lateblt (lateblt) wrote,

Science fiction is dead

Unlike many boys with a fascination for technology, I didn't read a lot of science fiction while growing up, because I was always more interested in science fact. I have never been really interested in stories about going to foreign planets or meeting alien races, because we really have no idea what aliens are like (if they exist at all), so all of the depictions which people have made of extraterrestrial life, whether visual or textual, are purely just the stuff of the writers' and artists' imaginations and have absolutely no basis in anything other than pure fantasy. That's fine if you just want to have a fantasy, but while a lot of boys my age seemed to be reading fictional stories to satisfy their urge for technological literature, I was reading technical manuals that explained how to operate and troubleshoot various types of computer hardware and software. I found this literature infinitely more interesting and enlightening than what my peers were reading.

It's probably for this reason that I never realized, growing up, just how much cyberpunk had come to dominate science fiction, how much it had effaced the "traditional" sci-fi genres that children of the 1960s grew up with. I was born in 1981, so I grew up right at that time when the outer-space science fiction of the mid-20th century was giving way to the more Earth-bound science fiction about how computer networks were changing the world. As a person who was interested in computers, this kind of science fiction was something which interested me since it was based in some kind of fact rather than fantasy, but I still never got very much into it. I did read Neuromancer as a teen, but I found it absolutely intolerable, because the writing style in that book is among the worst I've ever seen. Even as a teenager, I still preferred the documentary-style books of that age which documented real computer people--books like Stephen Levy's Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Katie Hafner's and John Markoff's Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier, and Michelle Slatalla's and Joshua Quittner's Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace--rather than the overly-stylized, imaginary "hackers" of William Gibson's imagination, a man who self-admittedly doesn't know anything about computers. But just as the computer industry was going strong through the 1980s and 1990s, and no one could have foreseen where it was going (specifically, that it would suddenly and catastrophically end in the year 2000), no one knew where cyberpunk, or science fiction in general, was going. I certainly didn't think about it much back then; to me, who didn't know much about science fiction, it seemed that it was continuing just as it had always continued.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that it's only now becoming clear to me, as someone who doesn't read a lot of science fiction, that science fiction is dead. This is something that people in the field already knew as early as 2003, when William Gibson's Pattern Recognition was published, but as I never found myself too strongly connected to science fiction as an overall genre, I'm only now coming to understand it, something like 15 years after everyone else got the memo.

Now, I am not the first person to make this claim, and many proponents of science fiction have sought to rebuke it. Many people will defend science fiction as a literary genre by declaring that there is still a lot of good science fiction being written. Let me make it clear that science fiction is not dead as a form of media; it lives on in books, movies, and video games. Stories about travel to distant planets and meeting alien species will never die out, because it's a popular form of fiction that people find entertaining. When I say that science fiction is dead, I mean that the genre has run out of ideas. Throughout much of the latter half of the 20th century, science fiction gave us new ideas for what the future might look like, anticipating new technologies and how they would affect people's lives. This is no longer being done; science fiction is out of ideas, because all of the gadgets and technologies it anticipated have either been turned into reality (computers, smartphones, the Internet) or been shown to be scientifically unviable (near-light-speed travel, human travel to other solar systems, the discovery of nearby extraterrestrial life). As a toy, as a form of entertainment, science fiction lives on in the same way that people still enjoy watching films about Medieval times or the Wild West, but these things are as much in the past as the visions which science fiction presents to us now. Where science fiction was once about the future, now it is a form of nostalgia. The only "science fiction" which seems relevant to our future is the dystopian predictions of environmental destruction, and that's not an idea of something we can do in the future, but rather something which we inevitably can't avoid in the future.

Now, I realize that this is just one perspective of science fiction, and of course, there are other ways of looking at the subject. One of the most well-known defenses of science fiction came from none other than Cory Doctorow, himself a science fiction writer, in this article, where Doctorow asserts that rather than science fiction being a medium for predicting the future, as people generally regard it, science fiction actually defines the future, because most scientists and technologists are sci-fi geeks, and therefore they get their ideas on what to work on from the sci-fi novels they read. Doctorow is generally respected as a science-fiction writer partly because unlike William Gibson, he actually has some technical understanding of how technology works, but while Doctorow may have some understanding of technical concepts, he seems to lack an understanding of well-known history.

Normally I don't care about these pointless "Who was first?" debates, because I really don't care about whether Person X invented some concept first or if it was actually thought up two years earlier by Person Y, but since it becomes relevant here as a way of proving or disproving a point, let's look at Doctorow's claim by supposing that Neuromancer--the book which many people credit with predicting the Internet--didn't predict the Internet, but actually led to the creation of the Internet. The first Internet routers were created in the late 1960s, back when it was still called the ARPANET; by the mid-1970s, there were already dozens of sites on the network, with more coming online constantly. Neuromancer was published in 1984. To say that William Gibson inspired something that happened more than a decade before he wrote about it is to catastrophically misunderstand the basic mechanism of cause-and-effect. (Like many science-fiction fans, Doctorow seems to be tragically susceptible to "magical thinking", the fallacious attribution of an effect to an imaginary cause.) It's true that when Gibson wrote Neuromancer, Internet access in people's houses was still rare, as the Internet back then almost exclusively existed either in research universities or military installations, but the proliferation of computers in people's houses was already well underway by then, and already in the early 1980s, many of those computers had telephone modems which they could use to connect to BBSes. As the telephone system was already a global system by then, once could reasonably say that a global network of home computers already existed well before Neuromancer was published. Far from predicting the Internet, as many people falsely credit Gibson with doing, Gibson took what already existed and came up with a wildly inaccurate vision of it. The only thing about Neuromancer which came close to being true was the idea of a global computer network, and that was an idea which already existed at the time when Gibson wrote the book.

As for Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, which Doctorow mentions in a light that rather overstates its importance, people who talk about how that book predicted something seem to have forgotten most of the book. The only part of the book that people imagine as having envisioned a future technology is chapters 3 and 5, where a virtual-reality interface is described in relatively brief detail; the rest of the book is so detached from reality, such an exaggerated fantasy of comic-book-like tropes, that it's hard to imagine anyone ever giving that book credit for envisioning anything. If anyone honestly remembers Snow Crash as having predated any kind of real technology, I would encourage them to read the book again and realize just how little of what's written in the book bears any resemblance to anything that actually ever happened. Outside of the aforementioned virtual-reality world, very little of what got written into Snow Crash predated any kind of technology we use today, and anyone who thinks that chapters 3 and 5 led to our virtual worlds today should read up on the history of virtual reality: The first virtual-reality head-mounted display was developed, again, in the late 1960s, and by the time the 1980s rolled around, Jaron Lanier was already making "virtual reality" a household name, a decade before Snow Crash. As for massively-multiplayer online games, those already existed in the 1970s, although they were called MUDs back then.

My point with all of this is not to denigrate Snow Crash, which I actually did enjoy as a novel rather than as a vision of the future, but to point out that Doctorow is wrong: Yes, science fiction doesn't predict the future, but neither does it inspire or create the future. It is mostly the stuff of pure fantasy; it exists in its own separate world, and nothing remotely like most science-fiction stories will ever transpire in reality. If you really want to know the future, you'd do best to stop reading fiction and study facts instead. People who study real human history and actual scientific facts are more likely to come up with an accurate prediction of the future than people who read the fantastic tales of science fiction and imagine that they can be turned into reality.

When I say that "science fiction is dead", what I mean is not that science fiction, as a media genre, is no longer being produced or will stop being produced. What I mean is that science fiction has run out of the one thing that has always sustained it: Science fiction has run out of ideas. Science fiction has always been about creative new ideas, but these ideas have already played out, whether in reality or on the screens and pages of fictional media. In this article by Nebula-Award-nominated science-fiction writer Jason Sanford, which links to the Cory Doctorow article I linked to earlier, Sanford declares: "If you believe SF is about predicting the future, then yes, the genre is indeed dead. But if you believe the genre is instead about creating the future, about understanding where humanity is going, then science fiction is alive and well." He's got a point: Science fiction, even so-called "hard science fiction", has always been more about the fiction than the science. As a genre of literature, science fiction does not exist as a statement of scientific fact like a laboratory report, but rather as a commentary on how people think about science and interact with science. This is why there is so much pointless boring babble about the Tessier-Ashpool family in the Sprawl trilogy which Neuromancer started, and so much interminable musing about the Sumerian language in Snow Crash: These books are not documentation of scientific reality, but a form of literature, a set of stories about human beings that just happen to exist in a world where technology is pervasive. This is, of course, why William Gibson was able to become an esteemed sci-fi writer despite knowing nothing about technology or science: He doesn't write about science, but rather about how human beings react to it.

Yet as the 20th century gave way to the 21st, the technology of the future started becoming less important, as human beings already had most of the technology they wanted or needed. This is the reason why so many people have said that cyberpunk is a thing of the past: The dreams of a global Internet and pocket information devices have been realized. And yet, as cyberpunk gives way to whatever type of science fiction follows it, it becomes clear that there isn't really a "next thing" for science fiction after cyberpunk. As I mentioned, cyberpunk became so dominant in sci-fi publications of the 1980s and 1990s that it nearly eliminated everything else, and now that cyberpunk itself is fading into a forgotten memory, there seems to be not much left for science fiction to do but pick up the shattered pieces of its past.

William Gibson apparently understood this when he released Pattern Recognition in 2003. By then, it was clear that all this posturing about cyberpunk, all of these tough-talking street thugs in leather clothing, did not resemble anything approaching a vision of humanity, and Gibson left the future behind: Pattern Recognition takes place in the present day, or more specifically, in the year 2002, around the time that it was written. Gibson stopped trying to imagine what our technology of the future would look like, and started concerning himself with how people are dealing with technology in our present everyday lives. Dick Adler reviewed Pattern Recognition for the Chicago Tribune, beginning his review with the delightfully ambiguous sentence: "It turns out that William Gibson knows as much about the present as he does about the future." I love this sentence because it was meant as praise, but for people who actually recognize how hollow and lacking in insight Gibson's writing is, this statement is actually a dismissal of a writer who has always been full of endless blustery posing but has never actually understood anything in his life, except that the switch-over to the 21st century turned him into a has-been.

Whether intentionally or not, Pattern Recognition does symbolize the global shift from the modern to the postmodern. In the 20th century, there was generally a clear path forward: Technology was the future. We would go to space, we would develop computers, and we would connect them to create a global information network. Now that all of this has been done, humanity raises its collective head and collectively asks the question: "Now what?" What's profoundly depressing, what's so very deeply troubling, is that there is literally no one on Earth who can answer this question anymore. In light of the environmental damage our industrial and technological development has caused to the world and the apparent inevitability of an ecological disaster before the end of the 21st century, there seems to be no path forward, nothing left to do but retreat. Even the greatest minds of our generation, the most brilliant writers of both fiction and non-fiction, can only reflect on how mangled the past is and how hopeless the future is.

This is not just my opinion as a guy who was never that much into science fiction in the first place; these thoughts are also reflected in the direction science fiction itself has taken. In the early 21st century, "mundane science fiction" became a thing, a breed of science fiction focused not on the thrilling adventures and exotic worlds imagined by the sci-fi of old, but rather an examination of how science affects ordinary people in ordinary settings. The movement has been codified in the "Mundane Manifesto" (which reminds me somehow of film's "Dogme 95 Manifesto", which forbids e.g. non-diegetic music), which is really a nice read if you, like me, are tired of some of the ridiculous things that have historically characterized science fiction. The manifesto declares "That interstellar travel remains unlikely. Warp drives, wormholes and other forms of faster-than-light magic are wish fulfillment fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future," "That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth," and "That the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet." The manifesto goes on to denigrate basically everything to do with aliens in science fiction, insisting that focusing on "mundane" aspects of technology, like those seen in seminal works like 1984 and Neuromancer, "produces better science fiction."

Let's face it: Interstellar travel will probably never happen. If there is intelligent life somewhere else in the universe, they haven't found us for the same reasons we haven't found them: The universe is big, and our ability to see its outer reaches, much less travel to them, is severely constrained. If we ever do make contact with extraterrestrials, it will only be through a long-range electronic communication link, such as through radio or satellite or light pulses or something like that. We will never have a "close encounter" with them in the sense of being able to see them face-to-face. All of science is telling us right now that even for the long-term future, at least for the next several hundred years, our future very probably involves only us and only this planet. And as our looming global environmental crisis is a much more pressing concern than anything involving contact with aliens or interstellar travel, we need to put these sci-fi fantasies on the shelf for a good long time and take a serious look at our reality rather than our fantasies. And in this sense, science fiction, as an entity which urgently needs to turn into science fact, is dead.
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