Perusing my bookcase for a casual re-read, I was struck by the realization that I have been buying new work of science fiction increasingly rarely. This made me think back to a comment made by one of my favorite authors, William Gibson. At a book signing at the Philadelphia Public Library several years ago, he had talked about a change in his subject material. He had stopped writing sci-fi as fantastic and set as far in the future as his seminal work Neuromancer, but set in a more “realistic” world in his newest books Spook Country and Zero History. On his blog he mentions:
I don’t know if I’ll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way. In the ’80s and ’90s–as strange as it may seem to say this–we had such luxury of stability. Things weren’t changing quite so quickly in the ’80s and ’90s. And when things are changing too quickly, as one of the characters in Pattern Recognition says, you don’t have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future. -from William Gibson’s blog, www.williamgibsonbooks.com
If you think about it, have you read anything recent that is particularly new or inventive? Please don’t take it this to be an indictment of the sci-fi genre in general, but it seems to me that most works are either expanding a popular and profitable series (the Star Wars/Trek series that just keep adding new characters into an existing universe) or are using existing tropes (how many times can belligerent aliens invading the Earth be made into a fresh work that stands out from the crowd?).
To be frank, I genuinely believe our waning sci-fi imagination is due to the fact that we literally live in the future. Every passing day brings forth new developments that turn the wild, fantastic concepts present in previous generations’ literature into common daily occurrences and tools. Star Trek’s communicators and tricorders have become today’s smartphones and tablet PC’s. NASA has employed ion/charged particle drive on its space probes since the late 1990’s/early 2000’s. Despite it’s slow start, the private space race is bringing us ever closer to the advent of personal/consumer spaceflight (even if only for the rich).
Literature has always reflected when the public consciousness is taken with a new idea or current event. After the deployment of the atomic bomb and the beginning of the Space Race, a whole wave of pulp science fiction flooded the market, as people craved stories of radioactive monsters and intrepid spacemen. The first steps into space with the Russian program and the American Mercury program preceded Star Trek: The Original Series by only 4 years. With NASA’s budget cuts and the retirement of the Space Shuttle, our longing towards space has become passe and computers are present in even the smallest gadgets now. On the flip side, the present seems to be lacking authors like Jules Verne, whose wild predictions eventually came to pass. With technology advancing as fast as it is, we almost can’t fathom what the future holds. Combine this lack of vision about the future with a shortage of suitably grand and fantastic developments to fire the artistic imagination, I get the feeling that unless a manned mission to Mars is ordered, or a massive breakthrough in computing produces a viable virtual reality environment, or some other epic development drastically changes the way people look at the world, our science fiction writers will be hard pressed to imagine where we will be going in the future.