Monday, 22 June 2009

Leaps of the Imagination

Apologies for the slight delay in posting this. The Midsummer weekend (which is a time of celebration here in Sweden) simply came in between, but now I am back in the proverbial saddle.

Having recently written of how SF (and indeed all literature) is, as it were, a victim of its own time in my previous post entitled "Visions of the Future Are Always Anchored in the Past and the Present", I figured it might be appropriate to write a few words on the subject of why, perhaps, certain SF indeed does succeed in some of its predictions (despite of its failure to accomplish a complete prophetic vision).

I remember watching a documentary program called Cyberpunk on Swedish television back in the early 90s. Truth to tell, I believe I still have the program somewhere on a VHS tape since I recorded it and viewed it at least a few more times. The most interesting aspect of the program (filled as it was with editing effects of various kinds and some rather frightening people waiting to be jacked into their computers for good) was the included interview material with William Gibson, who is one of the founding fathers (if not THE founding father) of the cyberpunk genre.

One of the things that has really stuck with me from those interview bits, was Gibson's confession that his first novels were all written on typewriter, contrary to what one might easily believe. In fact, Gibson tells an anecdote about getting himself a computer around the time of (if I remember correctly) writing Mona Lisa Overdrive (i.e. the third novel in his Cyberspace trilogy). The account is amusing as it reveals Gibson, who already at this point had made a name for himself among computer people, to be fairly unaware of how a computer actually works, even in the most rudimentary fashion. He relates to his audience how he brought the computer home, turned it on and got worried from hearing a whining kind of sound. Because of this he nervously called the store and told them that the computer was making this noise, whereupon the person in the other end responded something like, "that, sir, is the sound of your hard drive." Gibson laughs after revealing this to the audience and admits that he'd never really considered the inner workings of the computer as a machine. Yet all in all, he had expected it to be more sophisticated somehow; liquid crystals or some such thing.

Yet, I think that there is something revealing about this revelation (and not only in the most obvious sense). It, in fact, suggests an explanation as to how SF as a genre might accurately predict certain things which might not have been predicted through the application of scientific data and pure logic. I would suggest that there are occasions when fiction has a much stronger capability of predicting something than pure factually based accounts do. I am, of course, talking about leaps of the imagination.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of good SF writers out there who are very grounded in the science of our own time, and who are making excellent use of that knowledge to generate their own credible future worlds. Yet even these writers need to rely on said leaps to get where they want to go often-times. As SF writer Arthur C. Clarke has been known to say on more than one occasion (in fact, I've heard him say so in few interview snippets myself), sufficiently advanced technology would seem like magic to a technologically lesser advanced society or individual. To get past one's own less advanced position and mine those future technological possibilities in some manner of speaking would, to my mind, require said leaps of imagination.

Now the interesting thing is that these leaps seem very much to actually help our technological advancement. While we undeniably need hard science to define our possibilities, it strikes me that at times we also need leaps of imagination to break out of what we know to be possible (or in fact, perhaps more importantly, impossible). It is matter of looking at the world with fresh, unburdened eyes, and while such eyes certainly cannot alter the laws of physics, it might be that they can occasionally unlock new potential understandings of these laws for someone who knows them, but who is also blinded from seeing new potentials by the known limitations of the laws.

All of this being a (perhaps) circuitous way of saying that ignorant points of view, on occasion, can help the knowledgeable to review their own knowledge from another perspective; i.e. to view existing data in a manner not previously thought of and which the data itself might actually make it nigh impossible to see.

As for the fictional universes themselves, as always, real world limitations mean nothing. Verisimilitude is the key. The word, derived from the verisimilar, refers to something having the appearance of truth, which is more than a few steps away from portraying any kind of actual truth or reality (if that, in the strictest sense, is even remotely possible). As such, there can be few genres to which verisimilitude is more important than those of the fantastic, like SF, fantasy and horror. But that, ladies and gentlemen, strikes me as a different subject than the one at hand, although one which I am more than certain we will have reason to return to in future posts.


  1. M&MS,

    Interesting and thoughtful article. I am not awake yet, and haven't had my morning coffee either. All I can say is, imagination is the key to any genre of writing. But you are already keenly aware of this. What I am unclear on in your above essay is: how much does imagination need to follow a prophetic vision in order for one's writing to fit comfortably in the sci-fi genre? Finally, Mona Lisa Overdrive . . . now I know where that title originates. It's also a song on the Matrix Reloaded Soundtrack!

  2. I don't think SF requires a prophetic vision at all, SM. In fact, you could generate a good setting and spin an awesome yarn without having even a tiny bit of actual accuracy in it.

    That being said, what fascinates me here, after having written previously about why certain elements are bound to always be missed (to lack a proper "prophetic" vision, in terms being able to tell the future as it will unfold), is the fact that some things do get right. Not only that, sometimes these leaps of imagination in themselves inspire technological advances so as to actually make the vision come true, as it were.

  3. And as to Mona Lisa Overdrive... I'd missed that it was a track on that soundtrack.

    I can recommend the whole Cyberspace trilogy: 1. Neuromancer, 2. Count Zero, and then 3. Mona Lisa Overdrive. It's been a while since I readthem, but I do remember them as good reads.

    And Neuromancer has one of my favourite opening sentences in fiction.

  4. M&MS said, "And Neuromancer has one of my favourite opening sentences in fiction."

    And it is?

    BTW: Thanks for the recommendation re: Cyberspace Trilogy!

  5. "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."