Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pohl on Science Fiction and the Changing Future

Every so often someone trots out the argument that science fiction is becoming less popular or boring or irrelevant or d-o-o-m-ed because we are now "living in the future". Take, for example, this article in the London Times, "Why don't we love science fiction?", which quotes Brian Aldiss:
“The truth is,” Aldiss has written, “that we are at last living in an SF scenario.” A collapsing environment, a hyperconnected world, suicide bombers, perpetual surveillance, the discovery of other solar systems, novel pathogens, tourists in space, children drugged with behaviour controllers – it’s all coming true at last. Aldiss thinks this makes SF redundant.
I have to disagree. Science and technology are ever changing, and so new technologies and scientific (and social) changes don't make science fiction obsolete. It just means that the science fiction needs to evolve along with society. The present only looks science fictional from the perspective of the past*.

Of course not every science fiction author feels that way. Frederik Pohl wrote an article for the September/October 1989 issue of American Heritage Magazine that looked back at science fiction and his own experience in SciFi fandom from the pulp fiction era of the 1930s to the "present" (which was nearly 20 years ago). He saw the "science" part of science fiction changing with the times, with the biosciences and the microcomputer fresh fodder for storytelling.

But science fiction is a reflection of science, and science has opened up immense new horizons—some wonderful, some terrifying. Molecular biology, cloning, gene splicing, and all the other things the life scientists are learning to do have suggested any number of stories. Consequently, writers like Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Varley, and many others are showing us possible future worlds in which human beings change their appearance, and even their gender, almost at will. The computer is with us—only in its babyhood stage so far, but getting more pervasive and more powerful every year. Because of it, there is a whole science-fiction literature, grotesquely named cyberpunk, about how people may behave when every human brain has a computer implant to help it learn, remember, and act.

It hasn’t been all gain for the science-fiction writer. As science goes on converting science-fiction ideas into hard facts, any number of stories can no longer be written—they’ve happened—but the scientists give with one hand what they have taken away with the other. New opportunities present themselves with every fresh-cloned genetic string and smaller, faster microchip and new discovery about the evolution of the universe. However many ranges on the landscape of the imagination we may cross, there is always another one on the horizon. The future of the future remains promising.

What will the world be like 20 or 100 or 500 years from now? None of us can know for sure, except to say that it will be very different from the present - and square in the realm of today's science fiction.

(American Heritage Magazine article via Beam Me Up)

* And there are many ways in which the present is not SF-like: no off-Earth colonies or routine space travel, no extraterrestrials (that we know of), no easy cure for cancer or the common cold, and (thankfully) no nuclear apocalypse.

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1 comment:

arvind mishra said...

"The present only looks science fictional from the perspective of the past*."
Quite right Peggy.
So far man's imagination and ingenuity remain with him there is no danger to the genre.