One of the reasons I don’t write science fiction in long form is because I find it difficult to extrapolate from today’s technology to some brighter (or perhaps darker) future. The difficulty lies not in researching the technology, but in finding the drive to extrapolate in the first place.
I was on track to become a computer scientist from junior high on. Our algebra class got a computer, and we were taught some basics. A friend of mine and I programmed a craps game, complete with blocky, white-dotted dice that rerolled when you hit the space bar and calculated whether you crapped out or got to roll again. In high school, I programmed a simplistic flight simulator where you had to fly through star gates while avoiding shields that would break your spaceship (think of the old vector image games like Asteroids).
For my senior design project in college, I wrote a simulation of evolution, complete with little graphicky single-celled organisms (let’s call them tribbles) that had movement genes that would adjust slightly generation after generation. The simulation had two primary modes. One spaced “food” evenly for the tribbles such that the environment (i.e. the screen) favored those with more “long distance” traits. And so, over time, the tribbles with a propensity to turn often would die off because they couldn’t make it far enough to find food, and what you’d end up with is tribbles that roamed for long periods before turning and sweeping across the environment again. The other mode placed food primarily in one corner of the environment. This favored those tribbles with stronger “turn” genes, either left or right. Over time, the tribbles with “long distance” traits would die off, leaving only the “high turn rate” tribbles, so that what you’d be left with is a screen full of tribbles that turned like corkscrews only in the area with food.
It was a really fun project. Looking back, it’s a wonder I didn’t get into game design. For a long time I wanted to, but at the time I knew very little about how to get into the industry. It’s also a wonder that I didn’t go down the path of science fiction. I certainly read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but there was something about fantasy that always drew me. And, I will admit, and I guess this is part and parcel of why I like fantasy so much, technology didn’t hold quite as much allure for me. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that it was so banal as to be uninteresting to me. It was fascinating. I only mean that I’d been somewhat steeped in it from a young age and so it wasn’t quite as mysterious to me as fantasy was.
I think this is a big part of the reason why science fiction in general badly lags fantasy sales. People just aren’t as enamored of technology as they used to be. Years ago there were so many mysteries to be solved that setting a story on Mars—something that was considered science fiction but by today’s standards would be labeled fantasy—felt extremely exotic. Now we live behind years that have seen moon landings, space shuttle launches so commonplace that most don’t even know when they lift off or touch down, Mars rovers that send back incredible amounts of new and exciting information, telescopes that see farther and wider and deeper than ever before. Science fiction, to me, feels in some ways tapped out.
Now, of course it isn’t truly tapped out. But this is part of the problem, the perception that there isn’t that much left to explore, either on the micro or the macro scale. Another part of the problem is that so much is explained (or we think it’s explained) that there isn’t the same sort of romanticism that goes along with speculating about a story with science fictional elements.
I sound like I’m coming down on SF, but I’m really not. I’m just giving my view on why I think it’s lost its allure. And I also say this as a setup for the bright side, which is that when someone transcends these obstacles, it can bring something truly wonderful to the field. A recent writer that consistently does this for me is Robert Charles Wilson. I simply adore his writing. His ideas are big and his characters are real. I think it’s really a wonderful mix that I have a tough time finding in SF these days, the sensawunda that I get when I read Chronoliths or Blind Lake or Darwinia or Spin. I love all of his books, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
And since I lean so heavily toward fantasy, I put it to you: what books can you recommend that don’t rehash old ideas (space opera, generation ships, nanite plagues, etc.) Which ones push our contemporary science-fictional boundaries while telling a truly compelling story?