Big ideas


Welcome to Thursday, here on Terra, third planet from an unremarkable G2V class star, whose indifferent benevolence warms our cheese toast. And, I’m gonna be high, high, high, as a kite by then.

I might am over-caffeinated.  Fair warning.

I read some thoughtful words from Charlie Stross about the state of Science Fiction.  I found them interesting.  I suggest you go read them. *hums theme to Jeopardy*

Done? I don’t always agree with Mr. Stross, but damn he writes a fine essay, and in this case I think he is spot on.

The ending was the real kicker of the essay:

“If SF’s core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?”

I would like to offer a few thoughts, which are pure conjecture on my part.

I think that question is perhaps the crux of the issue. Lets posit that science fiction’s role over the last one-hundred and fifty years was to welcome stories with big ideas. If that is no longer the case, then I wonder if the problem is that science fiction is no longer welcoming big ideas, or if the ability to produce big ideas has become nigh impossible.  I don’t know the answer, but I suspect the latter.

Since I am all full of assumptions today, lets assume it is the latter and big ideas have become rather scarce.

This same conversation came up over the weekend at Paradise Lost. It was worrisome because it got me thinking about an essay by David Brin. Mr. Brin has been actively promoting awareness of the need for optimism in our literature about the futures.  I think this is a different response to the same trend both Mr. Brin and Mr. Stross are observing. Namely, that writing about big ideas is getting harder.

So where IS science fiction going?  What is it telling us?  If we the readers, are informed about our futures from recent speculative fiction, then the possible futures seem smaller, thuggish and darker than the ones we dreamed of even twenty years ago because it is safer to guess at negative outcomes.

The future is not as easily defined by the advancing arc of technology as it once was. Our dreams of the 19th century had centuries to steep in scientific speculation. Speculation which could make guesses far over a future horizon. They couldn’t reach it, but the concepts were there, stretching back to the fevered drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Flight, travel to the moon, vessels that moved under the sea, advanced medicine, machines that labored for man.

Now we’ve achieved many of those dreams, and continue to achieve more, but the pace is increasing and yet the scope of our scientific progress grows ever more esoteric and complex. The pace alone means speculative efforts are reality before they have time to outlive their writers. Many of the early work of Bruce Sterling & William Gibson aren’t even speculative anymore, they are imperfect mirrors of reality.

How do you have big ideas when the future of technology has become a car driving through fog at night?

How do you have big ideas when the changes are smaller than the human eye can see, even if the implications are vast?

I think the singularity is an example of trying to rationally deal with this question. For the sake of argument, let’s call the singularity, “The point beyond which the world is so irrevocably changed, that there is no point of context for understand between those who exist beyond the event and those who exist before it.”  It is a terrible definition, for a meta-concept that might just be pure rubbish, but for the sake of the argument, lets bear it out.

The future has gotten damn difficult to guess at, and the obvious changes in technology are few. The technology doesn’t lend itself to the obvious benefits to society. Even the things that are obvious are too foreign to be comforting or exciting.  The technology we can safely speculate about on the edge of awareness break as much as it fixes. It is easier to see how they could doom us, (life-extension therapies, nano-technology, fusion power, bio-technology, quantum computing) as help us. Even the most fervent futurists among us are looking to technology to solve problems that are in many cased, being created by technology.  To Charlie’s point, there is no way to stop now unless we wish to accept an eventual, near paleolithic existence. No thanks.

It seems our naive childhood trust and optimism about technology is over and we are full-on into our teenage years filled with angst and dread for the terrible, and exciting changes that wait us when our species reaches some technical maturity.

So to Charlie’s question. “what do we do next?”

I don’t know.  It worries me and it makes me wonder about what I would commit to a page in confidence about our future.  Not damn much. I’m no oracle. I work in information technology, with exposure to the frontier, and I don’t feel informed about our future. My reach extends to droll aspects of industry which aren’t changing the world at the surface.

So who is creating tomorrow?

I welcome your thoughts.


This entry was posted in Burning in Effigy, Just frigging kill me now, Navel Gazing, Science, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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