So, last week I talked about how old Science Fiction and most media SciFi fails to portray realistic futures. They often do well at predicting specific technical advances, for example speech recognition, but underestimate the way humans will exploit any technology to its limits and use it in conjunction with other technologies.
What’s interesting is that (almost) nobody cares.
For example, I’m reading EC Tubb’s Dumarest books. The technology is wildly inconsistent. Conspirators have devices to block eavesdropping, electronic and human, but use landlines without worrying about phone taps.
Did I mention people use landlines?
In EC Tubb’s imagined future, it’s possible to steal a flyer without somebody tracing it through an ID chip, and without it being spotted on radar or by satellite as you cross the sea. Security means men with guns.
And I don’t care!
That’s not why I’m reading this. The Dumarest books are awesome, like reading the Traveller campaign you wished you’d played in. It’s Robert E Howard (or Harold Lamb) in space with a hero that sits on the spectrum somewhere between Conan and Solomon Kane.
Sure, a lot of Science Fiction makes some attempt at prediction or at least extrapolation. Some writers are interested in the interaction of ideas and technology, e.g. Isaac Asimov, Charles Stross, Arthur C. Clarke. Some are interested in world-building for its own sake, or to lend verisimilitude to an exotic or dramatic setting, for example Jack Campbell and Hannu Rajaniemi.
However, a lot of Science Fiction doesn’t care. Media SF — “SciFi” — quite obviously treats technology as window dressing and a source of plot devices:
La Forge: “Captain, the tech is overteching.”
Picard: “Well, route the auxiliary tech to the tech, Mr. La Forge.”
La Forge: “No, Captain. Captain, I’ve tried to tech the tech, and it won’t work.”
— From Why I hate Star Trek, blog entry by Charles Stross
Books do this too, and not just old ones and media tie-ins, and the odd thing is that a lot of people watch SciFi films and series, play SciFi video games but rarely every pick up a Science Fiction novel.
Why do we so eagerly consume stories about implausible, internally inconsistent SF futures?
Here’s my pet theory:
The differences between kinds of Speculative Fiction are less important than the similarities. All speculative fiction offers the reader escapism, the ability to approach certain issues from a comfortable distance, and an unpredictable setting (something Historical can’t usually do). It also offers the author a flexible sandbox for thought experiments in which the drama is amplified by the setting. The author is free to tune the setting to create specific dilemmas and make these really matter. Tolkien puts the fate of the world in the hands of a “little person”. George Lukas puts the fate of the galaxy in the hands of a farm boy. Meanwhile, both Conan and the USS Enterprise never run out of new or original horizons.
Despite this similarity, specific characters don’t translate well between genres. For example, neither Gandalf nor Conan translate comfortably to a realm of technology contactors and ranged weapons. Honor Harrington is kick-ass, but doesn’t belong in a world of sword-wielding barbarians with close-quarter weapons. Space navies are what make her her.
So, what does SF do well that the other genres don’t do?
“Predict the Future” can’t be the answer, or why would we read EC Tubb for pleasure? The way that media SciFi futures usually look so similar to our present or recent past suggests that the answer is: “SF deals well with modernity”.
I think SF lets us use modern characters in exotic settings without having to create yet another portal scenario (through the wardrobe anybody?), and lets us explore aspects of modernity through literal world building. If we’re in space, then we can also riff around that alienating sense of scale, of “you are here”; how we feel in our own seemingly limitless modern world, writ large. The Dumarest series is like The Fugitive, but magnified a million times.
In other words, I think Science Fiction (and SciFi) is mostly not about the Future. Rather, it tends to be about modern people — like us or people we know — facing up to exaggerated modernity, or its dramatic absence.
M Harold Page (www.mharoldpage.com) is a Scottish-based author and swordsman with several Historical Adventure books in print. His creative writing handbook, Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic is available on Amazon.