Science Fiction Repair Shop: The Longest Possible Now

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-05-30 12:00:00-04:00 No comments

From a roundup of new SF books published this month:

Kritzer’s author’s note at the end is well worth reading, both in its own right and as context for the book’s truncation. “One of the interesting things about near-future science fiction is that sometimes you catch up to the future while you’re still writing it,” she says, before addressing the reality of revising a book in the Twin Cities while Minneapolis was on fire during mass protests and a pandemic. The overall slowness of publishing means that several of the books in this roundup include afterwords that try to bridge the gap between composition before 2020’s upheavals and revision or production throughout them, offering a surreal glimpse into the limits of fiction.

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Near-future SF has always struck me as the most precarious kind of SF, because of its sell-by date. It also strikes me that the best way to avoid such issues is not to be in the business of predicting anything, but rather just tracing implications. Phil K. Dick's Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said was clearly written during the time of student unrest throughout the United States, but it hasn't dated much, if at all. It's more about the conundrum of identity and the problem of being true to yourself in a world where people don't want that from you, and those things are timeless.

Of my own books recent, Vajra was far-future; Fold is very much here-and-now; AONO is near-future but only in specific details that matter; and Hammer is neither here nor now, nor "then", but a displaced version of our own past. In all of them I tried to find some thing that I felt could outlast whatever its moment was. Now that I think about it, that's a major motivator for whether or not I want to bother with a story: is there something in it that feels like it can take flight, so to speak, go on the wing past whatever it is we have in front of us now?

This is why anything about some relatively immediate technological development doesn't interest me much as a creator. Stories about such things have sell-by dates, and tend to be stuck inside the container of their gimmick.  I've found I'm not good at working around that, and so for the most part I stick with other things. Some years back I mulled a story tentatively called Money For Everybody, that had a Bitcoin-like premise in it (although it was essentially a much more naked digital Ponzi scheme). I was never able to develop the idea past its basics, and when stuff like The Big Short came along and ... how to put it? .. obviated my need to tell the story in the first place, I found other things to do. Of which I had no shortage.

One thing about writing a story about right now is how hard it is to confine yourself to details that won't age out. Most every aspect of social interaction these days is through by some kind of technological interface, many of which are proprietary. In my own musings about such things I find that I tend to elide those details: I don't say that I was talking to friends on Discord, I just say that I was talking to friends. The real heart of the matter isn't in how I did it, unless there was some specific way that medium took a hand in the goings-on. There's novels that consist of transcripts of chats or whatever, but I always feel like those miss the point. They don't really update the epistolary novel to the modern day, because those books used letter-writing as an excuse for actual novel-style diction in some form. Pare out everything but the messages and you also remove all the context that makes any interaction interesting. It doesn't even feel like a cousin to, say, Manuel Puig's all-dialog stories (Kiss Of The Spider Woman); it just feels cheap and low-effort, instead of brisk and cutting-edge.

Someone else once opined that it's become harder to write good SF that doesn't just feel like total escapism, because of the way our reality has caught up with SF generally. We now live in a science fiction novel — a cyberpunk dystopia, all the worse because we take the hellishness of it all for granted as an inevitability — and maybe that's the biggest sign we've failed to take seriously all that SF had to tell us about what we were doing with ourselves. I don't think that's a sign SF should go do something else, though; maybe the only reason we haven't done worse is because we had that many cautionary examples. But it does make me wonder what the role of this stuff is now that we've crossed into a place that feels like it could have come from any of those books. Or maybe we were always there in some form, living as we did in a world under the sway of the technological imperative, and it took this literature to get us to notice it and do something about it.

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