Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Present tense, future perfect

with 4 comments

Michael Crichton

Science fiction is set in the future so frequently that it’s hard for many readers—or writers—to envision it as anything else. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way, and there are times when a futuristic setting actively gets in the way of the story. If you think that science fiction’s primary function is a predictive one, it’s hard to avoid, although I’ve made it pretty clear that I believe that it’s the other way around: the idea that this is a literature of prediction emerged only after most of its elements were already in place. But if you see it more as a vehicle for telling exciting stories in which science plays a crucial role, or as a sandbox for exploring extreme social or ethical situations, you quickly come to realize that it can be even more effective when set in the present. This is especially true of science fiction that trades heavily on suspense and paranoia. My favorite science fiction novel ever, Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, is set in the future for no particular reason: its premise of invisible alien beings who control our lives and manipulate human civilization would work even better in ordinary surroundings, and nothing fundamental about the story itself would have to change. You could say much the same about Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which is indebted to Russell’s story in more ways than one. And there’s a sense in which The X-Files actually plays better today, as a period piece, than it did when it initially aired: the early nineties have become even more mundane with time, and a perfect setting for horror.

When you push science fiction into the present, however, something curious happens: people start to think of it as something else. To be more specific, it ends up being labeled as a technothriller. This is, above all, a marketing category, and an even slipperier one than most, but it’s worth defining it simply as science fiction that limits itself to a single line of extrapolation, usually in the form of a new technology, while grounding the rest in the period in which the book was written. And you’d think that this would be seen as a worthwhile approach. Plausibly incorporating a hypothetical technology or scientific advance into the modern world can be just as hard, if done right, as inventing an entire future society, and it allows the writer to tackle themes that lie near the heart of the genre. If we’re looking to science fiction to help us work out the implications of contemporary problems, to simulate outcomes of current trends, or to force us to look at our own lives and assumptions a little differently, a story that takes place against a recognizable backdrop can confront us with these issues more vividly. A future or interplanetary setting has a way of shading into fantasy, which isn’t necessarily bad, but tends to turn the genre into exactly what Campbell always insisted it wasn’t—a literature of escapism. In theory, then, any effort to coax science fiction back into the present is enormously important, and we should welcome the technothriller as a place in which the tools of the genre can be brought to bear on the reality around us.

Gillian Anderson in War of the Coprophages

In practice, of course, that isn’t how it turns out. The technothriller is often dismissed as a disreputable subgenre, or a diluted version of the real thing—and not always without reason. There are a few possible explanations. One is that because of the technothriller’s natural affinity for suspense, it attracts literary carpetbaggers: writers who seem to opportunistically come from outside the genre, rather than emerging from within it. Michael Crichton, for instance, started out by writing relatively straight thrillers under pen names like Jeffrey Hudson and John Lange, and it’s interesting to wonder how we’d regard The Andromeda Strain, or even Sphere or Congo, if he had worked his way up in the pages of Analog. Another is the genre’s pervasive strain of militarism, which may reflect the fact that we associate certain kinds of technological development with the armed forces; the convenient excuse for action that it provides; or even the sort of writer that the genre attracts. Finally, there’s the inescapable point that most technothrillers are just providing escapism of another kind, with hardware taking the place of original characters or ideas. That’s true of a lot of science fiction, too, but a technothriller doesn’t even ask readers to make the modicum of effort necessary to transport themselves mentally into another time or place: it’s just like the world we know, except with better weapons. As a result, it appeals more to the mundanes, or readers who don’t think of themselves as science fiction fans, which from the point of view of the fandom is probably the greatest sin of all.

Yet it’s worth preserving the ideal of the technothriller, both because it can be a worthwhile genre in itself and because of the light it sheds on science fiction as a whole. When we think of the hectoring didacticism that dominated Crichton’s late novels, it’s easy to see it as an instance of the role that hardware plays within a certain kind of thriller: as I’ve discussed elsewhere, because the writer gets certain technical details right, we’re more inclined to believe what he says when it comes to the larger issues, at least while we’re reading the book. But it takes another level of insight to realize that this is also true of Heinlein. (The evolution of Campbellian science fiction is largely one of writers who were so good at lecturing us about engineering that we barely noticed when they moved on to sociology.) And the strain of technophobia that runs through the genre—which is more a side effect of suspense than a fully developed intellectual stance—can serve as a corrective to the unthinking embrace of technology that has characterized science fiction for so much of its history. Finally, on the level of simple reading pleasure, I’d argue that any attempt to bring suspense into science fiction deserves to be encouraged: it’s a tool that has often been neglected or employed in rote ways, and the genre as a whole is invigorated when we bring in writers, even mercenary ones, who know how to structure a story to keep the pages turning. Combine this with great, original ideas, and you’re unstoppable. This combination doesn’t often appear in the same writer. But the next best thing is to ensure that they can push against each other as part of the same healthy genre.

Written by nevalalee

August 11, 2016 at 8:27 am

4 Responses

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  1. Hello, a wonderful post, as usual. It immediately made me think of the clever and well written British series Black Mirror. Have you had the chance to see it?


    August 11, 2016 at 11:13 am

  2. ‘any effort to coax science fiction back into the present is enormously important,’

    It is, for the reason you articulate above, and also because if you want to import mainstream literary strategies and adult characterization that’s usually the way you get there. Jeff and Ann Vandermeer for their Giant Book of SF have decided that the definition of SF is simply that it happens in the future. They’re wrong.

    ‘it’s interesting to wonder how we’d regard The Andromeda Strain, or even Sphere or Congo, if he had worked his way up in the pages of Analog.’

    We’d compare and group Crichton with the likes of Joe Poyer and Joseph Martino, wouldn’t we? It’s an amusing thought.

    Mark Pontin

    August 11, 2016 at 8:53 pm

  3. @timothynh: I’ve only seen the episode “White Bear” of Black Mirror, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to check out the others soon.


    September 1, 2016 at 9:01 pm

  4. @Mark Pontin: I had a very interesting discussion the subject this year at Worldcon. Hopefully I’ll post more about it soon.


    September 1, 2016 at 9:02 pm

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