What's Science Fiction supposed to be?

08/Dec/2023 18:46:11 • Audio • 04:19

October 21st, 2015. That was the day that Doc Brown and Marty McFly arrived in the future. They came forward from 1985 to 2015 to a world of actual hoverboards that hovered and other improbable technologies, and some that just don't seem all that exotic to us now, like the big TV screens and voice control of electronics, things like that. But, you know, self-drying sneakers and bizarre clothing, these sorts of things didn't come to pass. But the future doesn't really ever play out the way science fiction tells us that it should. And there's different levels of speculative fiction inside science fiction. You know, some types of science fiction attempt to be scientifically rigorous and to make thoroughgoing and good faith extrapolations as to what the world might be like in some degree, you know, along some axis, if we progress along the path that we're on. And others are just full of sci-fi tropes, skiffy tropes, that really don't have any basis in honest speculation. You just recognize them, you know, laser guns and spaceships and, you know, the worst of all, the most unrealistic, flying cars. And yet I still enjoy sci-fi from the 80s that looks forward, and, you know, even previous decades, although I find it difficult to go back much before the 70s, you know, and watch sci-fi from the 60s and the 50s and whatnot, but like from the 70s, but particularly in the 80s, they were looking forward to just past the turn of the century. And for most of my life, the year 2000 was in the future, and it seemed like a really futuristic date. And now we're long past it. And the world is not nearly as different as I thought it would be, and certainly not in the ways I thought it would be. You know, the movie Blade Runner, which came out, I think, in 1982, was set in the far future year of 2019, when there were off-world colonies, and most of the healthy people who were eligible to emigrate to the off-world colonies had gone, and the only people left on Earth were the damaged ones, the ones who couldn't pass the physical or who were just too poor or mentally defective to be, you know, to qualify for living off-world. Well, that's certainly not the 2019 that we got. But what I really loved about Blade Runner 2049 was that it just stuck to its guns. It said, yep, that's how things were in 2019, and here's how they are 30 years later. I really respected that, and I really love that movie. But I suppose this is all in the service of a question. If sci-fi is not meant to predict the future, is it really just a specific flavor of fantasy? You know, when you think of fantasy, or when I think of fantasy, I think of Tolkien, I think of elves and dwarves and hobbits and kings and wizards and those sorts of things. Is sci-fi, with its flying cars and its spaceships and its robots, is that just an alternate or a specific flavor of fantasy? Because I've always been bothered by the habit of bookstores, and I guess libraries as well, to have sections that they label as sci-fi slash fantasy. Because to me, that's like saying romance slash westerns. I mean, what do the genres have in common? But, you know, if decade after decade, speculative fictions, predictions fail to come about, what's it doing? What's sci-fi, science fiction as a genre, doing that fantasy isn't? Is it just a sub-genre of fantasy, or is it something distinctly different? What do you think?


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The major deficiency of many science fiction is that they treat new technology as an addition to already existing technology. If you look historically, it has never been the case. If you take, for example, radio, initially how the radio was used, it was used to improve the radio and then make a better technology. Same thing with computers. How first computers have been used, they have been used to make better computers. Same thing with other technologies like lasers and the other. The technology is used to improve that technology and only later it starts to be used for other purposes. And if you look in science fiction, some amazing technology is used for very stupid thing. This has never been the case. Somebody got a radio in 1812. How this radio has to be used, the answer is trivial. It has to be used to understand how the radio works and make it work better. Typically, in a plot, the radio of time travelers, the radio time travelers brought to the past is used for some very stupid things.

Hey, good questions as always. I would like to preface my answer with a disclaimer, which is that I'm not a big fan of the fantasy genre, although I have nothing against people consuming it for pleasure. But I think, yeah, effectively I think these two genres are as different as any two literary genres can be. My kind of sense is that sci-fi, the function of sci-fi is to suggest plausible or at least possible scenarios for the future based on present trends in technologies. And then having suggested, having, you know, kind of formulated that scenario, asking the right questions, whether technological, societal, moral, whatever, about that possible future depicted in the work. So in a way, I think a good sci-fi novel doubles as a sort of cheap simulation experiment, which creates a possible world and then asks the reader to examine it and think about its problems. And I think it's a viable, well, I think it's an honorable and necessary function. But unfortunately, sci-fi does not get much respect from either critics or the publishing industry. And I think this lumping, it's lumping together with fantasy is just one sign of this lack of respect. And needless to say, I vehemently oppose such lumping. So for fantasy, other than providing perhaps some static value to the fans, I don't really see anything approaching the utility of sci-fi. The plot, the characters, the situations that are typical in this genre are completely, well, I mean, sorry to be obvious, invented, but invented with no connection to anything in the realm of the possible. So such literature provides no insight into how the world functions today or in the past or in the future. No insight into the, frankly, even the human psyche, maybe to a very limited extent. So at best, maybe it can serve to demonstrate some moral quandaries and such. But if that's the extent of it, I mean, we have a whole body of literature, both modern and classic, and that can do it way better without all the elves and whatever other furry creatures and hobbits, whatever, that fantasy authors populate their worlds with. So if that sounds harsh and maybe a little unfair, then I'd like to invoke my disclaimer.