Saturday, January 12, 2008

There Are Doors (3)

On the west side of Rose Alley in Southwark, formerly the site of the first of the Bankside theatres (The Rose, built in 1586-7), is one of the last Victorian buildings that hasn’t yet been replaced by characterless modern offices - although given the cry of defiance and despair painted across its wall, it won’t be long. Appropriately for the location, the unassuming entrance is decorated with a frieze of Tudor roses.

That Was Then; This Is Now

I made a microscopic contribution to this roundup of the best genre titles of 2007 and preview of what’s coming this year, assembled by Robert Thompson.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


I spent much of the year past working on The Quiet War, a space opera novel set on and around the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and I’ve just finished the first thirty pages of a similar project, Outer Dark, which moves the history begun in The Quiet War forward across some twenty-odd years. In the past couple of years, while I’ve been planning and writing The Quiet War, I’ve noticed during that time that a certain small-c conservative chill has crept across the SF field. The Mundane SF movement is one obvious symptom, but there are many others, adding up to a kind of retreat from SF’s usual concerns (most notably, as far as I’m concerned, a cynicism about the likelihood of colonisation or even human exploration of the Moon and other planets), and a crisis in self-confidence about the genre’s best-known tropes.

Has SF lost its grip on the future? Is so-called mainstream fiction making better use of SF’s tropes? Should SF be exclusively concerned with ‘reality’ and ‘realistic’ extrapolations - things that are possible from our point of view here in the last quarter of the first decade of the twenty-first century? As far as I’m concerned, maybe, no, and definitely not. I’m not against near-future ‘realistic’ SF (hell, I’ve written plenty), or the idea of Mundane SF per se, and I’m looking forward to the Mundane SF edition of Interzone guest-edited by Geoff Ryman. But I do have severe doubts about its claim that it is The Only Way Forward, and all other forms of SF are irrelevant, foolish or even dangerous.

Here are a few principles that have informed the construction of The Quiet War and Outer Dark:

1) SF’s principal strength is not realism; it’s one part internal consistency, two parts imagination, and three parts self-belief.
2) SF isn’t only about known knowns and known unknowns; it’s also about unknown knowns. Given that two hundred years ago most people in Europe were peasants relying on human and animal muscle power to get their work done, why do many SF writers insist that in two hundred years technology will not be radically different from present technology? Let’s face it, who in the SF field fifty years ago saw cell phones coming? Or the PC and the Internet?
3) The future will almost certainly not be dominated by the USA and freemarket capitalism.
4) Self-interest is a poor driver in any society, yet it’s the only motivating force for characters in too many recent SF novels
5) It’s possible to imagine SF heroes other than freebooting entrepreneurs. I mean, the boom is so over.
6) It’s possible to imagine a society where science is the dominant driving force of the economy and science and the arts are the main occupations of the population.
7) What will really happen if our children are smarter and kinder than us?
8) True AI is less likely than a manned landing on Mars.
9) Most moons in the Solar System are made of water-ice; with a little power, you have all the water and oxygen you need.
10) We know a lot more about closed-system ecosystems than we did in the 1970s, when O’Neill colonies were first proposed. And we have better vision of the architecture and material science of the future, too
11) Colonisation of space will not be driven by self-interest or the profit-motive.
12) History teaches us that history doesn’t teach us anything. Laboured comparisons between the present and past events are pointless. The future will have its own agenda.
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