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[GUEST POST] Mark W. Tiedemann on Science Fiction: It’s Not About the Buttons

Mark W. Tiedemann has been publishing science fiction since 1986. In 2000, Mirage, an Asimov Robot Mystery, appeared, first of a trilogy in Asimov’s Robot City universe, followed by Compass Reach, Metal of Night, and Peace & Memory, all part of the Secantis Sequence. Compass Reach was short-listed for the Philip K. Dick Award, and 2005 novel Remains was short-listed for the James Tiptree Jr. Award. Mark has also worked as a professional photographer. In 2005 he was elected president of The Missouri Center for the Book, the state affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book. During his tenure, the organization was instrumental in the establishment of Missouri’s first State Poet Laureate position. In 2011, Mark retired from the Center. He is represented by the Donald Maass Literary Agency.

It’s Not About the Buttons

From time to time I have this conversation, usually after having spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get a computer to work properly (or at all):

“You know, for a guy who writes science fiction, you are a real technophobe.”

Or Luddite, depending on how angry I am at the machine in question.

On its face, it’s a fair criticism. But the fact is, I’m not a technophobe. I love technology. Part of my early attraction to science fiction was because of the cool machines. Computers, spaceships, robots, all that marvelous, labor-saving, sometimes-menacing, awesome high-tech hardware appealed to a latent modernist sensibility. Far from phobic, my difficulties with operating technology stems from a basic impatience with the internal workings of just about any mechanical device, and in this sense, yes, programming a computer, and all the related minutiae of operating it, equates to mechanical devices.

My father is an engineer. Through my childhood he was a machinist. It is no exaggeration on my part to say that if something could be made, taken apart, reassembled, and did something, he could understand it. I grew up in awe of his abilities.

He very wisely realized early on that I would be a terrible machinist. Or mechanic. I loved the toys, could care less how they worked.

But let’s be honest for a minute. In relation to science fiction, it has never been about that side of it. You want to get into the how of the hardware, read a technical manual. If you want to see what people might do with the hardware, that’s different.

And frankly, I’ve begun to suspect a fundamental disconnect between consumerism and the visions of SF writers. The continual overhaul of devices, supplanting past devices, sometimes rendering these past devices incompatible to guarantee that, to stay current, you have to buy the new one, is not what science fiction is about. (Unless it’s the subject of a particular story.)

Science fiction is not and has never been about the buttons. It has always been about who pushes them.

(Several years ago, the early ’90s to be exact, I had an exchange with tech support at the ISP I subscribed to at the time. They had “upgraded” their system, which I’ve come to believe is code for a new way to extract more money from you, and I suddenly found myself shut out of my account. I called them to resolve the problem and was told to insert my Windows CD–“I don’t have a CD drive on this machine,” I said. Instead of a helpful suggestion, the geek on the other end said: “What do you mean you don’t have a CD drive? What are you doing on the internet?” Several things ran through my mind at the time, one of which had to do with a friend who owned a 1936 DeSoto that still ran: he could still put gasoline in the tank and drive it on any road in the country. That’s how upgrades should work. But the thing that nailed it for me was the unstated assumption that to be in this game I’d have to be willing to regularly spend large, and at the time unavailable, sums of money to stay current with the latest gizmo.)

Science fiction is not about technology. If anything, it talks about the idea of technology, which is to say the human enterprise of remaking the world. It’s about our taking apart and reassembling the things around us into shapes that do things for us–and often to us–and often reflect the changes in ourselves. It is about how we live in a continually transforming universe. It’s not about the ship, it’s about the journey the ship takes us on. It’s not about the language translator, it’s about what we’re going to hear and say through the translator. It’s not about alien biology, it’s about how we’re going to live with a new life form that can wonder the exact same thing about us.

But for some people, it is all about the technology, and that fact yields some of our most memorable stories–the whole mad scientist oeuvre is about the guy who is more fascinated with his ability to fiddle with the machinery than about the effect his fiddling has on himself, those around him, even the entire human race. That thread runs through my story, “Texture of Other Ways,” reprinted in the anthology Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern. Just because someone devises a technological fix, is it really appropriate for the people who will have to use it–or live with it?

Which is also the answer to the question about whether science fiction is still relevant today. Basically, as long as human beings keep reinventing themselves and trying to be new things, understand new concepts, go new places, the thematic relevance of science fiction is secure.

You do not, however, have to be a technophobe to dislike the way a lot of tech forces you to know more about the buttons than what you intend to do with the gadget once your get it working.

It’s not about the buttons.

2 Comments on [GUEST POST] Mark W. Tiedemann on Science Fiction: It’s Not About the Buttons

  1. Ideally, Mark, I think you are right about SF not being about the buttons but being about who pushes them. But for a long time, and to an extent, even today, it is about the shiny.  


    Plot and character and language are all important too but setting has for a long time been the dominant strain in that quartet in SF. SF still has that reputation especially amongst non-readers of SF.

  2. As one who made a point of writing a slipstream story about buttons one week at Clarion (Okay, so it was Kelly Lynch week), I agree with this article.

    As one who has read a fair number of submissions (and written far too few of my own!), I can say that it is really difficult to have both mastery of technology and technological feasibility in a story married with a real focus on the people pushing the buttons and how their human journey is impacted by the technological changes and their ripples through society. (And of course the writing chops to bring that all together in a way that a reader in today’s world can relate.)


    More power to the great Hard SF writers out there who pull it off again and again.

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