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.

Justin Landon

Justin Landon 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.

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  • Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) September 28, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Hi Justin.

    I have been following Paul Kincaid’s argument with interest, since he’s gone from there to talking on Coode Street about it. I also think this ties into some of the things Jonathan Strahan has been saying about the state of the field. I’ve been musing about a blog post of my own on the subject.

    I think you’ve anticipated, in part, one of the ideas I have in your last line about SF’s second wind. I think a change is in the air.

  • Mazarkis Williams September 28, 2012 at 10:31 am

    We live in an incredible world! You referenced 1969; since then we have done a lot in almost any field you could mention. Medicine, computers, energy, genetics . . . while we don’t have flying cars, but we have cars that drive themselves. Soon ordinary civilians (with money) will be able to travel into space! A huge hadron collider in Europe is aiming at the building blocks of the universe! You have posted this on the internetz!!!

    Fiction is about making things up, but we are so close to so many real, amazing things …

    I don’t mean to downplay the difficulties that will be facing us very soon, but neither would I downplay the advances we have made. I had a conversation recently about why so much of science fiction is dystopian. Obviously global warming is a big factor in this, but it also gives authors a chance to explore something besides tomorrow, which will likely bring more slow but steady progress – incremental advances in treating cancer, for example, or improvements in power-storage technology. By leaping beyond disaster authors are able to create a more compelling scenario.

    But here in real life, what do small, unexciting advances bring us? Soon we’ll have solar converters integrated into tarps, which we can put over tents in disaster areas and provide power for those in need. Childhood leukemia has a 75%-90% cure rate! I could be typing this from an airplane 35,000 feet up on a laptop that hasn’t conked on me. OK, no iconic moments with a man walking on the moon – but it’s more like a hundred thousand tiny moments every day.

    • Justin Landon September 28, 2012 at 10:38 am

      Definitely have. But, are those thousands of tiny moments inspiring the same way landing on the moon was? I don’t mean to downplay the advances, it’s tremendous, just that the promise of the formative fiction for this generation’s SF writers hasn’t necessarily delivered.

  • David Annandale September 28, 2012 at 11:00 am

    Very interesting piece. Between the Kincaid essay and your response, I have a lot to mull over. One quick thing that jumped out at me now was your observation that all of your counterexamples were novels, not short stories. I was just listening to the Coode Street Podcast where Kincaid was a guest, and this same issue arose, with Kincaid admitting that there was exciting work going on in novels. From this I do not deduce that one form is stagnant while the other is not. Tthat argument simply doesn’t hold water for me, since most writers work in both forms. It may have a lot more to do with the fact that it is easier (or at least less impossible) for a given reader to keep up with the release of novels — and thus catch more of the ones doing remarkable work — than it is with short stories, given their sheer numbers.

    Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking read.


  • Douglas Hulick September 28, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    So I’m go at this a bit sideways and say that you can see a similar parallel in fantasy. If SF is supposed to engage the future, then fantasy is arguably, about engaging an alternate or idealized notion of the past or the mythical. Not so much about what humanity might do as what we could have done under different circumstances. Our dreams of a better/different/simpler world, perhaps.

    But enough of thumbnail definitions.

    My point is that, just as you see more dystopian worlds in SF, so now are you seeing a more “gritty” or “low magic” approach to fantasy. And I don’t think this is a coincidence. As our notion of the future has grown smaller/more pessimistic/less soaring, so too has our view of the fantastic become more grounded. The struggles are smaller, the stakes more personal, the magic less sweeping and more threatening in many cases. Our heroes are more anti-, and rather than saving the world, its often about saving one small corner of it. Or, if it is about saving the world, the assumption is not that everything will be better after the final struggle, but rather that things will carry on largely as they were before, only without the threatened disaster mucking up everyone’s day.

    In short, the scale and focus on both ends of the genre have gotten…not smaller, but less sweeping and idealistic, I suppose. Where once our heroes traveled the stars with a blaster in one and hand and the fate of the universe in the other, or strode the halls of dead kings with the will and the relics to bring about a better age, now they deal with problems and challenges more at arm’s length and eye level. It’s a generational change in both the writers and readers: a post-(pick your moment of disillusionment here, be it Nixon or Vietnam or Iraq or Climate Change or what have you) era where we, as both writer and readers, are focused as much on the obstacles as the promises beyond them.

    As Justin says, we are products of the successes and failures that surround us, and it’s only natural that those sentiments creep into a genre that makes its stock and trade in dealing with the hopes and dreams of humanity. That those hopes and dreams have become less sweeping and more mundane says a great deal about where we stand now as a society. As to where we will go–well, in some ways, I don’t really think that’s as much up the writers as it is the world we live in and the sentiments it throws at us.

    • Mazarkis Williams September 28, 2012 at 1:05 pm

      “the world we live in and the sentiments it throws at us.”

      Well I do think that a lot of doom and gloom and panic is thrown our way. Rarely do the newscasters come on and say “Great news about a new life-saving technology!” If that can’t find something negative they go searching the local news stories for someone abusing a dog or some shit.

      This is kind of how I feel about the whole issue http://comedians.jokes.com/louis-c-k-/videos/uncensored—louis-c-k—-the-miracle-of-flight

  • Kameron Hurley September 28, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    I don’t think there’s a shorter supply at all. I’ve discovered lot of great new folks – but I’ve had to do an incredible amont of digging. There’s a vaster signal-to-noise ratio. Finding the gems is a task (also, have you read Tim Akers yet? Heart of Veridon or Horns of Ruin? Can’t remember if I flogged those at you yet).

    Books have to be recommended to me, these days, or have to have really stellar samples and premise. And even if a book is recommended to me, I discovered that I absolutely will not buy it unless I can read a sample chapter (even RED COUNTRY! I bought THE HEROES without reading a sample and just haven’t been able to get into it).

    Finding good books has become tougher if what you want is not already a sure-fire property. It’s why stuff like the S.A. Corey, Hamilton, and Cherryh are easier sells to publishers. They are familiar. The really exciting stuf… well… isn’t. Which is why it’s so exciting.

  • Prystauk September 28, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Brilliant article – and well written. As for the future, we lack visionaries. Yet, as you pointed out, how can one be a visionary when all seems so bleak? All the greats were filled with wonder and hope. But now there’s little to sing about and maybe long for, hence the sci-fi stalemate. However, it is temporary – and the genre will rise again.

  • David Annandale September 28, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    While I would never deny that a social context has a powerful impact on the fiction that it produces, I’m a little wary of seeing our current conditions as having a uniquely bleak future to anticipate. I grew up in the shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction, and there was a real sense in the 80s that not only was there no future at all, the present was going to come to a cataclysmic end at any moment.

    Going further back, someone in 1918, looking at 20 million war dead and another 50-100 million dead of the Spanish Influenza (and never mind social upheavals, working conditions, lack of voting rights, etc etc etc) might wonder what on earth we’re complaining about (“we” being the developed world, in this instance). Now, we DO see the despair from this era reflected in the advent of Modernism, and the obvious thematic ties between things like the works of Lovecraft and Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (since we’re speaking of the widening gyre), and I grant that this isn’t SF’s big period. (Still, it flowered very nicely in the 30s and 40s, decades which had their own difficulties, to put it mildly.)

    So I think there’s a lot of truth in the signal-to-noise ratio. The proliferation of available works is such that I wonder if it is even possible to characterise the state of the field in any truly accurate way.

    • Justin Landon September 29, 2012 at 8:55 am

      This point was brought up the Coode Street podcast. Is it even possible to discuss something like “the field” anymore given the huge proliferation of titles? It’s a good question. Perhaps not.

  • tmso September 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    If it hasn’t been said already, fiction (where ever the story is set) is fundamentally about the here and now. Or, rather, authors use their current mindset to explore our current issues in past or future settings. So, I imagine that much of what you see today reflects how those authors feel current issues will play out. I don’t think the future has failed – it is beholden to no one – nor do I think it is incomprehensible. It just hasn’t happened.

  • steve davidson September 29, 2012 at 7:32 am

    First – a correction: Kim Stanley Robinson is a “He”, not a “Her” – (” Isn’t it possible that Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 can be her 2001: A Space Odyssey?”)

    Experiencing the field requires far more than reading “…the 1960′s Holy Trinity…”, or even their disciples’ disciples’,

    The future has not failed us, science fiction has not failed us. The closest any author has come to imagining our current future is not Gibson and Neuromancer, it’s John Brunner and his four loosely connected novels – The Sheep Look Up, Stand On Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit and The Shockwave Rider. Current events are still unearthing astoundingly prescient predictions from those books. Where Neuromancer takes electronic technologies and posits a mean, ghettoized, diminishing future, Brunner’s novels encompass everything – religion, government, war, agriculture, computer science, pumbling, environmentalism, cults, over-crowding, invasive species, genomics, and the list goes on and on and on. Quite literally, you stand a very good chance of reading tomorrow’s headline(s) by picking up one of those books and turning to a random page.

    Many today argue that science fiction is not predictive in nature. It used to be (you can find video on Youtube of the masters themselves saying so); the fact that many of today’s writers do not feel constrained by that requirement may in fact be a reason for why the field seems to be “tired”. Much of today’s SF is not science fiction, it’s fantasy dressed in SF tropes.

    But this is not science fiction’s fault – it is society’s, or culture’s or the vast inchoate collective’s: most everything seems to have turned inward rather than outward.

    SF was – almost from the beginning and at least consistently through the late 80′s/early 90′s, a literature that looked outward, onward and upward. Perhaps more to the point – it predicted. It offered up numerous possible paths to the future and we set off down several of them, our scientists and engineers turning what had inspired their dreams into a reality they could live in.

    At some point that task became too hard. Instead of continuing to do the things that are hard , “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…” – (JFK, Rice University, 1962), we turned inward and went the easy root. Rather than going to the Moon, or Mars, we’d create technologies that could simulate andsubstitute for reality, and let us share the experience with millions in an untold number of different ways. (The development of near-real CGI has probably cost ten times what it would have cost to return to the Moon and establish a permanent base there.)

    Science Fiction did not exist in a vacuum. Authors (most well-grounded in scientific and engineering disciplines – or at least gifted with a well and widely-informed peer group) predicted; those predictions inspired, researches and inventors created, the new discoveries informed and the authors completed the positive feedback loop by incorporating the new discoveries into still more predictions.

    The same dynamic is still in effect today, but now it is working against us. The readers are no longer inspired to create new technologies that will take us to the stars, they’re inspired to create games about the stars, or immersive simulation systems or amusement park rides. What do authors do with that kind of feedback? They give us bigger and better amusements.

    Some still follow the old dynamic (Robinson, Brin, among them), but fewqer and fewer readers are listening.

    Science Fiction hasn’t failed – we’ve failed to live up to it’s promise. Instead of exploring, we’ve camped.

    • Justin Landon September 29, 2012 at 8:52 am

      First – a correction: Kim Stanley Robinson is a “He”, not a “Her” – (” Isn’t it possible that Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 can be her 2001: A Space Odyssey?”)

      Sorry for not being clear. The her referring to my “neophyte offspring” from the previous sentence. I’m aware of KSR’s gender.

  • [...] Justin Landon’s “Who knew a failing future could be so exhausting?” [...]

  • quasihumanist October 8, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    You’ve probably blanked it out of your mind (or never read it) because it’s not a very well written book, but are you saying that Vonnegut’s Player Piano is the new archetypical science fiction novel?

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