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Science Fiction: Future Past

Be sure to have a look at New Scientist‘s special coverage of science fiction, from which this (in an article by Marcus Chown):

“As well as a mere storytelling device, science fiction often articulates our present-day concerns and anxieties – paradoxically, it is often about the here and now rather than the future. As Stephen Baxter points out…, H. G. Wells’s ground-breaking 1895 novella The Time Machine – famous for popularising the idea of time travel – was more concerned with where Darwinian natural selection was taking the human race than with the actual nuts and bolts of time travel. In the 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner imagined the dire consequences of overpopulation. Arthur C. Clarke’s The Lion of Comarre explored the terrible allure of computer-generated artificial realities, which – god forbid – people might actually choose over the far-from-seductive messiness of the real world.

All of these books are about imagining where present-day, often worrying, scientific and technological trends might be leading us. They can act as a warning or, at the bare minimum, cushion us from what American writer Alvin Toffler so memorably described as ‘future shock.'”

Chown’s point is well taken. I’ve long believed that science fiction is less predictive than diagnostic, telling us more about the era in which it is written than about the future. Better to say that science fiction is the way we, in our own particular times and places, work out possible futures given the scenario we see before us. Can a truly ‘futuristic’ science fiction — one that makes no reference to its own provenance, but tries to depict the future while remaining free of the political and sociological baggage of the time from which it emerged — even be written? If so, how?

Addendum: In my view, the writer who came closest to the ‘futuristic’ goal outlined above was Paul Linebarger, who wrote under the name Cordwainer Smith. More on this remarkable man here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mark Wakely November 15, 2008, 11:51

    Interesting article.

    I have to agree that science fiction tends to be less a crystal ball and more a shot fired over the bow in warning over the direction certain technologies are leading us. But the best stories (IMHO) focus on how humans- with their petty jealousies, lofty ideals, grudges, courage, etc.- would behave in some imaginary time and place. Oddly enough, the old space operas were concerned more about the human condition than actual science, so perhaps those writers understood better than most that people will behave just as well (and just as badly) no matter what technology surrounds them. In that regard, those writers were the most predictive of all the “golden age” writers. Unless some future technology comes along that drastically alters what it means to be human, people will continue to act like people. In the future, they’ll just have better tools to help them achieve their goals both noble and ignoble.

  • kurt9 November 15, 2008, 21:29

    “I’ve long believed that science fiction is less predictive than diagnostic, telling us more about the era in which it is written than about the future.”

    Having just read the classic Clarke “Earthlight” (published in 1955), I certainly agree with this statement. The classic Clarke stories essential project a 50’s and 60’s social scene into the future. Some of the late 70’s and 80’s SF featured O’neill space colonies, based on the L-5 Society from its late 70’s heyday.

    In the 80’s, I read lots of cyberpunk as well as “libertarian” SF (Verner Vinge’s “Across Realtime being an example of the latter) which also typified 80’s social culture.

    Then, there is Peter Hamilton’s “Commonwealth”, which is essentially today’s society with life extension and wormhole travel. Finally, Reynold’s “Revelation Space” series, which is basic good “transhumanist” space opera.

    Reading classic SF makes me think more of the time when they were written in than of the “future time” scenario that they were about.

  • David November 16, 2008, 0:51

    How can one forget the most famous and often tranparent of our time Star Trek -from the Vietnam War to Microsoft!
    I actually had the pleasure of Discussing that role with Ed Begley who played it on Voyager. I also noted how the 1990s on Voyager is different from the one in which a major war occured.
    I must add that regraless I just saw the trailer for next years Movie and it sure looks spectacular….Earth looks rather roughed up wonder waht they do to history here…
    Also Star Trek has a development like warp drive occur after civilixation wide disasters -While I could see the need to use all out technolgy to prevent one like obla warming or asteroid hit I cant see going back from STonae age to Warp Drive!

  • Adam November 16, 2008, 3:06

    There’s classic SF and there’s Classic SF. I’ve read a lot of old SF from the 1930s – by Campbell, Doc Smith and so on. Usually the characters and future societies were mere sketches, while the true story was about the ideas and machines that created the New World. Some absolute classics with an alien feel were written then – Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” and Campbell’s “Twilight” – still stand out as how to portray the indescribable. And Doc Smith made Space Opera as Cosmic-Conflict his own trope, with a clash of billion year old civilizations, Arisia and Eddore. All hopelessly dated by their technobabble, but still fun and mind-stretching.

  • kurt9 November 16, 2008, 14:10

    Actually, I prefer what is called “social” SF. This is SF that is mainly about the personal and social effects of a technology than the technology itself. Heinlein, of course, is the first “social” SF writers. Others include Jim Hogan, Greg Bear, and most of the U.K. writers such as Peter Hamilton. This kind of fiction is much more interesting than stories about the technology itself (like Arthur Clarke).

    For some reason, I feel that I should have Mozart playing in the background whenever I read an old Clarke story.

  • Athena November 16, 2008, 21:52

    There is no doubt that sf is diagnostic rather than predictive. I share your liking for Cordwainer Smith. To describe something we cannot understand, something truly alien (whether cosmic strings or insectoid sapients), we need to create new language, just as stream of consciousness narrative entered mainstream literature in the twenties with Woolf et al. As I said in my essay, The Double Helix, beyond its function as social weather vane, good science fiction plays another invaluable role: it attracts and tutors future scientists.

  • ljk November 16, 2008, 22:24

    A very interesting Web site related to this thread is Paleo-Future,
    which looks at how we used to view the future:


    I know I certainly expected a number of things by the Year 2000
    that have yet to happen. Space colonies, flying cars, robots that
    do more than just vacuum the floor – the usual.

    Stanislaw Lem, author of Solaris, had a less than positive view of
    most science fiction. He felt most of it was space opera that
    did not utilize the full potential of the medium. We certainly see
    enough of that in most SF television series.

    In addition to Solaris, see also his less well known but even deeper
    novel from 1968, His Master’s Voice. This is anything but your
    typical First Contact story.

    I do like SF that plays out new ideas and technologies, but not at
    the expense of good characters, to say nothing of good writing.
    Sadly I have put away many an SF novel that had characters that
    were either two-dimensional or so unpleasant I did not care to
    know anything about them.

    I have also noticed a lot of SF novels these days feel the need to
    go on for hundreds and hundreds of pages, when many older SF
    works said what needed to be said within 200 pages or less.

    Of course in a way we are living in the future. It’s funny to see
    technologies on recent mainstream films that would have made
    them SF even a decade ago. But darnit, I still want my flying
    car, personal robot, and vacation on the Moon.

  • Adam November 17, 2008, 1:26

    Lem is one of the few modern(ish) writers who tried very hard to tackle the truly alien – “Fiasco” being the most involving CETI story I’ve ever read. His scepticism of SETI optimism and technofixes seems symptomatic of being Polish and living in the shadow of the old USSR’s SF, which was full of technological triumphalism and dreary predictions that the aliens would all be good Marxists.

    As for social SF I think Ursula LeGuin does very well at describing the “alien” even when all her “aliens” are humans derived from the Hainish.

  • James M. Essig November 17, 2008, 2:28

    Hi Folks;

    I remember when I was in 7th grade, that would be back in the 1974/1975 school year when one of my female classmates who I happened to like made some comment to the effect that she wished she was as smart as a computer.

    As I thought about this comment, I began to think, Man!, I hope I can have my own computer one day but I had better become rich inorder to afford the several million dollar price tag of a machine. I would have never had guessed that between my brother John and my Mother, the three of us who live together, would have 2 operational PCs each with 2GHz range chip speed, and another 3 computers laying about the house with a now antiquated chip speed of about 1 GHz. The computer that I am typing this posting on might be donatable at best to a charitable organization. Computers onsale that are much more capable than my machine have towers as cheap as $300.00.

    The point is that sometimes, what becomes reality is largely missed by science fiction and the former reality is sometimes better than science fiction.

    Some other science fiction, at least insofar as it would have been viewed as such during the 60s and 70s are reports in fairly mainstream publications as of as late as 2004 that the U.S. Airforce was working on methods to more efficiently produce, store, and utilize antimatter before a news media block was instituted on further coverage of this work. While I do not posess a security clearance, I do not think to much has come of this work as of yet, but when I last read or heard of the concept of such research, my thought was something like, “Antimatter?, For God’s sake!, This is beginning to sound like Star Trek!”

    These are very interesting times indeed wherein some science fiction that we had hoped would have come true by now but has not yet, such as the Apollo Era dreamed of Manned Mars mission by the mid 1980s, some of the science fiction that we thought might not occur until the 23rd/24th century of Star Trek but which might be occuring now, although in a much more crude manner, within specialy dedicated D.O.E. accelerator facilities, and some of what would be considered science fiction 40 years ago but was largely unforeseen by sci-fi writers and futurologists (to use a term popular in the early 1970s) such as the wide spread internet, multi GHz PCs with dual or multiple processers, cell phones that can take and transmit pictures, text message, log onto the internet, etc.

    When you think about the capability of our global telecommunications industry and realize that the concept of a video phone could be considered too far out to be practical back in the early 70s, it seems really freaky.



  • Adam November 19, 2008, 16:27

    Hi James

    Another unexpected future-now development would be the rapidly expanding ability to sequence genomes, which is yielding an avalanche of data. Since mutation was discovered in the early 1900s genetic engineering has been an SF staple. I suppose genetic engineering stories might merely gain another layer of verisimilitude, but I can’t but help think that more surprises will emerge from our increasingly adept decoding of genomes – things unimagined by SF writers merely using “genetic engineering gone wrong” tropes.