The future is not what it was. Accept it and move on.

In the British paperback market, having a gigantic spaceship on the cover of a book used to mean "it's science fiction" regardless of the substance of the story. Suffice it to say that there are no gigantic spacecraft in "The Face" and no indication anywhere in this picture that the artist read the book or had it in mind when he created the picture.

One of my ambitions is to write a science fiction novel. Or two. I have some fairly elaborate ideas sketched out, but I’m a little short of spare time right now. I also don’t think that creative endeavors such as writing are a “zero sum game”. Science fiction is in a pretty dreadful state right now, and it’s no use to me if it withers and dies before I get around to making my contribution to the genre.

Here's the latest printing of the same series (this is volume 1, the second volume is very similar). Note what looks like some kind of space carrier on the cover. Aha, it must be "science fiction". (You can guess how many "space carriers" figure in the series.)

Here’s the basic problem: for a hundred years or so science fiction writers have been pretending that “the future” will involve interstellar travel by faster-than-light travel. Sure, there are notable exceptions who write stories set in near-future dystopias (e.g. much of Philip K. Dick’s work, all of William Gibson’s or Neal Stephenson’s work, or David Brin’s Earth and The Postman), but in large part we haven’t advanced beyond E. E. Doc Smith’s “60 parsecs/hour” via “inertialess drive”. Certainly SF in popular culture, which means TV and movies, is essentially a species of fantasy with spaceships and energy bolts instead of dragons and wizards. (Not that this kind of fantasy can’t be fun!) The flipside of the problem is that most science fiction ignores or negates the advances in technology in fields other than warp engineering. Star Trek features fabulous spaceships but no voicemail.

I’ve complained elsewhere that SF does a lousy job of envisioning a future that grapples with today’s problems. Where is a science fiction setting which addresses energy conservation the way the original Star Trek addressed racism? At least BSG had something to say about the War on Terror, but as a piece of speculative SF it was simply dreadful; we can’t make anything remotely resembling the Galactica, but we have firearms way beyond the crap they were using.

It doesn’t help that the few writers who have taken a stab in this direction, e.g. Pamela Sargent’s Venus series and Kim Stanley Robinson’s horribly overrated Mars trilogy, have written ridiculously overlong and generally dull doorstops.

I’d like to see a speculative science fiction setting (on network TV or in a decent series of novels, say) that is not near-future (e.g. Star Trek timeframe or beyond) and does not go beyond our Solar system. Ideally, it wouldn’t make stupid assumptions about, say, the rate at which we can realistically terraform other planets, but let’s not expect miracles. I’d also like to see a speculative science fiction setting that involves interstellar travel using some kind of plausible technology and deals with the implications rather than wishing them away.

I have two fairly solid ideas for settings that satisfy these constraints (I think I have an actually brilliant idea for the second); what I don’t have is a good idea for a plot. Maybe I’ll just steal something from Shakespeare.

  • Andrew Barry

    Monomyth 😉

  • Aww. No TV miniseries for Falls the Shadow?

    How about “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in hibernation?”

  • Joseph Campbell would be another good guy to rip off (or Levi-Strauss, along the same lines) — although Ursula Le Guin went there and I stopped reading her novels.

    I’d love to do a Falls the Shadow tv series (anyone, anyone?), although I think Falls the Shadow basically falls into the “near future dystopia” bucket (and tacitly assumed it was a stepping stone to the usual FTL universe, indeed that was the arc plot). I think it is a better thought out setting than most (it stands up pretty well for something written in 1990), but it doesn’t much advance the genre (well, I guess it would be a step forward for TV SF).

    Maybe Joss Whedon might be interested… It’s a more commercial idea than Dollhouse, I think.

  • Brett

    Have you had a look at David Pulver’s “Transhuman Space” at all? It was published by Steve Jackson Games as a setting for GURPS, and Pulver evidently had some of the same concerns as you express.

    (It is SF, so of course the art (cover an interior) tell you that and nothing else.)

  • Sean Case

    Have you seen http://vimeo.com/7963572 ?

  • “Transhuman Space” does seem like a stab in the right direction, but of course a role-playing setting is about as far from “popular culture” as it gets. Superficially, it seems like a more shapeless version of “Falls the Shadow” with a bunch of very silly technologies thrown in the bucket.

    It’s hard to believe that Mars will be worth fighting over by 2100 (or that we’ll be in any shape to fight over it). If you’re going to challenge assumptions, I’d challenge the assumed value of “planets” straight out of the gate. As one of my most memorable professors used to say: “by the time we reach the stars, we won’t need planets”. I’d say that even holds for Mars. (Even in Kim Stanley Robinson’s MARS books there’s precious little case for actually bothering to land on MARS given they can afford to build a space elevator on it.)

    “Slingers” seems … incoherent. But then I guess it’s a “sizzle reel” designed to accrue funding for a pilot. From that point of view, I found the “Eon” trailers produced for a cgtalk competition more compelling (not that Eon is an example of what I’m talking about).

    Slighty off-topic: I should have mentioned Vernor Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky” as being one of the more interesting non-FTL universe stories. For that matter, Iain Banks’s “Transitions” is not without merit, although it is fantasy rather than SF.