Writing sf is a race against reality

Paul Raven @ 04-02-2011

Walter Jon Williams accrues his second mention here in a week, thanks to him popping up at Chez Scalzi to talk about his new novel Deep State. In a serendipitous and Zeitgeisty kind of way, Deep State is largely concerned with… yup, you guessed it, internet-fomented revolutions in Middle Eastern nation-states:

I started working on Deep State. I had Dagmar employ both existing and ad hoc networks to foment her people-power insurrection, to send her rebels to their targets, conduct their demonstrations or other actions, and then disperse before the government could react.

I figured that sooner or later the authorities would work out what was going on, and shut down the Internet. Dagmar’s method of keeping in touch with the troops once the Internet was down was, I thought, fairly ingenious (it involves, for a start, land lines and a frantic search for dial-up modems).

I was writing my book.  I was having a good time.  And then the 2009 Green Revolution began in Iran.

Day after day, I watched jerky online videos of demonstrators battling police.  When the police fled, I felt a surge of blazing hope; I felt rage when Neda Agha-Soltan was gunned down on camera; I was devastated when the authorities succeeded in suppressing the protestors.

But amid all this, I had a very personal reaction that was probably more than a little selfish.  I was thinking, You bastards, you stole my book!

I was seeing individual scenes from my novel played out onscreen.  A novel that I hadn’t even finished yet, a novel that I’d packed full of shiny new ideas to impress my readers. Ideas which, in the wake of Iran 2009, were getting less new and less shiny and less impressive by the day.

Williams’ solution was, to paraphrase his own words, to “pack the novel with even more shiny!” – a good way out of a writerly corner for almost any situation.

But the reason I bring this up is because the Williams novel that preceded Deep State, namely This Is Not A Game, also fell foul of the world’s irritating tendency to make a futuristic-seeming plot into – quite literally – yesterday’s news. If you’ll excuse me the vanity, I’ll quote my Strange Horizons review of This Is Not A Game from June 2009:

… This Is Not a Game might have scored much higher on science fictional sensawunda had it not been for the big news stories of the last twelve months—global covert networks and the economies of entire countries collapsing are quite literally last year’s stories, and make This Is Not a Game more of a book of its day than I imagine was ever planned. Knowing a little something about the length of the publishing cycle, I rather suspect Williams, as he watched the news over the last year and a half, has been torn between feeling satisfied at having spotted the possibilities and frustrated at seeing the novelty bleed out of his plot.

This is kind of what I was getting at with my contribution to the Locus Roundtable discussion about a trend in sf that sees the genre cringing away from grappling with the near future. Not only is the plausible near future looking like a grim and tight-belted remix of the present, but – as Williams’ travails demonstrate –  you run the risk of spending a year writing a novel only to have reality beat you to the bookstore shelves – two very valid reasons for the future-flinch.

It’d be great at this point to have some sort of brilliant solution to this situational dilemma, but I’m afraid I don’t. How about you lot – any ideas as to how sf can heal the rift with tomorrow?

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9 Responses to “Writing sf is a race against reality”

  1. Charlie Stross says:

    I feel Dubjay’s pain.

    My forthcoming novel, “Rule 34”, the sequel to 2007’s “Halting State” (itself written in 2005-06), was put back a year because basically the financial system went nonlinear in 2008 and then Bernie Madoff stole a big chunk of my plot. And writing near future SF is indisputably difficult, because *we’re living in the 21st century*!

    But I think it’s still possible. The future is 90% familiar, 8% predictable, and 2% weird stuff you couldn’t imagine. So my formula is to start with the present day, add the predictable stuff — faster computers, hotter media, unstable climate and so on — then try and identify the scope for really peculiar second-order effects to crawl out of the woodwork and bite us on the futurological ass. Finally, add a couple of bits of random-to-the-point-of-surreal shit and bake until cooked.

    As for looking like a nebbish because you guessed wrong — that’s not going to happen this decade. Frankly, so few people are even *trying* to engage with the near future that readers cut you a lot of slack. Just ditch the grim meathook future already; it might be the long slow afternoon of the American century,but it’s morning in Shanghai!

  2. Charlie Stross says:

    PS: “Rule 34” isn’t out yet, but I’ve *already* been sandbagged by one of the near-future predictions I made (cheap DNA testing being used to identify delinquent dog owners from their pooches’ crap).

  3. Nader Elhefnawy says:

    I remember thinking something similar to this idea about “writing sf as a
    race against reality” about a decade ago, back when I was encountering a lot
    of technological hype. (Think Kurzweil’s predictions in ’99 about where we’d be in 2009, for instance.) Since then it’s seemed like some things (technology, certainly) are coming along a lot more slowly than we expected. (Again, think Kurzweil’s predictions, and how short of the mark reality has been. I assessed them here for The Fix a while back: http://ttapress.com/fix/features/looking-back/.)

    I do agree though about how there seems to be a lot less effort to engage with the near future. (I actually think we may be in the same situation Bruce Sterling said we were in back in the late ’70s.)

    P.S. I’ll look forward to Rule 34’s appearance.

  4. Wintermute says:

    Well, if your crystal bally visionariness starts losing its charlatan sheen, you can always go the Way of The Gibson: stop pretending to be predicting the future and start writing speculative novels of the recently #untrending past, which, apparently, is already wunda-ish enough. It’s like the SF equivalent of that time-honored koan about Mother Nature’s smarts; The Present is Weirder Than You.

  5. Wintermute says:

    The corollary direction to the Now-Novel is to forget about trying to write 18-month analyses so detailed they’re actionable by investors (and Madoffs, who spoiler your plot) and just take general trends and concepts, and make a twisted mirror-world a bit further in the future. Intentionally unrealistic, self-awarely imaginary, more allegorical and poetic than literal and predictive. Get across the essential ideas, extrapolations, human experience aspects without laying out a specific world-line blue print or trajectory from the present. In this way, you can take out a kind of “storyline insurance” such that a similar event is less likely, and if reality does steal your shiny ideas, the patina of datedness is not instantly cast, because of the setting’s distance in terms of specific people places and events from reality. Your hot conceits don’t read like last November’s Wired headlines if it takes place half a century from now in a substantially different world.

    Most the readership of Neuromancer were oblivious to the fact that Gibson was not writing about kewl cyber-ish 2040 but 1982 Reaganomics, despite the fact his plot *ideas* were being stolen by reality left and right. And that’s because it was never about predicting but speculating, extrapolating, and illuminating the world of that present.

  6. Charlie Stross says:

    Wintermute: I deny your imaginary reality and substitute one of my own.

    (Or, put it another way: what you’re suggesting is *no fun*. And anyway, I’m not trying to predict technological specifics; I’m interested in human behaviour as it might be affected by general technological trends — “The Human Use of Technology” as Norbert Weiner put it. Which requires a certain grounding, otherwise I might as well switch to writing quest fantasy.)

  7. Wintermute says:

    Ah, I think I may have misread into your comments slightly, and conflated them with some of the original article. Williams talks about his writing realistic very near-future ideas based on very specific present trends (organizing via ubiquitous digital media), then getting angry when “his predictions come true”. And *then* deciding the solution is put in some more shiny predictions, then getting scooped again. Just seems like expecting reality to not be realistic is kinda unrealistic.

  8. Sarah Ennals says:

    I decided a while back that any fictional future we invent is usually more of an alternate present; so I say just worry about telling an interesting story.

  9. Athena Andreadis says:

    Also, interesting characters. They stay in readers’ memories long after the gimmicks and gizmology have faded from both fictional future and real present.