“That’s not true!” you squeal. “We are brilliant! We are imaginative! What can be imagined can be achieved!”
Ah...that may be, but my question is, “What we’ve achieved, can someone imagine?”
Let’s take for example a book I’m reading now, THE CAUSAL ANGEL, the third novel in a trilogy by Finnish writer Hannu Rajaniemi. I never read the first two, so I am at a clear disadvantage, but I’ve always been taught that every book must stand on its own and not depend on What Has Gone On Before – plus I did an online search and found a glossary half way through the book that cleared up all kinds of questions in one fell swoop.
But it also made me ask myself the question above. Let’s say I took a paper copy of Rajaniemi’s book, jumped on my time machine and delivered it to HG Wells, 119 years in the past. He cracks the cover, (ignoring the transparent plastic protector) and reads, “Alone on a timeless beach, Josephine Pellegrini finds herself disappointed by the end of the world. The sun is almost down...” OK – first four sentences are comprehensible to a man for whom cutting edge technology was the camera, gas pumps, automobiles, television, modern bicycles, machine guns, ear muffs, and inflatable tires, and for whom heredity was a concept just twenty years old.
But then he reads on, bumping into: “...subterranean bacterial biosphere…”, and “...Chen’s Dragons, turning matter and energy and information into themselves…”, and “The Kaminari jewel, the key to Planck locks…Being eaten by wildcode...”, and finally a phrase I still don’t understand completely, “...this one is a dream-vir, facsimile of an ancient Jannah, not something made to cage a Founder. There will be demiurge gogols here…” All of these eventually come to be defined in context, but would any of it make sense to HG Wells, who published THE TIME MACHINE in 1895?
Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think the level of technology he lived with would have allowed him a foothold for such strange ideas.
Let’s go with aliens. This doesn’t involve non-existent technology. Wells pretty much invented the modern idea of aliens, The Martians in 1898. This time I’ll bring him a copy of SOLARIS by Stanislaw Lem from 1961, a mere sixty-three years into his future. As there are still no real aliens anwhere (hope does spring eternal!), this should be an easily comprehensible book (after it’s translated from its original Polish).
Well’s aliens were clearly understandable for his time.
SOLARIS begins in a recognizable way, but eventually, Wells would run into these: “The night stared me in the face, amorphous, blind, infinite, without frontiers. Not a single star relieved the darkness behind the glass…It was not possible to think except with one’s brain, no one could stand outside himself in order to check the functioning of his inner processes…Successive bursts of static came through the headphones, against a background of deep, low-pitched murmuring, which seemed to me the very voice of the planet itself.” Freudian psychoanalysis was still in some thirty years in Wells’ future, though he was an intelligent man, he might have gotten it...
But how much of the future – 2014 – would Wells be able to comprehend? More still, how much would he have been able to write about convincingly?
My truth is that our descendant science fiction writers and readers (if any) will find the “ground-breaking” work in transHumanism by Rajaniemi, Stross, Banks, Benford, Scalzi, Dick, and Doctrow absurd, pedantic, or worse, meaningless. The same is true of our best attempts to conjure really alien aliens.
When we reach the mythical Singularity or experience a real First Contact (if we are not alone – and Asimov, one of the best SF minds ever to write, implied that he believed we were), will the actual event render all of our writings as quaint as communication satellites, Lunar landings, ebooks, microsurgery and nanobots, and robotic exploration of Mars and the other planets have rendered such books as 1984, FAHRENHEIT 451, MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM!, FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, and PERELANDRA quaint and faintly absurd?
So should we stop writing and go back to writing mysteries, romances, and “literary fiction”?
Nah – but I think that certain sub-genres should stop taking themselves so seriously, because it’s not only irritating for me, it makes me wonder if we’re trying too hard to be profound at the expense of being understood. Also, lest you think I’m the only one to wash up on this peculiar shoal while reading Rajaniemi’s book: “...as daunting a novel...requiring from its readers such deliberate commitment that those who come to their fiction for fun...would be best to leave this baby be. Accessible it ain't, I'm afraid. What it is is brilliant: far more focused than the books before it, and as fulfilling, finally, as it is indubitably difficult.” (Niall Alexander, Tor.com)
And of alien aliens, Gary Wolfe in WIRED has this to say, “Stanislaw Lem has never been beloved by the science fiction establishment...Members of the Science Fiction Writers Association booted him from their group…Lem...denounced popular sci-fi as trivial pulp produced by mental weaklings...a whore,’ prostituting itself ‘with discomfort, disgust, and contrary to its dreams and hopes.’...[despite that] he is considered among the greatest sci-fi writers of all time…his wit...too cruel, his love of science too prominent, his outlook too cerebral...” In short, Lem’s aliens were incomprehensible because he WANTED them to be.
So we continue to write about the distant future and alien aliens – but maybe we step back and consider that we’re not writing to predict, we’re writing to entertain.
Resources: This has links to all three books in the series: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannu_Rajaniemi#The_Jean_le_Flambeur_series,
(FAR more extensive than the glossary above)