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Why Charlie Stross is a Stupid Smart Person and Near-Future Science Fiction

October 1st, 2008

I posted a link yesterday to a Charlie Stross rant where he opened with:

We are living in interesting times; in fact, they’re so interesting that it is not currently possible to write near-future SF.

This is total bullshit.

The purpose of science fiction is not to accurately predict the future, and it is not necessary to do this in order to be able to write it.

Charlie is totally correct that it is next to impossible to accurately predict the future, but then he draws a ridiculous conclusion.

Let me discuss a number of things here, briefly, that are relevant.   Back in the 1950s writers were clueless about the near-future in several fundamental ways, particularly about the role of computers in revolutionizing the world.   But the implication of Charlie’s post is that they were ok writing near-future sf back then (I’m thinking Heinlein’s slide rules for his space explorers), but now we’re not.

Near-future science fiction has NEVER been accurate.   If you write it to make predictions, you’re in the wrong line of business.   Perhaps it gets proven wrong a little more quickly these days than back then, but just set your story a little farther out there.   There are an infinite number of stories that can be told that aren’t wrong.   Big things happen all the time, but plenty of things stay the same.   To a homeless kid in Rio, five years from now is unfortunately all too similar to today.

And I’ve also recently discussed the Black Swan and prediction in general.   The author’s point is that it is impossible to predict some things, and it matters a lot in business among other places, and it does.   But there are also things that are predictable.   He goofed on his story about discovering the microwave background radiation, for instance, and he also wrote about how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were sitting on a powder keg years before last month’s meltdown.

OK, some things predictable at some level, some things not.   Same as it ever was, but perhaps a little faster today.

Still, not the point.

Science fiction is about seeing humanity juxtaposed against situations not possible to see in the normal, every day.   And science fiction is written in the present, so it’s about the present intrinsically.   The predictions can be warnings that never have to come true.   They can involve predictions about paths we’ll never take, but that would present interesting choices.

Write something interesting, entertaining, and True About Life.   It doesn’t have to be right on the prediction front.   (Of course it can’t be wrong on the science front, or I’ll spank you.   Sorry.   My thing I can’t get around.)

A personal aside.   When discussing my next novel, near-future sf, with my editor, she suggested pushing it out at least 20-30 years.   You have time and space that way to get things right, or at least plausible, even if they go wrong in the interim.   Stross would probably freak out that 30 years gives us the Singularity and that’s even worse, but hey, it’s science fiction.   It isn’t future forecasting.

Summarizing:

The point of science fiction is to tell interesting stories that reveal truths about life possible in no other way, not accurate predictions of the future.

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