Saturday, October 18, 2008

challenges of sci-fi

I try not to repost my comments from elsewhere too often, but since this one's article-length anyway...

The heart of any story, regardless of genre, is humanity. The best science fiction stories explore humanity and personal relationships with technology being the catalyst and/or guide of that questioning. Isaac Asimov used AI to explore what makes us human. Arthur C. Clarke used space exploration to theorize on our place in a vast universe, as well as to explore our natural origins. Kurt Vonnegut uses technology to explore the basis and limits of our morals and cultures.

The popularization of the internet has greatly complicated science fiction, I think. It has because average people now interact with distant individuals, distant cultures, distant businesses and technologies in ways unimaginable just fifty years ago. When one's life can be so directly affected by something happening halfway around the world (such as a satellite being destroyed, or some service supplied by a foreign country being disrupted), then science fiction authors must either localize their focus to a small setting or consider a vast number of interacting technologies and events.

The rate of innovation/discovery and its variety has exploded, partially thanks to the internet. One can literally read a dozen articles every day of new technologies and scientific discoveries occurring somewhere around the world. Since the Industrial Revolution, science has increased in scope and speed with every generation (scientific exploration is, afterall, a privilege of hands freed by affluent times). There have always been times when innovation proceeds before the human effects are adequately considered, but I believe that's an especially common occurrence this far down the rollercoaster.

The challenge of the modern sci-fi author is that change occurs more rapidly than it used to and plays a greater role in life. For an example of the latter claim: as often as authors like to imagine a world without oil, they never imagine a world without plastics (made from oil). We are utterly dependent on many technologies, and new necessities are added all the time (power steering, computers, cell phones, etc).

Anyway, the focus on humanity, rather than technology, is what is most often missed by would-be sci-fi authors. But I think writing sci-fi can often be harder today than it used to be. It's too easy to predict one technological advancement and forget so many other technologies. Why, the audience might ask, is a person whose car is flying still watching a TV set?


  1. I've missed out on plenty of 'good' sci-fi I'm sure over the years(I read very little in the way of books now) but am hoping that Dead Space can give a good account of itself. It's one title, along with Fallout 3, that should make the most of the genre. I just hope I'm not going to be lead into a position of enjoying the action of these games but then feeling let down by the story.

    Could gaming take the lead in developing a new 'sense' in Sci-Fi or are games developers further behind than authors?

  2. This is why I don't care about "hard SF" and whether the technology is possible. SF is an exploration about people and philosophy, not science, though it plays a part.


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