Below, Filip Wiltgren joins us to discuss the importance of dreaming big in science fiction and how, specifically, he feels a lot of SF is falling short. Literature of Filip’s own dreams—the short story “Ennui”—appears in our July/August issue [on sale now].
by Filip Wiltgren
Science Fiction is the literature of dreams. Not always of hope—one need only look to classics such as 1984 and A Brave New World to show this point—but of dreams.
Many genres deal in dreams. Fantasy dreams of how the past could have been. Romance dreams of how one’s life could be. But Science Fiction, almost alone, dreams of how the world might become.
It is our entire premise: that we, as writers and readers of Science Fiction, are creating a new world. Not imagining worlds that could never be, or dreaming of this world with a few, personal tweaks, but jointly imagining the world as it might, no matter how implausibly, one day be.
With this in mind, I observe two things in Science Fiction that worry me.
I’ll tell you what they are, but first, let me throw in a disclaimer the size of the Titanic (the star ship one): it’s clearly impossible to read even a fraction of all SF published today, so personal bias plays a huge role in any form of analysis. Which publications, whether magazines or online, I read, and what authors I’m a fan of, will twist my analysis, possibly to the point of making it completely off base. Still—the writers get published, and the publications keep selling, so I can’t be entirely alone in my reading them.
So what do I spy with my little eye?
Two things: Science Fiction is, at its core, a human-centric genre. And it’s permanently stuck in World War II.
Lets unpack this a bit.
We readers, as far as I know, are all humans. We come pre-wired with a range of emotions, capabilities, and comprehensions. This range is quite narrow.
I know that a number of people will dispute this, citing the broad span of love, duty, hate, fear, bravery, self-sacrifice and more that humans are capable of. But just because that’s the whole range that we can see, doesn’t mean that it’s a large part of the possible spectrum.
Visible light seems a broad range to us, spanning a rainbow of hues and a multitude of brightness levels. But if we look to the physics of electromagnetic radiation, what we see is a minuscule part of a frequency spectrum ranging from radio waves to gamma rays, and amplitudes from absolute absence to instant incineration.
Thus human writers, or writers writing for humans, need to focus on a narrow range of contexts that humans are able to comprehend. Nothing wrong with that. We read what we understand—imagine how pointless it would be to try scanning through all the possible permutations of the letters that could fit in a novel-length manuscript.
But extrapolate that to the emotions and ideas in a story, and you get something rather different. You get a literature of comfort.
We’ll get back to that soon. But first, let’s take a look at the other issue, that Science Fiction is permanently stuck in World War II.
I don’t mean the outer trappings of the genre. We now have AI, AR, VR, DNA, RNA, CIA, LOL, OMG, and hyperspace filling our pages.
But if we scratch beneath the surface of stars and lightsabers, we get Junior Flight Lieutenant Skywalker disconnecting his targeting computer because it isn’t accurate enough. Trust the Force, Luke; your Norden bombsight is faulty.
Imagine any real pilot, even in 1977, disconnecting his electronics and trying to fly, aim, and hit anything on dead reckoning alone.
As a comparison point, the first US surface-to-surface cruise missile, the MGM-1 Matador, was deployed in 1954. And it was based on the German, World War 2-era V-1.
The same goes for other technology. AI in Star Trek opens doors and draws pictures. “I can’t do that,” HAL is capable of playing chess and imitating a psychopath. There’s very little I in the AI. For all their advanced trappings, AI in SF are mostly human, and usually sub-human. Even the ancillary Justice of Toren in Ann Leckie’s Hugo, Nebula, and BSFA-winning Ancillary Justice is still more or less human in its ways of thought, action, and vicarious validation.
This goes back to the narrow range of comprehension that we readers have. Who among us can properly understand even simple concepts such as a Buckyball? (Although, based on the readership of Analog, I’d wager that a number of you can, even though I cannot—I lack the molecular chemistry and molecular physics necessary to truly grok it. All I can do is fake understanding of Buckminsterfullerene as something resembling a carbon ball.)
Science Fiction, for all its apocalypses and dystopias, has been a literature of hope, of progress, of showing kids, and no-longer-kids, that there was a bigger, better, bolder future right around the corner. Of letting us dream that we might somehow contribute to creating that future.
There’s also a second part to the being-stuck-in-the-past trend: people, whether readers or writers, want to matter. Even cyberpunk readers, for all the bleakness of the genre, want to matter. Very few genre readers are interested in stories where someone walks around, doesn’t do anything, and nothing really happens, or changes. If we read for vicariousness, which at some level most people do, we rarely want to live through the dull, boring, same-same humdrum parts of the life we already have.
But in a world where the capacity of the machines is so much higher than the capacity of humans nominally in charge of them, it’s hard to imagine how anything humans could do would matter.
This is why SF is stuck in World War II. It was the last era of big technological advancement where humans were in complete dominance over the machines, where everyone (at least everyone alive today) can see the entire cause-and-effect of how the human and machine interact. Push the button that moves the lever that drops the pin that activates the cartridge that burns the powder that propels the bullet that shoots down that plane. Deathstar go boom, award ceremony, credits, the end.
It’s a time where machines were powerful enough to go vrooom, and yet simple enough to be controlled entirely by human capacity. This, by the way, isn’t true, and you can look up things like naval gunnery radars and anti-air computers to get a sense of how much electronics were aiding humans already.
But compare this to today, where you push a button and magic happens for the Deathstar to go boom. Because to most of us, it is magic. We think that we have an idea about how things work, but do we? Really? Can anyone here envision the steps necessary to produce a simple computer mouse? Or even the steps necessary for the computer mouse to move the pointer?
What does all of this do for Science Fiction?
Well, we live in a world that is less and less human-centric by the month, a pace of technology advancement that makes our conceptual models of it become obsolete faster than we can learn them. It is only natural that we yearn back to simpler times, where we could understand what was going on.
Science Fiction, today, is mainly a literature of understanding what is going on. We are moving away from the types of writings that foretold and shaped futures (i.e. hard Science Fiction,) and toward the types of writings where the scientific facts are reduced to some simple to grasp concepts overlaying a huge pile of magic in the Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) sense.
But even there, the magic is taking over, and most readers rarely care about the how, they simply accept that they wouldn’t understand it. And I’m not pointing fingers here, I’m one of those readers. I’ve read enough research papers in my life to know that I don’t want to do that in my free time.
I should also point out that probable future AGIs (artificial general intelligences) do exist in popular Science Fiction. One but needs to look to Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels. And when one does, one should note that the humans in the Culture amount to little more than pets, with the occasional rare exception that has a thought process so convoluted even AI can learn something from it. And even then, the AI exhibit very human-limited thought processes, like the drone Skaffen-Amitskaw, capable of holding off a small army or piloting a star ship on its own, spending minutes of boredom trying to get two insects to run into each other.
So where does this leave Science Fiction?
It leaves Science Fiction in the dust when compared to already existing technology. It is a problem because SF is the literature of the impossible made possible, not through visions, prophecies, and chosen ones, but through the application of human intellect, human cooperation, and human will on the world. Science Fiction, for all its apocalypses and dystopias, has been a literature of hope, of progress, of showing kids, and no-longer-kids, that there was a bigger, better, bolder future right around the corner. Of letting us dream that we might somehow contribute to creating that future.
Now, I love space magic and future fantasy. I love space battles with fighter planes and dogfights. I love aliens with ray guns and interstellar empires. Some of my favorite writers, from Bujold and Cherry to Verne and Zelazny, wrote in those non-hard genres. But if SF lags behind, if it becomes a literature entirely of future fantasy, of space magic, what genre will then engage our upcoming generations to create a brighter future with their hearts and minds?