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Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction

5 April 2012

From Glenn Reynolds in Popular Mechanics:

The future isn’t what it used to be. And neither is science fiction. While books about space exploration and robots once inspired young people to become scientists and engineers—and inspired grownup engineers and scientists to do big things—in recent decades the field has become dominated by escapist fantasies and depressing dystopias. That could be contributing to something that I see as a problem. It seems that too many technically savvy people, engineers in particular, are going to work for Web startups or investment firms. There’s nothing wrong with such companies, but we also need engineers to design bold new things for use in the physical world: space colonies instead of social media.

If I’m right, that’s bad for all of us. But are we really losing the will to do big things or are the big things just different than they used to be? I asked around and, on this subject, found science-fiction writers to be pessimistic.

One of today’s best SF authors is Neal Stephenson, whose books include Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age. In a recent article in the World Policy Journal, he writes that during science fiction’s so-called golden age—roughly the late 1930s to the late 1960s—the stories being published were about big things and big breakthroughs: moon rockets, Mars bases, robots, and teleportation. Perhaps by coincidence, those were times when the United States was actually doing big things and making big breakthroughs. Now, writes Stephenson, “[s]peaking ­broadly, the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a darker, more skeptical, and ambiguous tone.”

. . . .

I called Stephenson and asked him to elaborate. “There was some moment in the late ’60s and ’70s when people thought we had enough tech,” he says. “Technology was too dangerous, and people became reflexively skeptical of new ideas. If you stay that way for a couple of decades, it can come back to bite you. There’s also a less obvious danger, which is that if science and technology stop wowing us, people start to develop skepticism about the scientific method.”

. . . .

[Inventor Dean] Kamen was more optimistic than my science-fiction writers. From his perspective, the problem is actually that writers are falling behind. “Science-fiction writers aren’t being imaginative enough to get ahead of the science,” he says. “You walk into a major university medical center and what you find is something way beyond science fiction.”

Kamen agrees that we’re not making enough progress in space, but says, “That’s because of the excitement at home—cloning, curing diseases, extending life.” And yet he agrees with Stephenson’s argument that the Internet, while obviously a valuable tool, can also be an unfortunate distraction: “We’ve given people new ways to communicate but nothing worth saying. I wish people understood the difference between data and information. The fact that it’s easy, fast, and cheap doesn’t mean that it’s valuable.”

Link to the rest at Popular Mechanics


33 Comments to “Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction”

  1. Been thinking the saem thing, why I’m starting an eMagazine


  2. On the whole, I tend to agree. Science fiction has, at least to a large degree, stagnated. I know some writers are trying to return to the optimistic tone science fiction used to have. I’ve got a few ideas I’ve been kicking around myself. Still, it’s gotten to the point when I’m in the sff section of the bookstore, most of what I find appealing is either the fantasy or sf titles that were published years ago.

  3. I think science fiction could be great. The only issue, to me (and this is from personal observation) is that people on the whole are more skeptical and have a hard time believing the science fiction part. There’s also truth in the sci-fi writers are totally behind the science part, too. We have some seriously amazing things today. Robotics, if you research it, can be interesting. I also think that a lot of sci-fi is really more like sci-fi fantasy and isn’t mean to be technical in any way. It’s just dragons in space or something like that (I’m sure there’s a better example).

    Oh, and dystopia’s hugely popular right now, too. So there’s that. I think what sci-fi was will come back around, sort of. We’ll see!

  4. Part of the problem, to my mind, is the self-inflicted obsession with making SF ‘respectable’. There is a desire to gain literary awards etc. And it is treated as if it matters. This leads to dystopian stories of one sort or another, because it is simply easier to wax lyrical about despair. How many of the ‘great works of literature’ are actually optimistic in tone?

    Add to that the sheer difficulty of writing near-future SF when in the middle of a technological and social revolution that touches everything. Particularly when they are published at the pace of traditional publishing. eighteen months from first draft to publication is way too long these days.

    Add to that the ‘can you make this a series’ effect, which adds even more pressure on the technological crystal ball, because you now have books come out three/four/five years down the line based of scientific and technological ideas that have already moved on.

    Say you were writing something set in the orbit of Saturn, and mentioned some old scientific theory about why Iapetus looks the way it does as if your characters have proved that this is true. A theory now superseded by the theory that it once had a moon of its own that…I won’t bore you with the details.

    Or graphene’s astonishing capabilities aren’t in your story, or…

    It’s hard to write anything set in the 21st century. So writers head out into Space Opera territory or switch to Fantasy.

    Personally, I don’t give a damn if a genre novel ever wins the booker, I couldn’t care less if the ‘dinner-party fashionistas’ of the literary establishment decide to anoint some poor writer with the mark of their esteem. The literary establishment have 20-20 hindsight, but are truly myopic about the present.

    But to slave over a story for months and then see it become out of date before it is even published, that is not something I would look forward to. I think that is the real problem, and the distrust of corporate science.

    • Nice points.

    • I don’t know if we actually need to worry as much about “dating” SF, or even making it entirely plausible. Look at Star Trek, the famous series that played loose enough with the laws of physics that we have the term Treknology. Look at the things that Kirk is handed now and then for Captain’s Logs. Now look at an iPad. Look at a communicator. Look at a cell-phone. Look at ST:TNG’s badge-comms; look at an iPod Nano…

      I think “science is COOL!” is more powerful than “SF is Accurate” even if you make that “SF is Accurate (and cool).”

      I just put up a bit of Space Opera that had its first draft, oh, 19 years ago or thereabouts? I re-read it and changed very little (the chief bits of technology that it relies on are Handwave FTL and computer tech that’s still beyond us, and may always be). All I can hope is that it might inspire someone to look at how the cool stuff might work. That’s all it really needs to do.

  5. another advantage about dystopian fiction is you can postulate that the advance of science and technology is frozen by whatever made the world a dystopia in the first place 🙂

  6. Wow, a big measure of “reversal of cause and effect” with a dose “you kids get off my lawn”. Glenn Reynolds has a bad case of Green Lantern syndrome. Sci-Fi turns dystopian when the market demands it. People are really disillusioned (in large measure due to public policies that Reynolds cheered on).

    • I’m not sure the market demands dystopian sf so much as the gatekeepers in New York demand it.

    • I totally agree.

      Not to get political, but as a woman, dystopian really speaks to me right now. With all the battles going on about a woman’s body (in medical terms), I’m welcoming stories where one lonely hero/heroine brings down the dictatorship. Why? Because I am beginning to feel as if I have less and less control over my own life. (And a recession doesn’t help with that feeling.)

    • “Sci-Fi turns dystopian when the market demands it. People are really disillusioned (in large measure due to public policies that Reynolds cheered on).”

      Wow, really? Dystopian scifi has been around — and popular — since the early 1900s. 1984 was not an optimistic Golden Age space opera. And dystopian scifi hit a real upsurge in the Seventies when things like pollution, overpopulation, and nuclear destruction were big worries. Glenn Reynolds is not old enough to be blamed for any of this (he’s around my age, I think — I’m almost 48).

      And really, are we in a new age of scifi dystopia? Because I haven’t noticed. I stay away from the mainstream scifi bookshelves and in fact don’t go shopping for new books in meatspace anymore. I read blogs and forums and look up suggested titles on Amazon.com and some of them I download. It seems to me that rather than dystopia being big, science fiction has entered a period of being about large, sweeping changes to the human race and others and what that means. Yeah, there’s some harsh stuff, but what I think of as “dystopia” are things like those novels where nuclear war destroys everything except for a few survivors and then mutants, etc.

      Or is it the zombie thing? I don’t really think of zombies as science fiction, despite the trappings. But that’s just me.

      • Of course dystopian sci-fi has been around as long as sci-fi. I thought we were talking what forms dominate at particular times. 1984 was written by a British writer in the immediate aftermath of World War II, which is evidence in favor of my argument. Popular lit reflects societal trends rather than causing them. I think that is blindingly obvious to most people. I could understand a argument that the two are self-reinforcing, but that isn’t the argument that Reynolds is making. As I read the article, he thinks that a certain type of science fiction causes technological advancement. And he bases his argument entirely on correlation. His entire theory seems to be if we imagine that science has only positive outcomes, it will. Thus, the Green Lantern theory of scientific progress.

  7. British SF writers are once again (the past decade or so) writing big, adventurous, SF. Some really good stuff out there. And back over here, some (like Vernor Vinge) never stopped.

  8. My own thought is that as we (talking U.S. here) abondoned adventerous science, people lost interest.

    There was a point in our history when we had just put a satelitr into orbit. Then we decided that we would go to the moon in a decade. A tall order. People responded to the sense of exploration and adventure.

    Then, we stopped. We abandoned the moon in the early 70’s. Now we have stopped manned space flight altogether. NASA sends robots to other planets, not people. Their main mission now is studying Earth.

    Humans are meant to explore and push boundaries. The danger is part of the adventure. Without such dreams, we do become bored and disillusioned. I think SF is just following the mood of the people where science is concerned.

    Hey, new discoveries in human health are cool and sometimes fascinating, but they cannot match the excitement generated by the prospect of walking on another planet.

    We gave up adventure.


    • That’s also an interesting perspective and I think it makes sense.

    • You’ve only stopped government-run manned spaceflight; SpaceX should be putting humans into space in the next year or two. In fact, I’d suggest that one of the reasons people have grown bored with space is that NASA astronauts used to be cool but of late have been little more than glorified pizza delivery guys to the space station.

      Another big problem is that the more we learn about other planets in the solar system, the more certain we are that there are no bikini-clad space princesses (or loincloth-clad space princes, for those who prefer that) living there. Stories about astronauts flying to barren rocks and thinking how wonderfully barren they look just aren’t as exciting.

      Either way, it’s time I sat down and tidied up some of my unfinished SF novels to upload as e-books.

    • I agree with this. When I was in school, we didn’t hear anything about the space program. And no one cared. It was an aura if disinterest given to science that taught me to be disinterested.

  9. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with SF that explores inner spaces from biology to geopolitics. I don’t really think the field in general has fewer outstanding books–just that some subgenres rise and fall in popularity.

    Of course it has no less crap than ever, too.

  10. Glenn is a huge proponent of technology and pushing boundaries (on Instapundit he always links to transhumanism/space exploration/medical tech stuff even though the thrust of his site is political). I have wondered myself why we don’t have very much SF that predicts technology–or leads it–anymore. I don’t know how much is really market demand or, as a couple people have said above, gatekeeper demand…either because that’s what THEY like as SF or bc dystopian despair leads to awards.

    I think ebooks are going to be the revival of this kind of SF, the same way they have revitalized Westerns.

    I also think that the privatization of space exploration will do a lot to bring back the enthusiasm we used to have for it (culturally) that has been lost.

    That being said, one of the best SF novels I’ve read in terms of technological interest was Tony Ballantine’s Capacity series. It had a lot of nano stuff in it that I found intriguing. But I’m not versed enough in the science to know if that’s true…and perhaps that’s the problem. Science and research is now so narrow and so specific that the scientists themselves don’t perhaps have a good vision of the whole field or its potential, and the big idea people are too busy buying patents than tellign the public about what the tech is going to be able to do. That’s the down side of privately funded for profit research.

    • I agree, Lily, I think e-books and self-publishing will revitalise SF. There is a market out there for optimistic bold and brassy SF, so somebody will fill it.

    • The problem I have with predicting future technology in SF is that even if you’re not a Singularitarian, the future looks set to go incredibly weird in two or three decades; small changes in technology over that period could have massive impacts in the long term.

      In a way, hard SF should be more like fantasy than the Golden Age SF stories of the past. When I read an SF story where humans are flying around in spaceships of the Terran Empire five hundred years from now I just can’t take it at all seriously any more.

      • The Fountain (the movie) is a really good example of the weird. His spaceship looks like a bubble…in a way it looks ridiculous but if you compare horse and buggy to 747 it’s as big a difference to compare current space flight tech to something like that, so why not? Dream big. Maybe someone will find a way to make it happen.

        • Interesting, I’d heard of that movie but haven’t seen it. I’ll see if the library has the DVD.

          • It is one of my all-time favorite movies. I know it got panned in a lot of reviews because it is complex and in some ways ambiguous…I have seen it probably a dozen times and still only have a theory of what exactly happens–it’s very much a project your own interpretation onto the frame kind of story. So be prepared for that. I hope you enjoy it if you can track down a copy to check out!!

  11. Science reporting isnt very good in North America anymore either, so it’s more difficult for the layperson to know what is going on in science. I subscribe to a UK science magazine because the North American ones are so abysmal.

  12. When I was a kid I lived on sci-fi. Well sci-fi the way it was written in the past, happened. But what is sci-fi? Rockets and space stations, E.T., flying saucers? If writers can not imagine beyond today’s science, sci-fi may be yesterday’s fad. Are today’s scientists more imaginative than writers? In other words science is ahead of fantasy writers? I am ready for the challenge, are you?

  13. One problem with SF is that we haven’t finished chewing what they bit off fifty years ago. Despite amazing advances, we still don’t have robots that walk and think for themselves, or a cryogenic process, or near-light capable spacecraft. The newness has worn off, and yet we still haven’t reached them.

    Also, the talent to be a writer and also outpace modern technology is hard to come by. Not to put down those of the past, but understanding the known science of five decades ago is a lot easier than understanding everything we know about computers today. Scientific and technological fields become ever more specialized and ever more out of the ability of most people to understand.

    That, and the only adventures connected with exploring the science of technology these days tend to be video games.

  14. A problem I have with this sort of “we need science fiction about scientific advances!” thinking is nowadays it tends to be paired with sneering at the idea of human exploration of space. The idea now seems to be to send up robots and AI and wait here for the news and then once the robots find a viable place with resources then go start a construction project on the asteroid or planet or whatever. But “boldly going where no man has gone before” seems to be considered silly and dilettantish. We’re supposed to look at the rest of the universe only in terms of the material stuff we can get from it. Live in space on space stations, yeah, cool, but it will be for making money and inventing more faster cooler tech to make more money, which you’ll need of course because your new Singularity-fied body is now almost immortal and you won’t ever be able to retire. And quite frankly, people find that sort of future rather boring.

  15. There must be something in the air about science fiction.

    There has been a big discussion over at Sarah Hoyt’s blog about it, and it’s even started a little movement there for something called ‘Human Wave Science Fiction”. It rejects the gray-goo of so much that is out there, and one of the mottos is “Somebody wins.”

    Go have a read. It was a fun series of posts and comment discussions:






    • Thanks for the links, I haven’t read all the comments yet, but I certainly can’t argue with the thrust of the arguments in the blog posts.

      There is indeed something in the air about science fiction, it is the sound of the shackles falling apart. 🙂

    • The human wavers mean to tell me that science fiction as a whole isn’t fanatically conservative?

      Who are these leftists they speak of, aside from McAuley or Mieville or Harrison?

  16. It looks like my previous response to this thread tripped the moderation switch, probably because of the links, PG. I hope it didn’t get lost. 🙂

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