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May 24, 2012

Charlie Stross on the perceived lack of Big Ideas in science fiction

Worth reading SF, big ideas, ideology: what is to be done? - Charlie s Diary
In recent decades SF has been spinning its wheels. In fact, in the past 30 years the only truly challenging new concepts to come along were cyberpunk and the singularity. Both of which amount to different attempts within the genre to accommodate the first-order implications of computers and networking as the defining technology of the near future (as opposed to rockets! for! everyone! a la "Space Family Stone") — cyberpunk was the sociological/post new wave SF modelling of a future derived from the 1970s and 1980s weltanschauung, and the singularity was the chew-toy of those members of the hard SF brigade who actually understood computers. There were other movements, true, and possibly more visible to onlookers; urban fantasy and its hybrid offspring (by way of genre romance) the paranormal romance: steampunk (both first, second, and the current third wave varieties): and a huge bloom in alternate history/counterfactuals as much of the rigorous world-building effort that had formerly gone into the near-future space SF field turned sideways and looked for other outlets. But none of these seem to engage with the future in the way hard SF supposedly did in the 1940s to 1960s. What we call "hard SF" today mostly isn't hard, and isn't SF: it's fantasy with nanotech replicators instead of pixie dust and spaceships instead of dragons. Explorations of Singularity teeter dangerously on the precipice of a tumble into Christian apocalyptic eschatology, and in any event beg far too many questions about the nature of intelligence to make a convincing stab at artificial intelligence. In fact, those people who are doing the "big visionary ideas about the future" SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation. Greg Egan's wonderful clockwork constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe, fall on the deaf ears of critics who are looking for depth of characterisation, and don't realize that in his SF the structure of the universe is the character. On Hannu Rajaniemi's brilliant "The Quantum Thief" — I have yet to see a single review that even notices the fact that this is the first hard SF novel to examine the impact of quantum cryptography on human society. (That's a huge idea, but none of the reviewers even noticed it!) And there, over in a corner, is Bruce Sterling, blazing a lonely pioneering trail into the future. Chairman Bruce played out cyberpunk before most of us ever heard of it, invented the New Space Opera in "Schismatrix" (which looked as if nobody appreciated it for a couple of decades), co-wrote the most interesting hard-SF steampunk novel of all, and got into global climate change in the early 90s. He's currently about ten years ahead of the curve. If SF was about big innovative visions, he'd need to build an extension to house all his Hugo awards. So what's at the root of this problem? Why are the innovative and rigorously extrapolated visions of the future so thin on the ground and so comprehensively ignored?