“Why Aren’t the BBC Here Right Now?”: Does Science Fiction Have a Future?

I took a lot of notes at this year’s recent World Fantasy Convention in Brighton and one panel in particular really stood out for me: ‘Does Science Fiction Have a Future?’ (Saturday, November 2nd 2013, 5pm), featuring a cross-section of actual living legends: Paul McAuley, Joe Haldeman, Stephen Baxter, Brian Aldiss, and Peter F. Hamilton, with Jaine Fenn as moderator. It was probably my favorite panel of the Con (no surprise there; I’ve always tended more towards the SF end of F&SF) and also a fairly freewheeling discussion which began (as with many of the WFC panels) by immediately re-focusing its title…

Fenn: “Perhaps we should ask, ‘Has good Science Fiction become harder to find?’.”

Hamilton: “Well 90% of everything is dross and always has been.” 

Haldeman: “We need to filter more.”

Baxter: “Science Fiction isn’t dying out but its variety has exploded.”

Aldiss: “HG Wells, dead; Philip K. Dick, dead; Friedrich Pohl, dead; some of us barely alive… hence my answer.”

Haldeman: “All the easy plots have been done and done again. Science Fiction needs to reach a little further. Luckily science is always new. If you want to write a Science Fiction story with brand new science you need to reach further. It’s harder to put things into narrative context now; harder to write about Cosmology than it was in the 1950s.”

McAuley: “My favorite headline of the last few years is probably ‘Space jellyfish hate life on Earth’. Jellyfish born in space can’t adapt to life with gravity. Look it up. Because Science Fiction is everywhere. In headlines, in advertising… The genre is still here and its tropes and memes have escaped into the world. The real questions is, ‘Can the genre survive now that it’s flying apart?’ There are so many tropes and subgenres which are gone now: the story with the beautiful daughter of the scientist and, in the end, things are put back together by her boyfriend; the lone scientist story… All over. Things are more interesting now. We have to look at the effects of science on people.”

Haldeman: “I don’t analyse the way Science Fiction is going. The novel is a tool for self-empowerment, not self-examination.”

Baxter: “Look at Colonialism. Wells attacked it with Mars. Stories of going to Mars reflect the time they’re written in. All novels are a product of the author but they’re also not written in a vacuum.”

Hamilton: “The reason Science Fiction changes and continues to change is our awareness of science. Science is becoming less fictional. We need to be aware of which stars have planets nowadays. We’re working from a much larger knowledge base.”

Aldiss: “People are going to go on writing Science Fiction for ever. Science Fiction is important. Why aren’t the BBC here right now? What are they doing? They’re filming a soccer game. It’s prejudice. It makes it more difficult to be a Science Fiction writer. The average critic in the TLS doesn’t know about these books. Criticism today is a form of snobbery with a whole load of philistines at the top. Academics on the whole tend not to touch it. They’re afraid because we have this alarming power to deliver these startling things. We work in Science Fiction because we need to. It will go on.”

Fenn: “Is there something Literary Fiction, or ‘those who nicked things from us’, can learn from us?”

Aldiss: “Does Philip Pullman write Science Fiction? No, because he’d been given the freedom of the city of Oxford; he can’t be writing Science Fiction! That only happens when you don’t write Science Fiction.”

McAuley: “I don’t think people should learn from us. It’s a common misconception: Science Fiction as a learning tool. It should be more disruptive. There should be fewer morality plays. In the 1960s, the future was seen as good and fun. Now it’s horrible and scary and full of things out of our control. For instance, trading in New York is now limited only by light-speed. It’s all about femtosecond advantages. The present is a strange, weird place.”

Baxter: “Look at the YA subgenre, a huge volume of material aimed at young people where the future looks dark. Even the present has climate change, people are being spied on, there’re no jobs…”

Fenn: “What about the science aspect? The genre’s ability to reignite people’s interest in space?”

Aldiss: “Most Science Fiction is based on assumptions. Look at the stories of journeys to the moon from back in the 17th Century, when England was first starting the Industrial Revolution. There were assumptions of a shared atmosphere with the Earth, which at the time was sensible enough. Everything was hunky-dory for the adventurers. But since then, one by one, the assumptions have eroded. ‘Space’ was a Victorian term for an empty cupboard but it’s actually full of horrible particles. A great machine is no longer good enough to travel through it. I don’t believe we can get to Mars in our time. It would mean death. Science Fiction is thus proscribed in many ways. Early American Science Fiction writers thought we could get to the Moon and build wonderful cities but actually you just stand around and take photographs.”

Haldeman: “I disagree. A lot of the returns are esoteric, but they’re there.”

McAuley: “These places are much more interesting than we thought. Saturn’s moons, for instance. Jupiter is interesting but full of horrible radiation. It’s fun to place Human perspectives on those landscapes; Science Fiction can still have fun with that. It happens in my mind and that’s all I care about.”

Fenn: “And what about Science Fiction in 100 years?”

Haldeman: “I would love to read that. Though in 100 years we’ll have a panel here wondering what’s going to happen in the 100 years after that.”

Baxter: “Think of Robinson Crusoe as proto-Science Fiction. That book couldn’t have been written before the Age of Exploration. In a century’s time there’ll still be what-ifs.”

Haldeman: “I think they’ll be writing a lot about synthetic biology. GM on steroids.”

McAuley: “Or about synthetic jellyfish made from dog ear cells. Power plant intakes being clogged by jellyfish. You know, there’s a Korean scientist who has developed an autonomous, pelagic, jellyfish-mincing robot. It’s just out there, whirling around.”

Baxter: “All the time we’re dragging out past with us. Just recently, a Saudi sheikh issued a fatwa against Mars One because it’s essentially suicide and so against Muslim teaching. That’s 7th Century law framing our thinking about 21st Century concerns.”

Fenn: “Is there any change which will really damage Science Fiction?”

Baxter: “Well First Contact would fundamentally change Science Fiction.”

Haldeman: “The number of possible Science Fiction Stories is not infinite, but is still a lot. Take a million out? No change. We’ve already removed the Journey-to-the-Moon trope and it hasn’t damaged the genre. New assumptions will generate more new questions. I for one expect the discovery of complex alien life within my lifetime.”

Hamilton: “Science Fiction will need to adapt and incorporate these things.”

McAuley: “We’d be writing alien porn. No, more interesting is the situation now where we don’t know what’s Science Fiction and what’s not. The CSI effect.”

Fenn: “Should Science Fiction strive for more predictive elements? What kind of technology do you hope will come about?”

Hamilton: “Organic circuitry tattoos.”

Baxter: “A Googable past à la Childhood’s End.”

Haldeman: “I don’t know. One part of Science Fiction is very dark because all fiction is about conflicts, about things going wrong, so there is a problem with being optimistic…”

McAuley: “Genetic engineering done in the way we thought it would be done.”

Aldiss: “Asimov’s Foundation stories. Totally impossible, but how wonderful would that be?”

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2 Responses to “Why Aren’t the BBC Here Right Now?”: Does Science Fiction Have a Future?

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