Monday, January 26, 1998

Sci-fi Furniture Sale

Have made the point before, not sure I've posted it, so will make it again.

Yesterday's SF becomes today's reality, not just because of the predictive powers of the original SF dream, but because the expression of these ideas plants a seed in someone's head that eventually grows.

If I ever (ha!) get my reference clippings straightened out I could say I know that I know that I know -- but, once again -- Mr. Disorganized will shoot from the hip ...

I'm pretty sure that many of the original pioneers of rocketry (Von Braun, etc.) were fans of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; many of the original Mercury/Apollo NASA engineers were fans of 1930s and '40s hard SF writers -- including Asimov, natch. I recall seeing a thing on the tube as to how plenty of the current NASA engineers were originally inspired by Star Trek -- which is probably a good thing as compared to Star Wars. We don't want any astronauts shutting off the guidance system and "using the force" after all.

Aside from cyberfunk, what the next SF wave will be depends on where technology/society actually goes. This is part of the ongoing feedback loop between predicted change and actual change -- the simplest example being the display systems on Star Trek (which had to change when the PC revolution made the original displays look dorky) or the working-in of movements of social change, like the women's lib movement -- no miniskirts in STTNG -- or technological change, like the PC revolution, which, as far as I know, no hard SF writer quite predicted. There's even shit that nobody would have predicted -- like society's general rejection of smoking in public places. The original Lost in Space pilot had a mission control center (set, I think, in 1997) where almost everybody -- including a TV anchor -- was smoking like fiends.

My hunch (I wrote an essay on this awhile back, this'll be a compressed form of it) is that technological change occurs in waves; the fictional adaptation to that change occurs in concurrent waves, just slightly out of sync and lagging behind. The waves of fiction and reality create interference patterns.

There's a simple reason fiction lags behind reality. Writers are lazy. Almost any genre starts out as the exploration of new territory -- and ends as rearrangements of old furniture. SF is not immune.

What happens with SF is that the furniture of the future becomes too nicely cut and dried. A general consensus congeals about what the future looks like --

As in the flying cars future of the Hugo Gernsback era ...

Or the warp drive/transporter beam/galactic federation conventions of the Star Trek franchise.

Or the teams of big-eyed warriors in anthropomorphic giant robot suits fighting aliens or other weirdos that you'll find in anime.

Or, more recently, the cyberpunk conventions of a consensual hallucination of cyberspace and a sweaty underground cyber economy of outlaws and cowboys swapping spare body and computer parts, dirty deeds and dirty data while jacking themselves up and in.

The consensus congeals; the conventions are worked out. SF writers and/or screenwriters are free to be lazy -- and stop sweating the details of a speculative world (or paying attention to the implications of the present day world). They're free to write soap operas or shoot 'em ups in an agreed-upon fictional reality whose details are as precisely worked out as the town in "Gunsmoke."

While these lazy, established writers are busy doing that, something changes out there in the real world. The writers don't notice it at first. It's off their radar.

This blindness is usually but not always, an age thing. The old guys are stuck in a rut. They're too busy moving futuristic furniture around to notice actual technological and social change.

Then some young Turk comes around -- like William Gibson looks around and notices a few things the established SF writers are ignoring -- things like the embryonic Internet and the PC revolution. He asks himself, "What about this shit? If this goes on ..." Then he thinks. He speculates.

And the young Turk writes something that shakes everything and everybody up. He writes something like Neuromancer. (I think Gibson was still in his early 20s when he wrote it.)

And -- blink, blink -- before you know it, the young Turk's radical new ideas become conventional cliches again. More furniture that other SF writers can move around and, occasionally, reupholster.

So it goes.

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