Not Just Looking Ahead: The Effects of Writing the Future

“The first dynamic of change has been noticed frequently; that there is a decreasing resemblance between the world we inhabit today and the future worlds advocated, with some consistency of voice and vision, in the American sf of the previous half-century. […] [T]he old sf story, as it struggled to prevail through the last decades of the century, did remain easy to recognize. It was a First World vision, a set of stories about the future written by inhabitants of, the industrialized Western world, which dominated the twentieth century; simplistically, it was a set of stories about the American Dream.” – John Clute

“Any prediction about what is in fact to come, when cast as fiction, runs the risk not just of being wrong but of being not about the future at all.” – John Crowley

I was happily selected to participate in this week’s SF Signal podcast with Paul Weimer, Jamie Todd Rubin, and Jeff Patterson, where the topic was “visions of the future” in SF. We discussed the futures we liked and disliked, what was effective (or not) in some of these visions, and talked a bit about how the future is conceptualized in SF. What struck me after the conversation was that I felt a struggle between literal acceptance of these futures and a metadiscursive reflection upon them, from a number of angles. By the end of the podcast, we were debating, essentially, what we were looking for not just in the future in front of us, but in the futures of SF.

This distinction is noteworthy because it signals a shift both within the literary field of production and the wider cultural milieu of the contemporary moment. Although, the idea of a “contemporary moment” itself is, I think, breaking down, as changes seem to come so swiftly and newness becomes more than fetish or fashion; it becomes routine. The use of “newness” is intentional because we are not just talking about innovation, about Moore’s Law or Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, about advancement per se, but specifically about newness, about the infusion of a certain temporality to things, “of recent origin, production, purchase, etc.” The future is a different place than it was less than a generation ago because contemporaneity is different, and our experience of now, our narration of the different emplacements of time, our notion of the dynamism of the moment we occupy, are all not just different, but in flux, in question, and saturated by countless elements that signal to us that we are already “living in the future.”

This may be why the future is simultaneously a reflection, an ungraspable moment, and unendingly strange, as John Crowley recently wrote, and also feels like it is here, now, as William Gibson avers. On top of that “I think that our future has lost that capital F we used to spell it with,” Gibson claims, and this ideas echoes across discussions of SF such as the one from John Clute that I quoted earlier. In another discussion, he states that “[w]e no longer feel that we penetrate the future; futures now penetrate us. We live in a specious present whose apertures or coigns of vantage flicker to the beat of dances of information we cannot see to ordonnate.”

As Ursula Le Guin put it: “[t]he future, in fiction, is a metaphor.” Certainly what Crowley, Gibson, and Clute assert fits with that declaration, but the key difference is that Le Guin provides no qualification to that statement. To elaborate on it is to create a more specific metaphor that may obscure the essential act of invoking the future because, when all is said and done, there is no future. That strange, compelling thing ahead of Crowley’s, the annihilated object that is a part of the now for Gibson, does not exist. Even Clute’s futures that penetrate us now are not from the future, but a characterization of what we are experiencing in the unstable contemporary moment. The future does not exist; it is an act of narrating beyond the present moment, from where you are in a series of right nows to a world that you conjecture or hope lies “ahead.” And this lesson has been taught to us by the expression of fantastikal ideas across media, primarily by SF as a mode of creating meaning in narratives and images..

SF is where futures vainglorious, perplexing, and banal have been produced since the genre became a discrete aspect of literature. Like all literature, SF is a speculative endeavour that utilizes other assumptions and conceits often fused with coterminous sensibilities (pulp, romantic, etc.) to produce a form of speculation more obvious and intentional, more quixotic and rationalizing. As noted in the opening quotation from John Crowley, and explicated in his essay, prediction in SF almost always comes back to the writer’s imagined present and particular aesthetic, not just because it emerges from the context of the writer’s actuality, but because it speculates into metaphorical territory that proceeds from their understanding of the present. The invocation of the future is immediately an exercise in metaphorizing aspects of the present and transforming them into possibilities for tomorrow.

We cannot escape our contemporary moment, although we write to do so. The act of penning fiction (or creating any narrative) is an act of sending meaning into the future. Literature is always an act of faith in tomorrow, that one’s words will be understood, that meaning will transmit between writer and reader, and that readers will carry the effects of that with them farther forward than the time spent reading the author’s words. Writers write, in part, to send their ideas ahead of them. The future is not a just a conceptual place-in-time we address; it is where we send our words and thoughts. Metaphorizing that place-in-time, projecting about yet-to-bes and not just towards their purported location, not only became emblematic of a literary genre, but exemplified shifts in our ideas about time and the experience of now.

There was a time, as both John Clute and Brooks Landon note, when the future was somewhere we could go, in our minds at least. Clute conceptualizes this as a “portal” we stepped through into the future (somewhat like a portal fantasy, perhaps, with different travellers and destinations?). Landon talks about it a bit differently while discussing Gregory Benford’s “Centigrade 233″ and William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum:”

“. . . Gibson’s story at once reminds us of the naively optimistic hold that science-fictional ideas once had over our vision of the future and grimly reminds us how far the vision missed the actual mark. . . . In dramatizing two “deaths” of science fiction, [they] join a long line of critical and fictional considerations of the genre’s passing. Some of these considerations are laments, some are warnings, and some are celebrations, but all posit some form of end to SF, or at least to SF as commonly recognised.”

Essentially, science fiction posited many futures, most of them optimistic, progressive, or prosaic (the sorts of “old sf story” invoked in Clute’s opening quotation), and in narrating them showed us things that have little to do with the explicitly-articulated futures themselves. SF writers posited the futura, the things that lie ahead, with a combination of excitement and short-sightedness, and even as they created clichés and durable tropes they opened up singular ways of looking ahead that also looked back at us. Some of those extrapolations were encouraging, but many of them contained ideas and assumptions to push against, to write against, which turned out to be paradoxically critical for expansion of the genre via feminist SF (and proto-feminist writing after World War II), New Wave writing, non-Western and “subaltern” writing, and the eventual loss of the portal future and the gee-whiz world of tomorrow as those metaphors were overtaken by contemporary developments that concretized their fallacies. The writing of all of those futures, however, gave readers a conceptual location for rethinking what tomorrow might be and what the contemporary moment contained; they created a context for metaphorizing the future and examples to consider and debate.

These rethinkings are part of the “death of SF” that is so often trumpeted, as some observers feel that the loss of that accessible future ahead that SF relied upon for so long means the genre has nowhere to go. But as a number of authors have demonstrated, SF has many more places to go than the future. Other authors continue to write as if those futures are possible (and, as John Crowley noted, well-worn SFnal ideas are being increasingly appropriated by “mainstream” literary authors, which should be a signal to writers of fantastika that those ideas are rote and graspable, which makes for a different sort of writing about “the future”), but others look backwards, to the side, across the tracks, and in the mirror. SF authors still send their missives into the future, but the limit of just looking forward is increasingly being ignored, which makes the genre’s future itself feel unstable, exciting, and boundless.

5 thoughts on “Not Just Looking Ahead: The Effects of Writing the Future”

  1. No need for meta-meta, surely.  All we are seeing is that literature (speculative literature in particular) reflects its place and time.  So when the US was in the ascendant, its SF was optimistic — often gung-ho — and outward looking.  Now that the US is declining, its SF turned pessimistic and inward/past gazing.  As for topics, SF remains resolutely first-world even in the exceptions: writings about other cultures, much of it caricature exotica, still come overwhelmingly from far-western (mostly white, mostly male) authors, as exemplified by the list of names in your essay.

  2. Postscripts — as usual I recalled a couple of things as soon as I’d pressed send:

    It’s always maddening to see Moore’s Law invoked for anything beyond a particular kind of computer processor.  It’s a particularly bad metaphor for biological and cultural items, and its entry into the collective mindset has harmed science.

    Present and future SF will miss the mark as much as past SF did.  As several wits said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”  The surprise is that people still heed prophet-wannabees, from Kurzweil to Adventists.

  3. The future is a different place than it was less than a generation ago because contemporaneity is different, and our experience of now, our narration of the different emplacements of time, our notion of the dynamism of the moment we occupy, are all not just different, but in flux, in question, and saturated by countless elements that signal to us that we are already “living in the future.”

    Oh yeah, I came to that conclusion a couple of years ago, and changed a tagline of my blog to match it. 

  4. I agree that too much meta can be bad, but at the same time, I think we often look at this subject too simply. The problem with saying that something “reflects its time and place” is that it tells us very little. Just about everything is of its time and place; all of those variations of conceptualizing the future I discussed are of their time and place but saying so does not do much to help us understand them or their effects. Dismissing  a mass of productions in that manner creates an implicit homogeneity; they are all essentially the same and have nothing worth discussing because of their likeness (except that some are a little more that or a bit less that). I disagree that this is a sufficient approach to understanding the products of the literary field or their effects. I think we need to probe and take apart formulations and assumptions to understand better why a particular time and place produced them and what their strengths and weaknesses are to better comprehend the responses to them, including subsequent productions.

    The durability of first-world formulations is a case in point; despite economic and cultural shifts, technological advances and reworkings of various fields of production, much SF retains a durable form. There have been clear changes in “time and place” but some SF really seems stuck in the past, while some of it is more experimental. And yes, there is some exploration of other cultures and standpoints that is often flawed, but do we dismiss these efforts or critique them in an attempt to create better understanding? I think there’s a lot to ponder in how we narrate and apprehend the idea of the future.

  5. The future is just a few footsteps away from the present. Or, like someone climbing a staircase who has just left one step and is about to reach the next, the future is something we have not yet reached, but will reach the next instant.

    Science fiction, as a genre, doesn’t always have to be about the future. In some cases it focuses on the past, such as where time travel is involved. Also, some stories can be set in the past and yet contain all the elements characteristic of science fiction. One story set in the past that has all the elements of science fiction is a recently published ebook called The Paragon. The main character, Sam, has to locate a mysterious treasure before an assassin and his henchmen find it. I won’t give away what that treasure is, but it is not something you’d expect.

    The future is not the only chronological setting for science fiction. Michael Chrichton’s Timeline is about a time machine that takes a team of people back in time to the middle ages. They must find their way back to the present, avoid being captured, and do this before the link that connects them from the present to the past is broken.

    Science fiction will most likely continue to be loved for a long time to come.

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