Thursday, 4 June 2009

Visions of the Future Are Always Anchored in the Past and the Present

It is no secret that literature (and in fact most any form of narrative fiction regardless of medium) is contextual in nature. It is shaped and bound by parameters of geographical and socio-historical nature, and guided by literary and cultural traditions, which it both follows and attempts to break away from.

As such, the genre of science fiction (or at least, and in particular, futuristic SF) is perhaps the one which is most visibly affected by said phenomenon. Don't get me wrong. It isn't as if historical fiction (of any sort and including several types of fantasy) or contemporary fiction (of any era) escape in any way. The former shows us the past through the inevitable lens of its own present (whether it be Victorian England seen through the lens of early 21st century England as in the case of Sarah Waters or the Middle Ages seen through the lens of Scottish Romanticism as in the case of Sir Walter Scott), whereas the latter is inevitably focused upon its own present moment in time and is therefore, at least to some degree, interested in capturing those very elements. The possible exceptions (or at least near exceptions) being fiction that through the use of aesthetic traditions attempts to use an older lens in its endeavour to depict past, present or even future, for that matter.

SF, however, strives to a large degree as a genre to depict that which is not yet upon us. Not merely a fantasy based on whatever historical or empirical fancy of sorts appeals to the author's imagination, but an actual attempt at prophecy of what will come, in terms of social, cultural and technological developments and upheavals.

Whereas our knowledge of the past or the present is never complete or absolute, it is nevertheless something that is somewhat fixed. It is true that both our understanding of the past and our way of viewing our contemporary age alter over time, but there are set boundaries within which such alteration occurs (even though some of those boundaries can admittedly themselves change over time as well). The future, on the other hand, is in a state of constant flux.

Our future (or even historical and contemporary) understanding of space travel, for instance, differs vastly from that of any science fiction produced before actual space flight and the moon landing. The projections made way back then could not conceive of all the changes which have happened after those events or those which are still happening now. In fact, even when science fiction does hit the mark (which it does remarkably well every so often), there are still more often than not things that fall through the cracks, as it were. Sometimes these things are small, sometimes perhaps just seemingly small and sometimes they are of enormous size or consequence.

I am reminded of something British SF writer Richard Morgan said on this subject at a seminar at the Gothenburg Book Fair a few years ago. He pointed to the example of William Gibson, who in his breakthrough novel Neuromancer introduced concepts like cyberspace and software/hardware interfaces in various ways, some of which we've now seen realised and some of which we are still working towards realising. Thus Gibson arguably presented a future which still holds up even to this day. This statement is fully true in terms of literary power and effect, but not entirely so in terms of future vision however. Morgan's point was that even Gibson, for all his visionary power, failed to see the future in toto as it were.

In a scene, late in Neuromancer, the protagonist Case has discovered the existence of an A.I. and the A.I. in turn knows it has been discovered. In an attempt to contact Case, the A.I. uses the existing phone system and the scene depicts Case walking by a line of payphones, each one ringing in turn as Case moves past them. Morgan said that this scene was one of his favourites in the novel and from a literary viewpoint I would say that the scene is inspired in the sense of dramaturgy and narrative effect. But, as Morgan made a point of stating, when was the last time you saw a line of payphones? Gibson, for all his seeming prescience vis-a-vis cyberspace and the internet, quite obviously failed to predict the coming of the cellphone; a technical achievement which of course has had enormous effect on our current society.

Now, Gibson obviously kept his writing in the area of the near future, a future period which is perhaps most susceptible to becoming dated in such a manner. It always becomes a question of balancing the urge to make the advances too profound and the risk to make them lesser than they actually turn out (or, of course, simply failing to foresee an important social, cultural or technological change).

Asimov, on the other hand (and yes, we are back at Asimov yet again. What with my working my way through his Foundation books now, these texts of mine are wont to touch upon the man's oeuvre for a while longer, I fear), manages to avoid some of this problem by working in the far distant future. With the exception of the Robot short stories, both his Robot and Foundation books are set in the very distant future, and the very distant future allows both for certain technological aspects of near magic (from our present day limited perspective) and, to some degree, for the possible notion of regression within various fields, both cultural and technological. This notion is very prevalent even within the fictional universe of Foundation books (what with the basic premise being the inevitable decline of an Empire that has slowly forgotten its own technological advances) and certainly helps to generate a sense of verisimilitude, of believability.

And yet, it is hard (looking at these books today) not to notice a glaring point which Asimov obviously failed to foresee. That is, that of the slow but continuous shift from paper to screen media and internet communication. Contrary to what many may believe, print media and the use of paper is not yet out, but similarly any contemporary depiction of the future (even a very distant one, or perhaps especially a very distant one) would have to take into account trends and probabilities pointing towards a paper-less (or close to paper-less) society. Yet Asimov's learned Foundation and its people rely on books, in a very physical sense. Messages are delivered on paper, and even when said messages are delivered within electronic (or perhaps atomic) devices, the medium used within the devices to hold the actual messages is nevertheless paper.

Perhaps this shows that the real trick is not in tracing the larger developments per se in either technology, society or culture, but to manage to spot the small things that will change, though such change may be impossible to predict (at least in full). Because clearly some of these things (whether they be cellphones or internet, e-mail and e-books) will affect other things on a much larger scale within society, culture and technology.


  1. I sense a PhD coming to fruition!

    Re: rows of pay phones? Consider subway stations, shopping malls, airports.

    Re: paper vs. electronic communication media? Seems like Star Trek in the 60's did everything on Tri-corders, etc.

    Enjoyed the blog. Interesting thoughts!

  2. Regarding the pay phones: Are they still there though? I can only speak of my own experience from Sweden, the UK and The Netherlands, really, but my feeling is that as cellphones have more and more tended to be an every man's item, pay phones have become less and less available. More and more erased from public places, they are in fact actually pretty hard to find, should one need one.
    And obviously, my own experience is at least mirrored by Morgan's.

    Star Trek (which in all fairness came after a lot of Asimov's fiction, the original Foundation trilogy first being published between 1951-1953) quite clearly dodged that particular bullet, I agree.

    And thanks for your kind words.