ianmcdonald (ianmcdonald) wrote,

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New dreams for old

In his introduction to Paolo Bacigalupi's story The Gambler in Fast Forward 2,Lou Anders quotes from an interview Paolo gave with The Fix. The salient quote is 'I'd like to see the genre return to relevance. I feel like SF has tolls no other genre has, and yet somehow we're wasting the potential. There are a lot of open questions about where we're going and what our future is going to look like, and I don't see a lot of sf tackling those issues. I'd like to see more.
Amen to that, says I, and it started me thinking. It does seem to me that SF is going through a dark night of the soul at the moment. This can only be good --I'm not one to proclaim the coming death of science-fiction 'because everything that can be invented has been invented/sf can't keep up with our wonderful wired world'. Those who argue that understand little about what SF, as a division of fantastic literature is about. Technological projection and future prediction is one of the least of its strengths; at it's best it's a visionary literature. It's all about our hopes and our fears.

And I think the aquifer of hopes and fears that SF has been drawing from so long is running dry. When people -the kind of people to whom, I presume, Paolo wants SF to be relevant, think of SF, they think of Spaaaaaaceship! Fiction. But it's a twentieth century paradigm; a middle twentieth century one at that. We dreamed of exploring the solar system; weekend on the mopon, honeymoon on Mars, exporting versions of the United States abnd Lockian political dream across the galaxy. I think we've realised it's not goping to be like that. You can pay Beardie Branson a fools ransom to be looped up sixty miles in what looks like a sextoy nd pretend you've gone into space, but it's not. It's not space. And in our me me me culture, the question is always 'what has it done for me lately'? (Though contemplating the Ryanair of space tourism is a delicious thought) We've had a cultural shift away from grand schemes of national pride --the Chinese still handle them pretty well, though perhaps it doesn't do to peer too closely. To most people, it's a fading dream.
Spaaaaaceships! are the thing of TV, movies and games. The media has absorbed this so completely and successfuly that to me, there are now two cultures: SciFi and SF. There's still a vast amount of print spaceship-and-aliens material being published --and it sells damn well, it's still perceived as the heart of the genre, the pure quill (I've written some myself, and I love reading it) but I think it's become a nostalgic genre. When I write space-stuff, I like doing it, but it feels like a game. It feels 'literary', playing with words. It doesn't feel relevant. It doesn't connect to what I feel or fear for the future. We've lost that dream. It's entertaining, and that's it.

I envy the cyberpunks, who, for a brief and brilliant moment in the Eighties, produced the most relevant literature on the planet. They understood the growing disillusionment with the 50s hopes and dreams and the approaching millenial angst (OMG! OMG! a new millenium and we don't have any theories for handling it!) and synthesised them brilliantly.

So am I advocating the good old Mundane Manifesto? (or even Jason Stoddard's Skiffy Positivism.) Come on, you know me better than that. I talking about stuff on a more fundamental level than Mundanity's bean-counting and box ticking. Also, if SF is the literature of our hopes and fears, it can't all be cheerful and upbeat. Neither does it have to be glumly downbeat: I'd hate to see British SF return to the dourness of Iron Age SF. It's a vision thing.

I think part of the proble is that we aren't quite sure what the hopes and fears, what the underlying visions of this age are. 911 and the asssociated resurgence of the religious mindset has so overshadowed the opening years of the century that it's hard to look past them to the other big visionary ideas that might shape people's worldviews. The wired world must be there, and artificial intelligence. The Singularity is certainly also in the mix --though at its worst post-singularity SF can descend into sterile solipsistic mumbling that is deeply dehumanising. I'd run up a flag for the Multiverse. When 'in a parallel universe' becomes an everyday expression, it's in there somewhere. Nanotech, perhaps. Mr Bacigalupi firmly makes a stand on environmental issues. Doubtless, that's a player. What others are there? What in Big Ideas, is relevant to us in 2008? Peg that and we've answered the question about how to make science-fiction relevant.
Give me your new dreams, my old ones don't enchant me any more.
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