Thursday, May 26, 2016

Yesterday’s Tomorrows

Science fiction and I have a long relationship. The very first grownup novels (i.e. not Dr. Seuss and the like) I ever read were by Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne. School assignments aside, I grew up on the novels, novellas, and short stories of Golden Age (1920s to mid-60s) science fiction authors, many of whom during my youth were still in mid-career: Bradbury, Kornbluth, van Vogt, Asimov, Harrison, Heinlein, Burroughs, Schmitz, et al., along with the few grudgingly admitted by academics into the ranks of quality-lit, such as Orwell (1984) and Huxley (Brave New World). There is a distinctive direct style shared by many of these authors (likely influenced by pulp editorial requirements), but more importantly they share an attitude that is harder to describe: hopeful, perhaps. Maybe not on the surface, but down deep. Even their dystopias typically are written as warnings – which is to say in hopes of avoiding them. Action/adventure tales in the era by far outnumbered the consciously culturally relevant ones, but the attitude pervades all types. It was in the air of their times, dreadful (Depression, the War) as some of them were.

A handful of mainstream scifi authors still write this way (John Scalzi, F. Paul Wilson, Joan Vinge [Catspaw], among others), but most do not. That’s OK. Times, tastes and society change, and I’m fine with cyberpunk and experimental scifi too. But sometimes I hanker for the old style – especially for the old guard themselves. For this reason, last week I picked up Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?, a collection of short stories by Robert Sheckley, mostly written in the 1960s. Sheckley is best known for The Seventh Victim (1953), a novel about a future in which game-players hunt each other for fame and fortune. If you think this sounds like The Hunger Games, you’re right. Sheckley really caught the groove of the 1960s when they arrived, and he wrote some of his most entertaining short fiction in that decade, much of it first published in Playboy. The tales in this collection are light-heartedly twisted and not infrequently trippy (60s vernacular intended). The first and title story involves an AI robotic vacuum cleaner that doubles as a sex toy. It develops romantic feelings for its owner, but (while she was perfectly willing casually to play with it) she forcefully rejects it when it falls in love with her because she is determined to choose her own lover rather than be chosen by either man or machine. In other words, as an act of self-empowerment she dumps it on its personal merits, not on its mechanical properties – this before “PC” was common parlance. The subsequent stories get only more offbeat.

Thumbs up on the collection, but that’s not primarily my point this week. I want to talk about the future – past futures. The time ahead always appears more distant to us than the time behind, which is why (after age 25 anyway) someone 5 years younger than ourselves seems about the same age while someone 5 years older belongs to a totally different generation. Accordingly, futuristic scifi is often set in a future 10, 20, 30, or 50 years hence that gets overtaken by actual history far sooner than seemed possible at the time it was written. Naturally, the authors – including Sheckley – get it wrong, except perhaps for a lucky guess about some piece or other of tech. That’s OK. Scifi authors are fiction writers, not oracles. Their subject matter is rarely really about the future; it is about the concerns of the times in which they were written. The best of it transcends its era. A few help to create one. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), for example, was one of the required books of ‘60s hippiedom; it is still worth a read, not least for the ways in which it doesn’t transcend 1961. These help remind us that we too have presuppositions that soon will seem quaint – if not actually offensive. A pretty good cultural history could be written that consists of nothing but a sequence of imagined futures.

If the erroneous past futures are truly irksome for a reader, however, it always is possible to adopt the approach taken by Heinlein, which was to embrace parallel worlds. In his later novels, the overtaken events of his earlier novels are represented as having occurred in one of those other worlds. Or one can just not worry about it. The steampunk genre is all about alternative history. So long as the human elements are right, fiction in any genre can have merit. Nonetheless, if one writes scifi (as I sometimes do), it might be best to set it further in future than our first instinct impels us. Like the next landmark birthday, that date will arrive all too quickly.

Just Imagine (1930): 1980 as imagined in 1930. I’m still waiting for one of those private hover-planes.

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