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New dreams for old [Oct. 12th, 2008|11:25 am]
ianmcdonald
[music |Bruckner 3]

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.
linkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: gray_ghost
2008-10-12 11:56 am (UTC)
Big ideas for 2008...how about the death of capitalism and what comes after? Because I have no idea at the present. Although I hope it doesn't involve me living like the Amish on a socialist collective in Montana raising chickens =) Or anything even closely resembling a Jack Womack novel (though I strongly suspect his novels might prove to be very prescient).



And I always thought of Terminal Cafe as a cyberpunk novel. I placed it in the same bin as Dr. Adder and Synners.

Edited at 2008-10-12 11:58 am (UTC)

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[User Picture]From: shatterstripes
2008-10-13 03:22 pm (UTC)
Man, I just started reading Terminal Cafe the other day and now I'm not sure I want to go any further -I'm just not in the mood to go the kind of places Dr. Adder goes! (Though the hints of the slave economy on the backs of the resurrected dead is also reminding me of Jeter's Noir, which is either an even bigger joke than Dr. Adder, or an even deeper draught from the same well of poison...)
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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2008-10-13 04:07 pm (UTC)
I'm a bit ambivalent about Terminal Caff (Or Necroville in its UK version, which is a better title) --though I don't hate it as deeply as Out on Blue Six.
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[User Picture]From: shatterstripes
2008-10-13 05:11 pm (UTC)
I had a good time reading OOBS when it came out, but when I went back to it a few years ago I could see some of the raw spots. I can only begin to imagine how many more you can see in it, including the stuff you wanted to get in and couldn't. I do have to admit a soft spot for any book that has a cartoonist as one of its viewpoint characters.

Necroville is interesting so far, but I dunno if I'm in the mood to go where the character introductions look to be taking me. If it's as focused on death as the first chapter seems to be I think I'll save it for when I'm in that place where I want to seriously Think About Death.
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[User Picture]From: gray_ghost
2008-10-13 07:31 pm (UTC)
Oh you should. Terminal Cafe is one of my all time favorite books. It's not as dark as Dr. Adder or other stuff by Jeter.
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[User Picture]From: frumiousb
2008-10-12 12:14 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I used to argue that horror (particularly films) were driven by current societal anxieties plus the writers/filmmakers filtering same anxieties through the the history of the form. I never thought about that as it applies to SF, but I can see how it could work in the same way.

I guess that at the moment, we can expect a whole bunch of dystopia. The multiverse idea is interesting, because we can maybe see a shift coming towards more niche economies. I'd actually like to see the Singularity more humanized-- worked out by some modern-day Clifford D. Simak or Zenna Henderson who are more interested in the people caught up in the change then they are in the spiffy bright ideas behind a post-Singularity world.
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From: ex_triciasu
2008-10-12 01:09 pm (UTC)
I don't know about the future, but here's one thing for your pleasure. In the last few years I've been watching a lot of children's entertainment. Turn on your Saturday morning cartoons and you will find that they are a playground of everything SFnal, from virtual reality, spaceships, mind plagues, social criticism, gender-bending, multiple personalities, time travel--you name it--all in a blithely tongue-in-cheek, postmodern context that is, to me, utterly refreshing.

SF tropes and have penetrated deeply into the culture, and are being played with vividly in areas reserved for children, and they work there. No explanation seems to be required, either--no infodumps. Actually, cartoons, including kids' movies, are more creative than much of what I've read in books or stories. Much of the intelligence is visual, though.

What I am trying to learn from this is not to take my SF too seriously, because today's fresh idea is tomorrow's trope--and that's OK.

The question of where new concepts come from--that, I think, is the question you're asking. I'm trying to think of SF as a literature where you can do what the fuck you like. I think SF has become heavily associated with computers, and personally I'm kind of sick of computers, full stop. As a reader, I'd like to see something that isn't about computers OR space but is still SF.

And I'm aware of this issue you're bringing up as a kind of hole in things, a saggy space in the field--but it seems to me that the best SF has got to come from a burning need to express the inexpressible. That's the fiction that creates genres, rather than following them.
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[User Picture]From: shatterstripes
2008-10-12 01:41 pm (UTC)
I was sort of pondering some stuff related to this. Not so much the irrelevance of sci-fi, as the way an entire generation is vaguely acquainted with it. Video games are in everyone's hands, and so many video games use SF concepts - some well, some poorly. Consider Megaman We have adults who are nostalgic over a series of video games about a robot who hunts other robots, and is occasionally full of angst about that.

I am also wondering what the popularization of Lovecraft says about our dreams: we've taken these stories about being tiny and insignificant, beset by vast uncaring alien powers, and turned them into a running joke. As a culture there's a nightmare we're struggling to tame by turning Cthulhu into a plush toy you might give your kids.

I must be getting old; all I can really think about is modern nightmares. Right now 'a President who isn't a blithering idiot' is about the most hopeful dream I have for the future. Well, I just woke up; I might be able to dream further once I've had some sunshine.

Having your dreams shrink may be the worst part of getting older. I find myself thinking of my favorite modern fantasy writers, Powers and Blaylock: their early books were wild and far-ranging, while their more recent books are largely set in the parts of Southern California they call home.

I almost feel like the wired world is too damn close to write SF about. The net isn't the toy of techie nerds any more; everyone is on it and they've brought their culture with them. Look at the reality of Second Life as contrasted to the dream of the 'Metaverse' they've borrowed from Stephenson; look at Facebook. Nobody envisioned this sort of constant sharing and contact because, really, the folks who write and consume SF are not very social. What might it turn into? Does anyone dare poke at that, knowing that their fantasies will be rendered obsolete by publication time?

It's hard for me to look to the future when I keep worrying that Heinlein's Revolt in 2010 is the most prescient work SF has ever tossed out. And yet I've had dreams of things like sentient black holes in worlds of endless absurdist plenty.
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[User Picture]From: rfmcdpei
2008-10-13 03:22 am (UTC)
William Gibson's Sprawl novels of the 1980s were set in the late 21st century while his most recent books are contemporary. We've caught up.
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[User Picture]From: rfmcdpei
2008-10-13 03:32 pm (UTC)
The Third World War was fought at some point in the early 21st century, poor Bonn and Belgrade, but at least a generation has since passed becasue the polish fortyish Peter began his life as a child scrabbling in the ruins of Berlin.

Mid-21st, maybe?
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[User Picture]From: shatterstripes
2008-10-13 03:20 pm (UTC)
He doesn't dream as far ahead any more, either. Is it that the things he found himself captivated by came sooner than he expected, in different ways? is he still writing about the same dreams even as they become reality? I came oh so close to mentioning Gibson's change from writing in the future to writing in the present in that comment.

(I also feel like part of the solution to Ian's dilemma of the field not being sure what to do for new dreams is to do something like Gibson's short story The Gernsback Continuum: little pieces about what you loved in the old stuff, and how badly it's failed you - in the second part there may be seeds of new dreams.)
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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2008-10-13 02:40 pm (UTC)
I suppose it's the William Gibson comment, 'The street finds its own uses for things,' except that it's actually middle-class teens rather than the street that drives technological change.
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[User Picture]From: shatterstripes
2008-10-13 03:10 pm (UTC)
The high school finds its own uses for technology?

And then the nerds run off in fear and make more technology to get the hell away from high school...
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[User Picture]From: al_zorra
2008-10-12 05:43 pm (UTC)
Survival is the present big thing, and is going to remain so for any foreseeable future. Or so it looks to me, whose youthful formatives were formed back in the last part of the 20th century.

What I am looking for is how those born into the 21st century will be / are seeing the future, particularly those born in the post 9/11 age.

Love, c.
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[User Picture]From: al_zorra
2008-10-12 07:28 pm (UTC)
In the Depression we hadn't yet had the atomic clock, the the Jewish Holocaust or global devastation, including the oceans.

Some people did see the Jewish Holocaust coming, and there have been endless events of other genocides throughout history, and not long prior to the nazi Great Plan. Others paying attention saw the atom bomb coming. But back then it was a given that 'the earth still abides,' and could come back.

Perhaps, in the end, that's what is the sadness of the human condition, that whatever goes around comes around again and again again, no matter how much we change technology?

That's why I'm so interested in how the people born now will see things during their productive years. It seems the human condition needs a new way of thinking and seeing. (How often has that been said in history?) Though born not after 9/11, there are a lot of SF/Fnal college kids who are very serious about the blend of meat and machine. They love it, whereas I, well I don't. I'm so much older.

Love, C.
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[User Picture]From: rfmcdpei
2008-10-13 03:29 am (UTC)
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.

Space travel works best as a background feature, IMO. Why send your protagonists to a relatively uninteresting Titan when you can place them on Earth amidst people with the Titan probe's news in the background?

Base assumption in SF need to be different from the ones in our world--Stross mentioned in his blog, I think, about how the early 21st century looks physically similar to the mid-20th century but both are based on radically different technological assumption.
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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2008-10-14 11:14 am (UTC)
To turn the whole thing on its head, I think artificial intelligence will first appear in any software used to censor web communications, or to screen people at airport security: anything that's smart enoygh to screen human intent out from the background, even heavily disguised, is smart enough to pass as human.
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[User Picture]From: f4f3
2008-10-13 01:15 pm (UTC)
Don't be so quick to let go of your old dreams - look what "they" are doing with them...

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2008/oct/13/tate-modern-turbine-gonzalez-foerster

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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2008-10-13 02:34 pm (UTC)
The Turbine Hall is always an awesome experience, but I do note that all the cultural referencs are thirty years old.
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[User Picture]From: f4f3
2008-10-13 02:52 pm (UTC)
Yup. Yesterday's dreams, all right.
You'd think they would have found room for Snowcrash, which is only, um, sixteen years old. Really? 16?
*mumbles uncertainly and leaves*
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-10-14 04:26 pm (UTC)

Mike Cobley says: Give me your metaphors, your analogues and similes yearning to be free!

Which is what its all about, I reckon. SF`s biggest strengths lie in metaphor and allegory - when I went to see the 1st Matrix movie I was utterly blown away, not just by the tasty onscreen CGI but also by the thinly-veiled metaphor for modern, international consumerist society; "Everything you know is a lie". Unlike some I was knocked out by the 2nd movie, absolutely breathless to find out what IT ALL MEANT only to find out in the 3rd movie that the Wachowskis, er, didn`t actually have a clue where they were going with the plot. But the rivetting engrossing fascination of the 1st 2 movies, fabulous.

In print, you`ve got the 1st 2 Hyperion books by Dan Simmons: to my mind, the AIs of the Technocore were a metaphor for the tentacular, transnational megacorporations that frame and plot and track our needs and wants while propagandizing to us what they think our needs and wants should be, and thus feed on us like city-sized vampires made of steel and mirrored glass.

Just a thought, namely that what is lacking is a clear-sighted understanding of what can be done with this genre of ours. I absolutely dont believe that the well is running dry - and I`ll prove it!

So long as I can get away from the damn Interwebs!
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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2008-10-14 04:38 pm (UTC)

Re: Mike Cobley says: Give me your metaphors, your analogues and similes yearning to be free!

I feel one particular well may be running dry, but there's water water everywhere --and we can dig new wells, and I am flogging a dead and mixed matephor to death here.
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