Why does Science Fiction have to be about predicting the future?

Originally published on Guerrilla Geek on 22 June 2011.

If you look out the window, you won’t see many flying cars...”

So starts the article by Tom Colls representing BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. Hands up who can name any novel that was actually about flying cars? No? Me neither. And I’ve read hundreds of Science Fiction novels. I’m actually quite angry about this. Who is Tom Colls and what is his credentials? I have no experience in the comings and goings in crime novels, so I wouldn’t dream of writing a piece complaining there aren’t enough unsolved murders for clever detectives out my window.

"Blade Runner Spinners". Via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blade_Runner_Spinners.png#mediaviewer/File:Blade_Runner_Spinners.png
“Blade Runner Spinners”. Via Wikipedia – http://goo.gl/M9m3GF

I feel I need to examine article and comment on its premise.

“The future, it turned out, is a lot more normal than any writer pictured it”. It is hard to be balanced when you think about how staggeringly unintelligent that statement is. If you think about it logically, you wouldn’t be interested in any set in our normal future. Imagine if Jules Verne, George Orwell or HG Wells wrote a dull kitchen sink drama set in 1987. Think about Olaf Stapleton, Arthur C Clarke or Robert Heinlein speculating on the transport situation in Birmingham. I feel slightly ill at the thought of Aldous Huxley or William Burroughs focusing their talents on a Friday night fight in Newcastle.  is speculative fiction, yes, speculating on what may happen if, but that doesn’t mean that all the plot devices employed are what it takes to make the future. When Gully Folye uses teleportation, it is not a story about transportation between destinations. If there wasn’t any, then what the book is actually about, which is morality and revenge, wouldn’t have the impact if it took him years to get around his universe. How boring would Star Trek be if every mission to a new planet took weeks of preparation and months of travel while the crew did experiments on tissue samples and any colonies?

Big sigh.

“”No-one’s got a good track record at predicting the future – throwing darts would get you better results,” says  writer, and editor of the blog Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow.”. Now I’ve tried to write a few short stories in my time. That, however, is no real authority on successful writing. I would like to guess that authors who sit down to tell a good story don’t sit there thinking about successfully predict the future. That idea is simply absurd, although that point is noted later in the piece. Whether it is or literary fiction or crime fiction, authors want to tell a good story with interesting characters. We write to explain ourselves and to explain the world around us. If anyone wrote a piece of fiction just as a predictive device, you would expect the plots and protagonists to be secondary. If you are interested in predicting the future, you would be better off reading non-fiction works by futurologists. Read something by Martin Rees!

“Cybernetics scientist Professor Kevin Warwick disagrees. The sheer number of ideas that appear first in sci fi, only later to be figured out by scientists – space flight and robotics for example – demonstrate that the genre has been very good at predicting the future, he contends.” I think the Professor is misguided. He is defending something that doesn’t need defending. What is the reality is that many scientists and inventors probably grew up reading and were inspired to replicate those items. Martin Cooper, who is a former Motorola VP and who led the team who developed the handheld mobile phone, has claimed to have been inspired by the handheld communicator found on the original series of Star Trek. Wah Chang, who designed the communicators, wasn’t predicting the future, but fulfilling a need for communication between the crew on the Enterprise and the Away Team.

If people believe that the role of science fiction is to predict the future, a. they are missing the point, and b. they are in a position to do the experiment: Let me make a proposal to Mr Colls and anyone else misguided enough to think there should be flying cars out site the window. Read a bunch of books. Ask the authors to confirm or deny whether any of the science fiction devices in their fiction are meant to be predictions. Make notes. Lock them away, and revisit them in 50 years. Or maybe they should simply shut up about things of which they nothing about.

“The genre’s writers have to face the fact that the world hasn’t worked out quite as their predecessors imagined.” In the piece, China Mieville points out the obvious flaws in Colls’ argument and it appears that he is ignored. Otherwise, the article would not have been conceived. The genre’s authors, as a rule, are commenting on the present, not predicting the future. They are telling a story, as Mieville states, which is the point of any literature.


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