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Random SF Asides

January 20, 2010

For all the talk of impenetrable singularity, it occurs to me that the modern milieu of SF writers is almost entirely preoccupied with futurism and future-shock, in contrast to yestergeneration’s focus on allegory / thought experiment.  (Perpetually lurking in the background are the marginal Clarkesque Big Damn Object trade shows.)

While my favorite collection of all time remains The Hard SF Renaissance I’ve never really bought the much vaunted Hard/Soft division.  In my mind the SF booktag has always indicated the paradigmatic pop of a story — it makes little difference if it’s political, anthropological, biochemical, astrophysical, etc.  An arcane development in mathematics has as much pull as a sufficiently sharp twist on religion.  This is what makes SF.  The scope, audacity and originality of the concepts explored within an immersive story.

But there is a sharp distinction to be made between worlds contiguous with our reality and those allegorical to it.  While the proto-SF of genre rags painted a picture of a gleaming future of rocketmen just around the corner, early SF writers were profoundly afraid to investigate anything close to the immediate future.  It was almost dishonorable.  The tropes of SF presented a vast sandbox to explore concepts at a distance — tying them to the present with “predictions” seemed both arrogant and pedestrian.  If 40s proto-SF took place IN THE FUTURE!, the vast chunk of SF spanning the 60s-70s took place in hazily distant locales understood by author and reader alike to be no more than abstract myth settings.  “A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away” except with intellectual pew-pews.

This still continues, but the modern age has given rise to a very distinguishable modern clique of SF authors interested in worlds with recognizable causal connections to our world.  In a world deprived of anything more than an anemic NASA how we get there matters (or, alternatively, how it diverged).  The other hallmark of the internet age is the density of the snarkiness, reference and speed of ideas — if Blade Runner signified the beginning of the shift away from abstraction with advertisements referencing real corporations, today’s authors plaster their prose with injokes.  Rather than trying to abstract away, they embrace our inherent ties to the world as it is in order to milk a higher density out of our shared language.  The internet has given everyone the sensation of having passing knowledge in every field, and modern SF authors are expected to be versed and deliver on many if not all fronts.

There simply isn’t the patience for limited-focus authors.  And while I still heart Delany and Le Guin, I think this is a good thing.  Nothing’s worse than sitting through a work full of intellectual spark on one front to find it dead on another.  A great mathematics twist matched with a ridiculous carbon copy of the author’s culture transposed upon a ridiculously different environment.  A finely constructed anthropological or psychological thesis with cliche and implausibly-portrayed tech.

Of course nobody’s entirely gotten it right yet, and the most ambitious kids like Vinge, Stross and Macleod have often fallen far from the mark.  But it’s still a clear division.


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