After Hours

Counter-rant: Why science fiction will never go extinct

StorySouth confounder Jason Sanford explains that science fiction is lousy at predicting the future, which is why the future can never kill sci-fi (contrary to what certain Geekend bloggers might think).

StorySouth confounder Jason Sanford takes time out of his busy schedule to smack me (and, to a much lesser extent, Charles Stross) around for drinking the Singularity Kool-Aid. While Sanford's reasons for doubting the onslaught of the coming Singularity are just as sound as those which predict its onset—and I encourage you to consider them—I was more fascinated by his observation of the nature of enduring science fiction. Specifically, science fiction has never been about predicting what is to come:

"First off, science fiction has a lousy record of accurately predicting the future. If one looks at the classic novels and stories of the genre, they aren't considered classics because they accurately predicted the future. Instead, those SF stories which have achieved canonized status—2001: A Space Odyssey, Brave New World, Stranger in a Strange Land, Fahrenheit 451, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Stars My Destination—examine themes such as how humanity survives amidst the vastness of space and time; how we as a people adapt to technological change; how technology changes us; how we might be doomed by technology; how biological and other scientific processes make us who we are. But accurately predicting the future? No. Science fiction which focuses exclusively on predicting the future simply doesn't hold up over time. So forgive me if I question the predictive powers of singularity fiction and don't agree that SF is doomed just because it fails at predicting the future."

In Stross' defense, he was merely predicting the end of near-future hard science fiction as a viable genre, simply because the lead time between writing and publication is such that technology will soon move too fast for any such near-term speculation to be plausibly accurate by the time the book hits shelves. That's a much narrower point of contention than saying science fiction will die out. I'll leave it to others to determine how well or how long Stross' body of Singularity science fiction—or any Singularity fic—holds up over time.

In my own defense, the point I (failed to effectively) make was that, come the Singularity, science fiction will cease to be distinct from mainstream fiction, since rapid, high-social-impact technological change will be so widespread and commonplace that literature will have no choice but to deal with this new status quo as part and parcel of its narrative. Put another way, the Singularity—should it actually come to pass—won't make science fiction extinct so much as make all contemporary fiction indistinguishable from science fiction, if only by the omnipresent influence of tech.

If, as Sanford quite effectively argues, science fiction is truly less about predicting the future than about illuminating the human condition in the face of extraordinary, usually technologically engendered, circumstances, then in essence we agree. I merely extend the point—or tried to, anyway—to suggest that the Singularity will erase the meaning of the term "science fiction," because all fiction that examines the human condition will thenceforth have to deal with extraordinary circumstances engendered by technological change.

Many authors will tell you that "science fiction" is a meaningless, overly broad marketing term, with many sci-fi worthy works stocked off the SF shelves. Odds are you won't find 1984 or Brave New World in the Sci-Fi section, nor will you find Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union there either. All are blatantly sci-fi works but they aren't marketed that way. If nothing else, the Singularity will kill those pointless distinctions.

Singularity aside, I'm curious: Do you read science fiction for the futurism, or for the characterization? And whichever reason, do you foresee a future in which the genre will not survive?

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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