A choice of futures
A plausible impossibility is always preferable to an improbable possibility.
Yesterday, I was reading an interview with the legendary science fiction author Jack Williamson when I came across a statement that struck a nerve. When asked about the genre’s supposed ability to predict the future, Williamson replied:
The average [science fiction] author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.
This resonated with me, because I often feel the same way about my own fiction. I’m not all that interested in extrapolating future trends for their own sake, mostly because I feel that other writers are better at it: instead, I’m more drawn to stories that put known facts into surprising juxtapositions that lend themselves to a final twist. And in practice, this often means that the plot turns on a highly unlikely combination of factors that I needed to make that particular story possible. (See “The Boneless One,” “Kawataro,” and just about everything else I’ve ever written.)
Obviously, I try to conceal any underlying improbabilities from the reader, mostly by following what I’ve called the anthropic principle of fiction, in which a story’s setting and basic premises are chosen to enable the twist, rather than the other way around. There’s no denying that there’s an element of sleight of hand involved, and you could even argue that it could be dangerous, especially when the requirements of an entertaining plot are confused with science fiction’s reputation for accurate predictions. As the great semanticist S.I. Hayakawa wrote in an early review of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics:
I have long felt that there are dangers to the writer as well as to the reader in pulp fiction. It did not occur to me until I read Dianetics to try to analyze the special dangers entailed in the profession of science-fiction writing. The art consists in concealing from the reader, for novelistic purposes, the distinctions between established scientific facts, almost-established scientific hypotheses, scientific conjectures, and imaginative extrapolations far beyond what has even been conjectured. The danger of this technique lies in the fact that, if the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly and is not endowed from the beginning with a high degree of semantic self-insight…he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself.
But we aren’t worried that an author of mystery novels, say, will become so enamored of his account of a perfect crime that he’ll feel obliged to carry it out himself. Science fiction, at least of the hard variety, differs from similar genres in that much of its appeal arises from its apparent foundation in fact. As a result, it’s easier to imagine an author failing to distinguish between reality and his own speculations, even as he elides that boundary in his fiction for the sake of a good story. In the interview quoted above, Jack Williamson talks about “the popular myth of [science fiction’s] futurological accuracy,” which is still a major aspect of the field’s reputation, and a reason why many writers are drawn to it in the first place—even though science fiction has a mixed track record at nailing down the details. If a story does happen to get something right, it’s often by accident, and incidental to the main thrust of the story. When we talk about movies that do a good job of predicting how the future might look, one of the first to come up is Minority Report, which makes some remarkably shrewd guesses about facial recognition, driverless cars, and gesture interfaces. What’s funny, of course, is that few of these gadgets have anything to do with the plot itself, which is based less on science than on fantasy: they have more to do with art direction than storytelling, and don’t have much to do at all with the original story by Philip K. Dick, who was far more interested in mood, theme, and paradox than in forecasting how we’d interact with our screens.
Yet that’s exactly as it should be, and it’s something that both readers and writers of science fiction should keep in mind whenever they think about the choice of futures that a story makes. Frederik Pohl once said: “The mistake you must never make about science fiction is in thinking that, because it is about the future, it is necessarily about the future.” Stanley Schmidt, the former editor of Analog, recently quoted Pohl’s reminder and followed it up with an observation of his own: “Writers in this field are seldom trying to predict what the future will be, but rather to imagine a wide range of ways it could be—and how each of them, if it came to pass, would affect our lives.” This is perfectly correct, but it’s also worth remembering why we do it. The novelist Georges Simenon stated that the goal of his fiction was to find situations that would oblige his characters “to go to their limit,” and that’s true of most good science fiction as well, with the difference that the inciting incident is something rooted, however tenuously, in scientific extrapolation. When choosing between futures, or between the consequences of a particular idea, we’re often less interested in what we think could actually happen than in what will put the most pressure on our characters, and, by extension, our readers. (This also explains why dystopian futures are so prevalent in fiction these days—they’re more immediately promising as a source of narrative material.) On its highest level, science fiction is about the possible, but in the trenches where readable stories are made, it’s often more about Aristotle’s plausible impossibilities. And if that weren’t true, these stories probably wouldn’t exist at all.