Science Fiction Without the Future
By Judith Berman
24 June 2013
This essay first appeared in the May 2001 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction (number 153; vol. 13, no. 9 :pp. 1, 6-8). It sparked a vigorous debate in the pages of NYRSF, with responses by Eleanor Arnason, Paul Kincaid, Carter Moody and Darrell Schweitzer published in the September 2001 issue, and a further reply from Richard Brandshaft in the December 2001 issue. The original essay went on to win the Science Fiction Research Association's Pioneer Award for the best critical essay-length work of its year. We're delighted to be able to reprint it in Strange Horizons, and suggest it may productively be read in dialogue both with the recent debate sparked by Paul Kincaid's essay "The Widening Gyre" (see, for example, responses by Jonathan McCalmont at Ruthless Culture and Alan DeNiro in the January Cascadia Subduction Zone), and in the context of older debates, as exemplified by Joanna Russ's 1971 essay "The Wearing Out of Genre Materials" and Damon Knight's comments on Year's Bests in the 1950s. Also of interest may be our 2005 interview with Berman.
At conventions and parties and in private conversation, I've been hearing for years now about the declining subscription base of the major SF print magazines, and the failure of both the magazines and original book-length SF to attract younger readers. For years I, like many, took this solely as evidence of the decline of reading as a leisure activity and the increasingly short attention spans of the young. The birth of my own child has given me a fresh perspective.
I am now sure that my 16-month-old son, who already shows an alarming interest in print, will be a reader. But will he be an SF reader? In my own childhood, I happily consumed Golden Age science fiction written before I was born. When I try to imagine what today's SF will look like to my son, I am afraid not only that little of it will be of interest, but also that the fault lies in the science fiction itself.
Recent issues of Asimov's provide an illustration. Asimov's—arguably the most influential SF magazine—garners major awards year after year, supplying the Hugo ballot in 2000, for example, with 11 out of the 16 nominated stories and all three short fiction winners. Asimov's editor Gardner Dozois has himself won 12 of the last 13 Hugos handed out for Best Professional Editor. If, as has often been said, short fiction is the place where SF's speculative tools are honed and its new visions first emerge, Asimov's should be a reliable barometer of the state of current SF.
Among the contents of the issue with the cover date of my son's birth, October-November 1999, we find the following stories by some of the field's top authors:
- Connie Willis's "The Winds of Marble Arch," a novella about aging and the fear of growing old, as represented by winds blowing through the London Underground.
- Mike Resnick's "Hothouse Flowers," on a future where the very old are not allowed to die but are kept on life support as vegetables for decades (not so different from the present!).
- Michael Swanwick's "Riding the Giganotosaur," about an old man dying of cancer who is rich enough to have his brain transplanted into a giganotosaur back in the Cretaceous.
- Dozois' "A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows," about an old man, close to death and possibly delusional, who has lived into a world of disorienting social and technological change.
- Kim Stanley Robinson's "A Martian Romance," about a newly frozen Mars and two very old people close to death, who are sad about the death of Blue Mars and their own approaching ends.
- Robert Silverberg's column on the autographs of Golden Age greats he possesses in his book collection.
- Jack Williamson, living Golden Age great, in a guest column that looks back over his life and career.
- Nelson Bond, another writer of the same generation, with "Proof of the Pudding," a joke short-short.
The Williamson retrospective, taken by itself, is free of nostalgia. Swanwick's old man turns exuberant in his dinosaur body, Willis' couple is rescued at the last minute by the wind of hope, and, yes, the two young people in Robinson's story aren't sad because they are at the start of their lives and have hope for the future.
But as a group the stories are full of nostalgia, regret, fear of aging and death, fear of the future in general, and the experience of change as disorienting and bad. These stories aren't about dystopias. They are about individuals trying to cope with what the present has inexorably and dislocatingly become. Not that this is a bad topic or that good and moving stories can't be written about it. And, in fairness, Willis and Robinson offer at least the notion of hope and adaptation to change. What gives me pause is how recurrent and pervasive the fears are, and the way they are presented within a frame of nostalgia for the Golden Age past of SF.
A poem in the issue by Bruce Boston, "Another Short Horror Story," suggests a more specific reading of these stories: that what's really being expressed is fear of the present. Boston's poem concerns the loneliness of the last man on earth who hasn't jacked into the neural net. Embedded in the poem is the notion that the Internet will drive unmediated authenticity into oblivion, that the net connects people only by alienating them from their essential humanity. This fear echoes the traditional media's reporting on any crime in which the Internet figures ever so peripherally: "Victim met murderer in chat room, police say." How often, in contrast, do you see headlines such as "Victim talked with murderer on telephone"? Anxiety about computers and the Internet is to a significant degree generational—for those of us who met computers relatively early in life, computers are just an appliance like the telephone.
Boston's poem, and the Golden Age nostalgia that frames the issue, point toward a particular fact of the sociology of science fiction. Baby boomers—the cohort for whom Golden Age authors evoke fond recollections of childhood—currently dominate SF production and consumption. This supersized slice of the demographic pie has exerted hegemony over the pace and direction of cultural change for decades, but the Age of the Internet and the New Economy have, it seems to me, begun to dethrone them in favor of the 20- and 30-somethings who are as comfortable in the seething, mutating cultural ferment of the web as fish are in the sea. The Internet is perhaps the best symbol of everything disquieting to boomers (and their elders) about the present, including the generational divide with respect to technology. This divide is the subject of the old joke about the 8-year-old being the one who programs the family VCR. Part of what the joke expresses is the fear that members of the younger generation, at ease with all new technology, are growing up strangers to their parents.
I would argue that these Asimov's stories are about, or are strongly shaped by, the anxieties experienced by many boomers at a particular historical moment in which they no longer feel in control either of society at large or of their own lives. Dozois' musty anti-hero might stand as a proxy for these anxieties: an old man who was famous for having in his youth suggested that society slow the pace of technological change, but whose manifesto on the topic failed to have the desired effect.
Golden Age SF: hope for the future of technology. Millennial SF: fear of the present, fear of technology? If this is what's happened, no wonder younger readers aren't drawn into the field. The changes that frighten older people—they don't perceive as change. How much more archaic will baby-boom anxieties seem to my son's generation?
Yet boomer writers and boomer-specific themes can't take the entire rap for declining magazine readership. Surely fearfulness is not the dominant reaction of all boomers to change, nor do I imagine that the stories I have cited are the sole response of their authors to millennial unease. And even if both these things were so, examination of a subsequent year-plus of Asimov's—the issues leading up to the start of the twenty-first century—shows that the overwhelming majority of the stories in this sample avert their gaze to some degree from both present and future. As the age of most of the authors is unknown to me, I have to suppose that an anxious, backward-looking perspective is distributed well beyond the baby-boom generation.
Fully one third of the stories in these issues are set in the past, or are set in the present but entirely concerned with the past. There are stories of time travel to the Cretaceous, the Silurian, to eighteenth-century Amsterdam, eighteenth-century Leipzig, fourteenth-century France, and 1920s California (Swanwick 10-11/99, Utley 10-11/00, Baker 7/00, Purdom 5/00, Garcia y Robertson 8/00, Baker 12/00). In only two time-travel stories does a future hero come back to the "present" (Baker 1/00, Turtledove 12/99), and nowhere do we have a hero traveling to the future.
There are stories about nineteenth-century author Stephen Crane, the 1912 Scott expedition to the South Pole, the bombing of Tokyo during World War II, British aviators during World War II, the death of the last mammoth in a 1940 fire, and God and the Devil deal-making over the fate of JFK (Wilber 6/00, Yolen and Harris 5/00, Parks 12/00, MacLeod 12/99, Baxter 1/00, Baker 3/00), among others.
Where the history is of another timestream, there are no Dickian alternate presents to be found. The stories are concerned with alternate past history: Theodore Roosevelt chasing Jack the Ripper; a Civil War Jason and Medea pursuing hidden gold; a present-day hero playing god in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (Resnick 12/00, W.J. Williams 10-11/99, Reed 5/00). Of special interest here is Greg Egan's "Oracle," in which fictional versions of Alan Turing and C.S. Lewis debate whether unbridled technological change, especially advances in computation and the development of artifical intelligence, is good or evil (7/00).
Two of these backwards-looking stories gaze toward the field's own past: one visits Cthulhu-worshipping trailer trash (Friesner 2/00); the other follows the alternate-universe adventures of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein during, again, World War II (Gunn, Duncan, Murphy and Swanwick 4/00).
This leaves roughly two-thirds of the stories that are set in the present or future. But of these, some contain very few if any essential speculative elements (e.g., Rusch 1/00, Palwick 5/00). The most notable in terms of the present discussion is Cory Doctorow's "At Lightspeed Slowing," a story of a techie so overstimulated by modern life that he has rejected the present to seek mental and emotional refuge in a primitive commune in Costa Rica (4/00). Here also belongs John Alfred Taylor's literal talking-head tale, "Calamity of So Long Life," another that examines the fears of someone old, disabled and helpless (5/00).
A number of stories ostensibly take place in the future, but bristle with anachronisms that are often nostalgic or ironically retro: we have safaris, chess tournaments, pioneer homesteads or the old European class system (albeit upside-down) on distant planets (Resnick 12/99, Neube 8/00, de Noux 2/00, Le Guin 2/00). In Rick Wilber's "To Leuchars," we are even told that the setting for the novella, a colony world's first settlement, was intentionally built to look like a centuries-old Scottish city (9/00).
On future Earths we have Spanish-style bullfighting and Cretan bull-dancers; a small circus touring rural Vietnam; and expats and communards in a future version of 1920s Paris (Abraham, Roessner, Walker and W.J. Williams 10-11/00; Shepard 8/00, Doctorow and Skeet 12/00). Or retro imagery dominates a fictional present: a 19th-century balloon transports a hero from contemporary New York; a man drills to the hollow center of the earth (Cowan 1/00; Bond 10-11/99).
A surprisingly large proportion of the future landscapes in these Asimov's issues are pastoral or primitive, whether found on Earth (Kress 6/00, Swanwick 3/00, Doctorow 4/00, Sarafin 2/00, Tilton 9/00) or an alien planet (Arnason 10-11/00, Nordley 2/00, L. Williams 10-11/00, de Noux 2/00, Resnick 12/99, Robinson 10-11/99). We even have pastoral virtuality (Daniel 10-11/99). And when aliens come to earth, they nearly always appear in small-town, rural or downright primitive settings, whether in the past (Sullivan 7/00), near-present (Abraham 12/99, Pieczynski 1/00, Reed 7/00) or future (Pendleton 7/00). In only one case do they show up in a suburban setting—though one which the protagonist sees as hick and small-town (Fintushel 12/99).
Any of these pastoral landscapes would seem unremarkable by itself. It's the frequency with which such environments appear, especially in contrast with the relative scarcity of urban and suburban settings. This is a decidedly nostalgic trend given the present-day world-wide reality of burgeoning population and metastasizing sprawl. Curiously, only one of the fantasy stories not set in Earth's own historical past has a primitive setting (Martin 12/00). The few others unfold largely in contemporary urban or suburban landscapes (Willis 10-11/99, Fintushel 3/00, Stableford 4/00).
Some of the stories with retro elements or pastoral settings do nevertheless address contemporary issues in a speculative fashion. We have, for example, Daniel Abraham's small-town aliens who play the role of unwelcome immigrant group (12/99), or the pattern-crunching digital espionage practiced by the hero of Cory Doctorow and Michael Skeet's retro Paris story (12/00). Egan's Turing-and-Lewis debate, though set in an alternate postwar England, nevertheless appears to embrace the still-unfolding wonders of the future (7/00).
Of the future stories without overt retro or pastoral elements, one group takes place on or near the starships of a far-future interstellar human diaspora. Interestingly, with the exception of Richard Wadholm's "Green Tea," a piece dealing with a catastrophic industrial accident (10-11/99), these almost uniformly have an old-fashioned flavor, concerned as they are with themes and issues belonging to previous eras. The motif of dyadic warring superpowers, for example (in Reynolds 5/00, Baxter 10-11/00, Niven 10-11/00), arises out of the Cold War, not out of this present age of balkanization and brutal local genocides. The conflict between communalism and individuation, another Cold War theme, is also found here (Baxter 9/00, Nordley 2/00; note also Baxter 4/00). Absent from these distant futures are types of conflict more in tune with the current Zeitgeist—for example the fragmentation of local communities, the burgeoning of ethnic and cultural diversity, and ideological and religious retrenchment in the face of these trends.
The future stories that remain grapple with current issues or have a contemporary flavor (e.g., Reynolds 12/99, Marusek 3/00, Kress 6/00, Reed 8/00, Langford 9/00, Kelly 6/00, MacAuley 7/00, and Purdom 10-11/00). (Wadholm's story, 10-11/99, mentioned above, probably belongs in this group.) These, what I would term "real futures," make up only a quarter of the total sample—one or two stories out of the 86 in the sample are nearly impossible to categorize, so the figure is not exact.
And even here the fiction is not all as forward-gazing as it might appear. Most of these "real futures" exhibit anxiety, even dread, with respect to technology and its consequences (e.g., Barton 1/00, Duchamp 2/00, Purdom 3/00, Rusch 3/00, Sheffield 3/00 and 6/00, MacLeod 6/00, Kress 8/00, Stableford 8/00, Taylor 9/00, Arnason 10-11/00, Bell 12/00). That leaves us with no more than a handful of the stories in the sample that look forward to the future in both senses of the phrase.
With so many writers apparently uneasy about the state of the world, I would expect plenty of mordant commentary on our entanglement in the wheels of the runaway technological locomotive. But almost none of the stories in these 13 Asimov's issues—not even those set in a "real future"—offer a genuine critique of technology, of its use by and its impact upon humanity. David Marusek's biting "VTV," about new extremes of media manipulation, is a standout exception (3/00). Critique requires that its author gaze unflinchingly at present and future, ugly and perverse as those might appear. What we have instead here is a pervasive techno-anxiety that for the most part looks away from the source of its fears.
I don't mean to convey here that I'm advocating that all SF must explore serious social issues, or that SF mags aren't the better for a periodic romp in medieval France or the brain of a rutting giganotosaurus. When the stories are well done, I read all the subgenres of SF I've mentioned—e.g., time travel, alternate history, far-future interstellar adventure—with pleasure. Nor should this argument be taken as a judgement on the quality of any individual story, which is generally high. Moreover, I'm guilty myself of writing some of the types of stories I've cited. My problem is not with individual stories but with trends.
I would further like to stress that I don't mean to be picking on Asimov's to the exclusion of any other print magazine. On the contrary, my assumption here is that Dozois buys the best fiction he sees, and as Asimov's editor, he sees a great deal of the best that is written. These, it seems, are the types of stories that are being written.
For comparative purposes, my friend and colleague Christopher East has supplied some figures for Fantasy and Science Fiction, the field's other short-fiction standard bearer. F&SF publishes a much higher ratio of fantasy to SF: in the year 2000 the proportion of fantasy stories was around 50%, compared with 10% in Asimov's. Of the 42% of F&SF devoted to science fiction, a little fewer than half the stories, or around 20% of the total, were set at least ostensibly in the future. A smaller number belongs in what I'm calling the "real future" category: about 31% of the SF stories, but only 13% of the total. (These figures are derived from year-2000 F&SF issues, excluding March and May.)
All together, then, "real future" science fiction appears in one in four stories in Asimov's and fewer than one in seven in F&SF. I have to believe the numbers for booklength SF fall more or less in the same range. We have a field that is increasingly fearful of the present, looking ever more wistfully toward the past. Meanwhile the thoughtful future dealing with fresh themes is becoming rare—even endangered.
Three stories from the pre-millennial issues of Asimov's, each fine in its own right, seem to illuminate the state of the field with particular clarity. The first is Jim Cowan's, bearing the suitably old-fashioned title "The True Story of Professor Trabuc and His Remarkable Voyages Aboard the Sonde-Ballon De La Mentalité" (1/00). This is the tale of two old men, weary with their present lives, who together explore the infinite Mindscape in a "device that might have been discovered by a nineteenth century French physicist, but wasn't." The vehicle in which they travel through the country of all things imaginable is a rough canvas helium gasbag attached to a wooden boat, accessorized with wooden propeller, handblown lightbulbs, and open-top batteries of sloshing, fuming acid.
Cowan's sonde-ballon seems emblematic of millennial SF: in a trend presaged by steampunk, the archaic and the antique are replacing the techno-futuristic as the source of the very coolest things. Our more primitive past—in this case industrial and polluting rather than pastoral—has become, in Levi-Strauss's words, good to think.
One suspects this phenomenon is connected to the fashion for new furniture with "distressed" finishes, and the practice of naming subdivisions after the pastoral landscapes they have replaced—Pine Woods, Mill Creek, Sunny Meadows. Things that are genuinely old are disappearing from everyday American experience. This loss of roots is part of the millennial alienation of many Americans, who feel adrift in a sea of images and information devoid of meaning. The primitive certainties of the past, represented by the sonde-ballon, might seem to be the only vehicle sufficiently authentic to navigate the millennial Mindscape. But where SF writers are concerned, I would wish for greater sophistication—for purposive exploration of all this devotion to the past, as well as of the anxiety generated by the present. Science fiction can't just follow those elements in the larger culture that feel soothed by contemplation of simpler times.
The second story, already mentioned, is Dozois' elegiac "A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows" (10-11/99), about an old man born in the 1980s who has "outlived most of his world."
"The society into which he'd been born no longer existed; it was as dead as the Victorian age, relegated to antique shops and dusty photo albums and dustier memories, the source of quaint old photos and quainter old videos... and here he still was somehow ... in THE FUTURE... [N]othing had turned out the way he'd thought it would be."
The future in which he now finds himself is presented less as an interrelated whole than as a bundle of SF tropes, most shown to the reader as the old man walks a future Philadelphia: a World War III nuclear Armageddon; orbitally based AIs who revolt from and then rule their human former masters; ghostly time travelers who come back from the future to view a critical historical moment; the promise, at least, of starships and human colonies on distant worlds; genetically engineered supermen; quasi-living city-enclaves; machines slaved to distant intelligences; magical nanotech substances; people lost in virtual realities.
While Dozois' old man seems to sum up the millennial dislocation of today's older generations, the landscape through which he moves could stand for millennial SF in general, a city built to its limits by earlier generations of writers. At the turn of the century, we who live in this city have been doing precious little new development, and that seems cosmetic: a new awning on the AI building, a little sandblasting applied to the sooty bricks of the colony-ship high-rise. Time-traveling paleontologists visit the Silurian rather than the Cretaceous. The post-holocaust survival tale takes place in rural Alaska rather than the continental west.
The third story, James Patrick Kelly's "Feel the Zaz," is set in a near-future Earth, and is one of the few in this sample to deal with mass media and the Internet. It's also one of the few that feels as if it genuinely belongs to the future from the standpoint of 2001. It's about a media production company struggling to expand its market beyond its current demographic of aging boomers. The company's stock-in-trade, however, is nostalgia: virtual representations of dead twentieth-century celebrities. It's difficult for me now not to read "Zaz" as wish fulfillment about SF: if only we can pump enough blood back into the stale tropes from the past, Kelly seems to be arguing, we can rescue SF from oblivion. If only we can sufficiently spruce up our aging SF city, a new population will rush in to party along its now-deserted streets.
But I would argue that in fact we need to let go of our field's equivalents to Judy Garland and Cary Grant and find new stars to celebrate, new ideas to explore. We need to find vehicles that could never have been thought of before now to travel the twenty-first-century Mindscape. The survival and renewal of SF depend on the degree to which we can annex new territory to our city, or tear down and rebuild that city for our own ends, for the new uses of the present age.
Because if the past succeeds in crowding the future out of SF, the entire field will die. By this I do not mean to invoke some academic definitional debate over whether you can still have what we are used to calling "science fiction" without the future. I'm talking about original print science fiction in the inclusive sense: about its increasing unattractiveness to younger generations of readers and its declining relevance to the culture at large—its failure to attract not just the young, but any readers who don't share its current anxieties.
It's not just the fiction that the past has invaded. SF writers and fans seem increasingly gripped by the iron hand of the past. I find it striking that at cons writers and fans are always talking about the history of the field, and the great practitioners of the past. The fact that Asimov's begins each issue with Silverberg's column, which is practically dedicated to Golden-Age nostalgia, fits in perfectly with the discourse of the field as a whole. Convention panels gripe endlessly about the bad new days and look back fondly toward the good old ones. Convention discussions often devolve into exchanges of trivia about Golden Age writers who have been transmogrified from being merely a part of SF's historical canon into cult figures.
If SF is truly a vital, evolving field, why should readers under 30 know or care who Robert Heinlein is? I think it's sometimes forgotten that Stranger in a Strange Land, for example, predates the Vietnam War—and how close and relevant is that for anyone under 40 today? Did boomers in the 1960s need to know the canon of Depression-era blues in order to groove to the Rolling Stones?
The phenomenon of SF nostalgia is particularly odd in comparison with, say, the social sciences. In anthropology—my own field—few people know or care about the history of the discipline. The big annual conferences might have a handful out of hundreds of sessions that are devoted to history. Many graduate programs don't even have a course requirement for history of anthropology. Instead of historical awareness, people stumble over their own feet to jump on every new theoretical bandwagon. This seems very American to me. In the America I grew up with, what's new is always better than what's old. This assumption is annoying and highly regrettable at times, but it is an important component of American creativity.
Too much nostalgia poisons vitality and creativity in any field. But SF should be especially allergic to nostalgia. Science fiction's most important contribution to the culture, it seems to me, is not to predict the future but to imagine it. To help us get our minds around the headlong-into-the-future-without-brakes nature of current times, to ponder how to remain/be/become human amidst this profound technological and cultural change that's under no one's control. Dozois's main character raised that question in the past of his story, but the story itself does not address it.
How to be human is a universal problem in any time and space. It's not the same issue as quarreling with the present. Quarreling with the present is the territory of the Luddites, and William Morris inveighing against industrialization, and the origins of today's pastoral, pseudo-medieval genre fantasies. Quarreling with the present is a hair's-breadth from being reactionary. Are we going to use the great speculative toolbox of SF to de-imagine the present? Is SF becoming anti-SF?
We can't imagine the future if we can't even look at the present. To connect with a wider, growing, more youthful audience, SF has to grapple with millennial horrors and alienation, with the rootlessness and ferment and absurdity, and, yes, with the millennial fear of the future, in ways other than to say, "I wish things weren't like this. I liked it better in the past." Without a vital link to the ever-changing Zeitgeist, SF will become a closed system where recycling subject matter and theme is all that's possible. And science fiction right now seems to be not only losing its connection to and its interest in the Zeitgeist, but becoming antagonistic to it. Of course that brings with it declining relevance to anyone outside the narrowing circle.
This essay emerged out of and was refined in discussions with Christopher East, Alan Lattimore, John Holland, Jon Rosenthal, James Patrick Kelly, Jeremy Lyon, Susan Franzblau, John Kessel, Michael Swanwick, Gregory Frost, Tom Marcinko and Justine Larbalestier. None of these worthies should be held responsible, however, for any opinions expressed here. Special thanks to Greg for the title.