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The Perils of a S/F Writer


Raymond Coulombe

Often in today's S/F, "the future," is just a handy setting for the story.   They don't have to be S/F stories.  For example, we often get good old fashioned "sea stories," that just happen to move the tale to the fantastic future.  Instead of oceans and exotic ports, we get space and exotic planets.  We've had cowboys in space and futuristic retellings of "The Seven  Samurai."  Then there are  Shakespearian tales set in the future, futuristic detectives and even morality plays where computers and robots replace the devil and demons.  

Nothing wrong with those tales.  Many of them are good entertainment.  However, there's something special at the core of S/F that separates it from other genres.  

Science Fiction, from the early days to the present, has always had to carry the burden of being a predictive form of literature.  The S/F writer is supposed to have the ability to envision the future.  Perhaps the writer imagines something that is not exactly our "real" future, but one that might or could be.  Predictions range from "look how wonderful and exciting things will be," to "oh my god look how bad things could turn out."  Often stories carry both themes, the "good future" becoming the "bad future," or visa versa.  There's plenty of room for  exciting story telling.

I came of age reading "Hard Science Fiction."  Sure, it was set in the future, but a future that was firmly rooted in today's science.  Stories dealt with things like the limits of light speed -no whizzbang warp drive.  Planets are seperated,not just by distance, but by time itself.  If the story contained some special fantastic physics, some effort was made to fit it into known physics.  A S/F writer would take the far reaches of some scientific field and extend it with his imagination.  At times a writer would launch a story from a scientific area still in deep debate -if the science was still wide open, there was room to fit in his bit of speculation.  A lot of S/F was actually written by scientists.

Some of those stories stand the test of time.  Many of them really were predictive -hence S/F's prognostic reputation.  The danger of hard S/F is that the scientific basis for one's story could be definitively proven false.  It's easy to find stories where space ship electronics depend on vacuum tubes and computers are both rare and huge.  The best writers write stories that are good reads in spite of any technological shortcomings.  

Recently, I read Heinlein's "The Door into Summer," perhaps not one of his better known works.  It was published in 1957.  There's a number of predictive misses that really stick out.  By now we were supposed to have handy household robots, not just underpowered vacuum cleaners, but robots capable of changing a baby's diaper.  Wouldn't those be handy!  By now cryogenic suspension of humans would not only be possible but widespread and commercialized.  Back when the book was written, those predictions didn't seem unreasonable.  

That's bad enough, but what really stood out was what Heinlein's prognostication missed.  His main character, a genius inventor, was working on something really amazing, something that we today would recognized as CAD:  Computer Aided Design.  His wonder system looked pretty clunky to what we actually have.  

Prediction errors of the technological nuts and bolts of the future are one thing.  What also stood out for me was how the way we handle information has changed.  Heinlein's hero spent weeks and months trying to get information that could be gathered in an afternoon using Google or any other good search engine.  The poor guy had to burn shoe leather, knock on doors, and make phone calls -with a common land line.   Our extensive, cheap and easy access to vast amounts of information wasn't even imagined.  

That's the point, really.  Sometimes stunning developments that happen in real life are difficult to envision.  For something like search engines to work, there's a big basket of things that have to mesh together.  It's not just the hardware -cheap computers, fiber optic cable, digital cameras, and so on; it's the "soft" stuff that has to be predicted.  I don't just mean software, even though that's a big part of it.  It's things like privacy laws, copyright laws, and cultural shifts.  A visitor from the past would be confused by what has happened to one's sense of privacy.  People willingly post to social networking sites things that people in an earlier age would pay money to keep quiet.       

It's tough being a S/F writer.  It's easy to make a future that is quickly overrun by the present.   There's too much going on in too many fields.  I'm well read.  I try to at least keep up with what's going on in a vast variety of fields.  It's impossible.  Who can tell what will really be important?   Still, it's good to at least know the current scientific state of things.  Nothing worse than getting basic facts wrong.  We can't just focus on the physical sciences.  Cultural evolution can be much quicker than any other kind of change.

What's a writer to do?  Learn everything about science and still somehow develop the craft of writing?  Tough to do.   Make sure you know the basics, at least.  Bone up on what's needed for your story.  Do your research.  Still, there are limits.  Read some old "hard S/F" and see how our future has actually developed.  If you are lucky, even though the story contains technical howlers of inaccuracy -the story still draws you in.  Maybe it's the best that today's crop of writers can hope for.  It's all any writer could ever hope for.

2009-07-17 15:03:58
Thank you for remembering us that it's not just about science: cultural shift is as important or more, including language shifts, new perceptions, and values. There is so much exciting s. f. to write, it's mindfucking...

2009-07-03 12:44:09
Excellent advise. I can see teaching in the future. ;)

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