Science fiction is about the future, right? It’s about spaceships and robots and nanotechnology and things we don’t even have names for yet. It’s about all the things that’ll make our lives so much better, like smart homes, matter-energy transporters and the elimination of disease. Or it’s about all the ways that our lives will become worse, like the coming surveillance state, insidious bioweapons and the post-cyborg apocalypse.
Except, it’s not about that at all. Science fiction, like all fiction, is about the present and, regardless of whether it’s set on Planet Earth, it’s about human society. It’s about our hopes and perhaps especially our fears about the world we face today. It’s always been that way. And it is arguably better at it than any other genre, now more than ever.
It isn’t just that we live in the future now, evenly distributed or not. It’s also that new things are emerging and becoming part of our everyday lives faster than ever, only to be supplanted by something even more disruptive in another blink of an eye. In a world where you top-of-the-line phone purchase is woefully obsolete within a year, or you log in to Facebook to find that the interface has changed again, how embarrassing is it to give a character a Palm Treo as a status symbol or have your protagonist maintain a LiveJournal?
Literary fiction has a tendency to sidestep the problem by continuing to tell the same kinds of stories that its authors grew up on, in largely the same settings, built around the same situations. There are certainly plenty of powerful character-driven stories that can be told without any reference to any recently invented technology, but after a while novels made in that mold start to feel more alien, more removed from the reality of the twenty-first century, than the most speculative of science fiction. It's not necessarily the pursuit of ”timelessness”; it’s just that those are the building blocks of that kind of story. They are stories that we know how to tell and have learned how to consume. It’s not just the novel, either, that’s stuck in this mode. There are countless movies that acknowledge the existence of cell phones only to take them out of the picture, thereby placing characters in the same predicaments that movie characters have found themselves in long before the invention of mobile telephony.
How then is science fiction better equipped to handle this continually evolving state of affairs? Isn’t the science fiction writer’s job made more difficult by the ways in which reality eclipses our imaginations every day? That can only be true if you believe the purpose of science fiction is to predict the future, and that its creators have either a gift or responsibility for prognostication. And the rise of near-future sci fi and even stories that are set in a kind of alternate present could be read as an indicator that their authors don’t particularly wish to be in the prediction business.
What science fiction brings to the table are the tools for presenting visions of unfamiliar worlds, worlds that have some aspects in common with our own, but other aspects that may be profoundly weird. But the world we live in is pretty weird when you think about it, and getting weirder and more disorienting all the time. Science fiction can embrace change and weave it into the fabric of its universe. It acknowledges that advances in technology can all but eliminate some problems while at the same time creating new ones of its own. It can tweak one specific parameter of our reality and examine its possible consequences. It can, like satire, twist or exaggerate certain details to make a point, giving us the distance and perspective to recognize something about ourselves that we may not otherwise have been able to put a finger on. Sometimes it takes the same William Gibson who wrote Neuromancer to hold a mirror up to our own bizarre 2001. Is it any wonder that authors who have traditionally been tagged with the “literary” label have started borrowing from the sci fi toolkit more and more?
And sure, science fiction gives us stories about possible futures, near and far. That’s because if anything is for certain, it’s that the present isn’t standing still. It’s in very definite motion, and all motion has a vector. It may be impossible to tell our current direction or speed, but that’s okay. Let’s listen to the ones who close their eyes and pay attention to their inner ear when they tell us where they imagine we’re going. And let’s take in as many of those possible outcomes as we can, not only so we’ll be prepared for more eventualities, but so that we have the chance to avoid the ones we don’t want altogether. As Cory Doctorow recently wrote, “Science fiction writers are pretty useless as fortune-tellers, but who needs fortune-tellers? ‘Prediction’ implies a future that we hurtle towards on rails, prisoners of destiny. Having a route-map for the railroad is nice, but wouldn’t it be better if we could steer?”