New sf futures from Rudy Rucker

Paul Raven @ 30-06-2010

In response to Jo Walton’s Tor.com post about the problem that the Singularity meme has caused for science fiction writers [short and slightly snarky interpretation: The Singularity is such a ubiquitous idea that everyone feels obliged to write around it or beyond it, and there’s a paucity of old-school “people-like-us-but-with-spaceships” stories as a result], the ever-fertile mind of Rudy Rucker has thrown out a whole bunch of new themes and directions for science fiction stories.

Change is of course something that happens to any living art form—think of painting or popular music or literary novels or even TV sit-coms. Yes, it’s sad to see Golden Ages slip away, but it’s sadder still to keep doing the same thing. Inevitably the old material goes stale and the fire goes away. I’m not saying it’s become impossible to write fresh novels about aliens and spaceships and planets. But maybe it’s become a task as difficult and quixotic as writing a fresh doo-wop song.

But why not a new kind of song? And why not a new kind of SF novel? This is, after all, the twenty-first century.

If you think about it, it’s quite unreasonable to regard, say, the physics and sociology of classic space opera as “rules” about science-fictional futures. These are all things that writers made up in, like, the 1930s, and which later writers polished and refined. The “rules” have no Higher Truth and they’re unlikely to apply to any actual future. They’re only stories that people made up for fun, and there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t keep changing the rules.

Testify, Brother Rucker! Here’s a couple of the directions he suggests:

Quantum Computational Viruses

The current trend is to view any bit of matter as carrying out a so-called quantum computation. These computations can be as rich and complex as anything in our brains or in our PCs. One angle, which I explored a bit in Postsingular and Hylozoic, is that ordinary objects could “wake up.” Another angle worth pursuing is that something like a computer virus might infect matter, perhaps changing the laws of physics to make our world more congenial to some other kinds of beings.

The Subdimensions

For too long we’ve let the quantum mechanics tell us that there’s nothing smaller than the Planck length. Let’s view this tiny size scale as a membrane, a frontier, but not a wall. We can in fact go below it…into the land of the subdimensions. Possibly the subdimensional world is a kind of mirror version of ours. Certainly aliens can visit us from there…no need for all those star ships. Just focus on a speck of dust.

Granted, Futurismic focusses on publishing a very specific subgenre of science fiction (and offers no apologies for doing so!), but I tend to see thematic and stylistic diversity as a sign of health in any realm of creation. The end-game of postmodern culture seems to be an increasingly uncritical obsession with retro styles and pastiche – a phenomenon I can see very clearly in music, but increasingly in genre fiction as well. Which is sort of a shame (retro is fun for a while, but soon becomes little more than a costume party – hello, zombies! hello, steampunk!), but perhaps understandable. As Rucker points out, it’s not that there aren’t any routes forward… but the routes available aren’t an easy stroll through familiar gardens.

While it’s nice to walk through a familiar garden every once in a while, I like to explore new places. And that’s why sf is my genre; it’s the only one whose concerns expand and change with time. For example, space operas – while plenty of fun – are essentially as limited in their main concerns as a Regency romance or a Western. Sure, you can reinvent them, subvert them, mash them up with other ideas… and if you do something interesting with it then I will (and often do!) read it with genuine pleasure. But I’m still going to keep looking for writers who are willing to try to expand the sphere of storyability… after all, wasn’t that the defining dynamic of science fiction in the Golden Age, the dynamic that brought us all the forms we’re now pining for?

It’s always baffled me that a genre that purports to be concerned with new ideas can, at times, be such a hidebound and nostalgic institution. Rebellion eventually becomes dogma… another story that’s as old as humanity itself. 😉


Jo Walton on the protocols of reading science fiction

Paul Raven @ 20-01-2010

Have you ever wondered why it is that, for all your efforts and enthusiasm, you’ve failed to convince your bookworm buddies of the brilliance of a favourite science fiction story or novel? As science fiction readers, we know instinctively that there’s something different about it by comparison to “regular” literature, but explaining that difference concisely – to others, or even to ourselves – can be quite tricky.

Well, help is at hand – novelist Jo Walton has hit the nail on the head over at Tor.com with a short and lucid essay on the reading protocols of science fiction:

Because SF can’t take the world for granted, it’s had to develop techniques for doing it. There’s the simple infodump, which Neal Stephenson has raised to an artform in its own right. There are lots of forms of what I call incluing, scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture. The reader has to remember them and connect them together. This is one of the things some people complain about as “too much hard work” and which I think is a high form of fun. SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues.

It always feels a little elitist to engage in special pleading for science fiction’s literary merits, but it really has evolved its own rhetorical and narrative language; this has become much more apparent to me since I started critiquing manuscripts by beginning writers, especially those who’ve come to write science fiction late in their lives, or via television and cinema. It’s often said that the golden age of science fiction is twelve, but I wonder if exposure at a formative age is an essential prerequisite for the ability to parse it – can that “hard work” of decoding the fictional world be taught later in life and still bring the same degree of pleasure it gives to us?

A few years back, I managed to convince some of my public library colleagues to read Geoff Ryman’s Air, and I know a handful of people from the same generation as my parents who enjoy Ballard’s later short fiction, but reliable and universal “gateway drugs” seem hard to find. Have you had any success converting readers to science fiction, and if so, what books or stories did you use to bait the hook?