Why Writing Science Fiction Recently got Harder to Do

A number of science fiction writers have recently come out and said as much. Writing sci-fi has recently gotten harder to do. Charles Stross, for example, in a recent talk for the “Chaos Communication Congress” stated:

“My recipe for fiction set ten years in the future used to be 90% already-here, 9% not-here-yet but predictable, and 1% who-ordered-that. But unfortunately the ratios have changed. I think we’re now down to maybe 80% already-here—climate change takes a huge toll on infrastructure—then 15% not-here-yet but predictable, and a whopping 5% of utterly unpredictable deep craziness.” Full article

This is from a writer who (according to his website) has had published works of note since about (?) 2001.

While anyone with a Communication Degree (which I don’t have) can tell you people have been talking about our sense of ourselves and where we’re going getting ever more deeply crazy since at least the 1960’s (I’m thinking of “Understanding Media” by Marshall McLuhan here; and, from a quick scan to jog my memory, his descriptions of the ‘electric age’ are uncannily still prescient today) my argument (and Stross’s argument, it seems) is that something is qualitatively different about our current technology, society, cultures and outlooks than it was even eighteen years ago, never mind fifty-four.

Allow me to map some of it out:

Since 2001 we have full public consciousness of climate change.

Arguably. The second IPCC report was in 1996 and I don’t remember as many people caring about the first one in 1990. When did this take the shine off our imagined futures? If it has, I’d suggest it was since “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. Perhaps it hasn’t. Star Trek Discovery is doing fine and the 9,500 pc sales increase for dystopian classic “1984” was probably more to do with Trump’s election than climate change. In 2014 – 18 we are also very clearly still going to make it to Mars. But perhaps it has contributed to a spike in readers’ interest in dystopias.

I put this before other concerns because it’s a “meta issue”. As Stross points out, it means infrastructure is going to take a beating. I’d add health; and also mental bandwidth (our spare capacity for higher functions, like the sort needed to get us out of a pickle like climate change).

Since 2001 (actually just since October) we have had announcements about the recorded presence of super-advanced and possibly non-human technology from government insiders curious enough that poor Seth Shostak balked about them (and Shostak’s a dude).

Charlie character in a space suit adrift in space Not being trained in any sciences since school, I’d hesitate to make real-world assertions here. That said, OK I will. I have had more than just armchair interest in the matter of UAP’s since about 2014; and my bet is that the Fermi paradox is already answered since not all science is made public. Even if you disagree with that wild and barely [1] [2] supported claim, which you probably do (or, worse, will until you get fooled by some sort of military false flag – the whole thing feels like another (the same?) arms race between the US and Russia), my point is that now is even a hard time to write about non-human characters lest some bizarre left field government announcement renders your plot a bit laughable. (Who wants to read about Vogons when you’ve got real ones to communicate with using Penrosean-like non-local conscious thought, for example? Guilty as charged.)

Since 2001 we’ve had the second Iraq war and 9/11, Trump and the Paris global climate agreement, the Eurasian Economic Union and Brexit, the 2008 crash and NASA’s Dawn at Ceres, I.S. and a 3D printed lab-grown ear and, of course, much, much more.

Heck, only few weeks ago Musk put a Tesla in space. A month ago we discovered that we may be 100,000 years older as a species (quel surprise); and (using LiDAR) that Mayan cities were more like megalopolises. So what do we know? It may be safer to project backwards in time, like some TV channels have done, and explore advanced ancient civilizations in our literature rather than doing socio-political futurology. That, or put your work safely in the escapist speculative sphere – a far future scenario where the triple crunch of energy transition, economics and environmental change can’t screw up your plot. That really is escaping. Escaping for the writer; not the reader. Take your plot and stick an EmDrive underneath it and you might just be OK.

So what about tech?

Since 2001 we’ve had home broadband Internet.

I’m sure it’s older; but I didn’t have it until about 2004. That means the usability and ubiquity of the Web is only 14 years old. I’m sure I have t-shirts older than that. Along with this we’ve had other Web-assisted tech like smart phones, smart thermostats, and social media. This area’s not quite so hard to predict on. We all know we’re going to have dramatically altered physical-world lifestyles from augmented reality soon enough. (Personally I think AR will be more impactful on everyday experience than VR: that’s what I’m writing about next.) Spicing up the picture with things like vector projectors on top of that is kinda neat. Yes, tech is still doing Moore’s law type things; and 4iR is underway. (Ooh! More robots! More task-specific AI!)

So there you have it.

Very roughly. In a sort of Charlie Brooker style. The future is an increasingly climate-weirded world where humans are less intelligent, infrastructure buckles, and calamity abounds. You haven’t seen a refugee crisis yet; and Trump is just the support act. It’s a place where rumours of cleverer non-humans spread, so best not make predictions about those except in the far-future or the distant past. (More “releases” from Tom DeLonge’s ToTheStars Academy are promised.) It’s a place where anything is politically and socially possible (read Bartlett’s “Radicals”). But if you want to talk about tech it’s probably OK. The iPhone is only 11 years old, and we humans are still glowing with pride on that one.

So go ahead. Chuck in teleportation. Knock your cells out.

Frak Me.

My husband will tell you. I have a habit of joining things at the end. In about 1999, for example, I was managing a kind of forerunner to the UK-specific Google search engine. I had to leave about ten months in to the job when the dot com bubble burst meaning investors pulled out rather quickly. Having recently joined the team of humans who have published bound volumes containing pages of text illustrating possible futures, I shouldn’t be too surprised that I do so right at the point when

the future of the future is finding itself a little bit frakked.

But then, I suppose that’s my point here. So, instead of feeling despondent about my habit of championing a doomed cause I should congratulate myself on having found another one. It wins me the argument. I doubt it wins me many friends.

But, gentle reader, here’s a curve ball. Perhaps our present is changing so radically that

what we want from our speculative narratives is changing exponentially too.

I can see a handful of responses to this “weirding” situation:

“Go there so we don’t actually”

There’s no point reading about glossy white space port corridors if we can’t see past next summer’s drought. This is science fiction in “word of caution” mode. Definitely still has merit.

The EmDrive Plot option

Avoid the potential threats to our hierarchies of need. Avoid small is beautiful. Avoid making “eco” badass. Avoid petrol heads making do with Formula-E. Go far-future.

Capitalize on the Thirst for Future Bling

The coming of broadband, the iPhone, yada yada, has almost certainly made us expectant of rapid technological advance. Perhaps our “Mars Literature” is responding to that. This option is kind of: “put it all on steroids and do it quick before we have a climate or economic melt-down!” or “Let’s make it amazing like our smart phone games are!”

Revel in the Weirding

A time of such great transition and transformation adds as much “anything goes” as it does “how do I predict my way through this?” Embrace the weirding. Someone recently asked me for advice (poor thing) on which Sci-Fi greats to read. I named a few suggestions. But I also reflected that in some cases the question should now be asked: are they still great? Sure, they’re still great fiction; even great Science Fiction of their day. But, for present-day readers, can we really feel their greatness any more – and, if not, what does that mean? Move over, greats! New writers coming through!