Sunday, 13 June 2010

On the New New Forum, Andrew Burt raises the question of why the future seems so much less exciting to so many people than it used to. Here are some thoughts in response.

In Schroedinger's Cat Trilogy, Robert Anton Wilson invents and explores the consequences of two alternative social revolutions: "The Revolution of Rising Expectations" in which the general desire of humanity for a better quality of life is answered by the use of technology and automation leading to a cybernetic Nirvana and on towards the stars, and "The Revolution of Lowered Expectation" in which the "old, crafty alpha males" who have dominated society for so long systematically drive the rest of the species back into latter day serfdom.

It seems to me that variant forms of these revolutions are in play today and are fighting it out to determine the shape of the future. And one result is that the future seems more confused, uncertain and fearful than it used to be.

In his marvelous "Europe: A History" Norman Davis refers to the late Middle Ages as a period of "prolonged crisis for which contemporaries had no solution." It is a description that could be applied to our own times. Global warming, over-population, mass extinction, resource depletion, war: there are so many challenges for which science seems incapable of providing answers, not least because they arise out of the interaction of (largely unaltered) human natures with the world that scientific progress has created.

Post-Second World War, Science and Science Fiction both promised us wonders. Having seen the worst that the world could be and having come through a war which had been won by (amongst other things) a combination of liberalism, technology and industrialization, the notion that tomorrow could be better than today was one that people both wanted and needed to believe in.

But the delivery of those promises turned out to be much, much harder than either Science Fiction writers or the scientists anticipated. I am in my forties. I remember watching a documentary back in 1983 or 84 about the Japanese project to build a Fifth Generation Computer which, in the space of ten years, would deliver a machine that could communicate in natural languages and engage in something analogous thought. I remember watching an episode of "Mission Impossible" in which a chess playing computer (complete with flashing buttons a reel-to-reel tape deck) betrayed its true nature by being better than the world's greatest human player. I remember watching "2001 A Space Odyssey" in the assembly hall at school and watching the Pan Am shuttle craft carrying passengers to a giant space station.

All of which is just to say that SF writers turn out to be every bit as ignorant about how "the future" is going to work is, and that treating SF as prediction is about as intelligent as treating "Animal Farm" as a description of agricultural innovation.

In many ways, our world far more remarkable than the one which writers like Asimov were envisaging during SF's "Golden Age". The combined processing power of the world's mobile phones surely outweighs that of "Multivac" by many tens of millions. But Robbie and HAL seem further from us now than when Arthur and Issac were inventing them.

And as the shuttle program closes down for lack of funds we are forcibly reminded of Douglas Adams's dictum that, "Space is big. Really big;" that serious space travel is far harder than we had expected; and that reaching even the nearer planets may be a task for our grand children rather than ourselves.

In terms of opportunity, the world seems shrunk from what it was. The sense of the universe as a a place of expanding vistas (a vision which runs through Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and surely helps to explain the enduring appeal of a series as otherwise inept and pointless as "Star Trek") is one it is increasingly hard to believe in. (This may explain the relentless march of Fantasy as a commercial genre. Fantasy provides marvels we are still allowed to enjoy because we don't have to believe that they might, in some sense, be "true".)

We live in an age of miracles, and the sheer ubiquity of technological wonders render them commonplace. The first steam train, balloon or iron ship was surely a cause of more astonishment than is the latest iPad, although in almost any way you care to think about it the iPad is far more complex and surprising. The more remarkable the technology is in theory, the more banal it seems in practice. Looking at the word, from the abandoned skyscrapers of Dubai to the oil-stained beaches of Louisiana, it is hard not to feel that if we are living in an SF Future then it is the future of J G Ballard and not of Robert Heinlein.

Despite all this, I remain cautiously optimistic, both about humanity and about SF. The "long crisis" of the Middle Ages eventually flowered into the glory of the Renaissance. Innovation and development may be a process of replacing one old problem with five new ones, but progress still occurs and the world does change for the better.

SF and science alike will continue to trade in "Big Ideas" but the sense of what a big idea is has changed and will continue to change. It's not just about warp drives and the Three Laws of Robotics. Economics, cybernetics, cosmology, genetics, information theory, astrophysics and dozens of other equally interesting topics continue to provide fuel for both research and fictionalizing.

There are still a multiplicity of wonders out there and writers like Egan, Stross, Brin, Bear (to name just the first ones who happen to come to mind) continue to explore them to huge effect. Life today may well be difficult, dangerous, confusing and uncertain. But there was scarcely ever a time when it was anything else. But there was rarely, if ever, a time when it had more potential for wonder.

Friday, 30 January 2009

SF Awards: Long Views Or Short

I came across a recent post by Adam Roberts, arguing that SF Awards Are Rubbish. Roberts arguing boils down to two main points. First, by the time a jury has finished wading through one hundred books in a fortnight or whatever it takes to work through the short list their critical faculties ares so shot that they are incapable of telling Jackie Collins from Julian Barnes. This does not sound implausible on the face of it. His second argument, I feel, is more contentious.

Roberts argues that such lists are no good because they are constructed without the benefit of historical hindsight.

"Take those fans and awards-panellists of the 1960s and 1970s who really really thought that the crucial figures of the genre were the often-garlanded Spider Robinson or Mack Reynolds rather than the rarely noticed Philip K Dick. [...]. In the 1980s we went crazy for Julian May and John Varley and Vonda Mcintyre; but the truly significant figures from that decade turned out to be Alan Moore and Octavia Butler and William Gibson [...] We should, at a pinch, be compiling a best of 1998; or (better) a best-of 1988"

Leaving aside the fact that Gibson's Neuromancer picked up the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Dick, suggesting that the award process can get it right at least some of the time, I take issue with the notion that the long view is necessarily any better than the short one.

For fifty years after his death in 1750 J S Bach was regarded as old-fashioned, difficult, better as a performer than a composer. The Nineteenth Century was well advanced before his reputation had reached the preeminent position it enjoys today. Shakespeare's reputation, I believe, underwent simialr transformations in the centuries after his death. Are assessments of a work made two hundred years after a work's first publication inherently any "better" than those made twenty years? Does the question even have any meaning?

Aesthetic or cultural judgments made at a given moment are always a combination of the merits of the thing being judged and the mood and values prevalent at the time. Unless we seriously want to argue that our collective judgment will be better in twenty years time than it is today then there is very little merit in not making some kind of assessment in the heat of immediate experience.

Sure, from time to time a bad or undeserving may get more recognition than it merits and some more deserving writer may lose out as a consequence. But that seems like a reasonable price to pay for the way that the awards and their associated lists serve as markers for what is good and original and new in the genre. Years ago now, I picked up a copy of Neuromancer in W H Smiths. I had never heard of Gibson or the novel, but the fact that it had won those three awards was plastered over the cover and that persuaded me to part with my £2.95 (God, those were the days.) Years later, in a different Smiths, I spotted a copy of Perdito Street Station and brought it (in part) because it had won the Clarke. Probably I would have discovered Gibson and Mieville eventually, but the awards got me there faster. That seems like a good thing.

If the passing of years even suggests that the books were not that great, that judgment which was passed upon them was naïve, flaky or just plan wrong then does it matter all that much? Those stories which endure and resonate down the years will have their own reward bestowed on them by that very longevity. What this year's awards provide is a sense of what is important now, that these are the things which capture the heart or resonate in the soul of readers now. That seems to me to be at least as worthy of reward and recognition as the (still capricious, still contentious) evaluation of "what mattered" twenty years after the event.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008


This is a blog about writing. Other things may intrude from time to time if something occurs to me which feels interesting enough to discuss, but mainly it is supposed to be about writing. More specifically, it's about trying to write a science fiction novel when you have only a very limited idea of how you are meant to do it.

There are a great many blogs on the web written by successful, published authors, describing the experience of writing. Many of them are very good and very interesting. This is a blog from the point of view of someone who is still learning how to write. I hope it may still turn out to be interesting.

One of the things I find about much of the "how to write" advice given by published authors is that they seem to have forgotten how difficult writing is. I, on the other hand, am well aware of how difficult it is because I am still struggling to overcome the difficulties. This blog will be a record of problems and also, if I am lucky, one or two solutions.

For what it's worth, I am not a complete novice as a writer. I have made short fiction sales to professional and semi-professional markets. I have some kind of clue about what I am doing. But as I have discovered, writing a full-length novel is several orders of magnitude more difficult that writing a short story, or even a novella.

One last note about this blog. I read a little while ago a quote to the effect that people who have finally realized that they lack what it takes to be a writer but are not ready to admit it just yet take up writing about writing instead. Since I would prefer this not to happen to me, I plan to only update this blog once my writing quota for the day is achieved and once my regular day job has had the hours I owe it. This may well mean that things go quiet for long periods of time.