Saturday, November 15, 2008

New Scientist, 'Science Fiction Special'

New Scientist, 15 November 2008. Special issue: 'The Future of Sci-fi'. Pp. 46-52. £3.15/$5.95.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

The November 15th issue of this weekly popular science magazine contains a special feature on the future of science fiction ('Is science fiction dying?'), including comments from six high-profile authors, a handful of book reviews and the results of a readers poll. All in all, this is fairly light fare from what is normally a serious and intelligent magazine: in particular the question of whether wonderful modern science has rendered science fiction obsolete, the almost exclusive focus of this article, is not the most interesting question one could ask about the genre (one might argue it's a non-question).

The lead article is by Marcus Chown, and is more of a summary of science in science fiction than it is a critical analysis of any aspect of the genre. The observation that science fiction more often "articulates our present day concerns and anxieties" than it attempts to predict the future is both a commonplace and an extremely important statement. Beyond the argument that science fiction requires a culture of change "when … children [can] expect to grow up in a world radically different from that of their parents", this observation is not taken very far. The remainder of the article discussed the popularity of science fiction and the idea that the genre is becoming mainstream (as is patently the case in film) or being incorporated into "non-genre" writing (as is clearly the case with literature).

To be fair, Chown has barely a full page of text to devote to this discussion, since the bulk of his four-page article is made up of pulp illustrations of bug-eyed aliens or the inserts of comments by science fiction authors.

A few interesting comments are made in the quarter-page author essays. William Gibson gives a thoughtful retrospective on the history of his relationship with science fiction, which reiterates the point that SF is not about the future, but about the hopes and fears of the world in which it was written; Gibson's comparison of SF with the writing of ancient history (in the extended version of this essay online) is extremely apposite in as much as both disciplines involve creating a culture around a small amount of data, and both are speculative and tell you as much about the present as they do about the past or the future. It is interesting (but nothing new) to note that Gibson—despite being the author of the seminal work of one of the most important new sub-genres of science fiction of the last thirty years—does not really identify himself as an author of core science fiction. His work is speculative in the way that all good literature is speculative: it takes a premise of our world (technological, futuristic, or otherwise) and follows it unflinchingly until a fascinating story unfolds (think for example of Kafka).

A sensitive comment from Ursula Le Guin sadly fails to raise many overt political points (although she does recommend the work of Geoff Ryman, China Miéville, and Michael Chabon); instead she focuses on the subtleties of genre, pointing out that the more fantastic breed of SF—space opera and the like—tends to be reactionary while social science fiction is much more ripe for good speculation. Kim Stanley Robinson reiterates the point that science fiction reflects our own time and concerns, and unsurprisingly his concerns are environmental. Robinson's essay is a warning that our immediately future can only be utopia (a new political and economic order) or dystopia (total environmental catastrophe), nothing in between.

Nick Sagan talks about the sense of wonder in science, and how the lack of engagement with truly innovative science is responsible for the nostalgia in much modern science fiction. A new space programme may not be the answer to changing the popular perception of science, but the challenges and opportunities involved in a workable renewable energy programme just might. Stephen Baxter talks a little about the history of science fiction, from the rise of modern physics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through the nuclear fears of post-WW2 literature, through the cyber-revolution of the 1980s, and to the environmental fears that colour much SF in the 2000s. Perhaps the strangest choice of author in this section is Margret Atwood, who occasionally dabbles in speculative themes but normally denies any involvement with science fiction. It turns out she says very little in this (somewhat disingenuous) essay, except to demonstrate that she doesn't actually understand the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

I am not going to review the two-page reviews section of this special issue, and there is not very much to say about the readers' poll results except that it may be interesting to hear that the readers of a science magazine overwhelmingly picked the films Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the book Dune as their favourites in science fiction. There is something grand, something “hard,” something ambitious and determined about all of these visions of the future, which perhaps appeals to the scientific mind. On the other hand, there are no surprises in these lists, and all these titles turn up regularly in “best of” polls whatever the demographic.

This reader remains slightly disappointed that New Scientist magazine was not able to come up with more weighty fare than this on the subject of science fiction. Compare the discussions that can appear in SF blogs (such as this or this) to see what people really plugged into the genre can come up with when they discuss science fiction.

Read this special issue of New Scientist online


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  2. If science fiction is dying it's due to the lack of good cyber punk literature/movies. The Sci-fi creators of today spend way to much time milking 12-year old starwars fans instead of creating deep, compelling and believable visions of the dark technological future everyone know is comming. My 50 cents on the sci-fi movement at the moment :)

  3. Well, this is a question about what modern science fiction should be about, which will largely be a matter of opinion. One other thought (largely agreeing with your point):

    Cory Doctorow in an interview we published in TFF#5 argued that: "Any science fiction writer who doesn't realise that it will be easier to copy in the future, has no business calling what they write science fiction", which is based on the premise that any futuristic fiction that doesn't take account of current and forthcoming trends in computer technology is a dead end. In other words, if you're not writing cyberpunk, then you're not writing science fiction.

    (I've discussed some of these ideas in an article in TFF#6.)

  4. The first Matrix movie is a good example of how to make a good and accesssible science-fiction movie. It was a good and revolutionary action movie with cutting edge effects, but it also told a creative and unexpected cyberpunk story about mankind being trapped in a virtual reality..Of course all that was lost in the sequels when they turned it all into a mortal combat spectacle..but still the first movie was cool and challenged my intellect..which I never expected Keanue Reeves to do ;)

  5. Very well written and thought provoking review ! Thanks !!