Forward to next post: “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”
… and so prose SF has been left behind by, well, The Future.
SF was never supposed to be predictive. No, really. (Despite the Discovery Channel series that’s about to launch, which has astoundingly condescending ads — “Either they were crazy, or they were from the future!”) Prescience sells, because everybody would like to have it, or at least access to it, but specific prediction has always failed, because, well, it always does. Verne famously got ticked at Wells for making bleep up, pointing out that Wells had no Cavorite to hand, while he had used an entirely plausible cannon to launch three buckets of soup to the Moon.
The issue, among those who chose to make it one, was that SF was about thinking on possibilities for the future, that tomorrow would not be like today; at the very least, there would be more horse manure in the streets and an iron-armored, steam-driven Darth Tweed. Some people tried to see radically different things (or at least radical from standard Western viewpoints — I’m thinking of Cordwainer Smith here), but not many of them thought that they were describing the future. That was left to people who would be insulted to be called fiction writers.
And now we have a culture where many — though by no means all — people don’t need to be told that Tomorrow Will Be Different; they know that, and quite a few of them look forward to it. Now, there are degrees of this; technological change is easier to grasp than scientific change. The advantage of having a phone in your pocket with one-button 911 is obvious, even if you have no clue how cellular communication, or for that matter the 911 system, operates. Accepting the evidence for global warming is in a different mental department. Indeed, the connection between basic science and applied technology is vague in many people’s minds. And developmental time frames are all bent outta shape. There are still people who cannot comprehend why there isn’t a vaccine, or a morning-after cigarette, for HIV, and an awful lot of them seem to read The Economist.
I have great respect for Bruce Sterling, but I find it amusing that he claims that magazine SF is “worse than dull” because it clings to “literary-culture values,” when literary culture has been crapping on genre fiction for its entire history. If he means that it is constructed as prose, and not hypertext or a music video, I will take that as a valid point, but there are things that prose can do that visual media require both far more effort and vastly more artistic acuity to put across. What they are good at is transmitting extremely simple ideas; the villain kicks a dog, the hero grumbles at the outrage and shoots him. This is great if your goal is to sell a million movie tickets. It ain’t particularly good for the development of complex thought. Or, indeed, any thought at all.
But then, I’m old. And I don’t have a phone in my pocket, though I do have an electronic medical device pluged into my skin. Call it selective futurism.