EDITOR’S NOTE: Since comments have now passed the point of being useful, they are being closed. Lesson learned regarding with the absence of women on the list. Civil discussion about that omission is welcome and we’ll take our well-deserved medicine. Personal attacks will not be tolerated.
James Wallace Harris maintains a website devoted to identifying the Classics of Science Fiction. He is fascinated by how books are remembered and forgotten, and often writes about science fiction at his blog, Auxiliary Memory.
A case could be made that whenever science makes a discovery, science fiction writers will soon follow behind and imagine all the possibilities that discovery implies. Many consider “Somnium” by Johannes Kepler, written in 1608 and published in 1634, to be the first science fiction story. Would it have been written without Copernicus and Galileo? Kepler’s story was cutting edge science fiction in 1634, but silly nonsense today.
Science fiction has been around a very long time, just how long, is debatable. If we just consider tried and true science fiction, hundreds of SF novels are published each year, with a back library adding up to tens of thousands of volumes. Every possible science fictional theme has been well explored, especially if you read all the SF short stories too. For any writer sitting down to start a new novel, it’s very difficult to find unexplored territory. Much like doctoral students doing literature reviews looking for something under-studied to research for their dissertation, science fiction writers wanting to be on the far horizon of the known science fictional universe must read widely.
Yet, just knowing the history of our literature isn’t enough. Science fiction writers who want to meet the challenge of working on the cutting edge of science fiction must also keep up with news from the frontiers of science. Is it any wonder that many writers have turned to fantasy or other genres, or write another book in a science fictional universe they’ve already established? Or even take a popular science fictional theme and create a new story focusing on innovative storytelling rather than exploring the cutting edge of new science fictional insights.
Great science fiction explores the philosophical possibilities of science’s impact on reality. Take Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book, Aurora, which I believe works the cutting edge on the idea of interstellar travel. Since the early stories of interstellar travel like A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay or The Skylark of Space (1928) by E. E. “Doc” Smith, science fiction has been concerned with how to travel to the stars, and the wonders of what we might find on arrival. Robinson questions if interstellar travel for humans is even practical. Robinson shows the propulsion system is the least of our problems. The new territory that Robinson examines is to ask if we can maintain an artificial ecology for hundreds of years, and if Earth ecology can coexist with alien ecologies.
Science fiction has built an industry around the idea of human space exploration, so for Robinson to challenge this belief takes science fiction into new territory. All along science fiction has worried that the dream of the final frontier might not be possible, but usually from a technical perspective, or worries about humans being unable to survive the harshness of space, radiation, lack of gravity, or isolation. What if we could overcome the engineering problems and the limitations of the human mind and body, but not be allowed to land on any world that has any kind of life? What if Mr. Spock could never have existed because Earth and Vulcan microorganisms could never coexist? What’s ironic is H. G. Wells came to that same conclusion in 1898 in The War of the Worlds. And C. S. Lewis even found theological reasons staying put on Earth in Out of the Silent Planet in 1938.
One way to explore the cutting edge of science fiction is to examine the current common assumptions. It was widely believed in 1950s and 1960s science fiction that a way would be found around the speed limit of light, but many modern science fiction writers have come to accept that FTL is impossible and are exploring the future of slower-than-light travel. Such hard science thinking revises the cutting edge of science fiction.
The advancement of science tends to put the kibosh on many older science fictional dreams. For example, the theme of time travel has has moved from science fiction to fantasy, even though most fans still haven’t gotten the Tweet. Although Star Wars is popularly labelled science fiction, it’s pure fantasy, no different from Tolkien. The trouble is the fans often prefer the beliefs they were raised with, and not those belonging to the cutting edge. Many front line science fiction writers must become atheists to older science fictional beliefs. Science fiction has become like religion, promising more than it can deliver.
Part of the skill of being a cutting edge science fiction writer is knowing what science fiction has become dated by our growing knowledge. Science constantly refines how reality works. Science can be quite cruel to dreamers. Even within the discipline of science, science is going through a reevaluation of its theoretical underpinnings because speculation has gotten too far ahead of experimental results. That same skepticism in science is creeping into science fiction.
Science fiction has always been a literature of wild ideas. Readers want wonder and adventure, and seldom care about reality. Most people who call themselves science fiction fans could care less if they are reading science fantasy. But for the hard working science fiction writer who wants to speculate and extrapolate about the impact of real scientific knowledge on the future of human societies, they need to know how to discern reality from fantasy. And they can’t let older science fiction cloud their vision.
Science fiction fans love to think science fiction has unlimited potential, but strangely if you study the history of science fictional ideas, it has a limited number of areas to explore. Broadly, they are:
- Interplanetary travel
- Interstellar travel
- Alien life forms
- Artificial beings (robots, AI, digital life, artificial life)
- Predicting future social structures
- Predicting future politics
- Impact of new technology and inventions
- Impact of new science (anti-gravity, multiverse, higher dimensions)
- Post-apocalypse and collapse
- Post-humanism (mutants, clones, mental powers)
- End of humanity, end of the world
Here is a mind map of one way to divvy up science fiction ideas:
Click image to enlarge:
It makes it easier to find the event horizon of science fiction if you focus on just one theme. For example, let’s use artificial intelligence (AI) machines. Just a few of the more famous science fiction stories that used AI supercomputers are:
- 1909 – “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Foster
- 1957 – They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
- 1960 – Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick
- 1961 – A For Andromeda by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot
- 1966 – Colossus by D. F. Jones
- 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
- 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
- 1968 – Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
- 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
- 1979 – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
- 1984 – “Press Enter _” by John Varley
- 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
- 1992 – Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
- 2009 – Wake by Robert Sawyer
- 2013 – Her, a film by Spike Jonze
- 2015 – Ex Machina, a film by Alex Garland
Far more AI machines can be found at Wikipedia’s List of fictional computers. Anyone writing a new story about an intelligent supercomputer needs to be roughly familiar with what past writers have already imagined. Even more, they need to know what is going on with real AI. AI was constantly in the news in 2015. Machine learning is a hot job category, with deep learning programs making progress in artificial vision, pattern recognition, artificial speech, voice recognition, text processing and language translation. People around the world are getting used to talking to Siri, Cortana and Alexa. (Poor Google’s machine needs a proper name.) Soon, intelligent machines will drive our cars for us, and we’ll probably talk to them.
How can anyone write a novel about an intelligent supercomputer and say something that’s not already been said? I have several ideas, but I’m keeping them for my own novel I’m writing. But to me they are glaringly obvious for being overlooked, and I’m constantly on the lookout for new novels that will beat me to the punch. Which goes to show anyone exploring the cutting edge of science fiction needs to read a lot of current science fiction.
In the long run, science and reality will overwrite the distant edge of science fiction. The 19th century was full of science fiction stories, but probably less than a dozen are actively remembered, and six of those are fading fast. Science fiction writers working the event horizon between reality and what might be possible have just a few decades to entertain their readers with wonderful possibilities before the whole world gazes at Schrodinger’s Cat, and our collective consciousness collapses quantum reality. Greg Egan wrote a wonderful novel, Quarantine, about this in 1992, where aliens isolate humanity because we were limiting reality with our observations.