12 August 2009

Toward Accurate Definitions of Near and Distant SF

There's been quite a bit of debate lately in the SF community over a perceived lack of effort on the part of SF authors to tackle the "difficult" problems of both "Distant-" and "Near-" Future science fiction. The most amusing thing about this debate is that proponents of both complaints argue that their preferred chronological measurement is the harder of the two to handle.

On the one hand you've got people like William Gibson, whose prose retreats toward the event horizon of the present as the supposed coming singularity gathers momentum, lamenting the "rate of change fog" that clouds his ability to see further into the future. On the other, you've got people like Jetse De Vries, who not long ago complained that authors are hiding in the comfortably distant corners of the future timeline, refusing to close with the present due to the supposed danger of making predictions which stand a good chance of being proven untrue and thus making the work irrelevant.

They're both right. Gibson and authors like him get around the problem of making unlikely predictions that could be proven false by making few or no predictions in the realm of pure science. When it comes to technology, they can make plenty of important and non-trivial predictions which, if proven untrue, are more easily forgiven because natural laws do not impede the possibility of their being "true" if things had gone a little differently.

Authors that write distant-future SF - like Charles Stross - get around the problem of predicting what came after Singularity generally by supposing that baseline humans also succeeded in surviving the ordeal (and Singularity gives them lots of room to play with unfounded concepts of godlike AI, posthuman beings, etc.). Thus they can continue to write narratives and make predictions meaningful and possible based on extrapolation of human history. They don't have to worry about what would concern beings vastly more intelligent than humans very much, because these beings are not the protagonists of their stories.

Both strategies can be seen as "cowardly" in that they avoid certain aspects of the future in order to retain relevance/verisimilitude, but far be it from me for an unpublished, unprofessional author such as myself to criticize the imperatives of people who make part of their living from a fickle and over-saturated market. Instead, I wish only to provide an additional framework for understanding the compartments of the SF genre. Add "Technological" and "Scientific" to "Near" and "Distant" SF, and you have a more meaningful division of the genre. Unfettered by the restraints of time, these new labels allow us to see more clearly what a so-labeled work is predicting - new applications of already-known science, or new discoveries/applications of postulated - but as yet unproven - science.

After all, I would humbly submit that the interest of most SF consumers in reading about author's predictions is not so much "when" they are supposed to come true, but "how" they will come true (not to mention why, where, and whence). The glory of 2001: A Space Odyssey's predictions for AI, space travel, extraterrestrial intelligences, and the true origin of human consciousness is not diminished by the fact that the supposed year has passed. It remains, in all its terrible wonder, because of how Clarke (and Kubrick) told/showed how they will come to pass, whenever they do.

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