Who Knew a Failing Future Could Be So Exhausting?

Paul Kincaid wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books that holds court on the state of science fiction. He does so, by evaluating three of the 2012 Year’s Best anthologies. In it, he wonders if,

the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion. . . [or] that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.

Which is it? Have they lost confidence in the future or is the future incomprehensible? The latter would imply that the future is too complex. Technology has accelerated so fast in recent years that to speculate on its destination and its impact on our lives might be too difficult. I don’t find that argument particularly convincing. The former question, which should read, has the future failed, holds water. Because it has.

From H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the notion that the future was going to be something fundamentally different has failed to come true. In 1969 America landed on the moon. It was a time of wonder and hope and promise. They never went back. It’s taken fifty years to get the Curiosity Rover to Mars and it seems increasingly unlikely that a human will be capable of joining it in my lifetime.

Isn’t this the future? The 21st century. Where’s my flying car? My cure for death? Hell, my cure for cancer? Where’s cold fusion? Where’s terraforming? Or even legitimate space exploration? I have the internet, and my iPhone looks a lot like a tricorder. There’s no doubt science has created new ways for humanity to communicate and relate to one another, but it has yet to reach the predicted mountaintops.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer is perhaps the closest thing to a Nostradamus that fiction has produced. And it feels like it’s getting truer every day. Think about that for a minute. Of all the realities in speculative fiction since the beginning, the ones that look most authentic in the here and now are the ones that remained more mundane — bound up in the struggles we have today posited a century hither. What does that say about science fiction’s success?

Science fiction as a genre requires one thing, and one thing only. It requires the story to engage with the future. Not merely be set in the future, or use some form of technology to accomplish a goal, rather it must engage with that future in way that is reflective of both now and then. If a story’s science fictional, or fantastic, elements can be removed and the story remains largely unchanged then it cannot be science fiction.

Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, for example, engages the future, not along expected technological lines, but along social ones. It’s probably the best, most innovative, science fiction novel I’ve read in the last two years, but it reinforces the notion that the future is failing. Despite the distant future setting the problems are religious tensions that feel awful similar to today’s Middle East, political infighting, and the most base problems of all — hunger, sickness, and health care. God’s War says the future won’t fix our problems.

The same is true of Rob Ziegler’s Seed, EJ Swift’s Osiris, Maureen McHugh’s After the Apocalypse, Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City and Moxyland, and T.C. McCarthy’s Germline (to name a few). Perhaps it isn’t that science fiction is lacking; just that it’s changing.

That change is a trend that’s grounded in tangible reality, not because the future cannot be comprehended, but because the future we live in right now isn’t the one Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov saw for us. It isn’t that today’s writers don’t want to engage the future, it’s that the future has failed to engage them. Near future fiction built around today’s problems — global warming, fossil fuels, resource depletion, and ethno-religious tension — has been the answer.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is perhaps the best example of the phenomenon, looking not at how far humanity can go, but at how small we’re trying to make ourselves.

Meanwhile, Paul Kincaid and others point to the stagnation of authors writing the old style science fiction story — James S.A. Corey, C.J. Cherryh, and Peter F. Hamilton, for example. I don’t think they’re implying that these author’s aren’t telling great stories, but that they’re writing in a way that’s been done before. It’s a valid argument.

Kincaid is rather well read, though. As am I to some far lesser degree. I’ve read the 1960’s Holy Trinity, and I’ve read their disciples, and I’ve read their disciples. Does David Weber feel a bit tired to me? Yes. God, yes. Will that hold true for my science fiction neophyte offspring? Isn’t it possible that Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 can be her 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Of course, the problem with this piece is that Kincaid wrote about short fiction and all I’m talking about is novels. Granted I don’t read much short fiction, and what I do read tends to come from the Year’s Best anthologies or single author collections.

Looking at the science fiction novel though, my previous examples notwithstanding, is it even justifiable to argue that there is an actual exhaustion of newness? China Miéville’s Embassytown, for all its flaws, feels ambitious and new. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi goes to places I’ve never before considered. Are such inventors in shorter supply today than they once were? I concede the possibility, but not without simultaneous concession that contemporary science fiction authors are more fascinated by the future they can see.

Whether the question begins with the short or the long form, the sentiment (I hope) is the same. Things change. The science fiction writers of today no longer see the same hope for the future that their predecessors felt. They see the earth getting warmer and a political system that seems unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to solve it. They see fossil fuel resources dropping and no real solution to transition off them. They see a space program abused and forgotten by the richest nation in the world. They live in a future full of failed promises.

Their fiction is responding to that failure — to the notion that betting on the come is no longer a sensible way to go about looking forward. Isn’t it entirely possible that the lack of confidence in the future isn’t stagnation, but an indication that the genre is heading toward some wholly different kind of science fiction?

I think it’s quite possible.

Perhaps, science fiction isn’t exhausted at all, but getting its second wind. Or, it isn’t running the same race anymore.

Written by justin


Justin is the Overlord of Staffer’s Book Review. When he’s not writing things of dubious value to the world, he’s at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.