Thoughts on writing science fiction with a positive view of the future

Where have all the utopias gone from science fiction? I have written on this in the past because dystopic views seem to be in vogue. I think we could all use a little optimism in our fantasies about the future and this started me thinking about what to write if trying to tackle writing a utopia.

It occurs to me that utopian visions come out of the perceived ills and thoughts of forward momentum/accomplishment of a time period. It seems to me that what offers a glimmer of hope in the midst of the darkest corner of the dread is that which is seized upon and a utopian dream comes forth.

So in the midst of rapidly expanding industrialization that was happening on the backs of “found” energy in the form of the workers was the realization that the workers had power, then there was the idea of unions, and socialism and an equal distribution of wealth came up as idea. This was the spin on the idea of “To each according to his need and from each according to his ability.” There was no assumed station or assumption of inherited or predetermined power or wealth in that idea.

In the midst of mechanized progress that created labor saving devices and generated a consumer economy to fuel the need to sell such no longer seen as luxury devices more income and a more regularized workweek became the norm and the utopian fantasy of the time became one of modern mechanized conveniences, a shortened work week and less labor. Everyone living in a dream of luxury needed items to enjoy their expanded leisure time. It was kind of like an advertisement to sell the American dream.

Out of the repression of the post war era where everyone had to be somnambulated back into their pre-war position because it was not acceptable at that time to have women and blacks holding good jobs that “men” needed to support their families came dreams of civil rights, equal opportunity, and women’s rights.

Currently, I would say that our utopian visions are rooted in a desire to find an energy source that will avert environmental disaster. Another possibility is the inklings of power that are just beginning to tickle the general public’s consciousness in regards to the potentialities of being globally networked, having information instantly constantly available, and having the entire planet in possession of social media applications. This could be another form of “democracy” the world has never seen. The problems to overcome are the short attention span and shelf life of anything that appears over the internet. Another possibility is the dream of what might arise out of medical/genetic advances. Genetics and bioengineering are moving forward and will quickly present a slippery slope of ethical decisions that will influence the human race on a species level in dramatic ways.

I think there is a human inclination to hoard, to have, to compete, to have more. The free market could be said to be rooted in this inclination. I would caution against saying anything akin to that this is “human nature”. I have a higher opinion of the species than this and validating something that causes callus decisions that harm, because free markets are predicated on exploitation, and making it an inescapable “truth” I cannot hold to. As human beings we do not need this to be considered self evident and we are capable of regulatory systems to hold the grossest applications of the “free market” inclination in check.

In all honesty, I do not see any utopia as free from conflict. A utopia is an ideal and ideals are always fraught with conflict. In a plurality, one can always say “wouldn’t it be wonderful if…”, but one person’s ideal will not be everyone’s ideal.

I concur with an idea that a friend expressed that our current time period would be considered a utopia by past generations. Often there is a backward glance through history that casts a golden light on a previous age and we see the past through a pastoral fantasy. The current time period may seem difficult but we have a greatly expanded lifespan because of much less infant mortality, better medical practice, better water and sewage treatment, better distribution of food, etc. We live in a world that our ancestors from as little ago as 200 years may never have been able to even imagine.

I think in looking to the future to try to write a “utopia” rather than striving for the “utopia,” maybe it is better to consider what the world might look like with current advances advanced farther. How might these things bring rise to new political systems? If we are globally networked, how will this affect notions of nationality? What does this do to borders? Immigration? Already we are seeing countries forming unions to have more economic and political clout on a planet where the system of interaction is a “global economy” and to wield power a “union” or “coalition” must have resources, respect, etc. How might alliances shift? What if policies and governments can never hide their secrets and public opinion holds power? What will happen if people can be genetically modified for their jobs? What if the human life span can be expanded fivefold? What if the roots/mechanism of human memory are found? What are the implications? What if a cheap clean virtually limitless power source is found or created? What will this do? What will happen to the population on the planet? Instead of seeing all these advances or progression in a dystopic way, what would they look like as part of ordinary life?

This is the stuff that a hopeful view of the future might be grown from.

What is the importance of science fiction?

What is the importance of science fiction?

I have asked this question of myself and others. It presumes that science fiction has a place. An important place. But does it?

Science fiction has been called the literature of ideas. There is science fiction in the literary canon. 1984. Fahrenheit 451. The Handmaid’s Tale. The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The Dispossessed. The Left Hand of Darkness. Frankenstein. The ideas of science fiction paved the way for many technological achievements. Would we have ventured to the moon without science fiction proposing the idea? Will we go to Mars without science fiction teasing out the plan?

But very frequently, whenever I suggest that science fiction is an important genre, I am met with derision. I have seen people suinch up their noses or look at me like I have suggested something depraved. I have been told that most science fiction that is being written is inferior to other forms of literature available. I am skeptically asked why I read science fiction. I had one person ask me why I read science fiction because, well, I have a masters degree and wouldn’t I prefer to reading something that is more challenging. I have been told that science fiction is nothing more than blasters and spaceships and green skinned alien girls. And tired plots of time travel, alien encounters gone awry, and galactic federations with no notion of their own prime directives.

I also try to write science fiction and fantasy short stories. I have been repeatedly told by other writers that the writing is for entertainment and should not shoot beyond this. I am lead to believe that anything beyond this is pretension. Perhaps to believe that one could write something that would say more and be more than mere entertainment is pretentious. Further, I doubt I have the skill in my writing at this time to write the larger stories. The ones that speak to generations and propose a new future.

Personally, I do think science fiction ideas at times form a template for later technological breakthroughs. Did the Star Trek gadgets inspire real technology? Did H.G. Wells inspire the moon missions? Further, the visions and language of science fiction give a place and a vocabulary for technological breakthroughs to ease into the population as well as the imaginations of inventors, researchers, engineers, and scientists.

The low expectation that seems to be placed upon the genre of science fiction limits ideas. If it is to only be for entertainment, then how do we shoot for the stars? I do wonder if because there is a lack of a vision of a bright future if this might not be limiting the science fiction being written and in a circular roundabout sort of way if the science fiction is not providing a bright vision of the future perhaps there is no future to be had. Ideas proceed reality. Why is it that I see a preponderance of alternative history, a revision of Victorian times with advanced steam technology, or science fiction set only in, not our future, but the future of some alien/alternate dimension? Where have the dreams and aspirations gone? Are we drifting into the deadzone of our what might have happened past?

Can any of us give the future anymore? We can barely keep up in the very distracted present. If we can not envision a future, what does this mean for humanity?

Where have the visions of the future gone?

Let me preface some of what I am going to write in this post by saying that I am still researching and processing things– in other words I am not done yet and there will be further posts on this as I read more and think more. Also, I am certain that there will be people who have their own thoughts on the state of science fiction and can more readily point to examples of “whatever” than I can. I am not claiming expertise, but rather just expressing my opinion.

I saw the latest addition to the Star Trek franchise last week. For me it was a slightly disappointing, nostalgic experience. Whereas The Watchmen movie took me back to the late eighties, reminded me of when the series first came out, and made me contemplate the difference in the political atmosphere of that decade to the current decade, the newest Star Trek movie only reminded me of the importance of the original series. It also made me sad because I left thinking that it held in some ways too many self conscious nods to the original series for me and also hinted that it was reinventing the new series for the commercial purpose of making more movies and a truckload of money. This may be harsh but to me it was a gutted, soulless endeavor only made more palpable by the performance of Zachary Quinto. The story felt uninspired–a vengeful time traveling Romulan mining ship captain who sets out to wreck havoc. How many Star Trek movies involving time travel and the potential destruction of the earth need to be made? I want a fresh story with an interesting script. How about boldly going forth, rather than rehashing the past of what was once a truly dynamic television series that inspired a potential vision for the future, and making some outstanding new science fiction that pushes the boundaries and further drives the imagination of what could be? How about showing us a story set on a truly alien planet? Perhaps showing us a scenario where the human heroes have inadvertently violated the prime directive. Perhaps a story where the aliens are not the bad guys.

I read and write science fiction and fantasy and I have been to several lectures, presentations, and conventions where I have heard quite a few different authors and speakers adamantly assert that science fiction as a genre is alive and well. The very fact that this assertion keeps being put forth makes me suspicious of its claim. This morning after being awoken by a window rattling thunder boom, I began cruising the internet and just doing some casual research about the genre. While there are some marvelous authors who have been consistently writing well written short stories and novels, notable among them in my mind are people like Connie Willis who has won nine Nebulas and six Hugos and Ted Chiang whose short stories and novellas are incredibly well crafted pieces, the number of names showing an unwavering presence in the field is not as large as was the case in decades past.

I began wondering about this. There are the popular phenoms like Neil Gaiman whose work is outstanding and J.K. Rowling, but both are really fantasy writers. So I began to try to break this down for myself.

The first conclusion that I came to was that since the 1970’s science fiction being presented on television and in the movies has grown. In the decade between 1960-1970 there were approximately 35 science fiction television series. From 1970 -1980 the number jumped to approximately 52. In the years between 2000 and 2004 this number jumped and I counted approximately 186 television series internationally and I am not going to stand by that count as an accurate number. Further, many of the television series that I counted were anime, loose fantasy series, and others dealing with themes of the supernatural. In addition to the number of television series dealing with science fiction or fantasy themes, there has been the growth of video games over the last three decades. Now the question that springs to my mind about this proliferation and popularization of science fiction in media other than print copy, is whether or not this helps or hurts the genre. It certainly indicates a mass appeal for the flavor of science fiction and fantasy. In regards to the publication of printed material, I think that this has hurt the genre. Fans can simply get their fix in a different form. Further, I think that we are in the midst of an information evolution and visual media has become much more readily available. Kind of like when the printing press suddenly made printed material much more available. I could cry out about the evils of visual media but I think it would only show that I am a dinosaur to be left behind. I do think that we are in the beginning stages of developing the art forms of the feature length movie and the episodic television series. We haven’t begun. Currently, I think that the novel in printed form is much more sophisticated and offers a greater depth for artistic expression to the author and meaningful engagement for the reader.
I will advocate as Norman Spinrad did that novelizations of television series or movies should not be eligible for Nebula awards. The award is given for outstanding writing and I think that any piece deserving of this award should have fresh ideas and original characters.

The second conclusion that I came to after researching for a bit was that the number of names writing science fiction seems to be greater but they are publishing slightly less than authors in the past and they don’t seem to have the stamina of authors of the past for decades long writing careers. I am not sure what to make of this. I read one article that described how in the decade of the 1990’s many authors who had had little problem getting their books published previously suddenly were without publishing contracts or their advances dropped in value dramatically. I have read many articles about the plight of the mid-listers who languish at a mid level of sales. They make enough to keep writing but barely and they don’t receive the support of their publishers. Further, in recent decades the mid-list crowd has been thinning. Two thoughts that occur to me are that it takes time for an author to reach a certain level of name recognition and become a thing and, secondly, that it takes time for an artist to mature in their craft and become truly outstanding. As a society driven by quick profits, it may be that we are not offering enough monetary incentive to beginning authors and they give up the dream of being a writer before they have matured in their craft out of economic necessity.

The third conclusion that I thought about is still swirling, but I noticed that while science fiction seems to be dwindling, fantasy is experiencing growth. This could be that the kids who grew up with Harry Potter are looking for what’s familiar and continuing to read fantasy and hence there is a market for fantasy which fuels the production and publication of more fantasy. This doesn’t so much address the dwindling amount of science fiction as it does the growth of fantasy, but allow me to turn this one around and look back at the past for a moment. When I was growing up, Sputnik propelled the U.S. education system into creating a more rigorous science curriculum. Because of my introduction in elementary school to the ideas of space exploration, model rockets, beautiful pictures of nebulas in space, astronomy field trips to learn the constellations, I began to read Heinlein’s juvenile novels. I grew up with science fiction. I also grew up in an era when science seemed the limitless answer to a thousand possibilities. There was an optimism about science and its potentialities that came through into the science fiction. A future could be envisioned.

Now, educational funding has been cut. This morning I read a blog post sighting Norman Spinrad, who was a president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, as follows:

“In a society where the distinction between astronomy and astrology is probably blurry in more minds than not…where very few viewers see anything wrong in spacecraft executing banking turns in a vacuum…and where the teaching of science in primary and secondary schools is itself in steep decline, surely the potential readership for hard science fiction must be dwindling even faster than that for science fiction in general.”

Further, while one can still find Heinlein’s juvenile novels, there aren’t many science fiction novels for elementary students and young adults. The only ones that spring to mind are Scott Westerfield’s novels–Uglies, Pretties, and Specials and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. The kids aren’t inspired by science. There is not a great abundance of science fiction for them to read. And we are not growing avid science fiction readers.

This is bad for the genre. The genre of science fiction needs more readers to support it and flourish.

I am going to take this another step farther. In the past there was a cycle where science fiction offered a vision of the future and science pursued it. I have written about this before. Currently, it seems to me that the discoveries of science over the last few decades have been extraordinary and growing at a dizzying rate. But at the same time one hears constant stories about potential pandemics, global warming, the mass extinction of species, etc. There is a proliferation of doomsday stories. This is nothing new. The 1950’s had constant stories about The Bomb and the potential of nuclear war. The difference was in the level of optimism. In decades past, science was going to be the high achievement and saving grace of humanity. Our science would save us. Our vision for the future would lead us past our troubles. Currently, there is a pessimism that pervades and while science makes leaps, it seems that science will not save us, science has caused many of the problems by injudicious application, and the vision is lost. I am not going to naively suggest that if writers of science fiction offer glowing proposals of utopian dreams where science has salvaged the environmental ruin that we have made of our planet all will be well, but perhaps a new vision of possibility needs to be created. Perhaps, science fiction has lost some of its readers simply because of a lack of forward thinking. Where are the visions of future science? What will our society look like in 3010?

Again, this is a long and rambling post. I am still thinking and probably will revisit this topic at another time. Any thoughts that anyone has for me to consider would be greatly appreciated.

Nanobots are NOT the Faeries of Science Fiction

I have been writing critiques of science fiction short stories all afternoon. My head is pounding and I need to vent to the world my opinion.

Nanobots are NOT the faeries of the science fiction world.

Nanobots are engineered and programed itty bitty eeensy weensy robots. The technology promises amazing things. Stunning things. And if this technology is properly placed in a science fiction story– I say Bravo!

However, far too often I read the word nanobot in a story and suddenly the nanobots are like science fiction’s own version of magic. They can alter flesh to transform the appearance of a person in a matter of moments, they can alter the emotions and thoughts of characters, they can analyze ancient technologies from a previous era, they can make inoperable machinery operable and somehow power it with no evident source of power, they can rewrite the system program and emotional application for a type of cyborg(?), they can analyze levels of radiation that would fry a human being without a hazard suit, ….

These are all examples of the use of nanobots in stories that I have read THIS afternoon.

I am coming to the conclusion that if I see the word nanobot in a story it means that the author has taken a lazy route and has not thought about or done any research on science or advanced technologies. Further, the inclusion of nanobots automatically creates suspicion in me and it is a much harder sell for the author to convince me of the reality of their story.

There are so many new and exciting things being discovered at this moment in history. So many marvels that could be the basis for science fiction. These authors are missing out on possible opportunities by not reading widely or investigating what might be possible.

Check out the following:

In this one Juan Enriquez goes on a bit about the economy and then touches on fascinating scientific advancements.

In this one David Merrill talks about new blocks that he has developed that are mini computers that interact.

This is just kind of cool.

All of these come from TED talks. There are many more that are really very good and this is just a small sample.

It is a place to start for inspiration while writing science fiction. I say no more Nanobot faery magic.