Where Has All the Science Fiction Gone?

I like to say I’m a speculative fiction writer. Speculative fiction and all its branches are distinct from literary fiction, there’s something there that holds my interest and that of many others, as evidenced by the fact that it’s the only kind of fiction the Internet seems to consider worth stealing. To me, speculative fiction is the literature, not of ideas, but of questions. Science fiction asks, “what could happen?” Alternate history asks, “what if it had happened differently?” Fantasy asks, “What if it was all simply different?” Horror demands to know “what are you afraid of?” And speculative fiction itself, both including the others and standing alone, asks “what if…?” in all its Goldberg variations.

So, in this model, science fiction is the literature of asking what could happen. There’s two strains of SF, that have danced and interwoven over the years but which remain nevertheless distinct. I call them the Welles and Verne strains. Jules Verne gave science fiction “gee whiz!” and Welles gave it “caveat chrononator”. Verne’s heroes are scientists and explorers, discovering and delighting in the laws of science and the grandeur of the natural world. He was less interested in the Nautilus than in what you could see out its porthole, and Around the World in Eighty Days revolves entirely around a little-known fact of the International Date Line. “What if!” Verne cries, giddy as a schoolboy, amazed at the possibilities that could unfold.

Welles, on the other hand, was of a soberer disposition. He envisioned London crushed beneath unknowable (almost Lovecraftian) alien technology, finally turned back not by a plucky group of misfits in a last-ditch effort, but by a natural pest, the common cold. He used his marvelous machine (time, in this case, not sea) not to show us the wonders outside the viewport, but to warn us of the future that could come into existence. His traveler is confronted with the end of humanity, and the end of Earth, and gives us no answers to the questions raised. “What if,” Welles asks, hushed, almost afraid of the answer.

From the Welles-spring came Brave New World, 1984, Threads, Blade Runner, The Stars My Destination, The Iron Heel, and all the other works of SF that extrapolate a trend and in grave tones warns us from supposed destruction. From Verne comes Asimov’s Robots, Diamond Age, Little Brother, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Star Trek, and all science fiction that promises a brighter, better future (even if it still has a few warts, old or new).

I chose these examples because, at the time they were written, these futures were considered plausible, or at least plausible enough to be worth talking about. The Soviet Union politely imploded, and Threads is now a nearly-forgotten collective nightmare vision of 1980s nuclear paranoia. 1984 came and went without Big Brother, and 2001 without a Jupiter mission. But in 1982, Threads was a horrifically near possibility. In 1948, Orwell saw it as entirely possible that Western liberal-capitalism, Soviet socialism, and Asian authoritarianism would become indistinguishable. And in the heady Apollo days of the 1960s, a Hilton in orbit and a mission to Jupiter were all but assured.

They were focused on what could be. Steampunk, to take one example, has incredible artistic merit. The original literary impetus was to put technology’s effects on society (such as the widespread use of information technology) in sharp relief by putting it in a radically different society (such as Victorian Britain). But it’s not science fiction. It’s not ‘what could be.’ It’s more akin to fantasy, as it’s about what never was. All cyberpunk’s daughters seem to be tending in the same direction, showing us futures we’ve left behind.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen a spike in this kind of retrofuturism. Not just steampunk, deiselpunk, et al., but the success of SpaceWesterns.com and its Bat Durstons, the future noirs (especially in film for some reason), and the increased interest in rocket-laden, sliderule-using, chainsmoking “raygun gothic.” Great stuff, all of it (Sturgeon’s Law aside), but not science fiction.

Where has all the science fiction gone? Of science fantasy, we’ve got plenty, and in so many flavors…from Star Wars to steampunk, visions of times which never were and could not be. But of science fiction, the literature and mythology of what could be, it all seems increasingly to tend toward two extremes: the horrific (embodied by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) and the unthinkable (anything Vernor Vinge has ever written). Either the Apocalypse comes, or the Singularity does. There seems to be less and less out there, and less and less interest every year, in the strain of science fiction that takes an idea (usually out of the headlines) and runs with it, thinks it out, sees where it goes. To me, that is science fiction, whether the question is robots, augmented reality, ecology, or, ahem, meditation. There are, of course, exceptions (movies like Gattaca and Inception, novels like Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Gilded Age: China 2013 and Anathem, stories like the intensely creepy “Baby Doll”) but this seems to be the way the pattern is tending.

Anyone care to prove me wrong? I could be easily suffering from selection bias, though, as always.

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Postscript: I say this, of course, as a futurist chronically stuck in the past. I’ve been told that all my speculative fiction has an old-fashioned tang to it, even when I specifically try to avoid it. This could be because I tend to stick pretty strongly to the three-act structure when most of what I read is more experimental. It could be because I grew up reading Foundation, Dune, Fahrenheit 451, Dangerous Visions, and “Why I Left Harry’s All Night Hamburgers,” not “Baby Doll,” Snow Crash, A Fire Upon the Deep, and Accelerando. Or it could be because I still tend to write stories from the question of what could happen. My upcoming Kickstarter-distributed story “Sweat and White Cotton” is about “I know kung fu” mind-machine interfaces and how they change the martial arts. I have one I’m working on right now, “Simplified,” about a future China so zealously dedicated to doing business and being modern that they’ve dispensed with tea, Chinese food, and the Chinese written language. I find it horribly plausible.

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About R. Jean Mathieu

They say he speaks five languages, was conceived on a chess board, and once seduced a tong boss' daughter and lived to tell the tale. All we know is, he's called Roscoe. You can find more scurrilous lies at rjeanmathieu.com and buy his books at fedoraarts.com. View all posts by R. Jean Mathieu

2 responses to “Where Has All the Science Fiction Gone?

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