Progressive Science Fiction – Part 2

In my last post  I argued that cutting edge science fiction was becoming less available in the shops due to:

  • innovative technology needs more knowledge and understanding than in the past, because we are dealing with a bigger body knowledge, and therefore needs in general more or better explanation of how it affects us humans
  • the more politically correct society limits the subjects we can write about when it comes to political and social science fiction themes
  • ‘new’ places requires more understanding and aligning with sciences to be plausible that requires a lot of work on the part of the writer, which in turn can severely detract from a writer’s income
  • publishers not wanting to publish or push the really innovative science fiction because they want to invest in ‘safe bets’, like something similar to what sold well before

So how can we push for progressive science fiction?

Let’s look at the first of the above points, the lack of innovative science and technology finding it’s way into science fiction. [I’ll deal with the other themes in later posts.]

There is the general impression that there hasn’t been any of the big inventions in science lately to warrant new exciting science fiction stories, or if there are big inventions, they’ve been written about before and therefore appear as ‘old hat’.

Well, there’s been big breakthroughs in science and technology, but the real problem is they look as if they could make an impact on our every day lives. What is string theory or dark matter or dark energy going to do for us?

Well, that’s about to change. For starters, hot fusion as a source of energy is going to happen within a decade. It’s going to make a massive difference to the source our energy. The impact doesn’t stop there. There’ll be longer term effects on climate change because very much less hydrocarbons will be burned.

So what’s going to cause the next ouch point in our development?

Lack of water? No, not that. With fusion energy, we can build desalinisation plants. Deadly viruses decimating the human race? No, not that either. Doctors have a good understanding of how to develop immunisation capability. They just need sufficient time to do that development, and for that, we have quarantine methods to call upon. Asteroid busting Earth? Not that either. We’ve developed better Near Earth Object (NEO) monitoring systems to give us a lot of warning of an incoming, enough time to do something about it. Lack of food, due to lack of soil? No not that either. Worst case solution is to go and grab hold of an asteroid, grind it into soil and dump it somewhere suitable on Earth to add extra acreage. Overpopulation? Not even that. We’ve recently seen a tendency to reduce the rate of population growth either naturally or through the enforcement of laws, like the one-child only law in China.

In fact there are only five scenarios I can think of at the moment that would stop human progress:

  • volcanic eruptions throwing up so much dust into the air that it would stop or severely slow crops growing worldwide (as happened in c. 536 A.D.)
  • Earth’s molten core does wild, flips magnetic poles, starts reshaping the Earth rather suddenly and drastically
  • Sun changing so much it becomes a danger to us
  • humans destroy Earth with things like nuclear weapons (if this was going to happen, it should have happened in the Cold War)
  • sudden and catastrophic climate change

Well, we’ve seen stories about all of them, pointing out how to deal with these situations. So what we have here is there is nothing new to say syndrome. Whoa! Are you sure? Are you really, really sure? What about coming up with a way douse the volcanic dust back down to the surface? What impact would that have on the rest of the atmosphere? Would we live in the same world as before? Or in the molten core scenario, what if we could control the way we move tectonic plates to make more of the Earth inhabitable? It’s the same for all these scenarios, there’s questions to be answered we haven’t even started to look at. So why aren’t they being answered?

Technology changes what humans do. We’ve recently seen some of the effects of the information revolution and a lot has been written about that. Similarly with the genetics revolution that is slowly starting to take a toehold in our world. But they’ve been written about quite extensively, haven’t they? Well… only parts have. What about the effects of genetic manipulation on the human brain? The options for that are infinite. What about the effect of quantum computing being able to solve certain types of problems and not others? Won’t we veer away from our currently anticipated developmental path? So why aren’t these questions being answered?

So we have humans needing new tech to solve potential problems and new tech is changing the way humans live in significant ways we have yet to encounter or even guess at, none of which is being explored in science fiction. Why not? Surely we have a vested interest in understanding these issues?

There are several contributory reasons why such progressive science fiction is not seen on the shelves.

  1. Publishers being over-cautious in their investment is one reason, but the way round that is short stories. Only time-wise short stories do take longer to develop and write because of the world-building aspect. And writers can’t live on air.
  2. People being scared of change, good or bad. It’s a natural tendency for people to want security and feel happy. This is where the recent trend towards horror in science fiction has led progressive science fiction astray. Nobody believes science fiction can have a happy ending. Well, that’s just plain crazy. But it does mean that the public need persuading there is science fiction out there that can have a happy ending. This would take time and persuasion on a step by slow dragging step basis. But it only takes on spectacular story to hit the headlines…
  3. Finally the writers themselves are for various reasons not breaking the mould. Some need to earn money and have to write what they can sell. Others who have what they call got a day job, don’t have the time or patience to develop the necessary innovative story line. And yes it does take time and effort.

The odds are surely stacked against progressive science fiction. But the thought of ‘it only takes on spectacular story to hit the headlines…’ keeps haunting me. And it ought to haunt the short story magazines as well. Because that story would make a fortune….




4 thoughts on “Progressive Science Fiction – Part 2

  1. Rosie, you left out a very important ingredient from your list. As well as the ‘what if’ there must be a vision of the future. That vision has been suppressed by all the talk of doom and gloom, non of which has any basis in fact.

    Another thing. If people believe in the doom and gloom why are the writers not looking for a way out of it rather than accepting that it is going to happen – again there is no vision of a better future.

    Maybe we should consider the quote from Zenna Henderson’s Pilgrimage ‘There is for me no wonder more, Except to wonder where my wonder went, And why my wonder all is spent.’ and then ask ourselves where has the wonder of SF gone?

    1. Hm… it’s a very interesting point, Ivan, thank you. Need to think on this more, but my first instinct is to say that having a vision of the future is very difficult to come up with. It needs a mixture of imagination and common sense, both of which are in rare supply.

      Admittedly my post majors on the drivers for science fiction, developing science and technology, examination of social and political issues and exploration in its broadest sense. These are the push factors. Somehow vision feels to me like a pull factor. If so, are there others I should be picking up on?

      1. Taking a part of one of the Proverbs in the Bible we have: ‘Where there is no vision the people perish’. This appears to be true for the simple reason no vision leads to stagnation, stagnation leads to despair and despair leads to death.

        I don’t think that anyone has ever said it is easy to have a logical, consistent vision of the future. All SF authors can do is take those push factors, add large dollops of what if and ‘a vision of what a better society should be and write about it.

        Being a child of the second world war all I can say is that if we hadn’t had a vision of a better future nothing would have been done to lift the country out of the mess. In that sense you are correct vision is a pull factor. Another is possibly ‘wanting your own space’, but in some way I think that is also tied to having a vision. Also we should never forget the ‘wonder factor’.

        To answer your question, I am not sure, but I do know if we only rely on the push factors SF stays where it is. Push factors can only take you so far it requires vision and wonder to allow you to take the final step.

      2. Hello Ivan, Justine,

        I’ve done a simplistic mind map of where we are at in this discussion over at the Forge (because I want to add to it eventually before going public on it). See what you think.

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