Six Writers Speculate on Science Fiction's Future

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Astronomer Marcus Chown wonders if science fiction is dying. With technology and scientific discovery advancing so quickly, it's unclear what will become of a genre based largely on predicting the future. Charles Stross has gone so far as to say that it’s no longer possible to write near-future science fiction. Six other science fiction writers, including William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kim Stanley Robinson, join him in the latest issue of New Scientist to weigh in how science fiction needs to change.This week New Scientist comes out with its science fiction issue, and Chown, who consults for the magazine, launches the discussion on where science fiction is headed. His question, whether science fiction is a dying genre, comes from individuals who suspect that science will leave science fiction with nothing to explore, a belief Chown does not share:

Such claims seem reminiscent of the perennial claims that science is dead or dying, most famously expounded by the prominent physicist Lord Kelvin in 1900, when he declared: "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." This, of course, was just before the atom came apart, the quantum genie burst free and all scientific hell broke loose. In the case of science fiction, the premise of the doomsayers' claims is that the genre is about predicting the future. In fact, very little of it is.


Chown ultimately concludes that science fiction as we know it may change, but it will be an evolution rather than a distinction. And cyberpunk author William Gibson seems inclined to agree, noting that science fiction’s value has less to do with accuracy than on speculation, which casts a reflection on our society even as it imagines another time:

If I could magically access one body of knowledge from the real future, I think I'd choose either their history of the ancient past or whatever they might have that most resembles science fiction. The products of two different speculative activities. They'll know a lot more about our past than we do, and trying to reverse-engineer history out of dreams, as I recall, was quite a uniquely exciting activity.


Ursula K. Le Guin also emphasizes speculation over prediction, suggesting that recent science fiction has more successful when it puts less emphasis on the “science”:

Science fiction that pretended to show us the future couldn't keep up with the present. It failed to foresee the electronic revolution, for example. Now that science and technology move ever faster, much science fiction is really fantasy in a space suit: wishful thinking about galactic empires and cybersex - often a bit reactionary. Things are livelier over on the social and political side, where human nature, which doesn't revise itself every few years, can be relied on to provide good solid novel stuff. Writers like Geoff Ryman and China Miéville are showing the way, or Michael Chabon, who foregoes the future to give us a marvellous alternate present in The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Kim Stanley Robinson suggests a wholly different approach, however. He suggests science fiction writers return to form by setting their stories in a more distant future:

One solution is to jump past the next century to the familiar comforts of space fiction. If we survive we'll get out there, and it's a great story zone. Without the next century included, though, the imagined historical connection between now and then will be broken, and space fiction will become a kind of fantasy. We need to imagine the whole thing. So we have to do the impossible and imagine the next century. The default probability is bad - not just dystopia but catastrophe, a mass extinction event that we will have caused and then suffered ourselves. That's a story we should tell, repeatedly, but it's only half the probability zone. It is also within our powers to create a sustainable permaculture in a healthy biosphere.


The issue also features meta-science fictional predictions from Margaret Atwood, Stephen Baxter, and Nick Sagan. The Science Fiction Issue [via New Scientist]

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Anekanta - spoon denier

I remember seeing a talk by Robert Sawyer [] about the nature of science fiction.

Not only does he slam George Lucas for watering down the genre (by dismissing it as pure escapism), Sawyer goes on to say that good SF is about issues more than technology.

He compares the work of Jules Verne with that of H.G. Wells. Verne's work was was basically adventure stories designed to showcase very detailed explanations of science and technology. H.G. Wells' stories were more social commentaries with fantastic technology as a backdrop or plot device.

Verne often criticized Wells as not being scientific enough in his work. But Sawyer notes that over a hundred years later, far more people read H.G. Wells than Jules Verne—because, as Usula LeGuin said above, it's the human relationships that are most important to a good story. Those relationships may be altered by science & technology, but the science itself is less important than the people dealing with it.

As long as there are human beings concerned with progress and social change, there will be SF in one form or another.