[Note that I posted a revised and expanded version of this post as "New SF Futures II" in July, 2010.]
For the last three weeks I’ve been hung up revising my new novel and two of my old ones, but I hope soon to get back to thinking about a new novel.
The other day I was looking at the Tor.com SF website, scanning through an interesting and well-written post by Jo Walton, “The Singularity Problem and Non-Problem,” [I also scanned through the many comments on the post] and I picked up the idea that some SF readers (and writers) are unhappy with the notion that SF’s content should change over the years.
Walton herself speaks fondly of “the kind of SF that I like best, the kind with aliens and spaceships and planets and more tech than we have but not unimaginable incomprehensible tech…” And some of the commenters take this a bit further, even questioning whether true artificial intelligence is even possible.
Change is of course something that happens to any living art form—think of painting or popular music or literary novels or even TV sit-coms. Yes, it’s sad to see Golden Ages slip away, but it’s sadder still to keep doing the same thing. Inevitably the old material goes stale and the fire goes away. I’m not saying it’s become impossible to write fresh novels about aliens and spaceships and planets. But maybe it’s become a task as difficult and quixotic as writing a fresh doo-wop song.
But why not a new kind of song? And why not a new kind of SF novel? This is, after all, the twenty-first century.
If you think about it, it’s quite unreasonable to regard, say, the physics and sociology of classic space opera as “rules” about science-fictional futures. These are all things that writers made up in, like, the 1930s, and which later writers polished and refined. The “rules” have no Higher Truth and they’re unlikely to apply to any actual future. They’re only stories that people made up for fun, and there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t keep changing the rules.
I’m certainly not a whole-hog, card-carrying Singulatarian—as I discussed in a pair of blog posts in March, 2008, I don’t see virtual reality as ever eclipsing our ambient quantum-computing “real” reality. This said, I do strongly feel that, down the line, intelligence will be ubiquitous—that’s the main theme of my novels Postsingular and Hylozoic.
What’s interesting to me is not the beating or eating of dead horses, but rather the search for genuinely new science-fictional scenarios. For me, SF is the fun-loving hipster sister of Big Science. SF finds the vibby spots first. Sometimes the spots are gone in the morning, but sometimes there’s time for Big Science to trundle in the Measuring Machines and Theory Generators and capitalize on what we fey writer types have unearthed.
Here’s a more or less random list of some themes that I currently find appealing. Feel free to post comments with your own suggestions for (underused) SF themes!
I’ve always liked the idea of magic doors to other worlds, also known as Einstein-Rosen bridges. I wrote about them in The Sex Sphere, for instance, and I thought about them again this summer in Dick Termes’s studio. I like that idea, I like to think of a character with spheres/doors swarming around him or her like fireflies. Like old memories. As it happens, Dick just sent me an email encouraging me to think of his spherical paintings in this way:
“To be living in a world where these spheres float in. Spheres like my work where you can see from outside what is really an inside view. With some effort you can enter these spheres and get on the inside which takes you to those real worlds. Some are real worlds some could be subconscious worlds etc. So, you could go from one world to the next by finding these spheres to enter. You would be able to look at the outside of the inside scene before entering…”
Dreams and Memories
We’ve seen plenty of virtual reality tales in which people mistake an illusion for a reality. But I think there’s still some interesting things to be done with ordinary dreams. Waking up inside them? Finding out that they’re really happening in a higher dimension?
In the mental front, we might also consider viewing memories as in some sense real. Maybe memory is a form of time-travel, and you really can flip back into the past or, more oddly, bring people from your past into your present.
I’ve always thought there should be more SF that speculates about what happens to people after they die. This can shade into fantasy, of course, but giving it an SF slant would be interesting. Certainly it’s nice to speculate that there’s some kind of underworld…rather than nothing.
Quantum Computational Viruses
The current trend is to view any bit of matter as carrying out a so-called quantum computation. These computations can be as rich and complex as anything in our brains or in our PCs. One angle, which I explored a bit in Postsingular and Hylozoic, is that ordinary objects could “wake up.” Another angle worth pursuing is that something like a computer virus might infect matter, perhaps changing the laws of physics to make our world more congenial to some other kinds of beings.
How about some new senses—other than, say, telepathy or radio-wave-sensitivity? Things we might notice more acutely: viscosity, temperature, pressure, electrical charge, neutrinos, Higgs bosons, sterile neutrinos, quarks, “ghosts.”
The Holographic Universe
Some physicists say that our 4D space is a kind of illusion built up from a two-dimensional pattern…somewhere. Is it maybe a comic strip? Let’s go meet the artist!
Why are we here? What’s it all for? What’s the meaning of life? Why does anything exist at all? Why is there something instead of nothing? Surely SF can come up with an answer.
For too long we’ve let the quantum mechanics tell us that there’s nothing smaller than the Planck length. Let’s view this tiny size scale as a membrane, a frontier, but not a wall. We can in fact go below it…into the land of the subdimensions. Possibly the subdimensional world is a kind of mirror version of ours. Certainly aliens can visit us from there…no need for all those star ships. Just focus on a speck of dust.
An Infinite Flat Earth
What if Earth were an endless flat plane, and you could walk (or fly your electric glider) forever in a straight line and never come back to where you started? The cockroach zone! The kingdom of the two-headed men! One night there’ll be a rumble and, wow, our little planet will have unrolled, ready for you to start out on the ultimate On the Road adventure.