Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 22nd, 2017

Present tense, future perfect

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Michael Crichton

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 11, 2016.

Science fiction is set in the future so frequently that it’s hard for many readers, or writers, to envision it in any other way. Yet there are times when a futuristic setting actively interferes with the story. If you think that the genre’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 science fiction is a literature of prediction emerged only after most of its elements were already in place. But if you see it as a vehicle for telling compelling stories in which science plays an important role, or as a sandbox for exploring extreme social or ethical situations, you 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 near future for no particular reason: its premise of invisible alien beings who 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: in hindsight, the early nineties have become the definition of mundanity, and a perfect setting for horror. (At a time when we seem to be actually living in an alternate history novel, its assumption that a sinister government conspiracy had to be kept secret can seem downright comforting.)

When you push science fiction into the present, however, something curious happens: people start to think of it as something else. In particular, it tends to be labeled as a technothriller. This is ultimately just a marketing category, and slipperier than most, but it can be defined 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 approach would be seen as worthwhile. Plausibly incorporating a hypothetical technology or scientific advance into the modern world can be just as hard as inventing an entire future society, and it allows the writer to tackle themes that lie close to 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 all of these issues more vividly. A futuristic or interplanetary setting has a way of shading into fantasy, which isn’t necessarily bad, but risks turning the genre into exactly what John W. 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 matrix 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, 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 for this. 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. Other reasons might be the genre’s pervasive strain of militarism, which reflects the association of certain kinds of technological development with the armed forces; its emphasis on action; or even the sort of writer that it attracts. Finally, there’s the inescapable point that most technothrillers are 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 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 that it sheds on science fiction as a whole. When we think of the didactic, lecturing tone that dominated Crichton’s late novels, starting with Rising Sun, it’s easy to connect it to the psychological 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 other issues, at least while we’re still reading the book. But it takes another level of insight to realize that this is also true of Heinlein. (The story of Campbellian science fiction is one of writers who were so good at teaching 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 the need to generate suspense than a philosophical stance—can serve as a corrective to the unthinking embrace of technology that has characterized so much science fiction throughout 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, and the genre as a whole is invigorated when we bring in writers, even mercenary ones, who know how to keep the pages turning. If they also have great, original ideas, they’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

December 22, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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The ability to recognize mathematical ideas in obscure and inchoate form, and to trace them under the many disguises which they are apt to assume before coming out in full daylight, is…an essential component of [mathematical] talent, since in large part the art of discovery consists in getting a firm grasp on the vague ideas which are “in the air.”

André Weil, quoted by Raymond George Ayoub in Musings of the Masters

Written by nevalalee

December 22, 2017 at 7:30 am

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