17 November 2010

Change: Our Concept of It, and It's Relationship With Science Fiction

As the title may reveal, the concept of change and its complex interrelationship with Science Fiction is a topic worthy of a dissertation in Literature or Psychology.

On the one hand, we know from psychology and cognitive science that the human mind perceives change oddly. Such lacuna as Change Blindness and our terrible faculty for perceiving the passage of time (1, 2, 3) suggest that we are not particularly good at it.

This has huge implications for Science Fiction, a genre having to do with change and produced by creatures who perceive it so selectively. The difference between the present we live in and the future we write about is a function of the change that we predict will take place in the space of time between then and now. 

One of the consequences of our peculiar biases is already well-noted by some within the science fiction community: that stories which predict the very distant future are difficult write. Cognitive Science explains this phenomenon: because we are poor judges of the passage of time, we have an inferior faculty for judging precisely how long certain changes will take to occur. Some measurements, like Moore's Law, help us to overcome certain aspects of our psyche's bias, but in order for such measurements to be found they must be based on current and past trends. Future change that is emergent, that arises out of the continued iteration of present circumstance as it reaches a tipping point, can be imagined, but not measured empirically. You might be able to measure it to a degree, by comparing it to an analogous event that happened at some point in the past and which is measurable, but no analogy is as good as the real thing, as it were. Thus predictions about changes in the future which have not even begun yet are bound to be made very inaccurately by beings who have a poor sense of the time it takes for changes to occur - namely, human authors. The further into the future a story tries to go, the more emergent changes will accumulate, and the further off-base the prediction will go. 

There have been several narrative responses to this difficulty. One seems to be a proliferation of stories about apocalyptic futures, where a single catastrophic event makes everything simple because it reduces the future to a state in which the world has essentially been before, such as the dark ages. Because of the length of time historically involved in bootstrapping human civilization out of such a condition (thousands to tens of thousands of years), this narrative strategy allows writers to recreate the world in a new image and yet simultaneously as a plausible future. The downside to the strategy is that it does not allow us to see where humanity will go if we manage to stay the present course.

The knee-jerk reaction has been to refocus the lens of SF's glass onto near-future and even past-future events via the proliferation of Cyberpunk, Steampunk, and other, similar subgenres. This reaction was largely beneficial, because it has made it clear that near-future prediction carries its own dangers (also possibly rooted in the nature of the human psyche, but that requires another article) while simultaneously spotlighting the potential usefulness of successful SF predictions to the general public in a short amount of time.

Other responses include writing about other worlds and species instead of humanity, attempting mid-distance prediction that, through its plot, intends to focus on only a certain part of humanity's future (such as warfare or the future of a certain colony), or focusing exclusively on craft (character development, plot, style, etc. at the expense of actual prediction). None of these are detrimental to the genre; they expand its horizons, provide unfocused peeks into the future, and improve the subject's standards. They are all, however, methods of hiding from what was once one of the primary functions of the genre - the prediction of the distant future.  

The inability of writers past and present to reliably predict more distant futures points to an essential lacuna in our abilities of foresight that we cannot overcome simply through a clever plot device or statistical reasoning. I believe the question that this poses - should we even try to predict what we cannot predict well? - should be answered in the affirmative, however. 

What methods then, should a writer choose to tackle his own brain's weakness head-on, are to be employed? In ballistics, when accuracy is not possible, the solution may be found in the size or number of rounds thrown down range. A larger round - or a more expansive, sweeping story - may provide such robust results that even a near miss effectively hits the target. Scattershot - or more stories in general - ensure that at least one of the rounds is likely to succeed in touching the bull's-eye. 

So, the relationship between our concept of change and the genre of science fiction seems to be obvious: to overcome our inherent weaknesses, writers will need to write more boldly, and write more, than authors of other genres. The debate will continue to center around where to give in quality to make up for this higher requirement. Much of modern SF believes that quality has won; that the reader wants a good story more than a good prediction. But to believe that is to ignore that the reason a person reads science fiction is because they want a good story about the future. Prediction is required, and so the conflict is intrinsic to the genre and thus irreconcilable. Indeed, the genre's nature may well be defined by this fundamental conflict.