Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Where's "the Future" for Science Fiction?

We live in the future. Many of the iconic images of science fiction have already been realized, in mobile phones, toy robots, etc. I've heard it asked whether science fiction has anything left to say to kids who text to one another, or use Twitter, or embrace modern technology in its current forms. What's left, they ask, for science fiction writers to write about?

I find this question odd. In a universe that's continually expanding, how can we ask what's left? The possibilities will remain limitless so long as human curiosity itself does not fail - and I don't think it can.

I'll grant the point that many of the things that were once cutting-edge science fiction have now become commonplace. How can we learn what is new now? We can follow science - but as an author who has appeared in Analog, I can't help but notice the advanced degrees in physics and chemistry etc. held by other authors and say to myself, "I'm nowhere near close enough to the cutting edge of science to be able to write a story about that kind of stuff." On some levels one could argue that cutting edge of science has been drawing farther and farther away from the general American public in recent years.

On the other hand, the cutting edge of science is only one small aspect of science fiction.

Science fiction is accommodating. It is not a restrictive genre, but something that can be applied to all different kinds of stories. Science fiction Western. Science fiction thriller. Science fiction romance. Why not? People are creating stories like this even now. Even people who don't want to be called science fiction writers are using science fictional ideas.

So what kind of ideas are out there?

To my mind, ideas are available anywhere that human knowledge is asking to be expanded. Into the areas of technology, yes, and space. But also into the areas of medical science, or even what lies in our own back yard. Even what happens when we speak. Science fiction isn't only about the future, or about technology. Of course it is about those things, because we can see that space ships and robots and nanotech are common enough in science fiction stories. But there's also something else going on.

Science fiction is about human response to the unknown.

Science fiction allows us to share in experiences that are new, that push our knowledge toward the boundaries - of science, of space, sure, but also of what we know about ourselves. A truly new idea is an incredible thrill, one of excitement and also of fear. Readers of science fiction ride that boundary into the unknown, wherever it remains to be found. Yes, that means technology and space - because with enough creativity we can imagine ourselves past any technological limit, and space, after all, is still out there nearly untouched.

But science fiction as the experience of the new is all around us. Under a rock. Hidden in the ground. In the depths of the mind. In the heart of the person you see walking down the street every day but you don't really know.

In my own science fiction, I use linguistics and anthropology - social sciences. It's natural to me to do this because of my academic background in these fields, and also because of my experience of travel to other countries where I've been immersed in different cultures. These sciences, and these opportunities, are full of delicious material for science fiction - but not only that. They seem to me to be appropriately suited for this modern age of world travel and cultural mixing.

An age of linguistic and cultural diversity means your next experience of alien first contact could be with someone right next door. Understanding different ways of thinking requires us to face the unknown every day. This is why I know I'll never run short of inspiration for stories.

It's also why I think science fiction has a long future to look forward to - in more ways than one.


  1. Something that I have been arguing for a while now is that science fiction, like all fiction, is an exploration of human behaviour and, more generally, the question of what it means to be human. Science fiction writers do this in a number of different ways.

    The obvious way is to posit some kind of technological change and see how its implementation changes individuals and social institutions.

    A different way is to show us creatures that are not human (ie: robots or aliens), which then makes the reader reflect on what is human by showing us what is not.

    So, as long as there are human beings who want to read stories that help them better understand who they are, there will always be an audience for science fiction.

  2. Ira Nayman,
    Thanks for your comment! I think you and I agree on this point.

  3. I honestly can't believe there are people out there who think we'll run out of ideas. Wow. I'm not a science expert either, but it has always been something that fascinates me, and I simply use that fascination to fuel my research for stories. And I'm sure regular readers of SF will continue to love the genre wherever it goes next.

  4. That's good to know, as I write science fiction as well. But it's not high tech - it's character reaction and interaction.

  5. Alex, thanks for your comment. I agree that high tech isn't necessary for science fiction. I hope we'll see you stop by again.

  6. The points you make about science fiction are what drew me to SF in the first place. The high tech slant bores me and goes over my head, but stories about people dealing with the unknown--that excites me. I love learning more about people and how they respond. That's what helped me survive my teen years. I was always on the outskirts of activities, but through books, I see into the hearts of people doing things they didn't think possible. A big shot of hope when I needed it.

  7. Thanks, Jaleh. I'm glad it spoke to you. Science fiction is a great thing for a lot of kids; I was one of them too.