David Louis Edelman July 13th, 2007
I’ve seen various theories put forward as to when the first science fiction stories were written. Depending on your definition of science fiction — and that exact definition can be quite contentious, especially on this blog — the first proper science fiction tale might be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c. 1610) or maybe Lucian of Samosata’s A True Story (c. the 2nd century AD). Personally, I’d argue that you need to have the scientific method before you have science fiction, which disqualifies Lucian of Samosata and Shakespeare (depending on your definition of the scientific method).
But the question I’m interested in at the moment is when will science fiction end? I’m not asking this from a commercial standpoint so much as from an epistemological standpoint. Will there always be new science fiction? Or will the genre just wither up at some point and go away?
Here’s something I’ve noticed about futuristic science fiction stories: the characters in them never tell futuristic science fiction stories. Think about it. Can you think of a single example of a character in a futuristic science fiction story reading (or watching) a story that’s science fiction from their point of view?
Of course, you could argue that few characters in stories are actually shown telling stories at all, which is true. We tried that kind of metafiction in the ’60s, and that gave us John Barth and Robert Coover and writers of that ilk. Still, I can think of plenty of examples of SF characters reading nonfiction or history or contemporary literature (by which I mean contemporary from the characters’ point of view).
It seems to me that most of the counterexamples I can think of involve some primitive civilization telling stories about something that’s already proven to be true in the scope of the story. The spider creatures of Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky speculate about space travel and life on other planets, while we the humans watch them from orbit. The people in Edwin Abbott’s Flatland discuss the possibility of a three-dimensional world. And of course, there’s the old trope of the cut-off space colony that reverts back to its primitive roots while its SFnal history becomes the stuff of legends.
Then you’ve got the case of futuristic characters reaching for some even-more-futuristic contraption that simply extrapolates their current technology to the next level. We’ve got the Mega Giga Ultra Hyperdrive that allows us to travel at six times the speed of light! Wouldn’t it be great if we could invent the Super Mega Giga Ultra Hyperdrive that would let us travel sixty times the speed of light? (Impossible! say the doubting scientists. And then, of course, at some point in the story somebody goes and invents the damn thing.)
But where are the examples of people in a futuristic story themselves looking off into a fictional and theoretical future of wonder? I can’t really think of any. Maybe I’m not framing the question right, or disqualifying things out of hand.
Fantastic literature, you’ll note, doesn’t have this problem. (This is assuming you buy the argument that fantasy and science fiction are separate if related animals, which I know others on this blog don’t.) People in fantasy stories are always hauling out the old books and reciting myths and legends from the distant past. Many of these stories turn out to be true in the end, but just as often they’re recognized as fantastical within the context of the story. Tolkien’s characters have no hesitation to pull out the old chestnuts about Beren and Luthien; the folks in George R. R. Martin’s Westeros tell each other all kinds of fantastical tales about dragons and the undead, and I’m willing to bet some of them will turn out to be true and some of them will turn out to be just bedtime stories.
Perhaps the issue with science fiction is simply a question of narrative economy. As one author put it to me when I posed this question to them at Readercon, if you’ve got a science fiction story inside a science fiction story, that makes two entirely different universes you have to keep track of. Not an easy thing to do.
Yet I think there’s a deeper answer here, and it’s relevant to our business as writers and readers. We have a hard time envisioning futuristic science fiction characters envisioning a future of wonder because they’re living in one themselves. They’re inhabiting this theoretical future, and so they no longer need to extrapolate. In other words, there’s no need to look off to some far-off feat of scientific progress because there are feats of scientific progress all around them.
You might see where I’m going with this. The first time the world saw actual live music being captured onto a vinyl disc, it was incredibly, unbelievably amazing. Whole new vistas opened up for us. When we saw live music being captured in high fidelity on a little metal CD, it was still awe-inspiring. The iPod is really, really cool. But the wonder’s starting to wear off, isn’t it? Soon we’ll have tiny iPods that can fit all of our music in a chip the size of a postage stamp, and then chips that can fit everyone’s music in the size of a postage stamp. The wonder can’t continue forever, can it? Eventually you reach a saturation point where you just shrug your shoulders and assume that the future is a given.
So maybe that’s the problem with science fiction these days. We’re losing market share because we’re losing our capacity for wonderment at the future.
Example: When I went off to college in 1989, I ran an 8086 computer with 4Mhz of power, a 10 MB hard disk, and an orange monitor. Today I’m running a Core 2 Duo with 1.8GHz of power (per chip) and a 200 GB hard disk, with a monitor light as a feather that shows images in absolute crystal clarity. I assume that in another 20 years the technology will be that much further ahead. Forty years ago, someone could have written a science fiction story about the Wonderful Calculating Machine That Connects the World. It would be difficult today to write about the Core 8 Quadro with 4TB of power in a way that’s not just mundane prediction like the stuff you read in Business Week. The technology I wrote about in Infoquake and the forthcoming MultiReal — nanotechnology, unlimited computing power, biologic software — will one day be somebody else’s ho-hum existence, though probably not in the forms I’ve envisioned them.
So what’s left after that? Will science fiction truly be dead at that point?
You never look back at the Romans or the medieval Europeans and wonder why they didn’t write science fiction. It’s simple. The Romans assumed that if you rolled the clock forward two thousand years, the world would look pretty much the same. Perhaps there would be different people or different political entities around, but the idea of a steady slope of scientific progress wasn’t part of their mindset. Same with Church-dominated Europe. In a few hundred years, Jesus will have come back and ushered us into a neverending paradise, so why bother speculating? If he doesn’t come, we’ll just be sitting around in our feudal societies waiting.
Perhaps the same thing awaits us from a different angle. Perhaps the universe will one day become predictable enough — perhaps scientific change and progress will be so much a part of us — that looking into the future will just be an exercise of more-of-the-same. I’m not saying we’re there yet, but we might be approaching it. Maybe we’ll have so much of an understanding of the workings of the world that we can’t write anything but what we term the fantastic. In other words, the impossible, the fanciful, the mythic that has no pretension to reality other than a metaphoric one.
Arthur C. Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But will that always be true? If we’ve got the technology safely mapped out as far as we can see, and beyond that lies magic — what’s left for science fiction?