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The Way the Future Shouldn’t Be

Fred Pohl recently won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer (congrats Fred!), mostly for his (relatively) new blog The Way The Future Blogs, which title is a play on his excellent autobiography, The Way The Future Was.

The title of that memoir is, of course, a clever play on the relationship between a science fiction writer and his chosen subject.  But it works in another, subtler level than is immediately apparent.

You see, there used to be a time in the history of science fictiondom when the denizens of that strange land – the editors, artists, writers, critics and readers (Fred, btw, was at one time or other just about all of those things and often simultaneously) weren’t mere purveyors of sensational fiction.  They actually acted as and often thought of themselves as prognosticators.  Visionaries. Seers and Sybils.

Fred was among those who took that position seriously.  A member of the World Futures Society, he was often asked by government officials, business interests and think-tanks to go beyond storytelling and guess (for good pay, I assume) what things were going to be like in the next decade or century.

Fred was not alone in this pursuit.  Jerry Pournelle famously put together a group of SF writers to advise the government and that group had some small influence over the Star Wars defense initiative.  During NASA’s heyday, numerous authors were tapped as pundits and I am sure, given the relationship between many authors and academia, that there were plenty of others who provided similar services in both paid and unpaid capacities during the fifties, sixties, perhaps even through the eighties.

This all began waaaay back in nineteen twenty-something when Hugo was putting his concept of scientifiction together:  “candy-coated science education”. (Even back then there was a recognition that the US lagged the rest of the world in the technical fields.) His oft cited and atrocious novel Ralph 124C41+ identifies this foundational aspect of the new branch of literature right there in the main character’s name: Ralph:  One to forsee…

Science fiction (well, at the time, scientifiction) was created for two mutually inclusive purposes – to show us where we were going and to entertain us along the way.  How many times have we heard from NASA or JPL scientists and engineers that science fiction was the reason they got into the biz – and it was for the sole purpose of turning SF’s visions into reality?  So many that it has become its own cliche.

Somewhere between the fifties and now half of that equation has gotten dropped.  Now, science fiction seems to only serve the entertainment function.  Practitioners seem to distance themselves from prognostication as if it were an illegal or socially unacceptable activity.

It’s interesting that the prognosticatory aspects of the genre were once so entrenched that combining them with entertainment was a regular feature of the magazines;  F&SF had Asimov’s science column (real science as ‘food for future thought’).  IF once devoted an entire issue (October 1958) to predictions of space travel.  (This issue was in fact the genesis for this article).  The issue offers a series of stories (by different authors) that chart our future in sequence, from 50 years into the future to 32 million years into the future.

There are numerous other examples in the various magazines.

When did this change? Why?

I’m not sure.  I do know that I was a bit shocked to learn that it was already in play a couple of years ago when I attended Readercon (an annual convention in the Boston area).  Barry Malzberg (Beyond Apollo, others) was telling us all that NASA’s Apollo program was nothing but political theater, designed to end quickly once it had served its purpose, that there was never any intention of going to Mars, etc., etc., (a theory I’m familiar with and not necessarily opposed to), and indicted the concept of SF as predictor with those statements (‘they all got it wrong’).

He then expanded that concept by stating (no quotes, just from memory) that science fiction was never about predicting the future.  Huh?

The audience pretty much went along with this statement, discussing all of the things that the genre had gotten wrong over the years (backyard spaceships, unlimited power generation, civilizations on Mars – you name it) and everyone happily eviscerated their favorite subject for the rest of the afternoon.

I’ve recently read essentially the same thing directed towards ‘hard’ science fiction authors of the 70s and 80s (most often directed at one of my faves – Larry Niven) with words like “yeah, he came up with a lot of great ideas – but look at how much he got wrong!”.

Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine once ran an excellent illustration that sums up this subject in ways that words never can.  I believe the image was by Vincent DiFate (I could be very wrong on that memory, corrections gladly accepted) and I believe it was during the era of the Viking Missions to Mars.

The illustration has two panels:  one supposedly shows the Martian surface as it is – rocks, dust, sand dunes and fissures.  The second shows the Martian surface as it could be – John Carter, Tars Tarkas, thoats, dust boats, tripods – whatever shapes and images your mind’s eye can turn those rocks and sand dunes into.

What is science fiction without the possibilities that it might just come true some day?  Without serious prediction, SF becomes nothing but fantasy, where anything can happen at the wave of a hand.

SF is a product of its time. (Google Starship Troopers for a perfect example of that.  Jo Walton’s piece at Tor.com is an excellent starting point. Read the comments.)  Negativity has crept into virtually every aspect of our society, so it is no surprise to see this reflected in genre fiction.

The thing that disappoints me tho is that SF is supposed to be transcendant.  If any literature can light a beacon for the future, it should be SF. No other literary genre has been given (or adopted) the mantle of truthsayer.  That mantle was accepted once even if it is being rejected now.  A bit hesitantly I’ll say that it is the only genre that is even remotely capable of fulfilling this function, the delineation, not of THE future, but of our possible futures.

Perhaps a bit of a kick-start is in order.  My prediction of fifty years hence is that, absent a willingness to predict and prognosticate over the intervening decades, our current era will become known as the end of the age of science fiction.