September 20, 2009

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: The Unpredictive Nature of Science Fiction

It comes as no surprise to anyone, that the vast number of science fiction words written about the future have not come to pass. SF writers often claim that their work was never meant to predict. It’s just entertainment. It’s playing with the future.

Balderdash, I say!

Unless the men and women who get their work published are fundamentally different than I am, they don’t create worlds out of disposable tissue knowing that what they are writing is ridiculous and has no chance whatsoever of coming true. Every story written and published – at least every “hard science” story – is an attempt to look at a trend, invention or idea and ask the question, “If this goes on in a linear fashion, what will happen to my character, and thence, society as a whole?”

FRANKENSTEIN (increasingly, the original subtitle: “A Modern Prometheus”, is left out) was among the first to attempt this prediction. Mary Shelley’s futuristic (to her) tale warning about the dangers of the then new application of electricity (to cause the twitching of dead, exposed frog muscles) never came true.

Fortunately, for all of us the vast majority of SF stories never come true.

This idea of a writer’s painstakingly worked out future not coming true came home again to me when I picked up a library discard copy of Ben Bova’s collection of short stories, KINSMAN. Following the life of a 1950’s-style astronaut from his cadet years in the 60’s through his retirement, I have no doubt Bova meticulously worked out timelines, plausible technological developments and the reasonable metamorphosis of societal norms and behaviors.

I am sure he took the process very seriously. I have no doubt that in his heart-of-hearts he believed that some form of his future would come to pass someday. While it is absolutely entertaining, I have no doubt that Bova “lived” in this future over the thirteen years he wrote these stories.

Very little of his future happened, and some of the “predictions” are glaringly, even humorously…un…usual…

For example, his future has run out of gasoline and draconian governmental rationing brings the nighttime world of Washington, DC to a virtual standstill: “Looking around for a phone, Kinsman asked, ‘How do you get a cab around here?’ [Diane replied], ‘You don’t. Not at this hour. No trains, either.’” (“The Lieutenant and the Folksinger”, 1978*) and, “He rolled out of the sofabed and turned on the battery-powered lamp on the end table. The main electrical service was shut down for the night…” (“Build Me A Mountain”, 1974*)

Needless to say, few SF writers caught the digital revolution: “She turned on the tape recorder and watched the spools slowly turning as she fought the urge to cry.” (Probably from “Zero Gee”, 1972*), “Kinsman stood at the head of the darkened conference room, squinting into the solitary light of the slide projector, half-hypnotized by the clouds of blue smoke gliding through the light beam…” (“Build Me A Mountain”, 1974*)

Fewer still, for obvious reasons, realized that smoking indoors would become a crime in many states, “The old man walked slowly toward the bar, looking almost British in his tweed jacket and the pipe that he always had clamped between his teeth…He started reaming out the pipe and dumping the black soot into the ashtray.” (Probably also from “Zero Gee”, see above as well*)

Another glaringly missed development was the major stumble of communism, “…citing the growing cooperation between the Soviet and American space efforts as the reason.” (“Zero Gee”*)

Newspapers, magazines and other mail and broadcasting is also both prevalent and closely monitored by this (undisclosed political affiliation) government: “…spurred into compliance, perhaps, by the Government’s tough new laws regarding licensing for broadcasting stations and mailing permits for newspapers and magazines” and there is clearly no ACLU, “[Diane said], ‘There’s nothing left to protest about. Everything’s so well organized around the country that nobody can raise a crowd anymore. Public safety laws and all that.’” (“Build Me A Mountain” 1974*)

Of course, few male SF writers could even conceive of the possibility for the necessity of the invention of that little blue godsend, Viagra, “And it’s not a lie, either. Not completely. I’m not impotent…except when I’m with a woman.” (“Zero Gee”*)

Lastly, Bova created Kinsman’s most period-startling character flaw. Kinsman, a WASP who was wealthy to boot, intentionally chose a black man to be his ‘best friend’, “‘Who the hell do I want to team up with?’…Colt was the best man of their eight-officer squad…the best of the whole two dozen trainees…He looked down at the blank sheet of paper and wrote three names on it: Franklin Colt Franklin Colt Franklin Colt…[Kinsman said] ‘I wrote down your name.’ [Colt replied,] ‘Why the hell you wanna do that?’ [Kinsman], ‘Because you’re the best pilot in our group and I don’t want to wash out…’ [Colt] ‘Didn’t think anybody’d wanna get stuck with me.’ [Kinsman] ‘Because you’re black’…” It goes on from there. Colt plays a major role in later on in this story but fades into bit parts by the end. Nice try, but hard to carry through. ("Test In Orbit", 1965*)

My point? Perhaps SF writers have a natural dystopian view of the future? Maybe all governments, no matter their party, are inherently out for themselves and will do what it takes to quell dissent to achieve their goals? Maybe SF shouldn’t even bother to try to extrapolate the future?


Let’s extrapolate away and in the meantime, let’s also continue to do what SF does best: create imaginary futures to ENCOURAGE the push to a real future where “The most important thing we’ll ever do is to set up permanent colonies in space.” (Chet Kinsman, KINSMAN, “Build Me A Mountain”*)

* The stories in the anthology I have (Dial Press, a Quantum Novel, 1979) are not titled with the story name but with Kinsman’s advancing ages. Based on content, I am postulating which story each “age” came from.


Luc Reid said...

It's always interesting to look at past futures and see how they worked out. I enjoyed seeing these stories examined in that way.

I have to say, though, that I'm not convinced that there's any broad trend of science fiction writers writing about worlds they expect to come true. Sometimes we don't even write about entirely plausible futures. After all, if a science fiction story is just the question "what if" written large, then it doesn't matter whether the thing being tested is likely to happen or not, as long as the answer yields something interesting to look at about life, the world, or humanity.

GuyStewart/DISCOVERCHURCH said...

I agree that while creating worlds that writers "expect to come true" isn't exactly INTENTIONAL...I have trouble imagining that any story for which the author doesn't have some sense of "possible reality" could be expressed in a way that would compel me to read a short story, novella or novel. I know what you're saying and mostly agree...but part of being an author is the ability to create worlds that are believable. To do that, I contend that EVERY author, on some level, believes that the future is possible...