Sunday, 17 November 2013

Does science fiction have a future? Virtual WFC 2013

How do our discoveries change SF, have the stories all been written, and what might it look like in a hundred years' time?  Paul McAuley, Joe Haldeman, Brian W Aldiss, Peter F Hamilton, Jaine Fenn (moderator) and Stephen Baxter discuss, featuring space jellyfish, mashed jellyfish, and killer jellyfish.


Jupiter's Great Red Spot from Voyager 1 
Credit: NASAJPLDigital processing: Björn Jónsson (IAAA)
31 October - 3 November was the World Fantasy Convention 2013 in Brighton, filled with very good writers saying interesting things to each other about writerly topics. For those who missed it, this series is your own virtual WFC 2013.
Has good science fiction become harder to find? Hamilton quotes William Gibson, "90% of everything is dross." We're not running out of good SF at all; the trouble is that with so many people writing it, the variety has expanded, but it's a lot to get through. Aldiss reels off a list of dead SF writers, "and some of us barely alive," he adds, "hence my answer. No." Baster takes issue with the question. The examples of Avatar, The Hunger Games, and The Long Earth, all number-one in the general charts, shows that there's clearly still an audience.
    Haldeman feels there is a slight element of one problem: brand new science is a little harder to write about than it was in the 1950s, being so much more complex. It's tricky to put those things in a narrative context so that they pull the story along. McAuley offers a counter-example: "Space jellyfish hate life on earth!" he declares, paraphrasing his favourite headline, and explains the background of how jellyfish born in space are unable to cope with earth's gravity. Science fiction is everywhere, in headlines, films, ads. The genre is still here, but its memes and tropes have escaped into the world. The real question, Hamilton thinks, is can it survive as a genre now that it's blown apart by the centrifugal force of its success?
    Fenn questions whether some of its once-popular drivers and tropes are no longer fashionable, such as colonialism. McAuley says some tropes have definitely fallen out of favour - the scientist's beautiful daughter, for instance, where a lone inventor's discovery is in danger of escpaing and it's all sorted out by the daughter's boyfriend. (The Wolverine dramatically breaks with this tradition by having a beautiful grand-daughter, instead.) Scientific research has itself become much more complicated. If you look at Nature, the list of contributing researchers is often longer than the article itself: the research is difficult and technical, no longer within the purview of a lone genius, which makes it hard to write in the old mad-inventor style. We can, however, use the effect of science on day-to-day lives.
    Haldeman tends not to analyse the direction of science fiction, analysing or predicting what his colleagues are doing. He teaches SF from the 1960s and 80s and reads science journals, but only descriptive ones. "I'm like any other novelist," he says. "The novel is a tool for self-examination rather than external examination."
    Baxter says, "The use of those basic tropes evolve with time." Colonisation has moved from stories of conquering to terraforming to working with the planet and its inhabitants. The author is working in this lumberyard full of stuff from the past - nothing gets chucked away.
     Aldiss is frustrated that science fiction doesn't get more attention. Why isn't the BBC here, filming this? he asks. Isn't it important? They're filming some soccer game - "It's prejudice, I think. That's one of the things that makes it difficult to be a science fiction writer; the average critic in the TLS doesn't know about it. ... I still think there's some kind of loathsome stigma to it." There are a whole lot of philistines at the top, he says. CS Lewis excepted, academics as a whole tend not to touch it. "It's because we have some alien power to deliver these things and somehow the upper echelons can't accept that. ... We work in science fiction because we can't help it; that's what we need to do. That's what any writer needs to do."
    SF tropes will always mutate with time. The book is a product of its author and also of its time, says Hamilton. Science these days is becoming less fictional, so much more is known - of goldilocks planets, for instance. We have a much bigger knowledge base to draw on.
     "All the time, we're dragging our past like a ball and chain," says Baxter. He relates that fatwah has been issued against the Mars mission, because it's effectively suicide. These 7th-century laws are framing our thinking of 21st-century problems. Though a fatwah against suicide may seem illogical, he points out that in our own legal system, until recently, suicide was illegal and punishable by death.

Fenn returns to the concern about the interaction between SF and popular culture versus its much better informed readers. What can we learn from our tropes being nicked by everyone and what can we teach them?
     Aldiss, still grumpy about SF's lack of recognition, says, "Does Pullman write science fiction? No. How do I know? Cos he's been given the freedom of the city of Oxford, so he can't be writing science fiction." This freedom means he can now legitimately drive a flock of sheep down the streets of Oxford. That's what you get for not writing science fiction.
    McAuley questions the word "teach" and whether readers learning should be our aim. The didactic literature of science fiction warns against meddling. In the 60s, the future was seen as positive and fun; now it's seen as dystopic, things escaping our control. Cameron wrote about robots taking over the world, he says, but he wrote about the wrong robots: stock-trading now happens at the speed of light, way out of our control. The present is already scary, never mind the future.
     The mention of dystopias puts Baxter in mind of Young Adult fiction. He goes through the Locust List every month and post-apocalyptic fiction is huge. Our actual future looks very dark already, with climate change and resource depletion. Perhaps, with the present so bleak, we take comfort in imagining even worse worlds. McAuley wonders whether the popularity of this has any relationship to children being so protected in their real lives, whether it offers a wild freedom.
     Haldeman feels SF is fundamentally dark and negative: fiction is about trouble, he says; it can't restrict itself to utopias. That creates an incipient problem with being optimistic within SF.

With the recent commercially driven renaissance of interest in space travel, Fenn wonders how this will inform science fiction or whether we've already written all of this.
     Most science fiction is founded on assumptions, says Aldiss. In the industrial revolution, SF novels dealt with journeys to the moon, assuming that as the earth and moon were twin bodies, the moon would share the earth's atmosphere. They took it as a donné. It seemed sensible enough, though of course it was rubbish. Ever since, though, SF has lived off its assumptions, but one by one these have been eroded. Even the term "space" is a Victorian term for something as empty as an unused cupboard, whereas actually it's full of the most horrible particles dashing around.
     He refers to Finches of Mars (which he's said will be his last science-fiction novel): he didn't and doesn't believe that we can get to Mars in our time and if we do, it'll be death on the way. Science fiction has become prescribed in many ways. The early American SF writers thought we could get to the moon and build vast, beautiful cities there. NASA got to the moon - and then...? You stand around; you get photographed. That topic is exhausted.
     Haldeman disagrees. The trip to the moon isn't "cost-effective", perhaps; some see it as a waste, but that's not no return - a lot of the returns are esoteric. Yes, says Aldiss, by the assumption was that we could build cities.
     Knowing about the moons and planets of our solar system doesn't shut down writing about them, though. McAuley wrote four novels about robots whizzing around other planets. He describes Saturn's extraordinary, fascinating moons and its vast, buried oceans: it would be fun to try to place a human perspective in those places. The Mars robot is a tremendous achievement, but putting human beings in those landscapes is fascinating. And then - if you had a human being there - how would you support her life? What society would be around that?

Given the change new scientific discovery makes to the fiction, Fenn asks what the state of science fiction might be in a hundred years and whether we'd still use the term.
     Hamilton has no idea about the term itself, though he'd love to read next century's SF. He doesn't think we'll lose our thirst for extrapolation and for putting a human being in that. McAuley thinks we'll still be moaning, though he's excited for the 150th anniversary of Doctor Who. Baxter believes the basic "What if?" questions will still be there. All fiction depends on its time. Robinson Crusoe depended on the Age of Exploration. Next century's what-ifs will be different to ours. And of course, adds Hamilton, 1950s authors would regard us as science fiction: our mobile phones, our internet. Regarding the term, "We all refer to SF," points out Aldiss, "So we'd hope the term 'sky-fi' no longer exists."
     Is it possible that a change could damage SF? An audience member proposes a possibility: if the earth made first contact. At the moment, space is still a blank slate for us to project onto. If we actually met alien life, suddenly there'd be rules.
     Haldeman doesn't think that would ruin anything. Infinity divided by any number is still infinity. The number of possible SF stories may not be infinite, but it's close; if you removed a million stories, you'd still have plenty left. The huge trope of going to the moon is gone and perhaps the same might happen soon with discovering complex life, possibly even in his lifetime, but that doesn't cut down on the number of stories.

William Gibson's fiction, especially Neuromancer, was a forerunner for much of how the internet has changed our lives; Asimov's imagined robot laws are now used in artificial intelligence. I asked the panel what, in their books, they thought or hoped might do the same, predicting or being used in the future. Hamilton already has his one: organic circuitry tattoos, which he invented, but didn't patent. Damn. Baxter says WormCam: worm holes to access the past directly, as easily as we currently look things up on Google. McAuley wants genetic engineering, but done the way we imagined it being used.
     Can we write about the extrapolation of technology on this planet? asks another audience member. Aldiss gives a hearty "Yes!" He talks about the "autocue", a small crawling thing discovered on a meteorite from Mars; it can move, but has no thought, no life. We may have met up with our DNA family, he says, which gave birth to life on earth. It came from at least Saturn, maybe beyond, from where it got to Mars. Now they think that this is the thing from which life originated.
     Hamilton talks about the possibilities of biology. His brother-in-law works in synthetic biology, which he describes as "GM on steroids", and thinks Hamilton has got it completely wrong by focusing on the hardware.
     McAuley mentions that some mad Korean scientist ("Does he have a beautiful daughter?" quips someone else) was concerned that the jellyfish population was breeding too fast. They can't be simply killed the usual way, as the parts will regrow, so he's invented a robot to kill jellyfish, mashing them up completely. It's an autonomic robot though - what if it invents sex? We have 3D printers that can write dog heart cells; perhaps we could print a giant killer jellyfish to fight the robot...?
     Further plot twists to The Plague of the Jellyfish welcome in the comments!

Next event in the Virtual WFC: the poetry reading. And if you missed the panel on whether genre poetry is thriving, you can read that now, and see what Neil Gaiman, Hal Duncan, Jenny Blackford, Jo Fletcher, Simon Adaf, and Allen Ashley have to say.


The virtual conference is created from my own rapid scribblings at the panels and talks and paraphrased - all as accurate as possible, but if you take exception to anything or I've got any details wrong, contact me. Direct quotations are my transcription of someone's exact words as best as I can.

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