One of my goals has been to introduce readers unfamiliar with, or—gasp!—averse to, all that science fiction has to offer. Sci fi often offers the same literary kicks as, if not more than, other genres. To that end, I have been exposing readers to the characteristics of science fiction in an attempt to show what it can achieve.
Recently, I began to wonder if I was approaching this from the wrong direction. I'm not fond of stepping on the shoulders of others to make a point, however it occurs to me that instead of discussing the merits of science fiction, readers might connect with a discussion of why mainstream literature, as good as it can be, is slowly losing touch with reality. At the same time, such discussion leads to an inevitable question about whether the term "science fiction" itself is still applicable.
Read the last SF Signal on his 10 recommended books that help demystify SF.
Look Around You...We're Already Living in the Future
At SF Signal we publish a weekly roundtable discussion called a Mind Meld. (Yes, I know. Geeky in the extreme. But hey, we're geeks!) Recently, we asked a distinguished panel of guests whether science fiction has run out of "Big Ideas," a concept for which the genre has become known. Charles Stross, author of The Apocalypse Codex, gave a response that is both eye-opening and perspective-changing. In part:
"...today you don’t need to read SF to get a sense of wonder high: you can just browse 'New Scientist.' We’re living in the frickin’ 21st century. Killer robot drones are assassinating people in the hills of Afghanistan. Our civilisation has been invaded and conquered by the hive intelligences of multinational corporations...there are space probes in orbit around Saturn and en route to Pluto. Surgeons are carrying out face transplants. I have more computing power and data storage in my office than probably the entire world had in 1980. (Definitely than in 1970.) We’re carrying out this Mind Meld via the internet, and if that isn’t a 1980s cyberpunk vision that’s imploded into the present, warts and all, I don’t know what is. Seriously: to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF."
There are two points to note here.
First, the far-future vision of the science-fiction writers of yesteryear have not only come true to a certain extent—they have been surpassed. We already are living in that future. How did we miss this? It's likely we take it for granted because the change has been gradual within any one individual's lifespan. Our children will never know a world without the Internet. To extend Stross' list of examples, we already have jetpacks (at least proof-of-concept ones). We have robots on Mars. (Mars!) And, hey, you want a flying car? We have flying cars—they're called airplanes.
The second thing to note is that much of mainstream literature is not necessarily a true reflection of our high-tech times. If our present is inundated with such awesome technology, then why is mainstream literature so devoid of it? Shouldn't mainstream novels be filled with people who are addicted to Facebook; people who troll websites and forums to leave hateful, anonymous comments; and a cache of information that's no further away than the smartphone in your pocket? There's a disconnect here that quickly threatens to paint mainstream literature as outdated. At the very least, it has some catching up to do.
Is Science Fiction Still a Genre?
This brings up another interesting question: If we are already living in the future, is there such a thing as "science fiction" anymore? The answer should be obvious: of course there is. Just because we are living in a world where technology that seemed far-fetched a century ago is now common doesn't mean that there aren't more technological advances coming. Until people can upload their consciousness into a computer, until we can travel outside the solar system, until we discover parallel worlds or travel through time there will always be room for imaginative stories based on scientific concepts. There's always something around the corner.
Returning to the main question of whether we have passed the point where science fiction is fiction, the answer is no. Science fiction, whether we mean the concept or the label, hasn't outlived its usefulness. The prevalence of all this "future tech" just means that our definition of fiction needs to be adjusted to accommodate reality. As we further our technological advances, as we realize our dreams...we are inspired to dream anew. That is the promise of science fiction and that will never go away.John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo-nominated group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.