Sunday, July 15, 2007

The End of (Future) History

Over on the group blog Deep Genre, Infoquake author David Louis Edelman posts "The End of Science Fiction," in which he ponders if the lack of science fiction entertainment in the imagined worlds of science fiction novels doesn't indicate an assumption that SF will have served its purpose when the future arrives. I.e., the people on Star Trek seem to prefer historical dramas and mysteries in their holodeck games, given that they are out there exploring new worlds and civilizations as a day job. Or, as Dave puts it, "There’s no need to look off to some far-off feat of scientific progress because there are feats of scientific progress all around them." He references the iPod, which is undoubtedly the most SFnal gadjet this blogger's ever owned, and concludes by asking, "Perhaps the universe will one day become predictable enough — perhaps scientific change and progress will be so much a part of us — that looking into the future will just be an exercise of more-of-the-same."

Dave's question dovetails nicely with an article in the Houston Chronicle by Amy Biancolli which takes the occasion of the Transformers movie to wonder if there is a future for serious science fiction. In "The Future of Futurism," Amy asks, "Is science fiction thriving amid the pyrotechnics, or is it dying a slow and hideous death, suffocated by publishing-industry group-think and unimaginative movie execs drunk on sequels?" She then takes a survey of opinions that includes those of Monster Island author David Wellington - "It's much more respectable than it used to be," animator Craig Elliot - "There's too much bling on the screen," and artist Dave Dorman - "There's no better time in the history of films for science fiction...On the other hand, I think the writing of science-fiction films is not up to what it was..."

Of all the opinions, A Fate Worse than Dragons author John Moore's offers the most useful thought. "Science fiction is the present. We live in a science-fiction society, and I don't just mean the gadgetization of society... projecting into the future, once the province of the science-fiction writer, has become our dominant way of thought." Or, as Amy concludes, "In an age defined by the Internet, designed by software technicians and dominated by fan-driven campaigns in the blogosphere, science fiction and its fanatics have at last nestled into the mainstream."

Looking at the wealth of SF she cites, on screen and in print, good and bad, excellent and ridiculous, it looks to me that when "scientific change and progress" truly become a part of us, as Dave speculates, the result isn't the end of SF but a renaissance of it.

Or, as James T. Kirk said all those years ago (and in the future!) at the close of The Undiscovered Country, "Some people think the future means the end of history. Well, we haven’t run out of history just yet."

7 comments:

dave hutchinson said...

What a wonderful left-field idea; I'd never thought of that.
But how often does that happen in other genres? David mentions fantasy, where people are constantly telling stories about the heroic past, but I can't remember seeing it anywhere else. I can't recall Philip Marlowe reading The Maltese Falcon, for instance. `That Hammett knew what he was talking about, all right, but if a shamus behaved like Sam Spade he'd be in a cell with some of LA's finest beating a John Philip Souza march on his ribs...'
`Harry wanted to make sure he got to Hogwarts in plenty of time because he wanted to recommend the new Jasper Fforde novel to Hermione...'
`Yossarian really resented going on these bombing missions because, firstly, the Italians kept trying to kill him, and secondly, it kept interrupting his reading of Gravity's Rainbow.' (I know, I cheated there)
I suspect one reason we don't see this in science fiction is that, if you can build a world that's sfnal to the people in an sf novel, why not write the novel about that? (if you see what I mean) Although now someone's mentioned it, I think we can expect to see it cropping up more often. I'm tempted to try it myself...

Lou Anders said...

What I have seen is the reverse, where people in the future reference the science fiction of the past. So TNG's Data, for instance, was expressly said to represent the achievement of Isaac Asimov's positronic brain. Charles Stross's short story "Rogue Farm" uses a technology that was introduced by Larry Niven and credits it to him, etc...

dave hutchinson said...

Yes, that's true. I understand where you and David are coming from when you mention TNG; if I recall correctly Data's also obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. But I do wonder whether the historical settings used on the holodeck aren't meant more to point up the rich cultural diversity of the Enterprise's crew. Even when science fiction does rear its head, in Voyager, it's as a 1940s black and white film serial setting. Captain Proton? I forget.
Battlestar does it in season one, when Adama lends Roslin a mystery novel and they have a brief discussion of it. I thought that was rather a smart little move.

Ted said...

When I read SF where the characters explicitly makes reference to real SF titles, it knocks me out of the story. At best, it feels like an authorial in-joke: "look, my characters read the same authors you read. Cool, huh?" At worst, it renders the story unintentionally metafictional, as in Vinge's story "The Cookie Monster," where the characters actually mention having read Vinge's fiction; it just made me wonder, "So why haven't you read the story that you're in? Then you'd know the solution to your problem."

Lou Anders said...

Since I tend to be conservative in my opinions of who (or how few) of us will still be remembered in the future, it also knocks me out of the "reality" of the story. Where it doesn't bother me is where there IS overlap between SF and "the real world" enough to justify the reference, as in the case of cities and regions on Mars being named after SF writers associated with the planet, etc... (who does the naming? Scientists! And what do they read?)So Data's brain being a nod to Asimov - sure.

Matt Jarpe said...

When I first started paying attention to science fiction reviews (soon after I first started getting published) one reviewer mentioned a story committed the "cardinal sin" of mentioning a science fiction story in a science fiction story.

Now, 7 years on, everybody's doing that sin. William Barton has made a second career out of it. But it's as you say, characters in the future refering to past science fiction and saying "Gee, it's just like E.E. Doc Smith said it would be."

Lou Anders said...

Again, I think that has to be done delicately, particularly the more time has passed since "now" and "then." I mean, we remember Shakespeare but what other playwrights from his period are known outside of academia? So a scientist referencing Larry Niven's Ringworld, sure, but a waitress in a pub - not so sure I buy it.