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!)┬áThe 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.

Star Trek

There are “trekkies” — people who love Star Trek despite the fact that it’s mostly just terrible, and “disappointed trekkies” — people who love what they imagine Star Trek could be if it weren’t just terrible. What if, for example, we considered life in the Federation for people not working in Star Fleet? (In the new Star Trek movie, when Earth is attacked (seriously that isn’t a spoiler, right!), the only reaction we see is of Star Fleet Academy cadets running around in terror. Some things never change.)

For example, consider that “godlike omniscient beings” and “time travel” are generally considered the last resort of the desperate, or — at best — a good excuse for comedy, in Science Fiction. Yet, these two devices are associated with much of the best in Star Trek (e.g. most people like the Q stories in TNG and cite “City on the Edge of Forever” and “Yesterday’s Enterprise” as among their favorite TOS and TNG episodes.

No doubt my reader has guessed that I’m a “disappointed trekkie”, but I count myself among those who enjoyed the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek (XI) movie. I’m not sure I approve of it, though, since it carelessly used the interstellar transporter technology (OK, a slight spoiler) from the lamentable Spock Must Die to resolve a stupid plot point that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

So, a well-made, fun movie, but we’ll all have to pretend that bit never happened the way we all eject our Wrath of Khan DVDs before Kirk’s eulogy starts.