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Science fiction and 'lasting'
PostPosted: Fri Nov 02, 2007 2:05 am Reply with quote
Joined: 10 Sep 2006
Posts: 64
Location: Aberdeen, Scotland

The following is a quote from Michael Marshall Smith's introduction to Philip K. Dick's Ubik:-

One of the key challenges facing any work of futuristic fiction is that of lasting. It's not the only important thing, of course, but if you hang out your shingle on the premise of saying what things are going to be like, and it turns out they aren't, it cannot help but distance the reader. This is the tension inherent in all science fiction, and the bottom line is that novelists have little skill in predicting technological advances: otherwise they'd ditch the hard slog of writing and play the stock market instead. There's also the matter of getting the resonance right. Even if someone does manage to predict people running around with portable 'communicators' or some such far-speaking device, they probably won't also imagine the market in downloadable ring tones or soft porn wallpapers, or realise how much time will be spent using said communicators to bellow 'The shuttle's just getting into the spaceport now, should be back at the livePod in 0.5 Earth hours,' to people who already knew what time you're expected home, and don't in fact really care.

Smith's point was that Dick was very good about making things like that not matter: The technology in most of Philip K. Dick's books was largely incidental, the main themes of the novels pertaining more to 'timeless' subjects such as metaphysics and psychology. Ubik is set in 1992, which, when the book was written, was still 23 years in the future, but is now 15 years in the past, and still we can suspend our disbelief without being interrupted by thoughts of "No, that's not what happened at all!"

George Orwell, too, in 1984 did not paint an accurate picture of what 1984 would be like, but instead wrote a book in which that didn't really matter, despite the title. By contrast, Jules Verne suggested getting men to the moon by means of a giant catapult - a method we, today, might find ridiculous (but which recent events have in fact validated!).

Another technique that science-fiction writers (including Philip K. Dick) have used to circumvent the problem of lasting is the "alternate timeline" technique: With The Man in the High Castle, Dick wrote a novel which was not set in the future, but instead was set in a contemporary world where the Axis, rather than the Allies, had won the Second World War. Generally speaking (although, as with Dick's other novels, the technology took fairly secondary importance), Dick suggested that aeronautics and spaceflight would have advanced considerably further had the Axis won the war, but that computer technology would have been set back years. I can't help wondering, however, if an alternate timeline isn't just as distancing for a reader as a prediction which doesn't come true.

One final thought on Michael Marshall Smith's introduction to Ubik - he says that authors are not good at predicting new technology, and that's why they're authors and not playing the stock-market. I would flip that around and wonder if we're not better off for that, though: Much of our modern technology was perhaps not so much predicted by science-fiction authors as it was influenced by their imaginations. Had they not written about it, we might well have to do without it today.

How do your favourite science fiction authors get around this problem of 'lasting', and how well does it work? (Or do you even consider the problem of 'lasting' to be a valid problem, and if not, why not?)

Intelligence is just a lack of telligence, agility is the opposite of gility... and to buy something expensive you'd have to be out of your mind.
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Science fiction and 'lasting'
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