June 3, 2012


Every year at this time, I teach a science fiction and fantasy writer’s workshop for 5th-8th grade gifted and talented students.

I came away from the sessions today deeply disturbed.

This year I’m focusing on how a novel is built from words that are chosen carefully and laced into sentences. Those sentences are woven into paragraphs which stitched together make pages of story. Pages grow to form chapters and chapters finally tie into a novel.

As an initial ice-breaker/exercise, I projected the phrase “List as many science fiction words as you can” in sixty seconds. Then I popped up the thirty or so words I’d come up with on my own and we talked about the power of the correct choice of words in story.

Once everyone had crossed off the words I’d written, I went around the class and had them read the lists of the left over words.

In every session, at least four students said, “APOCALYPSE”.

When did this word become so closely associated with science fiction?

My own personal, crotchety-old-man opinion is that it had its origins in the veritable flood of dystopian “science fiction” that 21st Century adult angst has foisted off on the young people of today.

Angst, the “feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general” or a “A feeling of persistent worry about something trivial” is the definition that’s typically tagged with the prefix “adolescent”.

Yet it’s as if the adults writing books like THE HUNGER GAMES, UGLIES, AMONG THE HIDDEN, THE CITY OF EMBER, THE GIVER, LIFE AS WE KNEW IT and dozens of others have all decided to loudly cry out in print, “We couldn’t bring about a new Golden Age of Science…and neither can you! Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, boo, boo!”

Charles Stross, British hard science fiction author, wrote: “In recent decades SF has been spinning its wheels. In fact, in the past 30 years the only truly challenging new concepts to come along were cyberpunk and the singularity. Both of which amount to different attempts within the genre to accommodate the first-order implications of computers and networking as the defining technology of the near future (as opposed to rockets! for! everyone! a la ‘Space Family Stone’) — cyberpunk…a future derived from the 1970s and 1980s weltanschauung(“a particular philosophy or view of life; the worldview of an individual or group”)…the singularity was the chew-toy of those members of the hard SF brigade who actually understood computers….What we call ‘hard SF’ today mostly isn't hard, and isn't SF: it's fantasy with nanotech replicators instead of pixie dust and spaceships instead of dragons. Explorations of Singularity teeter dangerously on the precipice of a tumble into Christian apocalyptic eschatology…[there are] too many questions about the nature of intelligence to make a convincing stab at artificial intelligence… those people who are doing the ‘big visionary ideas about the future’ SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation…constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe…the impact of quantum cryptography on human society…cyberpunk…the New Space Opera…hard-SF steampunk…global climate change…none of these seem to engage with the future in the way hard SF supposedly did in the 1940s to 1960s...”

This seems like a strong pronouncement from an authority. He concludes his essay with this: “…the traditional response of traditional-minded SF readers to the rigorous exercise of extrapolative vision tends to be denial, disorientation, and distaste. So let me pose for you a different question, which has been exercising me for some time: If SF's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?”

While I agree that we need to figure out “what do we do next”, my question is this: what is it about the dystopian futures we get with “the rigorous exercise of extrapolative vision” that makes it any more correct than the juvenile futures Heinlein played in, or that Brin populates, or that Czerneda explores? Stross believes – and rightly so – that “the big idea” wasn’t necessarily what hard SF was all about.

An analogy might be useful here: I’ve been a science teacher for 32 years, teaching mostly earth science, physical science and biology. I HAVE taught sciences from Astronomy to Zoology for students who are special education, gifted and talented, whose second, third or fourth language is English, and who are perfectly average in every way. While it has always been my intent to teach the facts of chemistry, physics and biology, I cannot say that that was WHAT I taught. For students who are 12-18 years old, more than anything else, I teach the LOVE OF SCIENCE.

Perhaps our intent in writing hard science fiction should not be to extrapolate realistic futures and present them in brutal clarity – 1984 is a methodology that springs to mind. Perhaps our intent should be to write hard science fiction that inspires a future we cannot possibly imagine. It seems to me that a belief that early 21st Century society and technology is the epitome of scientific accuracy and endeavor is mild hubris at best. Jules Verne, for all his dreaming of monstrous submarines and giant moon cannons could not have possibly extrapolated or in his wildest dreams imagined the cell phone or robotic, binocular automobiles driving around Mars taking 3D pictures and beaming them back to Earth for humans wearing funny-colored glasses to look at. Perhaps our job should be to inspire HOPE FOR THE FUTURE?

Last of all, I stumbled across an article by none other than Neal Stephenson (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Dear-Science-Fiction-Writers-Stop-Being-So-Pessimistic.html). This author is emphatically NOT a “lightweight”. With Locus, Hugo, BSFA, Clarke, Nebula, Campbell, and Prometheus nominations and awards, he is best known for his books CRYPTONOMICON and SNOW CRASH. Read the whole article, but I think it is summarized in this statement that he: “fears that no one will be inspired to build the next great space vessel or find a way to completely end dependence on fossil fuels when our stories about the future promise a shattered world.”

I will be voting for with my debit card – and writing – hard science fiction that INSPIRES a future we might not be able to extrapolate, but we certainly might be able to dream.


Linda B said...

Thanks for this post, Guy. I have also been very dismayed at the grim future portrayed in the wildly popular SF of today. Furthermore, virtually every young person I know has admitted they don't want to grow old--they actually HOPE they'll die while still in their twenties. Huh? And here I am wondering how I can possibly cram everything I still want to do into the years I've got left.

SamRogers said...

Interesting! I'm very much looking forward to taking your class in July.

The rise of dystopian novels(going all the way back to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We back in 1921) has created a bridge between "pop fiction" and "real SF" (cause those are just for 'nerds'). I mean, the only SF novels you'll read in High school are usually dystopian novels.

In a lot of SF I've seen these days, the writers are assuming that history is continuing at the same rate it is now. If you look at any near-future SF, there's invariably one or more of the following:
1. Rampant global warming
2. Overpopulation
3. USA and China are still the worlds powers
4. There are still problems in the Middle East, and usually they're worse now.
5. Civilization has collapsed because of world war 3

Now all of these options are possible, and a lot of people would say they are likely, but the point I'm trying to make is that history has never progressed predictably for very long. No one in 1912 could have predicted WW1, just like no one in 1920 could have predicted WW2. So I feel liked SF writers shouldn't be afraid to deviate from the "predicted future". It could make things a little more interesting.

GuyStewart said...

But what people say is "likely" today will take a hit from some un-thought-of reality tomorrow. For example, the "overpopulation" bomb may -- or may not plausibly come true: http://www.wilsonquarterly.com/article.cfm?aid=1408

My argument -- and that of at least one other SF writer -- is that we CAN start to look at positive futures without going to the utopian extreme. We can examine less-good futures without going to the dystopian extremes, too. My futures, while they WILL be challenging, will also hold within them the hope for a better world. As SF writers (and as adults) that's a responsibility we NEED to take more seriously. (Example: there's a parody coming out soon by the Harvard Lampoon writers, of The Hunger Games. The title: THE HUNGER BUT MOSTLY KILLING GAMES...

Becky said...

I saw that parody at work!
Also I think that one of the reasons we do see the hopeful jump in hypothesis futures is that the youths of today are completely inundated with technology as opposed to the older days were there was so much to still be invented and each new creation spurred them on to think up something else new and awesome. Nowadays, our 'upgrades' all just mean a new number in front of a G and a slimmer thing.
As for the use of distopias I never considered how the YA SF of today is only heading that direction (Pendragon didn't, seriously everyone needs to read that series) and that reflects the unconscious mental state of the people writing and reading. I think that it shows how jaded we have become after all we've been through (possibly the influence of the 'war' in Iraq and the recession).
However, I've always viewed distopias as an easy means to criticize the government or political situation of the time in which the author is writing. Consider the 'first' utopia book my Moore, it is written during Henry VIII's oh so famous rule with all the crap going down both politically and religiously. Then another famous one 1984, Orwell's Big Brother has become colloquial for the level of security and observation that we have in the states but doesn't come close to the CCTV levels that many Brits comment on in their films and writings. I think that distopias and utopias are easy ways to reflect the imperfections of human nature back at us, more specifically the imperfections of our governmental systems and the problem with power (which is why communism will never work). Ideally we all want to have equality and everyone provided for but that cannot happen, ever. Humans have never been able to maintain that level of goodness and selflessness without the pressure of some outside force (See the Day the Earth Stood Still remake and how the message was change or die and he allowed them to live after seeing how people pushed to the brink can change and often do).
I do wonder if authors can conceive of anything that is not within our reach now. I think that puts them off. SF writers are suppose to be innovative, to push and challenge us to go further, invent more, and explore. But technology is everywhere, we're in a recession, and Japan could probably make whatever is made up give the right time and resources. This sort of attitude results in 'well I guess there's no more further we can go' ergo distopia, a world in shambles because all that tech finally became too much or too little or too much human got in the mix.
Then again, as my mom said, 'Maybe we just need to go back to basics.'