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In a recent Mind Meld (Are Golden Age Writers Worth It For New SF Readers?) one of our respondents asked this in their response, “How the hell is sf from today going to stay relevant long enough to get published?” We thought that was an excellent question! So we’re slightly rephrasing it and asking this:
Here’s what they said…
If by relevant we mean matching up technology to the actual, then let’s all quit and write regency romance. Because we’re going to lose the game of prediction. It’s all changing too fast. But then, so what? SF writers sometimes get kudos for foreshadowing big tech advances, but for me that’s kind of like congratulating a cook for finding a diamond ring in a sack of flour. It’s very nice, but hardly the point. The point in SF is the story, and stories are about people and yes, ideas, but those ideas are interesting whether the hardware turns out to be this way or that. I just read a story by Joe Halderman (In Year’s Best SF 16) about post traumatic stress disorder on a distant planet. The medical aspects were a gloss but believable enough. The human factor–the story–was riveting. That’s why I’m giving the So What answer to staying relevant. I admit that it’s a tricky environment to write in. Some stories will be so dead wrong on technology that it’ll bump readers out of the story. But aside from a little bad luck choosing a premise, I’m not much worried about relevance. Dune was written over 40 years ago. Still a good read, because it’s about people, politics, religion–things that aren’t so influenced by tech. Obviously my preference for stories of characterization is showing here. When I read some hard SF authors I find myself bored by the excruciating science extrapolations. These guys need to be right, or at least relevant. And over the long haul I think they’re going to lose that game.
Science fiction — or at least serious SF not written simply as escapism for its own sake — has always been relevant to the times in which it was written. One of the genre’s greatest strengths is that it allows writers to approach the issues of the day, albeit from an oblique direction. Jules Verne’s From Earth to the Moon, for instance, was just as much a critique of American militarism as it was speculation about space travel, while Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 was about the dangers inherent in the union of church and state. Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, and Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net are just a few other classics which had as much to say about the present as they did about the future.
The trick is staying relevant. There is a tendency among SF writers, when playing the game of “if this goes on”, to project extreme scenarios as the likely outcome of contemporary concerns. This approach makes for good stories, but more often than not it sacrifices plausibility for the sake of melodrama. So you get stories in which overpopulation leads to people crammed into 6′ x 8′ cubicles stacked atop each other, or global nuclear wars in which the only survivors are teenagers, intelligent apes, or Mormons, or the feminist movement resulting in female-dominated societies in which men are enslaved and serve as little more than breeding stock. These stories may seem possible at the time they’re published, but a few years later they come off as hysterical, reactionary, or downright absurd.
Science fiction is not about predicting the future. It’s a mythology about what-could-be, not a forecast of what-will-be. So for a story or novel to remain relevant — and therefore continue to be read, year after year — it can’t jump too far off the deep end or pretend to be an accurate prediction of things to come. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, for example, remains widely read because it addresses government control of the mass media in a way that still rings true almost sixty years after it was first published. A less-known story from the same period, C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons”, is amazingly on-target when read today; it’s satire, but it’s satire with teeth that had only become sharper as the years have gone by. And I suspect that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain will hold up very well as we grapple with the consequences of global climate change.
SF can thought of as a tool. A tool can be used as a precision instrument, or as a blunt object. More often than not, you get better results from a scalpel than with a sledgehammer.
This is an excellent question with no effortless answer. I’m pretty sure the short shelf life of near-future science fiction has contributed to the popularity of Steampunk – often defined as Victorian science fiction. Post-apocalyptic or remote-colony stories can work too: subtract civilization and you probably won’t have rampant technology. Right after ApolloCon last Sunday I heard that somebody has famously done a whimsical experiment from which he concluded that it takes a civilization to make a common toaster. (Start with refining raw ores for the iron and copper and aluminum parts. . . .) Another way is to create extremely well-written science fiction knowing full well that it will become alternate future history on short notice. A brilliant, profound, and/or highly engaging story can remain relevant to readers for far longer than it stays fresh as science fiction per se. And another partial answer is to write a tale set so far in the future that most everything seems magical anyway. It helps to posit that a far-future society or monastic order simply shrugged off certain technologies and now has cultural or religious reasons to do without. In other words, dip into science fiction’s core identity as a variety of fantasy, and run with it.
There’s relevancy in terms of audience, and relevancy in terms of story.
First, the audience.
Science fiction is everyone’s genre. One way SF can stay relevant is to reach out to new readers, especially girls–starting with middle grade and young adult SF. I’m an SF fan with a five-year old daughter, and I’ve already begun to introduce her to science and math. You can bet she’ll have her pick of science fiction books as she gets older, and wouldn’t it be super if there was a whole bushel of age-appropriate SF to greet her when she comes of age? I’d pay good money to make those choices available to her.
Then, of course, there are women, and, well, basically anyone heretofore considered uninterested in the genre. Reach out to these folks by populating stories with diverse characters that a variety of readers can relate to. Many authors and publishers are already taking that route; however, readers can’t read what they don’t know exists. Wouldn’t it
be cool to see the evolution of a fresh, inventive marketing approach that could help such stories reach a wider audience? Monetize the diversity, baby!
Second, SF can stay relevance in terms of stories. I’m going to throw out a few ideas–do with them as you will.
Social networking, as you know, is about relationships. People want to know how science will impact their relationships. They seem to be fascinated by this subject, if Twitter and Facebook are any indication.
Relationships involve intimacy. Trust. And, of course, lust! The human connection factor is one way to give readers reasons to care about the science, the settings, and the themes in science fiction. Maintain a steady supply of compelling characters, gripping lots, and nail-biting conflict in order to stay relevant.
Or even better, people want to know how science can help them attract the love of their life. Computer technology has already given us loads of new tools for starting, navigating, and managing not just our relationships but also our romances. And this is just the beginning! Science fiction can stay relevant by incorporating the relationship and romance angle on an ongoing basis. Like, forever.
Another idea–stay closer to home. Box Office Mojo recently speculated that one reason
the Green Lantern film didn’t make a bigger splash at the box office was because of “its distancing sci-fi fantasy angle.” Upon hearing that, I had a little bit of a boo-hoo moment since all of my life I’ve been nom nom space opera nom nom, but Box Office Mojo’s take was another reminder that while many readers might be willing to give SF a try, they may be more likely to do so if the setting has more relevancy to the here and now.
Along that same line, is it any coincidence that the SF-themed shows and films with a bit more buzz and/or staying power these days are often SF tales in a contemporary or near future setting (e.g., District 9)? Avatar aside, more often than not the trend in visual mediums these days seems to indicate that SF has more relevance for viewers when the setting is on or near Earth.
So why not borrow a page from the Roger Corman manual and rip a few stories from the headlines? Frankly, all the recent hacking drama at companies like Sony, PBS, and others made me want to read an equivalent SF tale that explores similar issues. Ebooks have a faster turnaround time so readers won’t have to wait two years to read the stories (provided authors are quick on the draw, heh).
Speaking of ebooks, SF can stay relevant by embracing that medium to the fullest extent possible. ‘Nuff said.
How Should Science Fiction Change to Remain Relevant?
Long range extrapolation by science fiction is dead. What’s hot in today’s sf is what’s happening in today’s technology. SF stories should illustrate the consequences of, the possibilities with, the logical conclusions of emerging tech and our ever advancing knowledge of the natural world. There’s a plethora of material just waiting to be mined and writers should turn to published scientific literature for their themes and scenarios. Below are ten possibilities based on one issue (June 18-24) of New Scientist.
1) Last Frog Lives on.
Upshot of the article: The Vegas Valley leopard frog, thought to be extinct, has recently been found in central Arizona. Researchers want to reintroduce the frog back into the Las Vegas area, but another threatened species, (relic leopard frog) was scheduled to be introduced to the same area.
Possible SF plot: In the future, rival environmental groups battle over vacated ecological niches. The heavily endowed groups are giants in the field. They fight to the death with each other for NSF grants and donations from nature lovers. Vendettas abound. The clash of the titans. I see this as a comedy because nothing is funnier than a frog. Comment about this scenario: I thought what happened in Vegas, stayed in Vegas. What’s up with the frogs?
2) Womb transplant.
Upshot: Ten recipients will receive womb transplants; more than one will receive the donation from her mother. In other words she will have the womb she was born in implanted in herself.
Possible sf plots: The obvious is a psychological horror story as memories of birth trauma are triggered by the new (old womb). Or how about: some sort of weird recursion occurs when more and more women down the line are given transplants of their mother’s (and grandmother’s and great grandmother’s wombs). They start reliving their parents’ parents’ memories. Senility makes you live in your mother’s past. Or maybe it’s a chick lit novel and wombs become heirlooms. They are passed down forever and one day when one old bag (the uterus, not the woman) finally contracts cancer, entire generations of women suffer a weird post partum-like depression at exactly the same time. Or using the shared post partum scenario, maybe some sort of tissue memory has all the women of a family sharing this depression after their daughters give birth. Or, if you like writing spiritually: maybe after a time there is only one true uterus an entire line has been using for who knows how long. This uterus becomes god-like. Without this one uterus there is no life. One day that uterus finally dies. Is that the end of the line or is it stored cryogenically for reconstitution later? Question about this scenario: Does this devout family eventually install a zipper in the uterus to facilitate Caesarians?
3) UK Joins Drought Club.
Upshot of the article: The number of droughts around the world is increasing every year.
Possible SF plot: In the future, whole populations become nomadic to take advantage of rapidly changing habitability zones.
Conflict: Don’t go the easy route and just write another dystopian apocalypse that ends in a new Adam and Eve story. Go the Brady Bunch route and make it a long running series. Each episode has an entire city picking up and moving somewhere. Any number of possibilities come to mind for the prime time soap opera–turf wars, missing persons, issues of abandonment, paternity suits, neighborhood rivalry, the best looking citizens seem to always get dibs on bottom land in the new locations, it’s not fair. Know what I mean? Marcia, Marcia, Marcia. Or would that be marshy, marshy, marshy?
4) Tribal Wars.
Upshot: Native North Americans are turning to DNA testing to prove whether or not an individual is a member of a certain tribe. Since membership comes with a share of a tribe’s money, tribes with casinos have been besieged with membership applications lately. Sadly, people who have lived their entire lives as members of a tribe are suddenly getting kicked out when DNA testing disproves paternity.
Possible SF plots: Are native American tribes poised to become the new mafia? Another idea: extend this scenario to the current mafia. What if you’re a made man and DNA testing proves your ancestors are not Sicilian? Knowing the methods the mafia uses to cover its mistakes, what would you do? Right: man on the run scenario. Main character spends his time tracking down the lab techs that spiked his DNA. Or maybe, this is a story of the wars between labs sanctioned not only by your insurance company but the local cosa nostra as well. I envision plots involving who’s whacking whose centrifuge and who’s quality control is coming into question.
5) Out of Africa.
Upshot: Apparently long ago homo sapiens bred not only with Neanderthals but with the lesser hominins as well.
Possible plots: What if a future government, not as selfless and nurturing as our current government, wanted a population that would shut up and do as its was told? They’d start a breeding program that dumbed down the population by increasing the frequency of certain key genes from the lower species. Conflicts abound in this poorly veiled rip-off of Brave New World.
6) Dive Beneath the Waves With Google
Upshot: Ten percent of the ocean floor has been mapped and made available via Google.
Possible plot: What if one day video cameras are installed over every square inch of ocean, lake, and river floor. Where will we throw the bodies of our murder victims then? A whole new industry develops: VicDispose . It’s run by the mafia (or maybe New Native American Consortium). Find your own conflict here or steal from the thousands of mafia movies and tv shows already out there.
7) Do You Want Chips with That?
Upshot: They’re putting RFID chips into potato chips.
Possible plot: In the future, unscrupulous food providers (with ties to the mafia or NNAC) are adding chips that can be programmed to kill you (or cause rapid weight gain). Soon people are dying in huge numbers. What’s going on? Could it be some nefarious group (maybe the same one as in item #5 if you’re writing a sequel) is trying to take over the world? Superbiochemist to the rescue! Identifies unknown chemicals in a single spectrophotometric pass, leaps mounds of government bureaucracy to uncover who owns what company, can see through exaggerated breakfast cereal claims, etc.
8) In Praise of the Weird.
Upshot: There is a whole culture of trained scientists who seek out extinct and/or mythological species. Currently this is not a respected discipline in scientific circles.
Possible plot: In the future, as more and more species become extinct, big money becomes available to those who find long lost members of keystone species. These treasure hunters will become the rock stars of the future, each with an entourage of lesser-talented scientists who fawn over them and offer to take over their undergrad classes. In this psychological drama, follow one world-renowned expert as he becomes more and more narcissistic. To escape increasing self-doubt, the expert turns to drugs and easy sex. As his life spins out of control, suicide seems the only answer. Redemption comes in the form of a beautiful freshman in his biology 101 class. She asks the one question no one else has bothered to ask: whatever happened to the Kangaroo Island Emu? A spark in his heretofore dead eyes ignites. Through an arduous struggle and with help from the beautiful freshman he gets his life back on track. They marry and the goofy sidekick, one of the fawning lesser-talented scientists, gets tenure.
9) Unsung Elements.
Upshot: New green technologies require the use of rare elements such as hafnium, tantalum, erbium, neodymium etc. These strange elements are becoming more valuable as our reliance on products made with them increases.
Possible plot: As these weird elements become priceless, recycling technology is developed to track their usage 24/7. Every single atom is accounted for at all times. A distribution control center one day learns that dysprosium is being siphoned off at an alarming rate. Who is behind it and for what nefarious reason? I suspect the same government group as in item #5 and #7 for the third book in the trilogy.
10) Lopsided Love.
Upshot: Throughout the animal kingdom (and a bit of the plant kingdom as well) many species exhibit a condition called asymmetrical genitalia. Oddly enough most individuals of these species prefer to look at genitals that are symmetrical.
Possible plot: Modeling agencies of the future require perfect genitals. A different ruling group from that in item #5, 7, and 9 above set out to cull the population of asymmetric genitals. What happens when we discover the actual evolutionary reason for asymmetric equipment? Something perhaps that spells doom for the species because we’ve ignored that evolutionary advantage in our search for the perfect sexual characteristic. Maybe this could be a morality story about tampering with mother nature. Do you really even need a plot for this scenario? It’s funny the way it is. Especially when you think that there’s a whole group of scientists that study this. Their hard drives are filled with tiff files of lopsided genitals. And we have a hard time convincing kids to study science?
I said ten, but this was a good news week, so I think we should forge ahead.
11) Rag-Trade Robots
Upshot: Tailoring tech is advancing to such a degree that soon robots will not only be making clothes, they will be custom fitting them for each of us as well.
Possible plot: (Should the title be The Devil Wears C++”?) As robots take over the textile industry, sweat shops will be put out of business. But then consumer buying patterns shift as people learn to expect not only custom fit clothing, but custom designed clothing as well: each and every piece different in style and color. The old sweat shops are reopened, filled with starving immigrants from Italy and France who are expected to design hundreds of garments every day in tiny, poorly-lit, barely ventilated buildings in lower Manhattan. One laborer struggles to send her kids to college to escape the drudgery of forced creativity.
One more for the road
12) This was part of a quiz; there is no title
Upshot: 400 trillion trillion pints of beer exist in an interstellar gas cloud thousands of light years from Earth.
Possible scenario. A new mining industry struggles to get off the ground. It is an impossible task as the entire work force, from upper management to the exploited child laborers, remains in a state of ineffectual inebriation. Nothing gets done until a mysterious character invents a perpetual motion machine, overthrows the union, the mafia, and the nefarious government, swings from a skyhook through the interstellar gas cloud, snatches up a beautiful and inquisitive freshman–the only other sober person in the book. They start a colony on a nearby planet and invite people who have money. This is a thinly veiled mash-up of Atlas Shrugged, Star Wars, and most of the plots listed above.