Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Alarming Inflation of Science Fiction

Hugo Gernsback, the seminal sci-fi writer and editor, was a stickler for science as a key distinguishing trait of science fiction. He set the tone in the first issue (1926) of his magazine, Amazing Stories, when he introduced Jules Verne’s short story Off On a Comet with the stern warning: “[some of Verne’s methods] belong in the realm of fairyland”.
Flash forward to 2000, when the prestigious award named for Hugo was given to - Harry Potter.

How did it come to this?

The inflation of science fiction into fantasy is not just a recent phenomenon. Jules Verne famously complained about H.G. Wells’ liberal fudging of scientific facts in his day. To Verne, invaders from Mars (known to be a lifeless planet, after all) was bad enough - but time travel? Verne, like Gernsback after him, worried that the ‘science’ of sci-fi would get left on the curb with the trash, leaving the literary genre he was pioneering to be overrun by fantasy and disrepute.
As Verne saw it science meant discipline and hard work, whereas Wells was taking shortcuts. Wells saw it differently - he claimed to be merely using science fiction to make a sociopolitical point. Still, Verne felt Wells was trading off Verne’s hard-won street cred, and he resented it. It’s also been pointed out that no one came away with a ‘social message’ from, for example, Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’, whose main appeal was in the horror and spectacle of the world’s destruction. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a story that is spectacle for its own sake - most folks like a ‘Transformers’-type flick now and then. But Wells’ egoistic refusal to admit that ‘War of the Worlds’ was little more than sensationalism really grated on Verne’s last good nerve.
Though the inflation of fiction is not new, what is a modern phenomenon is the astonishing size of today’s entertainment industry. The media conglomerates’ relentless need for income has created an intense pressure to capture and hold the public’s attention by any means possible.
This marketplace pressure exacerbates the very corruption of pop-lit products that Verne and Gernsback feared. In some cases, it has rendered once-popular (lucrative) products unsalable. Since the loss of profitable franchises is devastating to big media, a remedy was much sought-after.

Enter the ‘reboot’

This is how the recent conceit of the ‘reboot’ was born. When Sean Connery could no longer smirk his way through increasingly-campy Bond romps, and when bat-skates and bat-credit-cards killed off the Dark Knight in ways that the Joker never could, Casino Royale and Batman Begins were launched to strip those characters back to the source of their original appeal.
Star Wars was both a sort of reboot and a source of sci-fi inflation. Lucas wanted to recapture the excitement of the old Flash Gordon / Buck Rogers movie serials while upgrading the form. In that way, the film was a reboot. But he also perpetuated the sci-fi genre corruption that had been kicked off largely by Star Trek. As appalled as Verne was by Wells’ Martians, his worst nightmares could not have foreseen the absurd rules of engagement modern mainstream sci-fi has set up for itself.
So widespread and pervasive is the inflation of the ‘possible’ that TV shows hosted by so-called ‘futurists’ have sprung up to contrive preposterous explanations of how warp drives, teleportation, countless forms of extraterrestrial life and other sci-fi plot devices actually have roots in ‘real’ science and may be closer than we think. 
But as appalled as Gernsback and Verne might have been by this state of affairs, they soon would have found a solution that neither man could have anticipated.

An infinity of worlds

After decades of immersion in a culture where sci-fi has become nearly indistinguishable from fantasy, the public has proven itself capable of accepting each creator’s world on its own terms (so long as those terms are, themselves, consistent). Verne’s fear that one man’s work could irreparably damage his nascent literary form was born of a much smaller and more fragile cultural world, and has proven invalid.
If Verne were alive today, he would have discovered that a creator’s world exists independently of all the other realities clamoring for public acceptance. What matters is that each world have authenticity and integrity. For instance, interest in a story of man’s first alien encounter is possible even though many have already explored that territory. A ‘first-encounter’ story like Contact can co-exist with Close Encounters and even the absurdly inflated hordes of aliens emerging from every other corner of the sci-fi galaxy. Any idea can be explored, and whatever audience and success lie in store for it will naturally ensue.
But a good sci-fi writer should not compete with the mainstream, which is shot-through with the inflation of ideas (and the attendant dilution of their importance). The best thing to do with mainstream sci-fi, which is largely a self-parody anyway, is to parody it, as Galaxy Quest and The Hitchhiker’s Guide did so brilliantly. Otherwise, swimming in the mainstream sci-fi pool is a trip to nowhere. 
What I did with Patriots was to define the message I wanted to convey, and from there create a world that could frame and support that message. A well-known example of this approach is Minority Report, in which creator Spielberg had a story he wanted to tell (based on Philip K. Dick’s short story of the same name), and proceeded to define a world inside which that story might occur.

Spielberg vs. Sci-fi inflation

Minority Report returns us to the issue of sci-fi inflation. Spielberg hired a team of ‘futurists’ and other consultants to guide him in presenting a more plausible, ‘realistic’ future world than is common among sci-fi films. Before the film’s release, Spielberg told Roger Ebert, “I wanted all the toys to come true someday.” 
The cops in MR, for example, don’t rely on guns to apprehend suspects, but instead use ‘sick sticks’ and other tools. This has a certain intrinsic logic, since cops have experienced an increasing degree of pushback from the public and elected officials over their use of guns. It makes sense that, as potent and reliable alternatives become available, they will be embraced by law enforcement.

Patriots’ four basic assumptions

That’s the approach I took in creating the Patriots’ world, which is built around four basic assumptions about the future:
1) There will be more people. By the time the story takes place, more than twice as many. This will result in greater challenges for individual survival, which will be met in many ways. (Two of the ways Patriots focuses on are genetic ‘upscale’ manipulation and a widespread retreat into increasingly-potent drugs.)
2) There will be an increased pressure on available resources. This will result in greater materials costs, but also in an acceleration of the extant trend of making materials do more.
3) Those holding power will be as reluctant to lose it as England’s King George was in the face of Colonial rebellion. This means there will be a tremendous resistance to handing the Martians any local autonomy or authority.
4) Our reliance on information technology will only increase, as will our reliance on faster wireless communications and connectivity. At some point that ‘reliance’ will cross the line into ‘dependence’ - if it has not already. (More on this in ‘The Inevitability of A.I.’)

Sci-fi pet peeves

Most of the inventions and conventions in this book arise from those four assumptions. But like Spielberg, there are mainstream sci-fi cliches that irk me, and I wanted to actively exorcise them from the Patriots’ world:

Ray guns: Ray guns, phasers, blasters - whatever you want to call them -  are the bane of the crowd-pleasing sci-fi writer. Cliched and impractical as they are, ray guns seem futuristic, and the public has come to expect them. So it’s no surprise they remain omnipresent in sci-fi. I could easily spend a thousand words on all the problems of handheld ray guns, but I’ll just mention three: (1) They probably ought to (but don’t) melt the barrel of the gun firing them, (2) their power source is a mystery (how come a phaser the size of my cell phone lasts longer than my cell phone?), and (3) they rarely seem to inflict the sort of damage one would expect from such presumably superior weapons (why did NONE of the blaster fire aimed at Luke and the Star Wars gang either hit its target or tear a hole in a ship’s hull?). 
That said, Patriots does have a ray gun. But it’s the exception to the rule - a ray gun done, in my opinion, right. It has the right raison d’etre and the right mechanism.
In any case, what makes more sense than ray guns are weapons with more sophisticated propellants and payloads (bullets) specialized for their intended purpose. At the very least, future guns will have better targeting mechanisms. Whether one is firing a laser beam or a BB, the point after all is to hit the target and have an effect. (George Lucas must have missed that memo.)

Asimov’s Three Laws: This overworked and misapplied meme is examined in detail in The Inevitability of A.I.

Terraforming Mars: We will run out of room on Earth, and Mars is likely to get terraformed - eventually. But proponents who claim it’s Job One once man reaches Mars seriously need to get a grip.
First of all: If space (living space, that is) is the issue, it makes a great deal more sense to make more of Earth habitable than to live on Mars. Antarctica, for example, is no colder than Mars and a great deal more practical to build on. It’s easier to get to, it’s closer to the joys of our mother planet, and there are few or no cosmic radiation, atmospheric or gravitational hazards to contend with.
There will be more humans on Earth for sure, but what they’ll need from Mars are things like rare earth metals - not land for a condo. Once a reliable transportation system is in place, there will be a viable business model for the exploitation of Martian resources, but there is no foreseeable sound business reason for terraforming the Red Planet.
The Outliers residing on Mars in ‘Patriots’ aren’t there because they had noplace to live. They’re on Mars because they needed a spiritual frontier. If you asked the average Outlier about Martian terraforming, they’d be against it. It would only bring more people, and people bring with them their baggage of rules and regulations and corporate-speak, and that is all part of what they are trying to escape.

The problems we have today are the problems we’ll have tomorrow, only more so: Sci-fi often seizes on some tendency we have today and extends it out into the future. If we’re overcrowded today, we’ll be way overcrowded tomorrow. If we depend too much on our minds today (not that there’s much actual evidence of this), we will be giant brains with tiny useless limbs tomorrow. If we have RealDolls today, we will have sex robots tomorrow. And so on.
Patriots does that too, but it definitely picks its spots. Yes, humans will continue to procreate. There will be a lot more of us in the years to come. Yes, we will run out of many strategic materials. The Earth is finite, and humans do demand resources from her. Yes, the ills of human nature are unlikely to change.
But not every trend we see today will become tomorrow’s crisis. Yes, we will use more energy, but we will (in ways the book describes - keeping in mind this is a fictional work) resolve that problem and live in an age of energy abundance. (That will go a long way toward supporting 25 billion of us.) We will also find ways to feed ourselves, though it will no doubt cost more than it does today. (There’s money to be made in growing food, and there will always be someone deeply interested in making money.)
Likewise, Patriots operates on the theory that methods will be developed to repel radiation and micrometeorites on long space flights. And the Martian domes will provide a radiation-resistant environment through techniques we simply have not yet envisioned. Life on Mars in the Patriots time won’t feel as science-fictiony as most portrayals we’ve encountered. Man wants to live as unencumbered and normal a life as possible wherever he goes, and once we’ve settled in on Mars we’ll find ways to treat life there in as relaxed a manner as is possible in such a place.
The trends we can easily see today and project forward do not, for my purposes, constitute a foundation for a book worth writing. These projections are primarily the setting for the action in Patriots, not the reasons for them. Nor do I care to conjure up green men with an agenda merely for the sake of dramatic fodder.
But lurking just beneath the surface of the human condition, readily found but little-recognized, are the seeds of our true destiny. There are new, unexplored issues lurking, growing, waiting to emerge. That’s what interests me, and what moved me to write this book.

More on this subject here: 'Essential Science for SF Writers' and here's a blog devoted to it: I Like a Little Science in My Fiction

from The Patriots of Mars [Postscripts & Essays]

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