Progressive Science Fiction – Part 1

6 06 2014

There’s been a few posts lately about science fiction not being cutting edge like it used to be and falling behind the progress made in literary science fiction. David Hebblewhite for instance states:

“But, when I look at genre sf published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents (to literary fiction) emerging. I wish I could. All in all, though, my reading is showing me that sf has a lot of catching up to do.”

He states that the New Weird movement typified by the emergence of the likes of China Mieville was the last time science fiction had that progressive nature.

I have in previous blogs stated that part of the problem is that publishers have to make sufficient profit to stay in business, which means they have to publish what they think will sell sufficient copies to get their money back. With the recession there has been a natural tendency to sell variants on what has successfully sold in the past, which means cutting edge science fiction, the really new and exciting stuff, does not get an on the shelf place in bookshops. But it appears the literary fiction has done this. So why doesn’t science fiction?

Nina Allan tends to some extent to agree with him.   She argues that the lack of the cutting edge science fiction is showing up with a lack of innovative writing techniques. There I would tend to agree with her.

There are two reasons why people would write in innovative forms. The first is to see how form can change the mood of the story content, to give a richness and hidden depth to the writing. The form usually resonates with the content, but there exceptions that indicate some form of literally deception is going on. The second is because the english language that we all know and love is totally inadequate to get new ideas across. Simple examples include coming up with new words to cover new concepts. I’ve had to do this quite a few times now and believe, I’ve scoured the dictionaries to find the right word and it just did not exist.

Whilst I have seen some literally mood-inducing techniques being written and published, there is a distinct lack of the latter type of innovative writing, the one where the ideas push to change the language.

Ian Sales makes an interesting point. Science fiction is stuck with the acceptance of past tropes. Writers are not examining science fiction assumptions. I know some of them have been found wanting when science has stepped in to say they are not true, but they are still written about as if nothing has changed. We are living with a science fiction that was written in the past to be read in the past, not in the here and now. He, like me above, argues that this is in part due to the commercial nature of science fiction publication today.

O.K. This is where we are at at the moment. Can anything be done about it?

Well, let’s look at the underlying reasons for why science fiction was written in the past. They included:

  1. Working the impact of new technology on the way we live
  2. Examining the current social and political issues of our day through extrapolation into the future or on another world
  3. ‘Experiencing’ places that we ourselves will never be able to reach through the means of fantastical journeys

Each of these reasons has in general one of two endings for the characters. The first is to reject the new order they are dealing with by expounding in a fictional sense on why it is not a good idea, which in general is not something that is that obvious (it’s usually a story about discovering why it is such a bad idea). The second it to embrace the new order and see how it changes the characters.

Technology Ideas:

New technology that we can can perceive the impact of is becoming less abrupt in our lives. Think of home computers. They were such a change to the way our lives ran when they first became affordable in the 1980s. Now it’s a case of upgrade this or change the choices in that. The difference is less perceptible for the upgrades than for the introduction of home computers. Worse, we have a fairly good idea of how they are going to improve int he future as we’ve identified how the upgrades are trending. So we know what’s going to happen. It’s become boringly predictable.

Whoa… that can’t be right. Technology is making huge progress – some at the early stages e.g. Alcubierre’s Drive, some at the later stages – well on the way to curing heart disease and loads between. But I hear you say, a lot of this has been written about before in science fiction.

Some, but far from all. What for instance is the impact of the different types of calculation that the faster quantum computing offers us? It’ll major on some problems and leave others untouched. It’ll make a quite a difference to which type of problems we solve and what the impact of that lob sided bias in problem-solving has on society. Has anyone written about this? Or what about cold fusion becoming a reality and its reliance on say palladium. What effects with mining this mineral have on our world? I won’t go on, but there are loads more like that – and they all have a big impact on the way society will evolve. But we’ve not seen them in the science fiction. Why?

My guess, is that it’s hard to research the subject in the first place. Hands up who knows about quantum computing? Not all that many of you, are there? So it just doesn’t get written about!

Social and Political Developments:

The human is changing, imperceptibly from year to year. We are growing taller and bigger in other ways. The wiring in our brains are changing to different stimuli. We are changing our diets, which has an impact on our health and moods.

But who amongst the science fiction writers has picked up on these changes, extrapolated them to see what could happen and written a novel to highlight the changes?

In the past we had authors like H G Wells and their novels like The Time Machine to highlight potential extremes of society.

What will happen to sexuality if the planet gets hotter? Will we go round with even less clothes and what happens under those circumstances?

What happens if we are forced through epidemics or climate change to think and act as global race? For all its ills, competitiveness between nations produced societal progress in its various guises.

The trouble is we are now living in such a ‘politically correct’ society that controversy is avoided, certainly if you are publisher wanting to sell books.

Experiencing New Places:

Earth is now well mapped and measured. Yes there are still a few surprises, but they tend to be on the small scale.

So that leaves the planets etc. Again we know an awful lot about them, and therefore they are more predictable in their nature than when the golden age science fiction was being written. It takes work to get the facts straight. Work that professional writers don’t have the time for to read up and digest. If you look around at the harder end of science fiction writers today, you’ll see most of them have come from specialist backgrounds. Alastair Reynolds did an astrophysics doctorate and worked at ESA. Geoffrey Landis works at NASA. Charles Stross and John Meaney have expertise in information and computing technology, from which they can develop ‘computing worlds’.

And even if you come up with a new world, it has to be consistent with the laws of science. And that is hard work that takes time, which detracts from income. No wonder a lot of writers, who don’t have relevant areas of expertise, have fled to worlds of fantasy.

Summarising…

So all the major themes in science fiction are suffering from one problem or another, which means cutting edge science fiction is becoming less available on the bookshelves.

Is there anything that can be done about it? Apart from a few exceptions to the rule, can we have progressive science fiction?

 

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10 responses

7 06 2014
justmoo33

Hi Rosie. Glad the blog is back in action. Interesting thoughts, especially the need for research, made easier if you write in your own field of expertise. I can see that the fantasy label makes life easier by lifting the restrictions required by hard sci-fi. I wonder though if sci-fi writers worry too much about absolute accuracy? After all, sci-fi fans want plausibility and not perfection? Maybe I’m not a nerdy enough sci-fi fan!

8 06 2014
rosieoliver

Hello Justine,
There is the (in-)famous story about Larry Niven’s Ringworld, which I think illustrates your point so well. Niven published Ringworld to critical acclaim of many readers.
Then the comments from engineers etc came in to say that the Ringworld he had built could not be stable and would have long since broken up before we got to the time of the story.
Niven’s reply was to write a second novel called Ringworld Engineers that was published c. 10 years later and dealt with all the niggling engineering problems that people had mentioned.
I must admit I thought Niven showed panache and style in dealing with the it-can’t-be-done-sayers!

But hard science fiction has got itself into a rut because of the nagging criticism they are faced with if they get things, even very small things, wrong. It puts writers off writing and publishers off publishing.

There is an answer to that. In fact there are several answers to that.
The easy one is the writer can say their story is in a parallel universe that doesn’t have quite the same laws of physics.
Another easy one is just to say they’ve got the laws of physics wrong or not understood in some way e.g. we’re still coming to grips with Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
A harder one is to say that engineers have put together something comes very close to, but not quite breaking the laws of physics, the differential being so small that it looks like breaking the laws of physics.
The really hard one is having the philosophical understanding of how and why science works. But it boils down to the old story regarding swans. They assumed that all swans were white. Period. Then they went to Australia and found swans were black.

So if you get people complaining that’s not the laws of physics, use one of the above excuses… pick your favourite.

[Of course I shouldn't being advocating such a philosophy ;) ... I just prefer to write hard science fiction myself... my preference.]

9 06 2014
justmoo33

Lol. Great examples! I certainly prefer hard sci-fi too, but I may trend towards the fantasy side if I struggle with the science – or maybe I’ll get my act together and learn more science. Let’s see! I’d like to say I avoid fantasy altogether, but I’d be a hypocrite as I love Game of Thrones.

8 06 2014
James Pailly

The problem with doing research for science fiction is that it is not as simple as looking something up in the encyclopedia. If you want to tell a story about an asteroid, for example, you can’t just look up a few facts about asteroids. You have to understand mineralogy, astrophysics, etc… Sci-Fi writers need to have a familiarity with the whole body of scientific knowledge, not just the specific thing they’re writing about. That’s challenging, especially if you’re just starting your writing career and want to get straight to the writing.

8 06 2014
rosieoliver

Hello James,
I totally agree with you for those of use who write hard science fiction. This is not helped by the body of knowledge getting bigger and more detailed.
At the end of the day, although authors, editors etc do their best to remove inconsistencies from novels, some will always slip past. Even Tolkien had to go through Lord of the Rings to bring out a second version because of mistakes pointed out by readers.
So it’s a case of do your best, and people will be generally understanding.

8 06 2014
James Pailly

And yet after all that extra work, the science in Lord of the Rings is still pretty weak. :-P

13 06 2014
ivan

Glad things are back to normal here.

While I agree with much of what you say, I have to wonder if a lot of the problems with SF authors today could be placed at the door of their not having work experience in the fields of science and engineering, after all most of the renowned authors of the past were scientists and/or engineers before they became authors.

Another thing that strikes me is the apparent loss of the ‘what if’ aspect of looking at cutting edge science and technology. For example, we now have quantum teleportation demonstrated. This is the base, now add the ‘what if’ portion to look at what it could be used for and how that use would change, or maybe not, society. The ‘what if’ may not be the direction that the scientists are considering at the moment but a story with that included just might change thinking as did Arthur C. Clark’s communication satellites.

13 06 2014
rosieoliver

I think back to the big three of the golden age – Asimov was a chemist, Arthur C Clarke worked with radars during World War 2, subsequently took a physics and mathematics degree and went on to write physics abstracts, Heinlein was in the US Navy until ill-health forced his discharge (honourable I hasten to add). All three wrote about what they knew… This is true of a lot of others… Ben Bova, David Brin, Alastair Reynolds, Geoffrey Landis to name but a few. However, most are ‘old guard’. So yes you have a very valid point about today’s writers, or at least most of them, not having experience in science and engineering.

Agree with the ‘what if’ issue as well. Part of the problem here has been the obvious unwillingness of the publishers to be very experimental in these recessionary times. Another part is the growth of scientific knowledge leading onto people becoming even more niche in their areas of expert knowledge. So, whilst there are very good exceptions, it actually takes someone with a systems engineering way of thinking or lateral thinking to come up with new stuff.

And what are those exceptions? Someone like yourself who examines their topic of interest far more closely than most people.

HTH.

13 06 2014
justmoo33

I think you hit the nail on the head with the question of narrowed niches.

13 06 2014
Progressive Science Fiction – Part 2 | Rosie Oliver

[…] my last post  I argued that cutting edge science fiction was becoming less available in the shops due […]

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