SF in a science fictional world

Warren Ellis recently said in his post Flying Frogs And Crashed Rocketships:

I share a conviction with Steven Shaviro, whose most recent book was CONNECTED, that we live in a science fictional world. Not the one everyone expected, of course — no jetpacks. But good science fiction, challenging science fiction, is never about the future we expect. Sf has never been about predicting the future. It’s been about laying out a roadmap of possibilities, one dark street at a time, and applying that direction to the present condition.

People have spoken at length over the last few years about the death of sf, and even of the death of futurism. This isn’t new. In the 1980s, grand masters of the form such as Robert Silverberg and Robert Sheckley talked of sf losing its way when the common visions of the form were abandoned: Silverberg in particular (author, curiously, of some of sf’s most depressing stories) spoke of the cyberpunk/radical hard sf landscape being one he did not choose to inhabit, and so turned to writing fantasy. Today, sf, like so many arts, is utterly fractured, with several competing movements, none of them gaining much traction, while sales slip, magazines struggle and the written genre slides out of general view, dragged down to Davy Jones’ locker by the bony hands of the Western.

The challenge in sf now is, to an extent, the one William Gibson met in PATTERN RECOGNITION by not writing sf. When we live in the science fiction condition, what’s left but writing contemporary fiction with the eye for detail and extrapolation that comes from an sf writer? It’s what the Mundane SF movement (and, my God, what an exciting name) is referring to: if we’re living in the science fiction condition, why invent castles in the air? Especially when it turns out that the space elevator technology for reaching them will see you dead of radiation poisoning before you reach the top, as has recently been deduced — you can’t shield the ribbon from the Van Allen belt, and if you shield the car you pay a weight penalty that not even an array of frog-levitators can alleviate…

William Gibson himself recently posted about this:

My new novel sort of glances sideways at this “death of cyberspace” meme.

It’s “everting”, says the French curator of locative digital art to the American journalist, of cyberspace. The journalist thinks the curator said “everything”.

They’re both right.

The thing that’s going to be quaint about “cyberspace” (that already is, really) is the inherent assumption that it’s a realm unto itself; that it’s in any way elsewhere or other.

Glancing sideways is becoming more generally recognized as about the best way of doing what we used to call futurism.

And Warren gave further evidence for this science fictional world over on his livejournal:

Imperial College in London is planning to re-engineer expensive medicines to take them just shy of their patented form and then resell them on the cheap. This takes me back to the days of designer drugs in the 80s and 90s, where freak chemists would plug an extra molecule or two on to the structure of a drug in order to make it provably different from the original, banned substance, thereby pushing it free of legal control. Doing this to medicine takes artificially expensive, copyrighted medicines away from the pharmaceutical monopoly and puts the eradication of a whole slew of diseases within reach.

In America, on the other hand, the FDA has approved cloned meat for human consumption, and also decided that packaging information need not include the provenance of the meat. Right now, of course, cloned meat is too expensive to take to market. But, in years to come, it’s entirely conceivable that your burgers will come from cloned animals. What’s the big deal with that, you ask? Well, check out Dolly the sheep. You can’t, can you? That’s because the science-sheep that nobody dreamt of died young, bones crumbling and infection-mangled organs falling out of its woolly arse. Cloned mammals have a shitty, short, disease-ridden lifespan.

You may need our cheap designer medicines. On your knees, clone-chewers.

And that’s the science-fictional world you’re living in today.

I think the main point here is we need to get our house, nay planet in order before we start spreading out through the galaxy. We’ve managed to achieve technology the likes of which would make the average citizen of Victorian England think we’re gods; now we’ve got to figure out how to use it all properly. Imagine what a mess we’d make of Mars if we went there applying the same ideas we’ve used to screw up Earth so badly.

So SF, which is kinda our collective dream of the future, needs to start glorifying those who can make that happen, instead of astronauts with rayguns sleeping with aliens. Suddenly, David Brin’s Earth is looking a lot more prescient. Of course, Bruce Sterling’s been showing us the way for a while now.. from Heavy Weather to Distraction. Maybe we need less shows like Firefly and more ‘eco-warriors v nature’. I predict a new procedural television show (a la 24 or CSI) about a team of disaster specialists in the next few years.

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