Back to previous post: Making Light, Your Source for “Total Eclipse of the Heart” Blogging

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

August 6, 2006

You Can’t Dance to It …
Posted by John M. Ford at 10:30 PM * 113 comments

… 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.

[Moved, by request, from the “Making Light: Your Source” thread.]

Comments on You Can't Dance to It . . .:
#1 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2006, 10:58 PM:

I'm watching the thing on the Science Channel (an extension of the Discovery Channel, it's in our digital rack of TV channels).

They got me at the start because Mr. Verne was my first real SF exposure at the age of 8. We were going to the Bahamas for two weeks, papa asked me what I wanted when he went to the library for a few books and I said "I want a book with no pictures, an adult book."

I don't know what prodded him to pick a Jules Verne Omnibus (Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea). I am guessing he asked the librarian to point him to something that might be daunting.

And so it went. I read the thing front to back though I had to keep a notepad for vocabulary look-ups and had to renew it about three times. But i loved it. And so it went.

The tale is interesting enough, but I think it's cherrypicking. I want to read the Jules Verne piece that was published in his lifetime (it was apparently too disturbing) about life in Paris. Back to the library. I'd have to go back and look at the works cited (it is an omnibus piece with Verne and Wells being the authors for this program).

#2 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2006, 11:11 PM:

I'd like to read the book where the Baltimore Gun Club decides on and tries to perform their second big project, but I'm told the only English translation that exists was a 1960's paperback that has become a collector's item.

#3 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2006, 11:26 PM:

The Verne book is Paris in the Twentieth Century.

The narration for the biography series is terrible -- the choicest line was "Albert Einstein proved that time was the fourth dimension," which is Not Even Wrong -- but the interviewees make up for a good deal. It may improve with later episodes, with less mythologized writers.

#4 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2006, 11:35 PM:

'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.'

This reminds me of another Sterling essay, "The Updike Version," in which he dissects John Updike's try at SF, finds some virtues, but ends:

"We don't live in an age of answers, but an age of ferment. And today that ferment is reflected faithfully in a literature called science iction.

SF may be crazy, it may be dangerous, it may be shallow and cocksure, and it should learn better. But in some very real way it is truer to itself, truer to the world, than is the writing of John Updike.

This is what has drawn Updike, almost despite himself, into science fiction's cultural territory. For SF writers, his novel is a lesson and a challenge. A lesson that must be learned and a challenge that must be met."

#5 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2006, 11:49 PM:

"Science icktion"? Is that, like, Crichton and them?

#6 ::: mattH ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 12:18 AM:

I just finished Paris in the Twentieth Century, and was a bit dissapointed, but then, it's also my first Verne book, so I'm not too sure what I was expecting. Also, I read it because of it's underlying distopian theme, which is very disturbing.

#7 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 01:22 AM:

I think I read Paris in the Twentieth Century when I was 10 or 12. I'd read Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and PitTC was pretty disturbing for a 10 year old, compared to JttCoftE.

#8 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 02:28 AM:

I suppose it's sort of unsurprising that my favorite Verne when I was growing up was The Begum's Fortune, in which the French cousin sets up an American utopia which is steeped in health and culture, and the German cousin sets up his American utopia as an industrial-military monster whose main purpose seems to be destroying the French one. It was a way fun adventure, with dangerous risks taken to save the city. And there's crawling through water pipes and sluices, and that always makes a story better, in my opinion.

It's a little unfair to set Bruce Sterling's essay from 1983 -- notice that, 1983, the year that Foundation's Edge got the Hugo (*) -- as the bad guy in a discussion of what science fiction is about. For one thing, science fiction in 1983 is not science fiction in 2006. For another thing, 23 years is a long enough time that I'm not sure any of us are the same people we were then. For another thing, from the bit that's quoted in the other thread, the more important part of what he's saying seems to me to be "hey you guys, don't overlook this fantastic stuff happening under your noses." And the stuff he's referencing has had an influence on some of the interesting writing that has happened since then, so he might not be all wrong with respect to that, maybe.

(*)Why, yes, I looked it up, because I had this suspicion that 1983 was about the time I was thinking that the general run of science fiction being produced at the time tended to be kind of boring a lot of the time, and I was reading less science fiction, with the result that a while later when I went looking for science fiction again I was pleasantly surprised at the good stuff which seemed to have been going on all along.

#9 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 05:20 AM:

I'd like to read the book where the Baltimore Gun Club decides on and tries to perform their second big project, but I'm told the only English translation that exists was a 1960's paperback that has become a collector's item.

Sounds interesting. Do you have a title?

#10 ::: Cat Eldridge ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 06:14 AM:

The novel regardibg the matter of the Baltimore Gun Club is From the Earth to the Moon. Lots of copies of it are available in both softcover and hardcover.

#11 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 09:26 AM:

Sterling's complaint also makes more sense in 1983 than in 2006, as the first thing I think about when asked about the sf magazines is "clinging to literary values", while in 1983 there may still have been the aftermath of the New Wave and Feminist-SF trends.

I'm a bit skeptical that people are currently more future proof than the historical norm; we've have had roughly two centuries of fast technological progress now and I see little reason why somebody living now would be better prepared for new changes than somebody living in 1956, 1906 or 1856.

#12 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 09:26 AM:

William Gibson answered a question I put to him when he was speaking in New York last fall, and his answer really shook me up for a few weeks.

I asked:
"You've said that the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction factor, that the rate of change in the world is bigger and faster than it's ever been. Does that make the mode of science fiction a less viable, or even impossible way to explore and explain the world?"

He said:
"Yep. That sounds about right. I would agree with that."

Since his sf books are so amazing, and since has stopped writing sf, I was forced to consider whether he was right, whether the whole enterprise of sf as a way of engaging with the world, of exploring its strangeness, of remaking it through a kind of satire, wasn't going to work anymore. Of course I came to the conclusion that he was wrong, or that he was answering a different question than the one I was asking. But it is still an important question for readers and writers of sf to think about; it really made me examine why I love sf so much, what it is that makes it such a lovely and powerful thing. Is it about predicting the future, or engaging a particular sensibility? Can a sensibility become obsolete?

As for the Sterling quotation, he was saying that SF needed to be truer to its geeky, weird heritage and stop trying to be so literary, not that the enterprise of literature is outmoded and books should become multimedia presentations. When he said that, he was still a young turk trying to revive the genre.

This quote from a speech he gave in 1991 explains what he meant more clearly:

"We're not into science fiction because it's *good literature,* we're into it because it's *weird*. Follow your weird, ladies and gentlemen. Forget trying to pass for normal. Follow your geekdom. Embrace your nerditude. In the immortal words of Lafcadio Hearn, a geek of incredible obscurity whose work is still in print after a hundred years, "woo the muse of the odd." A good science fiction story is not a "good story" with a polite whiff of rocket fuel in it. A good science fiction story is something that knows it is science fiction and plunges through that and comes roaring out of the other side." (full text of the speech here)

The best answer to any anxiety about whether there is a future for sf is his advice. Follow your weird, and damn the rest.

#13 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 09:37 AM:

Cat: I know. I presumed that wasn't what he was talking about, because there are lots of translations of "From the Earth to the Moon"; also Columbiad was the Baltimore Gun Club's first big project, as far as I remember. What was the second?

#14 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 10:26 AM:

TexAnne: "Science icktion"? Is that, like, Crichton and them?

I'd say that was the perfect term for Crichton's 'speculative' work.

I had no idea you were Trinidadian.

#15 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 10:32 AM:

FL: the term "Trinidadian" is considered exclusionary, as the state's official name is not "Trinidad" but "Trinidad & Tobago". The officially recommended adjective is "Trinidad-Tobaggonist".

#16 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 10:33 AM:

No idea what was intended but this is described as a sequel or second sequel counting Around the Moon which IIRC often combined with From the Earth to the Moon for publication

Barbicane and Company: The Purchase of the North Pole
Verne, Jules
Barbicane and Company: The Purchase of the North Pole, originally published in 1889, or as Verne himself first called it literally Sense Upside Down [Sans dessus dessous available from Gutenberg], it is a sequel to A Trip to the Moon, written a quarter century before. In its mathematical sincerity and extravagance of analysis it is worthy of the earlier tale. With his mountains of figures the author deliberately plays a joke upon the trusting reader, by pointing out in the end that the figures are all wrong. In its astronomical suggestiveness and impressive form of conveying instruction, this story is again the equal of its predecessor.


Readily available from all the usual sources in a recent (2 year old?) English translation. Notice that at least in French Verne had a reputation for getting his calculations right and in English as a result of sloppy translations from the Metric a reputation for getting his numbers wrong. Obs SF - Mr. Heinlein doing the orbital calculations on butcher paper for Rocket Ship Galileo and CJ Cherry doing all the scheduling precisely for her Merchanteers and bending the plot to calculated ship's positions.

#17 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 10:55 AM:

John M. Ford is here. He just isn't evenly distributed.

#18 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 10:57 AM:

The Evil Semanticist that lurks within me always stirs when people here are debating about different (sometimes mutually exclusive) meanings of the same word(s) -- in this case, "science fiction." Someone has mentioned the kind that's a satire on the present, e.g. 1984 as a grim take on 1948 that had little to do with the real Eighties (though now it's getting uncomfortably relevant again). Gibson's variety was near-future, one of the most difficult kinds to pull off since it can date so rapidly. Even galaxies far, far away can range from ST's Sixties liberalism to Corwainer Smith's wonderful weirdness, etc. etc. etc.

Sorry. I just had to let the Evil Semanticist have its say, or it wouldn't let me finish my coffee!

#19 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 11:08 AM:

If you read Philip K. Dick looking for predictions about the future, you miss the point. It ain't that kind of party!

#20 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 11:11 AM:

Leaving the finding as an exercise for the reader NOT - Gutenberg has both French and English. English under the name Topsy Turvy
This from Gutenberg:
Topsy Turvy by Jules Verne
[Redactor’s Note: Topsy Turvy (Number V035 in the T&M numerical listing of Verne’s works) is a translation of Sans dessus dessous (1889) . This anonymous translation was first published by J. G. Ogilvie (New York, 1890). We meet our old friends Barbicane and J.T. Maston from “Earth to the Moon” who now give us their own approach to the topic of “global warming”. Although they are searching for coal and not oil, readers will find that the auction of the Arctic energy reserves has a definite 21st century ring. We are indebted to Mr. Mark Eccles of Columbia, MD for loaning his rare and disintegrating copy of this 1890 work.The text was reprinted in an Ace paperback (D-434) in the late 1950’s with the title “The Purchase of the North Pole”. There is another edition published by Sampson & Low (U.K.,1890) also entitled “The Purchase of the North Pole”. The Ogilvie book is more faithful to the structure of the french—the S&L has 20 chapters instead of 21 and omits part of 21, but the sense may be sometimes incorrect—the last sentence of 20 reads “But now, after having read the article and being unable to understand it without any help, he began to feel sorry and feel better” where the word able might be supposed. Both editions leave out some parts of sentences and paragraphs, the Ogilvie probably worse in this regard. There is one equation in the book which is represented as a graphic. A Table of Contents has been added for user convenience. This text contains 42,000 words. (NMW)]

I have no idea whether the recent edition $20 or so at Amazon - available new and used - from which the description in the earlier post above was taken is a reprint, a scholarly translation or a mixture.

#21 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 11:25 AM:

Bruce, this antiquarian book seller's page on All Around the Moon gives a publication history that may help you find what you're looking for.

#22 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 11:32 AM:

Faren Miller said:

"Gibson's variety was near-future, one of the most difficult kinds to pull off since it can date so rapidly."

Gibson himself has said:
"I really don't see myself as a futurist. I think the world we live in is so hopelessly weird and complex that in order to come to terms with it, you need the tools that science fiction develops."
(from The Guardian)

Yes, he did sort of predict the internet, but in Neuromancer there are no cell phones, the USSR is still around, the US has splintered into warring regions, and there are dot matrix printers, as Gibson pointed out in the introduction to an anniversary edition of Neuromancer. He's one of the best near futurists of all time, and half of his predictions didn't come true, but his books still hold up. Why?

Because near future SF is really just a species of 1984-style SF, Science Fiction as a kind of satire. Even the near-future mode isn't really about the predicting things, in the end. SF is the product of a certain sensibility interacting with the present, and, as such, will likely survive any real future shock.

I will admit, though, that pulling off near future SF isn't something people seem too confident about lately. And I, for one, am not really sure why. Anybody have any ideas?

#23 ::: Cat Eldridge ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 11:51 AM:

Ajay comments 'Cat: I know. I presumed that wasn't what he was talking about, because there are lots of translations of "From the Earth to the Moon"; also Columbiad was the Baltimore Gun Club's first big project, as far as I remember. What was the second?'

One sec... That'd be, according to Clute, From the Earth to the Moon in 97 Hours 20 Minutes, and a Trip Around It.

#24 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 11:56 AM:

Fragano: I'm not. The locution "X and them," or as it is usually pronounced, "X an' thayum," is very common in Southeast Texas.

#25 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 12:35 PM:

Evan, the problem with near-future sf is that you have a suspension of disbelief issue. To my mind, the purpose of near-future sf is the same as the purpose of more distal sf (as in, there's not one purpose, but generally, you're writing to explore things, or to set up little worlds and watch them go, or . . .). The reason for choosing a near-future sf setting (at least when I think about it) is that what you have in mind is not worldbuilding but ringing small changes on stuff that's around you in the world you live in.

Because it's the day after tomorow, or even tomorrow, that you're presenting them, readers are much more likely to have strong beliefs about what that looks like than if you're presenting them with something in a galaxy far away. So the worry, for writers, is that readers will give you less of a chance to build the case for your story, and will be thrown out of the experience more easily.

I know that as a reader I'm more easily jolted by near-future sf, especially if it's a few years old -- once it gets old enough, it's less jarring again, I think. But I also know that as a writer I'm interested in a bunch of things that seem to belong to near-future (mostly to do with water). I've started to think of these, and of fantasy set in the here and now, as "two steps over and one step up," but that's the jingle for the Loma Prieta earthquake, so it's probably not appropriate.

#26 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 12:39 PM:

What's the problem with near-future SF?
Max Head was only 42 seconds into the future, and I thought it really nailed a lot of issues.

If you replace take interactive televisions that they give away to the poor for free and don't have off switches but allows corporate monitoring of people, and replace it with computers with internet connections and cell phones and NSA grabbing phone records, you're pretty close.

All the Max local and pirate TV stations turn into blogs, and that's pretty much nailing it with a sledgehammer.

#27 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 12:40 PM:

Max Headroom.

GAAHHH

#28 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 12:43 PM:

I think a lot of the "near-future" stuff moved over into the thriller category.

As I've gotten older I've gotten a lot more blase about my reading--discretionary time reading is for what entertains me, not what's the most talked about book, or some edifying improving thing (my sister has a nasty habit of sending me those horrid icky calendar things with uplifting thoughts for the day... I ignore them), etc. If I'm not being paid to read something or it's not required for some other reason, if it doesn't appeal to me, I don't read it--I am long out of classrooms with Required Reading and was never enthralled with Manifestoes crowds.

Commercial SF/F is first and foremost commercial and if there isn't a market out there buying it the supply sent into commercial distribution channels is going to dry up--fanfic and other noncommercial material on the web are different entities.

#29 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 02:39 PM:

Greg, I'm not saying there's something wrong with near-future sf: I'm using "problem" in the sense of "challenge."

#30 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 03:04 PM:

"Modern science has imposed upon humanity the necessity for wandering. Its progressive thought and its progressive technology make the transition through time, from generation to generation, a true migration into uncharted seas of adventure. The very benefit of wandering is that it is dangerous and needs skill to avert evils. We must expect, therefore, that the future will disclose dangers. It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties."

--Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 1925.

#31 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 03:19 PM:

Hm, I think the problem/challenge with near-future SF is this:

We are at a point where any substantially different technology is percieved as "far-future". anti-gravity is the example I can think of. It might be that some physicist gets a brain hiccup today and will invent usable anti-grav by next year. But people consider it far-future technology. If you have anti-grav in your story, it's considered far-future by most folks.

Room temperature fusion power is another example. Or even room temperature superconductors. Both are things that might be nothing more than a paradigm shift away, some physicist who thinks outside the box and asks "what if?"

I think the other difference is that old science fiction could indulge in the fantasy that science would solve everything. Star Trek talks of a human society with no need for money, but of course, never explains how it works.

On the off chance that someone does figure out how to travel faster than light (and accelerate well above 1-gee to get to that speed in less than a year), people are no longer enamored by the idea that the mere existence of FTL will cause peace on earth, good will to men.

More recent SF seems to have instead indulged in the other end of the spectrum that technology will lead to dystopias of one sort or another. Phillip K. Dick being a prime spokesman for that movement. Gibson another. The idea that technology is the cause of the problem and that technology is inevitable, therefore the dystopia is inevitable, is the calling card of that sub-genre.

I think what's shifted is that people are starting to grow out of both ideas, and are starting to get that technology is neither good nor bad, that it is a question of who, not what or how.

I wrote a short story that sort of took this approach. It is the idea that some far-future-style technology could appear today, and that it is neither good nor bad, but that people are what give the value. The elevator pitch would be "Hillbillies and Hovercars". Then again, the fact that it's been rejected by half a dozen magazines might indicate that I have no clue what I'm talking about, or maybe my prose just sucks.

Sometimes I do wonder why I keep trying...

#32 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 03:42 PM:

The trouble with the "Hillbillies and Hovercars" idea is that it's more or less been done. There are any number of sci-fi stories with some odd element of super technology, either a wild card invention or a remnant of past glories.

You need something else to make it stand out. Perhaps tell the story from the POV of the stammering, under-apprecieated, younger son of a mafia-like ruling family?

I've a feeling it's already been done.

#33 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 03:58 PM:

Greg London:

Hm, I think the problem/challenge with near-future SF is this:

We are at a point where any substantially different technology is percieved as "far-future". anti-gravity is the example I can think of. It might be that some physicist gets a brain hiccup today and will invent usable anti-grav by next year. But people consider it far-future technology. If you have anti-grav in your story, it's considered far-future by most folks.

Delightful exception: Red Thunder, by John Varley, which is Varley's riff on Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo, and the Smart Kids And Mad Scientist Build A Spaceship In The Back Yard.

In this case, the kids needed the help of a drunk ex-astronaut and his sweet-natured, reclusive mad-scientist brother, who's invented a combined star-drive and infinite power source. Much fun ensues.

I wrote a short story that sort of took this approach. It is the idea that some far-future-style technology could appear today, and that it is neither good nor bad, but that people are what give the value. The elevator pitch would be "Hillbillies and Hovercars". Then again, the fact that it's been rejected by half a dozen magazines might indicate that I have no clue what I'm talking about, or maybe my prose just sucks.

Or maybe the short-fiction market just sucks.

New technology needs time to percolate out into products. How long?

Well, the Intel 4004 microprocessor came out in 1971, . DARPanet (ancestor to the Internet) started in 1969. Tim Berners-Lee wrote the proposal for the World Wide Web in 1989, and in 1993, there were about 50 Web servers.

I'd argue, just for the sake of putting a pin on the timeline, that the modern PC era was born in 1981, with the IBM PC, and the modern Internet was born with Microsoft Windows 95.

So, let's say a mad scientist just invented cheap antigravity over the weekend. He is, even as I type these words, getting ready to put out a press release on it. How long until you and I are using the flying belt for trips to the supermarket, and taking the family aircar on vacation? Ten years? 25?

I'd say it's about 15 years between the time when world-changing technology becomes available to the middle class, and the time when it's truly mainstream. That's about the time it takes for the kids whose parents got the technology when they were pre-teens to reach the flower of adulthood. If your Mom and Dad buy you your first PC when you're 10 years old, then PCs are routine when you're 25.

#34 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 03:59 PM:

The trouble with the "Hillbillies and Hovercars" idea is that it's more or less been done. There are any number of sci-fi stories with some odd element of super technology, either a wild card invention or a remnant of past glories.

Could be. But whenever I hear the "it's been done" thing, I keep thinking, well, at what point do you get out of "its been done" and get into "genre"? Otherwise, one could argue that Science Fiction has been done, and there's no point in writing SF anymore.

My story wasn't just a technological wild card story. It was a realistic person from today, put in the near future, dealing with otehr people around a technology problem, and how he changes as a result. Are you saying that SF readers don"t want to read about people? That I need to write about some technology that hasn't been written about?

I don't know. Maybe I'm just tone deaf when it comes to SF. Or maybe I'm just tone deaf when it comes to what other people want to read in general.

Hm, maybe I need a longer break from work than a weekend. I seem to be in more of a foul mood than usual.

#35 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 04:37 PM:

We are at a point where any substantially different technology is percieved as "far-future".

Delightful exception: Red Thunder, by John Varley, which is Varley's riff on Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo, and the Smart Kids And Mad Scientist Build A Spaceship In The Back Yard.


Hm, it just occurred to me that Buckaroo Bonzai has eight dimension travel technology in a near-future sf story. It was built into a Ford ton truck chassis, if I remember correctly.

Maybe I need to get out my wire brush and scrape some of that paint off of my last broad brush stroke.

#36 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 05:23 PM:

If we're going to include media sf, then the Stargate TV series are either present-day, present-day alternate universe, or near-future.

#37 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 06:57 PM:

The internet isn't really a good model for the uptake of technological advances. The internet in 1990 wasn't as useful as the internet in 1995; the internet in 95 wasn't as useful as the internet in 2000; the internet in 2000 wasn't as useful as the internet in 2005; and the internet in 2005 wasn't as useful as the internet will be in 2010.

How big a difference in usefulness? Well, this graph of internet hosts would seem to illustrate well enough.

This is, after all, just applied Metcalfe's Law.

Antigravity wouldn't follow Matcalfian dictates; a anti-grav belt is equally useful when one person has as when 20, or 20 000, do.

Would You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free count as near future sf?

#38 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 07:32 PM:

Keir, et al,

I wasn't really talking about usefulness or widespread-edness of a technology. I'm trying to think of a way of explaining this and coming up blank.

Go back to some early SF and pick some near future work. Maybe Phillip K Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep". Cloning, space travel, and some vague reference to off-world colonies. That technology doesn't seem too far fetched for something written at that time. But now it seems almost dated. We have the technology to do most of that stuff at least on a works-in-the-lab level, or a space-tourists can go up for 200,000 bucks a ride. The technology is here. It simply hasn't altered the world on a global level yet.

Which means that near-future SF can't simply posit the idea of space travel or cloning and really be in the future anymore. That stuff is here, now. All you can do is take space travel and see how it would alter the world on a global level.

But showing culture altered on that sort of level, with such massive infrastructure differences from where we are now, seems more of the far-future SF stuff than Near-future. Near-future stuff takes our world and tweaks it a little bit, or maybe tweaks it with one piece of new technology that alters the world. But it's still mostly the world we recognize.

So, if you look at what sort of technology is on the "to-do" list, a lot of it seems to be on the "far-future SF" list. Hyperdrive, stargates, teleporters, time travel, cold fusion, artificial intelligence, stuff like that is all waaaay down the line. (don't even get me started on that singularity concept. ooohhh)

So, if you're writing near-future SF, the new technology and new ideas is a bit tougher to come by without pulling in far-future SF stuff and trying to make it work in near future, i.e. without having it alter the entire world. But cold fusion, even on a working-in-the-lab point of view, would turn our current world upside down.

From a technological point of view, we haven't really invented much of anything new since the transistor. All we've done is multiply stuff by six or seven orders of magnatude, and find some interesting uses for what became available out of cheaply available computers.

I don't know what I'm exactly trying to say here. Maybe it's like this: If I look at the terrain for SF topics, all the easy technology has already been scaled by at least one pioneer, one scientist. The only stuff that hasn't been climbed at all is stuff that may never get invented.

I think I just slopped a whole bunch of paint around, so I'll just stop now.

#39 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 07:36 PM:

Keir - Your point about Metcalfe's Law is valid--but it doesn't contradict what I'm saying, it re-enforces it. The Internet becomes more useful as more information is on it--it's the opposite of a vicious cycle (a benevolent cycle? Is that the phrase I'm looking for?) It takes years for that information to appear, and in the early years, the Internet appeals only to specialists and hobbyists.

Our hypothetical cheap anti-gravity requires an infrastructure. Soon as the first guy falls out of the sky, through somebody's roof, and into their living room, we're going to start to see licensing requirements for drivers, and safety regulations for the machines. Put a million of them in the sky over Manhattan, and you need traffic controls and people to enforce those controls. The belts need a network of distributors and repair places. And so on. Until all those things are in place, cheap antigravity isn't something that everybody takes for granted.

I've sometimes thought about writing a story set just 25 years after First Contact. There's a million stories about the moment of First Contact, and the immediate aftermath (usually, war). And, of course, there's about a billion stories where extraterrestrial intelligences are part of the world--Star Trek is the best known example. But I'm not aware of many stories set in a near future where extraterrestrial intelligences are well-known, and commonplace, but still relatively new. The only two I can think of are Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand, and Damon Knight's The Big Pat Boom, both excellent.

#40 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 08:07 PM:

Mitch:

You might add Costikyan's "First Contract" to the list. First contact occurs during the first chapters, then the action zips forward a bit, after economic shocks have reduced the protagonist to living in a shipping carton.

* * *

In the mid-sixties, Fred(erick) Pohl wrote a short-short, "Day Million," that might be called meta-science fiction.

The story was virtually plotless; I don't recall any dialogue at all. It was mostly exposition and rant.

The characters were what might have been SF's first transhumans: A metal-skinned cyborg space man and a prenatally trangendered otter-woman. They meet, fall in love, exchange "analogues" (read: virtual reality models) of each other, and never meet again. The analogues are used for hot VR sex sessions.

The rant part: Pohl points out that technological change is asymptotic, and that by Day Million (A.D.) society will have changed so thoroughly that his readers would to his heroine appear little different than a caveman, and that they couldn't hope to understand her life and work. He was damn close to "discovering" the Singularity decades before Vinge.

#41 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 08:18 PM:

Paula Lieberman: [..] my sister has a nasty habit of sending me those horrid icky calendar things with uplifting thoughts for the day...

Jennifer Pelland provided a link (on the Debate thread) to a demotivational site named Despair. You can get posters, calendars, coffee mugs and more, with beautiful photos and thoughs on various themes, such as:

MOTIVATION:
If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job.
The kind robots will be doing soon.

Many more, hard to choose the best one to quote...

#42 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 08:22 PM:

The kind robots will be doing soon.

they have robots in India? Shite. That explains some things.

#43 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 08:47 PM:

ajay: don't have a title. It was reviewed in the Analog book review section in the early 60's--sadly my old Analog copies are in storage.

Cat Eldridge: no, it is not "From the Earth to the Moon." It is not "All Around the Moon." It's not even "From the Earth to the Moon in 97 Hours 20 Minutes, and a Trip Around It." I read those, or subsets of those when I was twelve, thank you. I'm speaking of a totally different novel where, according to the aforementioned review, the members of the Baltimore Gun Club get tired of the lousy winters in Baltimore and decide that since they've got this hurking huge cannon in Florida they'll use it to change the Earth's rotation in an attempt to improve things.

Clark E Myers: no, Barbicane and Company: The Purchase of the North Pole/Topsy Turvy doesn't sound like it either but it does sound interesting...

Avram: no once again, but it's a good idea as to how dodgy Verne's publication history was in the USA.

#44 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2006, 10:14 PM:

No, the Verne in question is indeed Sans Dessus Dessous/The Purchase of the North Pole. Short description here (scroll down to 1889 publications). The title Topsy-Turvy is obvious from context. Also obvious is that nobody had been to the North Pole yet.

#45 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 01:28 AM:

John M. Ford: I stand corrected. Sans Dessus Dessous/The Purchase of the North Pole has got to be it. Thank you! Now to save up for a copy...

#46 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 05:17 AM:

Greg London said:
But showing culture altered on that sort of level, with such massive infrastructure differences from where we are now, seems more of the far-future SF stuff than Near-future. Near-future stuff takes our world and tweaks it a little bit, or maybe tweaks it with one piece of new technology that alters the world. But it's still mostly the world we recognize.

Which is, at least some of the time, how things actually change. Think of going from, say, 1810(?) to 1860: things like railroads and steam ships were in existence around 1810, but they were still curiosities. By 1860, they're almost everywhere, and they've transformed some aspects of society, but not others.

So, if you look at what sort of technology is on the "to-do" list, a lot of it seems to be on the "far-future SF" list. Hyperdrive, stargates, teleporters, time travel, cold fusion, artificial intelligence, stuff like that is all waaaay down the line. (don't even get me started on that singularity concept. ooohhh)

To nitpick a little bit: most of your list is things which are incompatible with physics as we know it, or so thoroughly speculative that we haven't a clue how to start. AI is different; that's probably feasible within a hundred years. (There are people like Ray Kurzweil running around saying, "Twenty years!", but our understanding of natural intelligence probably won't have advanced far enough in twenty years' time.)

From a technological point of view, we haven't really invented much of anything new since the transistor. All we've done is multiply stuff by six or seven orders of magnatude, and find some interesting uses for what became available out of cheaply available computers.

I could probably think of some ineresting counter-arguments to your "we haven't really invented anything since the transistor" statement if I were more awake... but in a sense the interesting part of change is in the "six or seven orders of magnitude." Books have been around for thousands of years in one form or another; printing started a process that turned books from something only the very wealthiest (or a few insitutions) could afford into things everyone could pick up. There's an interesting example of what dropping the production costs a few orders of magnitude can do for you.

#47 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 09:02 AM:

French nitpick, that may make a difference in Bruce's quest: the title is Sens dessus-dessous--not sans, which means "without."

#48 ::: Victor S ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 09:32 AM:

Mitch: The Economist uses "virtuous cycle" (or perhaps "virtuous circle"? I don't have an example to hand) when describing desirable self-reenforcing systems. I don't know if that's common usage or merely their tendency toward wordplay.

#49 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 09:55 AM:

I've seen "virtuous circle" around, in many other places than The Economist. In fact, here's a wikipedia entry.

#50 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 11:23 AM:

Greg: it seems to be on the "far-future SF" list. Hyperdrive, stargates, teleporters, time travel, cold fusion, artificial intelligence, stuff like that is all waaaay down the line. (don't even get me started on that singularity concept. ooohhh)

Peter: To nitpick a little bit: most of your list is things which are incompatible with physics as we know it, or so thoroughly speculative that we haven't a clue how to start. AI is different; that's probably feasible within a hundred years. (There are people like Ray Kurzweil running around saying, "Twenty years!", but our understanding of natural intelligence probably won't have advanced far enough in twenty years' time.)

incompatible with physics as we know it was why I say they all qualify as far future. A hundred years ago, near future SF could write about going to the moon because it wasn't a problem of physics, it was a problem of engineering. Teleportation isn't an engineering problem, it's completely incompatible with the way we understand how the universe works. Just getting teleportation to work would require at least one person to take their understanding of the universe adn stand it on its head. which then almost automatically makes it far-future sf, even though someone might "get it" a year from now. Because if someoen did, it would alter a lot of how we percieve the world, like going from "the world is flat" to "the world is round".

As far as AI goes, well, personally, I see that as far future. I think we might have a pretty decent technical understanding of processes of the brain, but I don't think a lot of engineers have a clue about workings of the mind. The current infatuation with putting your consciousness in a electronic box and living forever is prime example that these guys are hard materialists who haven't a clue about what consciousness really is.

I think in a hundred years, you'll be able to go to someplace like google.com and ask an AI to do a context specific search for you, but that's about it. Big univac-sized machines that sit and interact via the web to perform specific functions, only because those functions can be hardcoded.

I can't see AI doing much of anythign physical because (1) robots have massive power, strength, speed, problems that need to be solved first, and (2) once you have a robot do anything, completely independent of direct human control, you've got potential for people getting killed or hurt. Just sending your robot down to the pharmacy to pick up your prescription has problems such as causing a car accident because the thing jumped out into traffic. And the problem with that may be solved technically, but before that happens, you've got a massive problem with liability.

We have the technology to build smart highways and smart cars right now. The reasons we haven't done it is part a problem of cost and part a problem of who gets sued when the computer fritzes and jumps the median strip?


#51 ::: Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 11:44 AM:

Sometimes I wonder if there isn't a place for, instead of "Tomorrow Will Be Different", SF where Tomorrow Is Much The Same. If measured in median household income, the technological revolution is already producing diminishing returns.

Or was that what cyberpunk was about?

#52 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 11:56 AM:

Scott, that sounds like the Mundane Manifesto.

#53 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 12:46 PM:

Greg,
I can't see AI doing much of anythign physical because (1) robots have massive power, strength, speed, problems that need to be solved first, and (2) once you have a robot do anything, completely independent of direct human control, you've got potential for people getting killed or hurt. Just sending your robot down to the pharmacy to pick up your prescription has problems such as causing a car accident because the thing jumped out into traffic. And the problem with that may be solved technically, but before that happens, you've got a massive problem with liability.

Three things I see driving robotics with increasing AI:
1. Planetary exploration -- especially if you want to land something on Europa or Titan, where the radio time delay is so long (no people around to hurt);
2. Military -- see RPVs, which are becoming increasingly autonomous (hurting people = purpose, or else "collateral damage");
3. Toys. (If it's small and fluffy and cuddly, it's less likely to actually hurt anyone.)

#54 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 12:57 PM:

Peter, yeah, I'd agree with that, but none of that is world-changing. None of it is particularly above and beyond what we have today, to the point that it would change the way people behave.

Planetary exploration won't change our day to day lives. Toys won't either. military AI might change some of the tactics used, but it won't affect strategy. military robots won't solve the problem in Iraq. It's a human problem and needs a human solution.

#55 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 01:29 PM:

3. Toys. (If it's small and fluffy and cuddly, it's less likely to actually hurt anyone.)

That's what I thought when I bought my nephew a Robot Ninja Death Kitten. Boy, was I ever wrong!

#56 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 04:12 PM:

There's more to science than physics.

It's hardly true that "we haven't invented anything since the transistor."* We have cloned animals, though not yet on an industrial scale, and pharmaceuticals produced by recombinant bugs. We have a broad array of mechanical replacement bits, and the prospect of regenerating spinal nerves. None of these things are immortality, but together they change the prospect of life.

We already have tests for genetic markers that indicate the possibility of severe disorders, either in the subject or the subject's offspring, and will no doubt develop more. We can't, at this point, fix these things, and it's likely we'll always be able to diagnose more conditions than we can fix. This offers an, uh, interesting new choice people didn't have before.

Organ transplantation still has serious downsides for the recipient (though it sure beats dying). Larry Niven's already gone over some of the possibilities if we beat that, though at this point it looks like laboratory organs may win out. Or maybe we'll crack regeneration, which might mean physical immortality.

The way it stands now, advanced medicine is skewed by socioeconomic status. Is that going to lead toward approaches to equalize access, or a possible revolt of the (literally) dying masses? And, of course, medical improvements are a positive pressure on population growth, which is not really a good thing.

*You might as well say "we haven't invented anything since the vacuum tube." And since 1947 we've had commercial superconductors, LEDs, and lasers (and LED lasers), all of which are components of new classes of products.

#57 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 04:24 PM:

Planetary exploration won't change our day to day lives.

If we had irrefutable proof that there are technologically advanced aliens Out There, would that really change anything - provided that they are too far for people to worry that them durn aliens would use us as appetizers?

#58 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 05:01 PM:

It's hardly true that "we haven't invented anything since the transistor."*

Sorry, shorthand-itis. In the context of technology that changes us from current technology to near-future technology that has some world-altering but non-technical way, i.e. in terms of the sort of stuff that you can write about in fiction and qualify as SF, silicon was that last of it.

Today's level of cloning technology seems mute to me. It's got potential, but cloned sheep don't actually change anything. Cloned human stem cells are potentials to cure disease, but potential doesn't actually change the way the world works now. We have a lot of medical cures and treatments since transistors, but they don't chagne the world in a way that is noticably different to the point you could write about it and people would get "yeah, that's SF".

Which was the context of this whole conversation, at least for me: what makes near future and far future SF, and why might one be harder to write than the other.

The transistion from vacuum tubes to transistors was the last major milestone that altered the world in a "yeah, that used to be near future SF, now it's just current technology"

#59 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 05:06 PM:

If we had irrefutable proof that there are technologically advanced aliens Out There,

using robots to explore planets wont change the fact that our rockets are snails. My guess is to actually find technologically advanced aliens out there, we'll need something with a little more kick than a chem rocket.

Jumping to light speed ain't like dustin' crops, boy.

#60 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 05:15 PM:

Greg... I was thinking along the lines of a big "Hello!", thru radio waves, or with pulsed lasers, or with the synchronized detonation of nukes. Even if the message originated 'only' 30 light-years away, it wouldn't make a big difference to most people. And we know what Bible literalists would say about the evidence.

#61 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 05:39 PM:

Ah, well, SETI might find proof of alien life tomorrow. Who knows.

For an SF story, it isn't so important as how a thing works (robots exploring space, seti, simultaneous nukes), but what its effect is (life discovered on otehr planets).

It's odd, but first contact stories seem like they are fundamentally a "far future" story, not because it couldn't happen tomorrow, but because it would completely alter our perception of reality. Even people who aren't bible literalists, people who know life on other planets isn't only possible but quite probable, will likely experience fundamental internal shifts when that hypothetical becomes reality.

#62 ::: Jeff R. ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 05:54 PM:

Isn't part of the problem more political than technological? I mean, during the Cold War it was easy to extend that forward and have a future geopolitical history that at least felt plausible. And right after, one could always visualize a globalism/corporatist world with the center of power staying in the US or moving ever eastward and again, still be plausible.

But now, since the 21st century began, really, there isn't a single obvious trajectory to send a future history into. The last six years themselves aren't all that plausible, so what hope does any kind of extrapolation have? And even if one does manage to write a satisfying near-future history, can one really be confident that another 9/11 or Katrina or something bigger and weirder isn't just going to obsolete your future before you get to publication? At least if that happened in the Cold War era everyone would have been dead and irradiated and spoiling your story wouldn't be so much of a concern...

#63 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 06:02 PM:

Today's level of cloning technology seems mute to me. It's got potential, but cloned sheep don't actually change anything. Cloned human stem cells are potentials to cure disease, but potential doesn't actually change the way the world works now. We have a lot of medical cures and treatments since transistors, but they don't chagne the world in a way that is noticably different to the point you could write about it and people would get "yeah, that's SF".

Test-tube babies?

Genetically engineered crops available in (some) supermarkets? (As well as the genetically engineered production of drugs John M. Ford mentioned.)

Mass, affordable air transport?

Cheap, reliable birth control (i.e., The Pill)?

Credit cards and cash cards?

Artificial satellites?

The, um, Internet?

None of these strike you as SFnal (from the perspective of the late 1940s, which is when the transistor was invented)?

#64 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 06:19 PM:

I want to go back a ways and re-assert that even near-future science fiction is rarely about prediction exactly. It's about, first, stories, and second, running changes on things to see what happens. This is not to say it's never about prediction. But.
The last six years themselves aren't all that plausible, so what hope does any kind of extrapolation have?
See, in my mind, this smazing and confounding reality -- and this impossibility of extrapolating accurately -- just gives us permission to imagine the world any way we want to (or more importantly, any way that produces good story), even in near-future sf.

Earlier I was talking about the problem of suspension of disbelief for near-future sf, but what I meant is that writers of near-future sf have to consider what will allow their readers to engage in the story as a story and not as a trend essay.

#65 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 06:21 PM:

I don't know, Greg. One shouldn't underestimate Humankind's capacity to take the awesome & drastic for granted and then to go back to worrying about their favorite movie stars. Remember how things were right after 9/11?

#66 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 06:37 PM:

One of the things I've found useful about near-future SF is the way, if you read enough of it, that it stretches your mind and makes it easier to see changes coming and deal with them when they arrive. It's not so much the individual "predictions" per se but the ensemble: partly because occasionally some of the predictions will actually come true, and partly (or mostly) because the more you are confronted with the idea of new inventions/trends/politics/what-have-you showing up and changing things, the easier it is to recognize it happening for real, and the less shocked and lost you end up being.

#67 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 06:44 PM:

from the perspective of the late 1940s, which is when the transistor was invented

er, mosfet transistor, circa 1960, CMOS being the preferred choice for integrated circuits, since they dont consume power unless they're switching. It was obvious to me that's what I was talking about, though I confess what I was thinking didn't completely make it to the keyboard. But yeah, from the perspective of that point, cmos and integrated circuits have been teh big, world-altering, "it".

The, um, Internet?

An application only made possible by integrated circuits, cheap computers being in many homes because of integrated circuits, and lots and lots of copper wire.

Artificial satellites?

GPS is pretty cool. It hasn't altered the world too much yet, though. I own two GPS's. But I'm not doing anything different than I did before. Other than that, satellites aren't really new physics, they're cheap alternatives to laying cable all over the planet.

It's an engineering solution, like using step up transformers to transmit AC at much higher voltages so its more efficient. But once you have electrical power, is there really an SF story in what high-voltage AC makes possible that low voltage AC doesn't?

Test-tube babies?

Another solution to an already solved problem. People want to have babies adn for one reason or another, can't.

Genetically engineered crops available in (some) supermarkets? (As well as the genetically engineered production of drugs John M. Ford mentioned.)

If people live 10 or 20 years longer than they did before these things, what sort of SF story do you write about that?

Mass, affordable air transport?

air transport was invented long before even the BJT transistor. Jet engines even. That it's cheap is not really an invention.

Cheap, reliable birth control (i.e., The Pill)?

Well, mosfets and the pill came out about the same time. I'm not sure what the SF story would be there, though.

Credit cards and cash cards?

credit cards have changed the world in letting everyone accumulate lots and lots of high interest personal consumer debt. But is there an story you could write in 1940 about "credit cards" that would qualify as SF?


#68 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2006, 07:29 PM:

In the old days of ten years ago, it'd have been deemed unreasonable for your boss to expect you to be at the office 24 hours a day. Now, they can simply require that you bring your office home, thanks to fast telecommunications.

#69 ::: mds ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 10:49 AM:

Well, mosfets and the pill came out about the same time. I'm not sure what the SF story would be there, though.

If someone came up with one, though, I'd probably read it.

Genetically engineered crops available in (some) supermarkets? (As well as the genetically engineered production of drugs John M. Ford mentioned.)

If people live 10 or 20 years longer than they did before these things, what sort of SF story do you write about that?

I have a feeling that there could be some sort of tie-in with "intellectual property" and a near-future dystopia; e.g., what happens when Archer Daniels Midland successfully patents the rice genome?

#70 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 10:59 AM:

what happens when Archer Daniels Midland successfully patents the rice genome?

There's probably a story there, somewhere.

The point I was trying to make was simply that maybe the reason near-future SF has become harder than far future SF is because there isn't much stuff left to be invented, from the point of view of invented=>new-physics, that qualifies as near future tech.

So, you can write a far future SF story that revolves around some far-future technology. But if you write a near-future SF story, it won't easily revolve around new technology, but simply new implementations of existing physics.

while patenting the rice genome might be near-future SF story, it isn't so much revolving around new technology but legal quandaries.

#71 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 01:24 PM:

Yeah, but it's the stuff that's "simply new implementations of existing physics" that turns society on its head, and makes for interesting sf.

Imagine a writer sitting in 1986, writing a story set 20 years in the future. The Internet is ubiquitous, as are cell phones. The USSR has fallen, driven in part by the availability of fax machines. Cable television has painted the networks into a corner--the turning point is a few years in the future, during the First Iraq War.

And, oh, yeah, on account of the fall of the USSR , the Cold War is ancient history--now we've got this Global War On Terror thing going on, and, even though we're the world's only remaining superpower, terrorists are making monkeys out of us.

That's not science-fictional enough for you?

#72 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 01:49 PM:

It isn't whether it's SF or not, it's whether it's easier to think "How would the world be different if we had Hyperdrive?" versus "How would the world be different if a trip to the moon cost ten grand?"

My point being that it's a lot easier to take some far-future tech, like a hyperdrive, and postulate a story that shows how the world is different, than it is to take some near future minor change like tickets to the moon, and have a story revolve around that.

#73 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 02:41 PM:

My point being that it's a lot easier to take some far-future tech, like a hyperdrive, and postulate a story that shows how the world is different, than it is to take some near future minor change like tickets to the moon, and have a story revolve around that

I don't think that's true. The "ease" of writing a story has little to do with what technology is in the story either way: it's entirely idionsyncratic from writer to writer and froim story to story.

I also don't think that most stories with hyperdrive of thing in them are about hyperdrive at all, but about a bunch of other things that happen in the story and might be more "minor" changes -- and I'm not sure, anyway, that hyperdrive is necessarily a more major change than tickets to the moon. Maybe it is, maybe it ismn't, and somebody could well imagine it either way.

#74 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 02:55 PM:

That Bruce Sterling short story I posted about in the other thread? The one from 2000 that's dated because a character does an Ask Jeeves search? It's not currently SF, just a simple boy-meets-girl story wrapped around cell phones and the Internet, but as Sterling points out in the intro, in 1975 it would the biggest technhave been SF, and in 1950 it would have been incomprehensible.

#75 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 02:57 PM:

The "ease" of writing a story has little to do with what technology is in the story

Not the actual writing part. Gawds. That's hard no matter what the subject. I mean the idea of the story.

Take any far-future tech, imagine a world with that technology available, and find a story to write. Hyperdrive -> first contact -> earth joins federation.

To do that with near-future technology, teh problem is that the remaining near-future technology is pretty slim. It isn't super technical advances but the technology we have put in different applications, different social structures, stuff like that.

"1984" is near-future tech because it's the exact same physics, but the social structures are different.

Nobody else seems to get what I'm trying to say, so I think I'll just stop now.


#76 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 04:45 PM:

Greg, if I do understand what you're trying to say, I think the point you're making is just plain wrong.

Let's say we had teleportation, but it cost $1 billion to use each time. You could get to the moon instantaneously--but it would cost you $1 billion.

That's a violation of natural law.

Now let's say that, using physics as it exists today, you can get to the moon for $1,000.

Which will have a more sweeping impact on society and the lives of individuals? And which, therefore, will be more difficult to write up in an sf story?

The teleportation scenario will change people's day-to-day lives hardly at all, whereas cheap spaceflight would lead to sweeping changes in society.

#77 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 05:04 PM:

Mitch, that isn't what I'm trying to say, but I don't look at makign a thing cheaper as a new idea, either. A new idea would be "teleporter" or "go to the moon". No one thinks, gee it sure would be cool if someone invented a teleporter and it cost one billion dollars to use.

But I already said I'd stop, so, I'm stopping now.

#78 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 05:24 PM:

Greg:

Artificial satellites aren't just a substitute for laying lots of cable.

They're a large part of why we have actually useful weather prediction, including prediction of when and where destructive cyclones will make landfall. (The other half of that is lots and lots of computing capacity: you can't do the necessary modeling with one Univac or IBM 360.)

That eye-in-the-sky effect doesn't appeal only to the weather and climate forecasters, of course: it's also militarily important.

Also, to say that "Other than that, satellites aren't really new physics, they're cheap alternatives to laying cable all over the planet" seems out of place when we're discussing the effects of new tech on people's lives. Your life may not have been changed by GPS and cell phones. Lots of people's have, especially people for whom cell phones are the difference between no telephones in a rural village and one, which the villagers pay a neighbor to use so they can check crop prices or talk to their son in Delhi or Nairobi.

#79 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 05:27 PM:

Greg - If that isn't what you're trying to say, then I'd like to know what you are trying to say. If we can induce you to come out of retirement.

#80 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 05:27 PM:

Univac or IBM 360

And with those words, Vicki sends me on a journey down Memory Lane, to the days of yore when yours truly became a computer programmer. Those machines were much better at computing than a jacquard loom.

#81 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 05:51 PM:

Vicki: Your life may not have been changed by GPS and cell phones. Lots of people's have ... talk to their son in Delhi or Nairobi.


But in the context of writing a story about how technology changes people's lives, near future SF, writing about how cell phones might affect people in Delhi when we can already see how it affects people in the US, sort of makes it hard to turn into an SF story.

Not that GPS isnt' useful or something, but that there isn't much of a "SF space" for stories about GPS.

Before GPS was invented, how many exciting SF tales were written about some hi-tech solution which told you exactly where you were on planet earth? It's not that GPS isn't useful, it's that it isn't an idea around which you can generate a lot of SF stories.

That's all I'm trying to say. (Hear that, Mitch?)

How many far-future SF stories hinge upon, completely require, the existence of warp drive technology? I think there's quite a lot.

How many SF stories hinge upon, completely require, the existence of weather satellites? Not many. THere are certainly SF stories that could be written around that topic, but I don't think it's anywhere near of a bigger story "space".

So, this whole thing started when I pondered that maybe it's harder to write near-future SF because there isn't a whole lot of near-future technology to write SF about. But maybe I'll tweak that to say that maybe its because the current near-future technology has a small SF story space as compared to far future technology.

#82 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 06:39 PM:

OK. What you're saying makes sense--I'm not sure I agree with it, but it makes sense.

I got down the wrong path, thinking what you were saying what that near-future sf required a gadget that defied the contemporary, real-world known laws of physics.

#83 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 07:07 PM:

I think the short of it is this:

The story space for near future SF stories available from not-invented-yet near-future gadgets is considerably smaller than the story space for far-future SF stories available from not-invented-yet far-future gadgets.

Which might explain why I didn't come up with that exact wording the first time around.

But comparing the story space available from warp drives, teleporters, time travel, robots, AI, anti-gravity, medical immortality, terraformed planets and generation starships (that's all the far future gadgets I can think of at the moment), it seems that's much bigger than the story space contained by near-future gadgets.

#84 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 07:09 PM:

But in the context of writing a story about how technology changes people's lives, near future SF, writing about how cell phones might affect people in Delhi when we can already see how it affects people in the US, sort of makes it hard to turn into an SF story.

At the extreme risk of being much ruder than I mean to be, that happens to be what SF writing is -- finding the dramatic situation that emerges from the change. The change does not by any means have to be large -- indeed, this whole "transformative" thing is a non-issue -- and it does not have to affect many people; it only has to affect one person sufficiently that he is moved to act in response. One of the oldest tricks in the business is "Who does this hurt?" and only a heartbeat or two younger is "who does this hurt when for the great majority it's a genuine benefit?"

I'm not suggesting that it's a trivial problem, because art never is. And some people have greater gifts for pulling drama out of unexpected corners than others. I'll bet Avram Davidson could have written a deep and affecting tragedy about the change from "real" coinage to base metals -- I can think of ways it might go, but they wouldn't be as good.

One point of "distant future" SF -- whether it's a century or millennia -- is to show a society that has assimilated changes: interstellar civilization, cohabitation (in whatever sense you like) with aliens, immortality. The thing that's hard about this is telling a story that isn't the Same Damn Thing with different props. You can get away with it in certain forms; there will likely always be an audience for space opera, because well-told adventure stories please most readers, and various fascinating novelties of the future world can be shown off. (The realistic Western is still a viable genre, though a minority one, because the non-Hollywood West is now an alien environment.)

Near-future SF, on the other hand, is about the impact of the X-factor on a society that is not significantly different from ours. This means that it is likely to date for some readers, though for others it will, if compelling enough, retain value as a kind of period piece. People still enjoy Verne's industrious Victorians. And while it is constantly said that we have grown used to change, and even bored with it, there are an awful lot of people for whom this is not true (and they are vocal about it), and there isn't in fact a whole lot of attention paid to the impact of change -- at least, not until something Real Bad happens.

If it's hard to write SF with a contemporary background, it's because it was always hard to mirror a readily visible nature, and the yarns are often forgotten once their time passes. But the idea that it's harder because everybody is inured to change is just plain wrong. Everybody isn't, by a very large margin. People who think they know what's coming are the easiest to shock and disorient. And even if six billion people less one were completely comfortable with every imaginable change, that one person would have a story worth telling; indeed, his story would be the one most worth telling.

#85 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 07:55 PM:

"Who does this hurt?" and only a heartbeat or two younger is "who does this hurt when for the great majority it's a genuine benefit?"

But the idea that it's harder because everybody is inured to change is just plain wrong. ... even if six billion people less one were completely comfortable with every imaginable change, that one person would have a story worth telling; indeed, his story would be the one most worth telling.

I'm not sure if we're talking about the same thing or not. I keep flipping back and forth. We are and we disagree. We're not, and agreement/disagreement doesn't matter, cause, well, we're talking about different things.

So, I don't define SF as "who does it hurt?" I think there are inventions that help everyone, some a lot, some a little, or maybe some not at all. But I don't see everything as having to hurt someone.

I kept reading your post and thinking of an argument I read about technological safety. The argument goes like this: If there were a fuel source that was cleaner and cheaper than oil and available in the US, but it caused the deaths of a couple hundred people every year, would you allow it's use? Then it reveals that they're talking about natural gas. (Don't know if I have the facts right, but that was the gist of it)

To me, any SF story that hinges around some new technology for fuel that is beter than what's before but causes a number of deaths every year due to accidents and it's combustible nature, has already been done, because natural gas already did it. Maybe I have a strict view of SF, but that's how I view it. Or maybe this is what you call Same Damn Thing with Different Props.

So, it isn't enough that some SF technology affect (hurt, whatever) people, but that they do so in a way not like anything prior.

I think that near-future SF gadgets have fewer different ways they affect people than far-future SF gadgets. I haven't pondered this for a long time, but I'd be willing to bet a beer on it, because, well, it's a win-win bet, really.

Teleporters could affect people in a lot of different ways that nothing else can. Only teleporters (or some far-future technology) can affect people in these ways. The example I can think of is looking at the four generations of warfare, up to the current, stateless war. All prior stages, for the most part, utilize terrain as a limiting factor. the enemy has to cross it. You have to cross it. And terrain is far more impressive armor and camoflage than chobham and chameleon skin.

Teleporters completely bypass terrain. It would completely alter the face of warefare. It makes state level warfare so mind-numbingly different than war-as-we-know-it, that most authors invent "shields" to counteract teleporters, negating the effect, and pushing us back to war-as-we-know-it.

Teleporters would create a fifth stage of warefare, and depending on the technological flavor of teleporters, it might make war obsolete, or put a single foot soldier with a teleporter on equal terms with an aircraft-carrier fleet.

In any case, the level of new possibilities, the level of changes, the spectrum of effects, that teleportation could have on the world, and are effects unique to teleporters, is mind boggling huge compared with, say, the spectrum of effects specific to something like weather satellites.

#86 ::: oliviacw ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 08:15 PM:

Greg London asked: Before GPS was invented, how many exciting SF tales were written about some hi-tech solution which told you exactly where you were on planet earth? It's not that GPS isn't useful, it's that it isn't an idea around which you can generate a lot of SF stories.

Actually, I can think of a couple (though alas not name off the top of my head) stories that I have read in which a pursuer knowing where the pursuee was, exactly, was a critical part of the plot or suspense. GPS and a tracking sensor works to support that. And a lot of SF space stories (including a classic Isaac Asimov one I just reread last week) depend on the ability to use exact coordinates to find something in space - you could twist some of those tropes to work on a planet just as easily.

#87 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 08:50 PM:

Greg London:

I think the short of it is this:

The story space for near future SF stories available from not-invented-yet near-future gadgets is considerably smaller than the story space for far-future SF stories available from not-invented-yet far-future gadgets.

That's a reasonable position. Indeed, it's hard to argue with it.

But hasn't that always been the case?

John M. Ford:

At the extreme risk of being much ruder than I mean to be, that happens to be what SF writing is -- finding the dramatic situation that emerges from the change. The change does not by any means have to be large ...

I recall an extremely moving story in one of Gardner Dozois's recent best of the year anthologies, about a dirt-poor kid growing up in a rural small town. He comes from a loving family, but he's fallen on extremely hard emotional times because the family's fallen on hard times. Dad died suddenly, and Mom--in order to make ends meet--has taken a job as a prostitute.

The only science fiction elements in that story are that it assumes that even a kid that poor can afford a handheld computer with a wireless satellite connection, and even a family that poor can afford to put a geo-location chip in the kid's cat.

Even the prostitution isn't science-fictional--there are, after all, places in the U.S. where prostitution is legal today, and the attitude toward the mother's prostitution isn't presented as being much different than it would be today.

And yet the story is science fiction, because the handheld computer and the pet-chip are essential to the story.

One point of "distant future" SF -- whether it's a century or millennia -- is to show a society that has assimilated changes: interstellar civilization, cohabitation (in whatever sense you like) with aliens, immortality. The thing that's hard about this is telling a story that isn't the Same Damn Thing with different props.

I really enjoyed Charles Stross's Accelerando, but I think I'm enjoying Glasshouse even more. In the former novel, the world changes are being introduced to society--and the readers--as new. I don't even remember the plots of the individual novel sections, even though I read the book less than a year ago. It seemed to me to be mostly a tour through Stross's invented world, like Clarke did in novels like Rendezvous With Rama and Imperial Earth.

Whereas Glasshouse is a real novel, with many the same ideas as Accelerando, but the ideas are in the background. His characters grew up in that world, they take its gosh-wow ideas for granted.

#88 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 09:08 PM:

The difference seems to be -- and I may be entirely wrong about this -- that you're talking about the story being about the cool new thing "altering society." I was taught that the story is about the cool new thing creating a conflict for the characters.

Teleportation stories have "more possibilities" because we can pretty much make up any rules we want to about how the system works. Teleportation might bypass all terrain, allow you to pants Karl Rove and escape undetected, and so forth and so on, but only if a whole battery of physical constraints were removed. Relative angular momentum, the energy potential of altitude, and the Uncertainty Principle are often handled with a handwave about "compensation." You can tune the system to suit your story (the Star Trek system was solely a time-saving measure) or postulate rules and work out the consequences. What you can't say with a scrap of plausibility right now is "This is what would happen." If, on the other hand, we learned how to produce genetically neutral human livers, a whole lot of people who are dying, unpleasantly, right this minute would suddenly have a chance. Now, that in itself isn't a story -- it needs a conflict to be that. Coming up with that conflict is the real answer to everybody's favorite stupid question, "Where do you get your crazy ideas?"

And that's what the "who does this hurt?" question comes from. (I'm going to assume that you simply have never heard this before.) It's not necessary to have the New Thing hurt someone -- physically, emotionally, or economically -- but it's certainly a source of conflict, and is highly likely to drive the victim to try and do something about it -- you know, motivation.

#89 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 09:48 PM:

But hasn't that always been the case?

It was an observation in response to Lucy saying something about the challenge of near future SF.

I hadn't thought about it, but it seemed true, so I pondered it some more and choked out an observation which got misinterpreted and trampled and abused and ransacked and pummeled and eventually cleaned up enough that you stand before me saying "Well, duh!"

(chagrin)

As for "hasn't that always been the case", I'm not so sure. I haven't pondered that one yet. Given the last go around, I'm not entirely sure it is worth the ponder. But since I'm a glutton for punishment, I'd ponder that near future SF of a hundred years ago or so probably had a bigger "story space" based on near future gadgets that hadn't quite been invented yet, but were being pondered by writers.

And it feels like the list of near-future gadgets which writers are pondering has since dwindled, a lot of near future SF isn't about a gadget changing anything, but society changing in some way, which could also be written in far future as well, meaning the "story space" available because of social changes only is the same whether it's near or far future.

Which simply means that far future SF has a lot of gadgets to play with that will completely alter the world, whereas near future SF doesn't have as many gadgets that will alter the world. And either one could hold a story where society changes not because of a gadget but because of society.

which might reflect some of the "challenge" of near future SF, versus distant future.

#90 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 09:56 PM:

you're talking about the story being about the cool new thing "altering society."

no, I was talking about the available story space, or whatever you want to call it. Is there an official phrase for that idea? I don't know.

So, it wasn't that SF being only about some gadget. It was simply comparing the story space between near and far future SF and why would near future be more challenging. And it would seem that near and far future could both have any sort of story hinge around some social change, that the story space around dystopia, for example, is the same whether near or far future. But that near future SF has a smaller "gadget" space than far future SF.

So, the tally would be more like:

Near future:
social space=5
gadget space=2
total space=7

Far future
social space=5 (same as near)
gadget space=10 (much bigger than near)
total space =15

Of course the numbers are completely arbitrary, but were chosen simply for relative illustration purposes. And the idea being simply to compare near and far future SF story spaces and what's different about them.

#91 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2006, 11:17 PM:

Greg London:

I hadn't thought about it, but it seemed true, so I pondered it some more and choked out an observation which got misinterpreted and trampled and abused and ransacked and pummeled and eventually cleaned up enough that you stand before me saying "Well, duh!"

I didn't intend for it to come out that way.

"Story space" is a great phrase.

#92 ::: Individ-ewe-al ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 01:07 AM:

Greg: "If people live 10 or 20 years longer than they did before these things, what sort of SF story do you write about that?"

_The trouble with lichen_ ?

#93 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 11:19 AM:

Mitch,

I think I was just cranky last night for having to work till 10 pm.

Don't mind me.


#94 ::: Jim Henry ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 12:36 PM:
what happens when Archer Daniels Midland successfully patents the rice genome?

THE CALORIE MAN by Paolo Bacigalupi

All the public domain crop plant varieties have gone extinct due to diseases; all currently available crop plants are under patent. There's more to the story than that (we've run out of economically accessible oil, so said patented crops are essential not only for food but for biofuel).

#95 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 12:42 PM:

What you describe is in the social space, not gadget space, of the story. The only reason engineered rice is a problem is because of the social rule of patents. The gadget itself (super rice) isn't the problem. Take away the patent, and there is no story. The problem is a social problem, and the story is in a social story space.

#96 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 01:11 PM:

Near future:
social space=5
gadget space=2
total space=7

Far future
social space=5 (same as near)
gadget space=10 (much bigger than near)
total space =15

If you take "far future" to mean what it says, then the "social space" is bigger as well, because you're not constrained by any sense of fidelity to today's world. In Dune, Frank Herbert could invent all sorts of strange societies and customs (Empire, Sardaukar, Fremen, Bene Gesserit) and then combine them as he liked to suit the story. Because it was the far future, he didn't have to explain in detail how these emerged from our world.

But if you write a story set fifteen or twenty years from now, you're limited by the fact that everyone knows what the world is like now, and people have a general sense of how much social things can plausibly change in that time. You can't really repopulate the world with monarchies, or multiple massively popular new religions, or radically different languages, or...

#97 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 01:52 PM:

If you take "far future" to mean what it says, then the "social space" is bigger as well, because you're not constrained by any sense of fidelity to today's world.

I think "1984" is near future, but it completely upended the world socially, with no outlandish new technology. I don't think there is any social constraint for near as compared to far future.

Dune, on the other hand, had a bigger space because of new gadgets, such as space ships that traveled great distances in short times because of spice, giant sand worms, personal forcefields that can be penetrated by slow bullets, and magic in the form of voice command ego attacks, all of which are far-future technology, which creates a much bigger story space to affect people in different ways.

socially, Dune is little more than another war in the desert over fuel, with monarchies and tyrants and all sorts of piss-ant contries going after the fuel, which does ring a faint bell or two, warring over finite fuel and all.

Gadget-wise, however, Dune's got a lot of space to play in.

#98 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 03:59 PM:

Mitch, you actually need look no farther than the Star Trek universe again for your "Aliens have been around for a little bit, but it's still all new" condition. The much (and often undeservedly) maligned Enterprise dealt with this as a theme quite extensively and well, particularly in its fourth season.

And I'm thoroughly baffled at Greg's dismissal of the Internet's SFnal value as being reliant on computers. It completely misses the point of what makes the internet so special as an invention, which is its truly transformative effects on communications and the accessibility of knowledge. The Internet is a technical achievement, sure...but it's much more fascinating and revolutionary as an information sciences and social achievement, both of which are perfectly appropriate topics for SF of both near and far-future varieties.

#99 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 04:22 PM:

Skwid - Hmmm.... I think you're right about Enterprise. I didn't think of it because I dislike the series, and because the alien contact happened a full generation before the story begins -- 50-75 years, if I recall correctly -- and I was thinking in smaller timescales than that, of a couple of decades.

And yet the essence is the same. Aliens are commonplace, there's a permanent alien presence on the Earth and permanent human presence in the stars. New aliens coming to Earth are routine, they don't attract any attention.

And yet aliens are still new, and human societies are just starting to change to accommodate them.

#100 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 04:39 PM:

I'm thoroughly baffled at Greg's dismissal of the Internet's SFnal value

I wasn't dismissing it as having SF value, I was saying that it isn't in the gadget side of the story space of SF. The internet is really a social phenomenon.

The "gadget story space" for the internet was carved out by the invention of CMOS integrated circuits. There is no other "gadget" tech needed for the internet. The only thing needed then is the "social story space" made available by changing the way people interact from real to electronic.

It isn't that I dismissed it, it's just that I was saying the last notable expansion of "gadget story space" was with the invention of the CMOS IC. It's been a lot of social repercussions since then.

All of which tied back to the idea that the gadget story space for near future SF has been shrinking as we invent the things science fiction used to write about. What's left, for the most part, is far future SF technology, like hyperdrives and teleporters.

#101 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 05:27 PM:

the last notable expansion of "gadget story space" was with the invention of the CMOS IC.

that should be "gadget space" as in real world gadget space, not "gadget SF story space".

The invention of CMOS IC shrunk the "gadget based SF story space".

#102 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 05:28 PM:

The "gadget story space" for the internet was carved out by the invention of CMOS integrated circuits. There is no other "gadget" tech needed for the internet. The only thing needed then is the "social story space" made available by changing the way people interact from real to electronic.

I'm sorry, but I think that's quite wrong. The Internet is not latent in CMOS integrated circuits. CMOS ICs make the internet easier, but you could build the internet out of vacuum tubes, photonics, or molecular circuitry. You could probably build a simple version out of Babbage engines and telegraphs. The Internet is based on several technologies of networking; the physical substrate is the least important part.

(There's a book about the 19th Century spread of telegraphs and telephones called The Victorian Internet; it's partly a clever attention-getting title, but it's partly a valid insight into networks as technology in and of themselves.)

What you're suggesting is a bit like saying, "The gadget story space for airplanes was carved out by the invention of aluminum alloys."

All of which tied back to the idea that the gadget story space for near future SF has been shrinking as we invent the things science fiction used to write about. What's left, for the most part, is far future SF technology, like hyperdrives and teleporters.

I'm getting the impression that we have rather different definitions of technology: you have this very narrow conception of a "gadget", which apparently is almost always physics-based and is something you can usually stick in a box, or a booth, or the "engine room."

As it happens, people have been thinking up new things (that is, newer than your 1940s/50s list) that might fit even a narrow definition of "gadget," such as nanotechnology, programmable matter, minds as software, organisms designed from scratch (including designer diseases), ubiquitous computing, revival of extinct species, etc.

#103 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 05:33 PM:

If your primary exposure to Enterprise was the first (or even the second) season, I can't blame you for disliking it. That so many Trek fans gave up on the series before it hit such an excellent stride in the third and fourth seasons will always depress me. The fourth season, in particular, dealt repeatedly with Xenophobic political and social factions on Earth...the alien presence on Earth was definitely *not* viewed as permanent, and our presence in the stars was really in its infancy and strongly questioned as a necessary or wise venture.

Back to Greg, I guess I don't see that "gadget-space" is necessarily essential to near-future SF, but perhaps that's my Psychology background kicking in. Speculation in changes of the social sciences is, to me, just as valid a realm for SF to explore as the "hard" sciences were when so much more seemed possible and mutable in those realms.

If we must focus on the hard sciences, I'd put my money on a focus in bio-tech for near-future SF; there's still a great deal of ill-defined potential in the field and simultaneously a lot of activity working towards developments that could be truly SFnal in their impact.

#104 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 05:40 PM:

I don't see that "gadget-space" is necessarily essential to near-future SF,

It isn't essential. But it's part of the total space. See previous post.

#105 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 05:46 PM:

A grim note on the biotech SF front (and one well-predicted by Niven in the '70s):

A report came out recently that China is now quietly selling freshly harvested organs from political prisoners - if you talk to the right hospital there they will promise you a fresh kidney, liver, corneas, whatever you want for about $10-40K, and arrange to have the prisoners killed as needed to fit the demand. This is what the Chinese protestor arrested earlier this year was drawing attention to: most of the prisoners being murdered this way are Falun Gong members.

Not sure exactly what bearing this has on the present discussion, except to observe once again with Robert Anton Wilson (and probably others) that we are all living in a science fiction novel. Not necessarily the cheery triumphal type.

#106 ::: Louisa ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2006, 11:00 PM:

Argh. I posted on the last discussion what I should have posted here. Now what?

#107 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2006, 09:03 PM:

What precisely is wrong with "It's been done" ?
SF seems to be the only genre where everything has to not have been done before.

Other genres, you can stick to tried-and-true plot elements and still be producing original work.

#108 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2006, 10:34 AM:

Mitch, when you say, "Imagine a writer sitting in 1986, writing a story set 20 years in the future," I see Gregory Benford in the mid-seventies, writing In The Ocean of Night--consider his treatment of cable TV choices.

#109 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2006, 01:49 PM:

Never read "In the Ocean Of." What did he predict?

Which Bruce Sterling novel was it that opened with a woman telecommuting from her corporate job from a B&B (or something like that)? Was that "Schismatrix."

I never got into that novel. I tried reading it in 1992-93, and at that time I was a telecommuter from a lovely Boston apartment. So it seemed very non-sfnal to me.

#110 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2006, 02:07 PM:

Mitch, that might be "Islands in the Net."

Sure as heck wasn't Schismatrix; that begins with a guy getting smothered by moths. On an L-5 colony.

#111 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2006, 02:11 PM:

Oh, Mitch--you've never read that? I spend a lot of time recommending it to both sf fans and non-sf fans. It's just a wonderful novel on any level--I greatly admire it, and enjoyed the rest of the series quite a bit, too.

Anyway, there's a scene (I don't think this qualifies as a spoiler) where the protagonist and his sidekick are at a party at the evil bureaucrat's home, and one of them changes the channel on the television in his lounge. The other suggests they shouldn't be viewing his private selections. Right on cue, up comes a video of a pleading young woman being disemboweled. Somewhat embarrassed, they change the channel--I believe to a religious station.

That passage just seems to me to sum up The Television of Today.

(Much of the detail in your post is background in the book.)

#112 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2006, 03:18 PM:

The Internet is not latent in CMOS integrated circuits. CMOS ICs make the internet easier, but you could build the internet out of vacuum tubes, photonics, or molecular circuitry. You could probably build a simple version out of Babbage engines and telegraphs.

Except that none of those other technologies are cheap enough that everyone has a Babbage engine in their home. CMOS IC's are inherently cheap in sufficient quanitities. In fact, the cost per unit of IC's goes down significantly with volume. The more you build, the vastly cheaper they get. I don't think you have the same economies of scale in the technology behind, say, Babbage's engine.

You certainly couldn't display media on any of that stuff, and media is one of the biggest draws of the internet. Telegraph lines won't display images, sound, mp3's, and text. Only CMOS IC's were flexible enough to handle everything that people wanted for content, and were cheap enough that you could have a computer in every house.

The Internet is based on several technologies of networking; the physical substrate is the least important part.

The biggest networking technology is Ethernet, which, surprise surprise, was started in the 1970's, soon after CMOS IC's became available. It is nothing more than a protocol, an agreement between devices as to how they'll communicate. Nearly everything else has simply been agreeing on file formats as new content could be supported by the bandwidth.

I'm getting the impression that we have rather different definitions of technology:

Dunno what your definition is, but mine is based on being an electrical engineer, software engineer, working in military, aerospace, and more lately in consumer products. I generally think that the patent office is far too loose in granting patents for what should be considered natural extensions of preexisting technology. Patents should reward people for finding new veins of technology, not for mining the vein a little further than someone else did.

As it happens, people have been thinking up new things (that is, newer than your 1940s/50s list)

First, the CMOS IC is ~1970 technology. I clarified this already, but folks keep missing it. That's about where my cutoff is.

Second, people have been thinking all sorts of stuff, but I was talking about stuff that is of a type that can alter the world sufficiently that it makes good fodder for an SF story, and that story could be based on nothing but the changes that technology would have on the world.

That's what I mean by "gadget based SF story space".

#113 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2006, 04:17 PM:

Islands in the Net. I'm pretty sure that's it.

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Jim Macdonald, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

If you are a spammer, your fate is in the hands of Jim Macdonald, and your foot shall slide in due time.

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="http://www.url.com">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.















(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.