The End of Science Fiction

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).

Vernor Vinge's 'A Deepness in the Sky'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.

Apple's iPodYou 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?

62 Responses to “The End of Science Fiction”

  1. Ivyon 13 Jul 2007 at 11:24 am

    You’re looking at one field of science, electronics, which one can argue is only about a century old. Plank, in answering what seemed to be a silly academic question about radiation coming out of a black box, gave us quantum physics towards the end of the 19th century. That in turn gave us the transistor and all the technology you’ve mentioned.

    Look back further. The spinning wheel took the world by storm. You could spin four ounces of wool into one skein? You could spin sitting down? And then the mill blew that out of the water. People of the 16th century would stare at all of our closets and wonder how these people could afford so much clothing. The cotton gin was as out there as the hyperdive, and as miraculous.

    So what would science fiction be for a person of the 16th century? How about a world where machines could make clothing. You put the raw wool in and it scours it, cards or combs it, spins it, and weaves it. Months worth of work could be accomplished in mere hours. Machines could even cut and sew garments. How wild would that be? Those inventions changed the world every bit as much as the computer revolution and the key is, no one at that time thought about something like the Internet. They looked as far as their advances could carry them.

    Sure, after a while the wonder wore off and if we could finally invent a machine that could sheer a sheep (this is still done by hand–the sheep don’t cooperate) no one would be amazed, except maybe the shepherds, the newly-unemployed sheerers, and maybe the sheep.

    Yeah, we’ll get bored with the great things silicon chips can do eventually, but by then something we haven’t even started thinking about will come up as a possibility on the horizon.

    Maybe the next step is some kind of printable matter. You buy an iPod online and it materializes in front of you the next minute. Maybe the next step is in medicine, like cloning. Anti-aging? All the benefits of exercise in a bottle?

    Maybe the next step is in information transfer. We all complain about information overload. Maybe there will be a way to improve the brain for faster and more reliable information storage and retrieval. Maybe we’ll be able buy upgrades, like a second language or a job skill. Or hey, want to be more creative? Go to the brain salon and have the creativity center of the brain stimulated. There are some utopian/dystopian stories sitting there.

    We look as far as our society’s advances can carry us, but I think that horizon will just keep pushing out. Science is an endless journey, with each answer leading to more questions. Why should science fiction be any different?

  2. Nicole L.on 13 Jul 2007 at 11:28 am

    Hi David,

    Really interesting question! I think you’re conflating two concepts though: tecnology and science. I agree, we’re saturated with technology so that we barely even blink when the ipod gets smaller or we can have phone and video conversations over the internet. But the more science uncovers the more we discover there is to explore.

    For example, we have the atom (and before the atom, whatever people believed everything was made up of) and then we found out that atoms are made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons, and that they are made up of even smaller particles and smaller…. I think people still find science amazing and you could argue that just as the universe is infinite, the things we can discover about it are too.

    I agree that some technological advances may become so pervasive that we become blind to them, but can we really saturate all areas? Will space travel be so common that no one dreams of it? Will we meet aliens and no longer dream of meeting good or bad ets? Will we no longer have problems to solve, visions of a better (or worse future)?

    And while the whiz-bang aspect of SF is fun, aren’t the best stories about who we are now as seen through the lens of what is possible? I suppose that SF could be swallowed into fantasy/myth if super-technological people started looking back, to a point when they weren’t so tech-saturated (the good old days).

  3. David Louis Edelmanon 13 Jul 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Good points, both of you. You’re right, I am focusing my arguments pretty narrowly on the stuff I’m familiar with — i.e. iPods, computers, etc. But I think the question still applies in, say, the example about the sheep-shearing machine.

    Both of you are assuming that science is going to be this eternal bounty of wonder for humanity. But what if it isn’t? I’m not saying we’re likely to discover everything there is to know about the universe. I’m saying there might — might — come a time when the things we don’t know are only of interest to technical specialists. That point could be thousands of years off, I don’t know. But just because we’ve spent the last few hundred years being amazed at all the new stuff we’ve made and the new truths we’ve discovered doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be that way.

    I guess what I’m saying is that science fiction is made possible by our sense of wonder at what might be possible tomorrow. If we ever really figure out what makes the universe tick — if we ever get to the point where we know more or less what’s going to be possible tomorrow — that could spell the end of science fiction.

    And even if we boneheadedly think we’ve reached that point, it could have the same effect. :-)

  4. Nicole L.on 13 Jul 2007 at 1:03 pm

    I’m saying there might — might — come a time when the things we don’t know are only of interest to technical specialists. That point could be thousands of years off, I don’t know. But just because we’ve spent the last few hundred years being amazed at all the new stuff we’ve made and the new truths we’ve discovered doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be that way.

    Yeah, and I don’t totally disagree with you. You could even turn what Ivy was saying around to support your argument. We can only ever see as far as our horizon: This is what it is like for us now, we can’t imagine that it would be any different in the future. There could come a day when it’s no longer science that provides the thrill of wonder. And that could be the end of SF. But we’d probably have developed something that we can’t even dream of now, just like science has taken the place of religion in providing our world view, or psychology has taken the place of astrology (in very very general terms).

    But don’t you think tales of wonder will always be around? As mythology, as legend, as fantasy, as whatever takes the place of science? And if they weren’t, if we really knew everything there was to know and had no more questions, would we even be human any more?

  5. Michael Phillipson 13 Jul 2007 at 1:06 pm

    I have read at least a hand full of SF stories that had SF in them, though I can’t for the life of remember what their names and authors are.
    The one that sticks out had, as a protagonist, a physics or engineering grad student who enjoyed science fiction. He was often teased and his career was held back because of that. He and the department chair were going to a conference somewhere off Earth, when the ship was hijacked or some such and their solution was straight out of the “trashy science fiction novels” that the student read. (And it turns out that the professor wrote the very novels that the student was enthralled with.)

  6. b. sharpon 13 Jul 2007 at 1:17 pm

    I can’t comment at the moment on wether or not it’s true that the Romans or people in the Middle Ages wrote sci-fi, but I believe the Greeks wrote it, or at least equivelants of it. Along with some Enlightenment writers, including Voltaire.

  7. Nantwichianon 13 Jul 2007 at 1:30 pm

    You asked for examples of characters in a futuristic story themselves looking off into a fictional and theoretical future of wonder. Here is one: Peter F. Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon.

    Here the central character Lawrence Newton lives in a universe in which space travel has proved possible, though prohibitively unprofitable. His world is a new colony planet on which, due to the costly nature of trans-planetry travel, most of its citizens are more or less trapped. The promise of space travel has proved to be hollow and the age of interplanetary movement is depicted as drawing to a close.

    Lawrence stumbles across episodes of a post-TV series entitled Flight:Horizon. It depicts the crew of the ‘cool starship’ Ultema travelling impossibly far away on the far side of the galaxy, with alien crew members and visits to ‘weird planets’. This TV series was created, within the context of the framing story, some time, perhaps a century, in the past. The dreams which inspired it are tarnished, and Lawrence’s enjoyment of it is obtuse, a sign of his alienation from his world.

    Lawrence is inspired largely by this series to join the military, which offers the best chance of interstellar travel. But this grand adventure proves to be nothing like the heroics depicted in the TV show.

    Hamilton makes satisfying use of the paridigm shift to enable Lawrence to redeem himself and his wasted early years by placing him in a unique position to make the golden dreams of humanity a reality.

    Hamilton’s point here is to show that the questing spirit of the human race endures, even despite disappointments, and the potential of the human race about which it fantasizes will eventually be actualised.

  8. Adamon 13 Jul 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Yeah, it’s a good book. Although I preferred his NightDawn (?) trilogy.

  9. Jack William Bellon 13 Jul 2007 at 2:06 pm

    This isn’t new. Recently great minds like Charles Stross and Warren Ellis have reported a kind of imagination ‘performance anxiety’ due to the rapid pace of change in the present. Before them the Cyberpunks (aka Bruce Sterling) declared SF dead. Before them it was the ‘New Wave’. Before them…

    However all the factors you report are quite real. It is just that they only affect SF that tries to actually be ‘Science Fiction’; as opposed to ‘Speculative Fiction’. In the former, especially for ‘Hard SF’, you have to make an honest effort to prognosticate what might happen if something new were to come along — a difficult problem when new things you never even imagined show up every few minutes in the real world. In the latter you have more room to maneuver. So no big deal. Unless you are like me and still want to write ‘serious’ SF.

    I’ve covered this ground myself in the essays “Not a bunch of softies, a rant about Hard SF” (which was later picked up as an article by HardSF.net) and “Greetings from 35,000 feet over the Atlantic” (where I coined the term ‘Neuva Vu’).

  10. Alex Andronovon 13 Jul 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Technology progresses forever it’s almost a law (humankind are inventors). The time in which society becomes complacent about this is the most dangerous – the world is flat, there is nothing more to discover, etc. But this is when we should turn to Science Fiction more and more.

    There has been a downturn in SF’s popularity of late because Science reality has been so good, but we still don’t have personal jetpacks. And I want my own jetpack.

    The reality is that, in my opinion, the best science fiction stories, don’t focus on the technology they just use the technology to present us a different society – a mirror to ourselves. In that way the most important parallel to Science Fiction within Science Fiction is when a character reads / sees something about the past. Sees something about now, and wonders – what must have it been to live like that. At that point they are doing the same as the reader who is asking what would it be like to live like them too. It is this symbiosis that often makes great science fiction.

    But I’m new here, what do I know?

  11. Stacyon 13 Jul 2007 at 3:22 pm

    Science isn’t technology. Science is asking questions and never accepting a final answer. As long as we still like telling stories and asking questions, there will be science fiction. As I can’t contemplate either storytelling or question-asking being bred out of a successful human species, science fiction will always be around.

  12. David Louis Edelmanon 13 Jul 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Glad to see there’s a still a strong interest in the enduring relevance of science fiction. And thanks for the suggestions. Keep ‘em coming!

  13. Randyon 13 Jul 2007 at 3:33 pm

    Kurt Vonnegut featured Kilgore Trout, a science fiction author, in many of his stories.

  14. Elio M. García, Jr.on 13 Jul 2007 at 3:56 pm

    At last year’s Worldcon, John Barnes speculated (I’m recalling from memory here, and a post I made at the time; doubtless I’ve lost some of the nuances) during a panel that SF literature as a genre seemed to be following the pattern of other cultural “fads” — they last about three generations, and then become the domain of eccentrics and antiquarians (or something similar — basically, a niche item).

    I wonder to what degree the lack of SF fiction within SF novels is a subconscious acknowledgment of this by authors? Certainly, the “greying” of SF fandom is obvious and probably a bit disheartening

  15. Michael Phillipson 13 Jul 2007 at 4:16 pm

    Ah, I just remembered another one. Heinlein had several of his characters either readers or authors of science fiction. Hazel Stone wrote a SF serial about a Galactic Overlord, though I’m not sure if that was in the Space Family Stone or if it was only in the Cat Who Walks through Walls and later books.

  16. Jack William Bellon 13 Jul 2007 at 4:30 pm

    Elio M. García, Jr.: John Barnes has made no secret of his opinions about the genre as a ‘flash in the pan’. He also seems to have a slight distaste for most of of SF fandom and any of his fellow writers who have drank the fan koolaid. Yet he continues to write SF, sometimes quite well.

    Michael Phillips: That was in ‘The Rolling Stones’. It occurred to me as well.

  17. Gyp Orienson 13 Jul 2007 at 4:38 pm

    You know, I always thought of sci-fi as the “what if?” kind of thing. I have a science fiction world that actually does have Martians. That went out of style already, though, ’cause we know that there aren’t Martians. But IF there were Martians, what would they be like? How would they have adapted to that environment? How would us silly Earthlings have been led to believe that they aren’t there, even though they actually are?

    Sci-fi isn’t going to die. You’re talking about the kind that predicts the future. What about the kind that just looks at different societies with different technology, and is like, “how might it have been if it had been different…?”

  18. Leon Staufferon 13 Jul 2007 at 5:30 pm

    That brings up a thought I had on reading the original essay, that of Alternative History. It’s become almost a staple of the genre to include those in the altered world of the story who speculate on how things could have been different, sometimes this is serious historical speculation, sometimes it’s fiction, another AH story inside the story. Of course, most AH is pretty far afield from hard SF.

    Certainly a number of SF works set in the very near future have included readers and writers of SF, often thinly disguised versions of real people. However, references to what they’ve read or written are usually either vague or refer to classics of the genre.

  19. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 13 Jul 2007 at 5:36 pm

    You can also list ETA Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” the first automaton story, which predates Frankenstein by a short bit (and causes arguments among Romantic Fiction scholars since it’s possible that Mary Shelley got an advance copy via Lord Byron and was influenced by it).

    As for science fiction literature being depicted in a science fiction future, the main reason there’s not a lot of that is because most of the stories tend to be about scientists and not the arts-and-literature types, and usually not the dreamy sorts either. And if an author gives you enough of a swatch of a story-within-a-story, that’s usually because it will be significant to the main story at some point in the narrative. There’s no point in having the Oracle come on stage and announce prophecies that aren’t going to come to pass in this tale. It becomes, at best, “Well, that was amusing, but what does it have to do with this story?”

    I think also part of the trouble is that science fiction is generally the literature of ideas rather than the literature of world-building. (Yes, heresy, but bear with me for a moment.) There are lots of science fiction worlds where every planet is its own monoculture, and with the exception of The Little Prince (which is more of a fable anyway) where each planet is the size of a house, this is nothing you’d get in any variety of reality. You can go to any block in American suburbia and get more cultural diversity than you get in your average SF tale.

    Which is not to bash on SF, but the point of SF is generally not to explore cultures but ideas: What if humans were all hermaphrodites? What if humans colonized Mars after the Martians all died of chickenpox? And while you can explore cultures as part of exploring those ideas, the parts of the cultures shown are generally the ones that best illustrate them with just enough fluff added to keep it from looking obvious (and with varying degrees of success of the adding of this fluff).

    One assumes that the SF novels are kept in the futuristic bathrooms which we never seem to see in the SF future either but we must assume people have unless the point of the story is that they don’t.

  20. Jack William Bellon 13 Jul 2007 at 5:37 pm

    I seem to be posting way too many comments, but I just realized that no-one has mentioned the Mundane SF movement. Basically to be counted as ‘Mundane SF’ a story must hew closely to known science, avoid magic technology (like warp drives), and have a somewhat sociological bent in that the story revolves around the human condition rather than the technology.

    So, basically, it is Hard SF on steroids, but devoid of the usual nuts and bolts.

  21. Nantwichianon 13 Jul 2007 at 6:12 pm

    There are too many ideas in this discussion! So I will go back to the original post.

    It seems to me that science fiction is closely allied to the idea of progress. For some reason, this idea was quite unusual in the pre-industrial world. Perhaps because it was only the experience of quickly improving technology that allowed people to think about the possibility of a radically altered future world. In the ancient world technology improved but various non-capitalist economic systems restricted its desirability. Hero of Alexandria invented the steam engine. It became a toy to open the doors of temples.

    I suppose the question in the original post is: improved technological know-how may mean we are able to predict the boundaries of technology. Already it is possible to place a value on the maximum number of calculations that might be performed by a litre of matter, and thus the maximum power of a computer within the current paradigm. Does this make sci-fi redundant?

    The answer, as other posters have pointed out, is that sci-fi is not merely about improving technology. In fact, it is the brick walls of technological possibility that make some of the most satisfying SF stories. Haldeman’s Forever War uses the limitations of relativistic physics and studies their effect on a mortal lifespan. Alternately, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series turns these limitations off, with the magical inertia-less drives. In this case the story arguably ceases to be science fiction and becomes ‘space opera’: there is no speculation: it is fantasy wearing a SF costume.

    The ingredients for ‘proper’ SF are (arguably) speculation about how recognisably human creatures interact with a universe in which scientific knowledge is different, or at least developed, from our own. Science Fiction must contain a question. Without this question it becomes something different – space-opera, techno-fantasy or some such.

    Provocative example: star-trek is science fiction: it contains a question – how will a massively advanced human species organise itself and interact with other non-human species? Star wars is not science fiction. There is really no question here; it is really just escapist fun – the ‘force’ operating on the level of magic.

  22. [...] – The End of Science Fiction? “… the question I’m interested in at the moment is when will science fiction end? [...]

  23. PJon 13 Jul 2007 at 10:34 pm

    I think you’re missing the point. Science fiction stories are only secondarily about science. To me, they’re mostly about hope: That there is a tomorrow to look forward to, and here’s a story about one possible way it might be. Even the dystopias are rarely totally hopeless; if they are, they likely qualify more as horror than SF!

  24. Laurieon 13 Jul 2007 at 11:25 pm

    Ultimately, I think this question is moot. Will science become so commonplace that we cease to wonder at it? Most certainly. Does that mean we’re losing our capacity for wonderment as a race? Absolutely not! There are more mysteries than we can fathom, and we will continue to speculate endlessly as long as we exist. Every new discovery yields yet more areas of exploration. I have no doubt that we’ll find another outlet for our wonder and our speculation when science fails to thrill us any longer.

    Besides, it was never about the science, it was never about some Great Question. It’s about us. The ‘human condition’ as one of my English teachers was fond of saying. (Gag me.) The redemption of Anakin, the determination of Mal to live free even if that meant being branded a rogue, following the spirit of the Prime Directive instead of the heartless letter, Aenea going willingly to a horrible death so that humanity might choose again – the resilience (or fragility) of the human spirit in a future (or past) we can only speculate about is where the real story lies. That’s where the wonder is. Science is just the framework on which science fiction hangs. When the time comes, we’ll architect a new one.

  25. pete stoloson 14 Jul 2007 at 12:18 am

    Hi !
    Great subject being discussed!
    Would like to make 2 points about the death of science fiction.
    1. I believe we will always have Science Fiction while we are still learning about the universe and increasing in knowledge. I think once we understand everything Science Fiction would be difficult.
    2. Science Fiction has always been a vehicle for exposing a personal or social problems in the world which may or may not be taboo.
    By putting it in the frame of the distant future or alien races it makes it easier to discuss these problems. So if we live in a perfect world or 99 percent perfect Science Fiction will lose one of it’s biggest motivations.

    Oh the subject of sci-fi characters enjoying sci-fi? I just think that would be very difficult to do. You would have to fill out the scienctific limit of the characters to be able to generate their science fiction.
    Thank you for bringing up this great subject.
    BestRegards,
    Pete

  26. Adamon 14 Jul 2007 at 2:44 am

    If science fiction dies, who will inspire the scientists?

  27. Adamon 14 Jul 2007 at 2:58 am

    I don’t think it’s possible for someone to know everything, or understand everything.

    I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect world — it would lack science fiction — so it wouldn’t be perfect, IMO.

    It will always be possible to speculate…

  28. Ivyon 14 Jul 2007 at 6:01 am

    I’ve been trying (and failing) to remember a romance novel that tells a romance story within the story or a mystery novel where the detective reads a mystery novel. Myths and folklore are special because they tell us about the world we’re looking at. Otherwise, it’s pretty standard not to have a tale in a tale.

  29. Skott Klebeon 14 Jul 2007 at 8:51 am

    Ivy – How about Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey?

    Paul Malmont has a fascinating and wonderful novel out now, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, whose characters are all real authors of the pulp era (L Ron H, Walter Gibson, Doc Savage, H P Lovecraft (while dead)) who get embroiled in a pulp-era plot.

  30. LauraJMixonon 14 Jul 2007 at 9:10 am

    Great post, David! Fred Pohl said that science fiction is the literature of change.

    I am not sure whether we will have SF as it is currently recognized in the future — presuming we survive long enough for that to become a relevant question — but my view is that we will always have a literature of wonder and reflection on the impacts of progress and change.

    -l.

  31. [...] On a related note, David Louis Edelman asks if we are approaching the end of science fiction. [...]

  32. Laurence Aurbachon 14 Jul 2007 at 11:29 am

    “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.”

    I disagree with this, because you are confusing technological refinement with real scientific and engineering breakthroughs. As wonderful as Moore’s Law is, by itself it represents little more than technological refinement. The real (and unanticipated) wonder is how technological refinement has transformed some aspects of computing from a condition of scarcity to one of abundance, and how that transformation has led to cascading transformations in communications, information processing, research, business, health, engineering, etc.

    To get some perspective on technological refinement, consider the light bulb. It was invented in 1802 and perfected to the point of commercialization in 1878-79, but it wasn’t until the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that the wonder of artificial lighting was brought to the majority of Americans. Over the next few decades most cities were electrified and artificial lighting gradually became common.

    Lighting in the late 19th and early 20th century was a lot like computers today, in terms of wonder. Neon was commercialized in the teens and fluorescents were commercialized in the 1930s. Lighting continued to be refined for greater efficiency, reliability, flexibility of performance, etc. But after you’re familiar with Coney Island circa 1905, or Times Square in the 1930s, what sense of wonder remains? Did any Golden Age authors write about light bulbs? Did anyone write stories about halogen lamps, metal halide, or LEDs when those were commercialized in the 1950s to 1970s?

    No. Technological refinement in lighting was simply an accepted background condition. We got used to it. If it appeared in stories, it was only to underline our casual acceptance of the miraculous (i.e., primitive natives oohing and aahing over light bulbs when they’re introduced by advanced explorers). Science fiction moved on to other topics that held more salient relevance.

  33. b. sharpon 14 Jul 2007 at 1:51 pm

    There has been a downturn in SF’s popularity of late because Science reality has been so good, but we still don’t have personal jetpacks. And I want my own jetpack.

    By that logic, one can argue the interest in fantasy should fall as well simply because we can’t have our own magical unicorns, and the proof of dragons or fairies has yet to be verified.

    The biggest complaints I’ve heard about sci-fi as of late has nothing to do with probability of the stories, but the quality of material publishers have chosen to publish, and the inability for some of them to understand the concept of publicity and its benefits.

  34. [...] at DeepGenre, David Louis Edelman muses thoughtfully on whether hard science fiction is itself at risk because our current times are already so [...]

  35. david ellison 14 Jul 2007 at 4:29 pm

    I think in the future they wont be writing science fiction novels…..they’ll be creating entire “virtual” worlds (think Orion’s Arm carried to the next level).

    And if you are a science fiction reader who doesn’t know about the Orion’s Arm project/website then shame on you. Google it now.

  36. david ellison 14 Jul 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Of course, some varieties, at least, of science fiction MUST come to an end if their subject matter becomes reality.

    One of my favorite topics in SF is tales about humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

    No one will be writing new stories on that theme if SETI actually does pick up a signal of the encyclopedia galactica.

  37. cjpon 14 Jul 2007 at 5:23 pm

    The end is not near for science fiction. The advances that you refer to — in computers and related devices like the iPod — are indeed astounding and would’ve seemed like the stuff of science fiction even a mere 15 years ago. Yet, in a way, they constitute a narrow aspect of technology, and many people use these marvels merely for conventional purposes that were adequately served by the old technology and systems of decades ago: typewriters, land-line telephones, television sets, mail-order catalogs, cassette-loading Walkmans, motion pictures, the telegraph, the Postal Service, newspapers, etc.
    In many other areas of technology, we still have a long way to go, and in some ways, we seem to have regressed.
    Take space travel, a major component of science fiction. A manned mission to Mars seemed more possible to me in 1969, when Armstrong walked on the moon, than it does today, more than three decades after we stopped producing manned spacecraft capable of leaving the Earth’s orbit. In this case, the past actually looks like science fiction from the perspective of the present. Interplanetary travel seems more than realm of the fantastic today than it did during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. So I think fanciful writing about the conquest of space will continue to keep many sf writers busy, and their readers happy, for decades to come.
    Mass transit is another area of technologicial stagnation, at least in the United States. In many ways, our transportation systems were better and more efficient 70 years ago, when trolleys were prevalent in most urban centers, than they are today. Moving large masses of people swiftly and safely is more of a challenge than ever. So again, here’s an area of technology that is fertile with possibility for the imaginitive sf writer.

  38. Bruce Sterlingon 15 Jul 2007 at 10:57 am

    Oh come on, Jack William Bell, I never said that science fiction was “dead.” I’ve been known to allege that science fiction was suffering an ongoing BRAIN death, but that doesn’t slow down a popular genre and may even improve its prospects.

  39. Lou Anderson 15 Jul 2007 at 11:15 am

    I’m surprised no one’s referenced The Watchmen. In that graphic novel, because it’s set in a world where the super hero exists, comic books instead focus on Pirate stories. Also, both Paul Di Filippo and Benjamin Rosenbaum have written excellent stories about alternate worlds where the protagonist is his realities’ version of an SF writer. And of course there is Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, in which Adolf Hitler becomes a fantasy novelist.

  40. Jack William Bellon 15 Jul 2007 at 2:00 pm

    Bruce Sterling: That’s a fair cop. So far as I know you never actually said ‘Science Fiction is dead’. I was confusing what others (perhaps influenced by ‘Cheap Truth’) were saying about SF — using the Cyberpunk movement as their exemplar — with you; as the titular leader of the movement at the time.

    (There was a lot of that kind of discussion on alt.cyberpunk in the early to mid nineties as well; you can find my contributions there under either my real real name or my handle ‘Crackerjack’. Basically, with the Cyberpunk dieing as a literary movement at that time, we re-fought the same wars on usenet that you real Cyberpunks fought in the eighties with zines.)

  41. David Louis Edelmanon 15 Jul 2007 at 3:47 pm

    Thanks all for the great comments and rebuttals. Looks like I’ve been adequately proven wrong about works of SF containing works of SF.

    Contrary to what it might have seemed like I was thinking in the original piece, I don’t believe SF will die anytime soon. I guess I was largely thinking on a macro scale of many hundreds or thousands of years from now. You know, when we’re all zipping around on jetpacks in cyber universes that we’ve uploaded ourselves to from our personal spaceships circling the planet of Zarquon 17. Will we still have SF then? I’m not sure.

  42. Laurieon 15 Jul 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Regarding Orion’s Arm:

    I read the back story and it kind of pained me. It was either presented poorly or it’s pretty darn trite.

    The thing that is interesting to me about it is that this is the first application of the Open Source movement to creative content that I’ve seen. (There may be others, and I’ve just not seen them.) When you put all those heads together, are they less creative or more? Some of the open source software is amazingly good, some is amazingly bad, most is just mediocre. I’d be interested to see how it comes out in a world building scenario.

  43. Espirallion 15 Jul 2007 at 8:42 pm

    I suspect that science fictiion isn’t dead yet, and won’t be for a long time. Mankind will not have reached the summit of possibilities, of imagination, of invention until mankind ceases to exist. Someone will always crop up to test the limits of the known and of the status quo.

    Have you read “The End of Eternity” by Isaac Asimov? Perhaps it is an example of science fiction within science fiction (individuals from one group of people living in what they call Eternity who in crisis contemplate the existence of another group of people dwelling far ahead of them in the Hidden Centuries.) The fact that many modern science fiction writers don’t have the vision (and ability/desire to weave a story within a story) that Asimov had doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Science fiction at its best is a form of prophecy. Prophecy has been around since the dawn of man, and will probably remain with us in one form or another until shortly before Time winds to a close. So I suppose science fiction is a safe genre for awhile yet, as long as the authors continue to fling wide the nets of their imaginations and do not become stale, repetitive, and packaged.

  44. Ted Chiangon 16 Jul 2007 at 12:55 am

    I’ll just add that I disagree with the assertion that characters in fantasy regularly read fantasy. They may tell each other myths, legends, or fantastic tales, but that’s not the same thing. A closer analogue would be if, within a fantasy novel, elves were fond of reading novels featuring zombies (and their world lacks zombies). I suspect this is just as uncommon as characters in SF reading SF.

    I think that in general, characters in fiction don’t spend a lot of time reading fiction. It may be rarer in SF than in mainstream fiction, but I don’t think it’s common in any genre.

  45. Philippaon 16 Jul 2007 at 1:17 am

    I think the dilemma re technology catching up with sci-fi is a real one – you need only look at the latest James Bond film, and note the absence of Q (or R, for that matter). We no longer need the Incredible Gadget Man to explain what Bond does with M’s computer, because we know that technology firsthand, or, if not, we accept that it exists.

    I also think it’s true to say that fantasy is often going to tell more stories-within-stories (mythologies, histories, prophecies) than sci-fi; but that’s part of the situational differences of the two sub-genres. Fantasy has a tendency to be about alphas and omegas – ultimate beginnings (gods, creation myths, magic) and the threat of ultimate endings (apocalypse, Ragnarok, war). Comparatively, sci-fi is concerned with a middle continuum: not with the development of technology or its end, but how it is used in the interim.

    But I’d look ye to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books, at the mythologies creeping in there about Big Man and the nanos, about the hopes for the future and the technologies they’re trying to invest in, because the whole premise of the series is building something new, from an already future position.

    And I’m not sure SF will die out, because we’re never going to stop wanting a different future. Maybe one with aliens when we’re already in space and have found none; maybe mind-powers, or experiments, or inventions that will still seem impossible in 1,000 years. But whatever it is, it’ll be there. The gap between fact and fiction will just have narrowed.

  46. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 16 Jul 2007 at 11:47 am

    Northanger Abbey was mentioned earlier, a case where a heroinne in a regency mystery is also reading “horrid mysteries.” But part of the point of all that is that Catherine Morland is not in fact in a mystery and a whole lot of her expectations turn out to be false and mild hilarity ensues.

    Urban fantasy is already dealing (and has been dealing for years) with the folk in it being conversant with some degree of literary or film fantasy. References to The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland are chocabloc, and I’ve so far seen direct references to Harry Potter in episodes of Buffy, The Dresden Files and just last week on Dr. Who, the last all the more amusingly because the actor who plays the current Doctor was also in the last Harry Potter film. There’s a clear distinction there between literary fantasy and folk in the real world (for certain values of real) and the way magic “actually works.”

    To go with Buffy, the 6th season villains, the “troika” of Andrew, Warren and Jonathan, were all an assortment of D&D and comic geeks who’d managed to get both magic and superscience to work for them, which was mystifying the Scooby gang since the only reference they could find for one of the problems was a D&D manual (which was more accurate than they expected). Which shows the blur between real world and literature.

    In any of the futures or alternate worlds we see depicted in literature, we can pretty accurately deduce that a lot of the stylings and applications of the science and/or magic were first depicted in the literature of that world and later made real when people got the technology to do so. And any time we see people reading the literary fiction of that world, it may in fact be a science fiction or fantasy classic.

  47. Kate Elliotton 17 Jul 2007 at 10:59 pm

    I’m going to follow up on what Ted said, and add that one reason there may be so few characters reading sf or other fiction in sf (or f) novels is that it can seem so self referential, or perhaps even twee. Not that is it, mind you, because it makes sense that people will continue to entertain themselves with fiction in some form or another, it being such a part of our psyche. But we’re so self conscious about all this that I think we shy away from seeming like we’re commenting on our own commentary.

  48. A.R.Yngveon 17 Jul 2007 at 11:13 pm

    Why is there rarely any SF in an SF story?

    I suppose it’s a genre convention, similar to these:

    - In movies, all phone numbers begin with “555″. Using authentic numbers would lead to prank calls, lawsuits, bad publicity, etc.

    - In Star Trek films, when the crew travels to the 20th century, how come they never run into any Star Trek fans/movies/TV/merchandise? (Answer: To avoid self-referentiality.)

    - You rarely read a novel which condemns the reading of novels. (Notable exception: Madame Bovary.)

    (And by the way, why are American movie heroes so often named “Jack”?)

  49. David Louis Edelmanon 17 Jul 2007 at 11:32 pm

    I think I must have a skewed perspective, seeing that so many of my favorite authors are of the White Male Pretentious Literary Self-Referential bent. Richard Powers, Philip Roth, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Paul Auster, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Irving are just a few of my faves who use the metafictional story-within-a-story conceit all the time. I don’t think any of them could write an ordinary third-person POV Aristotelian narrative if you put a gun to their head.

    The SF/F world has a much different mindset than I’m used to, and even after several years of immersion in the stuff a lot of it is still foreign to me.

  50. Lou Anderson 18 Jul 2007 at 7:39 am

    I’m with Kate that it can be twee. One cliched plot I can’t stand to see on a book’s jacket is the one where the actor in a sci-fi show is mistaken for the real thing, though I admit to having a great fondness and respect for Galaxy Quest. Also, in the Doctor Who episode “Remembrance of the Daleks,” Sylvester McCoy exists a room right as the BBC show is debuting their exciting new children’s series, “Doctor–”…

  51. Kate Elliotton 18 Jul 2007 at 1:23 pm

    I haven’t read it, but I think Margaret Atwood has a story within a story narrative in a recent novel with sf tendencies.

  52. Michael Grosbergon 22 Jul 2007 at 5:12 pm

    And by the way, why are American movie heroes so often named “Jack”?

    I always wondered about this. It’s not just jack, it’s that leader types always have names beginning with “J”. Just look at the names of famous TV SF captains and heroes:

    James Kirk
    Jean-luc Picard
    Janeway (OK, that’s cheating)
    Jeff Sinclair
    John Sheridan
    John Crighton
    Jack O’Neill
    John Sheppard

    Then there’s that “Lost” trio of James Ford, Jack Shepperd and John Locke.
    and let’s not forget Jake Green from Jericho and Jeremiah from, well, Jeremiah.

    It gets more interesting with action/spy thriller heroes:
    James Bond
    Jason Bourne
    Jack Bauer
    Can you spot the pattern?

  53. A.R.Yngveon 23 Jul 2007 at 4:09 am

    “Can you spot the pattern?”

    Yeah — they’re all White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. ;-)

  54. Lou Anderson 24 Jul 2007 at 9:11 am

    You left out Jack Ryan. This isn’t a coincidence. Mainstream Hollywood film-making is about the broadest possible definition of the everyman, creating an idealized version of “America of the imagination”. Quite a few screen writing courses teach you to pick John and Jack for your protagonist – they are the deliberately-chosen norm. Note how Joss Whedon deliberately goes against this in his tv shows (“Malcolm Reynolds,” etc…) Just as the Wackowski’s got away from a future of wasps in their depiction of Zion. But these are bold exceptions. A controversial but interesting book is “An Empire of Their Own” by Neal Gabler that argues that a Jewish immigrant population created an idealized version of America as portrayed in Hollywood that America then bought into as a myth of itself. A similar phenomena is documented by Mad Magazine’s Ari Kaplan in his “How Jews Created the Comic Book Industry.” There is a reason Bruce Wayne is old North Eastern money and Superman is from Kansas. (Bob Kane was born Robert Kahn; both Seigel and Shuster were the sons of Jewish immigrants.) Hopefully we are finally getting away from this. Certainly prose is (always) ahead of the game. Always been interesting to me that prose writing seems to go in the opposite direction with names, striving for the most original and interesting name for its protagonists, while Hollywood goes for the most generic. Though you can google the recent YouTube conversation between Ian McDonald and Richard Morgan discussing the US publishers’ decision to change Morgan’s “Black Man” to “Thirteen” and whether US readers are inherently conservative.

  55. Stacyon 25 Jul 2007 at 12:08 pm

    Discover Magazine’s current issue (August 2007) has a commentary on the SFWA meeting in NY which basically says “science fiction is dead because fiction is dead, but, aw, I still like it.” It uses Michael Crichton as an example, which even the author admits isn’t a good one, of the degradation of science fiction, and rambles on about hard and soft sci-fi without once mentioning any of the contemporary authors putting out good stuff in either catagory. See http://discovermagazine.com/2007/aug/blinded-by-science to opin for yourself.

  56. tqfton 26 Jul 2007 at 12:01 am

    Science-fiction in science fiction

    Star Trek Deep Space Nine – Benjamin Sisko’s 1930′s alter ego [name???] was a sci-fi writer.

    I believe I read about 20 years ago that sci-fi was dead because all the ideas that could be used had been used and all that was left were character stories around them and they would not sell to geeks who liked tech – I think it was a newspaper article and no I don’t have it anymore.

    The “Golden Age” came and went and all those writers would cry if they knew how much money could be made today. It doesn’t matter if it is a niche market if the niche is vastly bigger than the whole industry was when there were fewer writers.

    So what if a good run of sci-fi books takes 10 or 20 years off – has happened before and will happen again.

    PS: when Hollywood works out how to depict a supernova explosion properly (can’t be far away) watch for some mind blowing (and ear splitting – it is Hollywood after all) movies. You think they are going to give up that gravy train?

  57. M.T.on 22 Aug 2007 at 1:38 am

    I seem to be posting way too many comments, but I just realized that no-one has mentioned the Mundane SF movement. Basically to be counted as ‘Mundane SF’ a story must hew closely to known science, avoid magic technology (like warp drives), and have a somewhat sociological bent in that the story revolves around the human condition rather than the technology.

    So, basically, it is Hard SF on steroids, but devoid of the usual nuts and bolts.

    There’s a somewhat dated anime like this called Legend of Galactic Heroes, based on Japanese novels of the same name. It’s about two powers in the Milky Way at war with eachother: the Free Planets Alliance and the Galactic Empire.

    It feels more like watching some historical movie, despite the fact that it does have FTL. Localization would be expensive, though, since it has a huge voice cast and the characters talk. A lot. Not to mention that it has over 100+ episodes.

    Hearing classical music while watching huge fleets battle it out in space, FTW. (Though admittedly it was the historical-like aspect that drew me more than the battles.)

    Well… */end shameless and ultimately pointless plug*

  58. M.T.on 22 Aug 2007 at 1:42 am

    Er, my bad. I mean ‘similar to this’, not ‘like this’. Though the people in the anime still use paper as their primary method of storing documents. *nervous laugh* I wonder if that counts?

  59. The future is a given? « Weedyon 19 Feb 2008 at 12:48 am

    [...] The future is a given? David Louis Edelman [...]

  60. [...] Will there ever be an end to science fiction? Will human science ever advance to the point where we’re only left with things that are impossible to write about? [...]

  61. [...] is often made magisterially, as if no sane person could take issue with it. Indeed, some, like David Louis Edelman, Bret Funk, and Bruno Maddox, go so far as to say that the astonishing rate of technological change [...]

  62. JJon 30 Nov 2008 at 4:37 am

    The problem might be exactly the opposite: too many new things being created around us, and limited brainpower to understand them. A well educated person might have a chance to understand all scientific progress maybe a couple of hundred years ago. Let’s say that at the beginning of the century you needed a PhD. But right now it’s impossible to follow progress in your own field, much less put it in a narratively attractive way and project it to the future. It’s just too much. And if you can, very few people will understand it. So why bother?

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