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?