SF isn't about the future, but the present isn't really a definition, but simply an acknowledgment of a constitutive element of a definition, if such a definition could ever exist. There are no absolute definitions, per se, but there are absolute elements. SF's inherent inability to actually provide accurate futures is precisely why the genre isn't about the future, just set there. This is similar to postmodernism's failure to imagine utopia, in that any representation which attempts to reach the horizon of utopia (or the future) always inevitably falls short because the present is an inescapable gravitational force. We cannot write about something which is not immediately driven by a condition we understand. The future is unattainable; therefore, it cannot be imagined, only approached through vehicles borrowed from the now.

    Read Fredric Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future or Dark Suvin's text on SF. They give a more thorough account than I'm giving here.

    Going to the Moon and going to Mars are not the same thing as a real alien virus verses a fictionalized one which essentially bases its reality on an actual event. Would you consider an armed conflict in the Middle East in a story science fiction if it is fictionalized? Armed conflict in that part of the world is something that is absolutely a part of the reality we live in (both at present and in the past). A story about a conflict that didn't technically happen, then, is only dealing with a realistic potential, rather than something non-existent. A Mars Landing, then, would be science fiction, while a Moon landing would not be unless some distinct change has occurred in its event-ness.

    Realism is a literary movement. There's a difference between "realism" and "realistic." Realistic is what you mean. I mean "realism" as a movement. Science fiction certainly aims to be realistic (sometimes), but it is not realism.

    You just proved my point about the iPhone :P. That's exactly what I was saying: technology is not progressing as much as it used to.

    Douglass: See my above discussion of the future and SF's non-futurological approach to narrative.

    Steampunk is not science fiction. It might be a form of literary cognitive estrangement (see Suvin), but it is absolutely not science fiction. At best, I think of it as science fantasy or alternate history, but never as SF.

    But really all of this is wandering away from the original question: can something still be science fiction of the tropes commonly associated with the genre cease to be imaginary constructs of defamiliarization?

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  14. SMD: nothing rides on steampunk, and I have no eggs in that basket. Call it what you will. (Though I think you would be in the minority in this case).

    You say: "SF's inherent inability to actually provide accurate futures is precisely why the genre isn't about the future".

    By this definition, nothing is about the future except true predictions. Incorrect weather reports aren't about the future. Bad stock market predictions aren't about the future.

    That doesn't sound right.

    Of course there's a sense in which it's right. If I purport to talk about George Washington and keep mentioning him as the King of Prussia, then there's a sense in which I'm not really talking about our GW at all. I'm just making stuff up.

    But when people say that SF is "about the future" they don't mean that SF is oracular about that future. I doubt one person in a hundred is so naïve. So the argument you cite seems a straw man.

    SF is about the future in the sense that it's about our (present) conception of that future.

    That's all that's relevant to your initial point, in respect of what I was saying before.

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  15. Firstly: Very interesting debate :-)

    "SF's inherent inability to actually provide accurate futures is precisely why the genre isn't about the future, just set there."

    That is precisely why it is science fiction. If it tried to accuratly predict the future, it would be scientific predictions and not fiction.
    Having said that, there are lots of predictions in science fiction that have come through, some of them even because they have given scientists ideas.
    Perhaps the most famous one is Clarke's satellites. But when I read 2001 a while ago I couldn't help but notice that the main character reads newspapers on a newspad...

    As for my point about the iPhone, I don't think it proves that we are not progressing as fast as we were. But people's need/want for new technology has accelerated. Whereas before a company could use five or ten years to develop a radically different (at least in some ways) technology, they now make small changes and put out a new product every year. Take a five year period, and look at the beginning and ending of it, I don't think it has slowed much since the 80s.

    I agree with you that steampunk is not science fiction but alternate history. But that begs the question is alternate history science fiction? I'd say alternate history exist on the borders between science fiction and historical fiction, as a mostly seperate genre.

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