Saturday 23 November 2013

Where's science fiction going?

It's been said that science fiction has lost its vitality, that it's lost confidence in the future and is in danger of having nothing new to say. This is the view of old school 'hard' SF types. Their remedy is that science fiction should revitalise itself, find again its ground-breaking positivist roots and show what a post-capitalist, post-everything-white-and-western world would look like. With confidence and verve.

They're missing the point. They've certainly missed the boat. The Golden Age of science fiction coincided with the ascent of America to world power, closely contested by the USSR as it too stepped up to the podium. They were both Enlightenment regimes in their own way. And confidence about the future was high. It was just a matter of seeing which future would unfold.

Fast forward to now, and people claim that the 'genre of ideas' has run out of ideas. But the reason why is rather obvious.

The 20th Century ran through the gamut of Enlightenment ideas that had been laid out clearly the century before. They all crashed - Communism, Socialism, Positivism, National Socialism and Fascism. Social Democracy and Liberalism are also spent, and Neoliberalism's audacious promises about unfettered world markets has also hit the buffers.

Science fiction was an Enlightenment genre, with a great regard for its own self-importance. It may be recycling its ideas nowadays, but in that sense it mirrors Western society as a whole, and it's run out of 19th Century ideas to put forward. The onward march of progress was matched by the onward march of America. But the US has peaked now and people are starting to realise that great nations can go down as well as up. The old glib confidence in the future is looking a bit pale. There's a realisation that the inexorable march of progress may, in fact, be an illusion.

But still the stalwarts in SF announce that the only reason the future is uncertain is because it's being mishandled. If writers can only retune their minds to the future, then new ideas can emerge to get us out of this mess. And if Western SF writers can't come up with the goods, then there's always the up and coming developing world. Surely the (golden) flame of SF will be kept alive by Chinese and Indian writers?

But the idea that science fiction as we know it is internationalist and can survive to gloat over the prostrate ruins of the European Enlightenment that spawned it? Another delusion.

It doesn't matter who you are, or what idea you are, you can't stay at the top forever, and you can't stay relevant forever either. You grab a bit of sunshine, then you grow old. That's it.

The belief that science and ethics go hand in hand has been discredited by history. Enlightenment optimism has kicked the bucket and its leading edges are already being rolled back.

But people already know this. Consciously or unconsciously, they are aware that history goes in cycles. So instead of wanting to read about brave new futures, they thirst instead for zombie and post-apocalyptic stories.

And the SF old guard may grind their teeth and pull out what's left of their hair over this, but it could be that the untutored masses are a lot smarter than they give them credit for.

It may well be that the future we wanted isn't coming back at all.

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