Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What Matters

I've been thinking about what matters to futurists. Now it's information, a fact so obvious that it's almost baffling to look at Heinlein and Clarke and see their tremendous excitement over, of all things, transport. Because that's what a lot of 20th century science fiction was about: moving faster, moving better. And that was the trajectory of the 20th century: from the train to the car to the airplane to the jet to the space-rocket. And we just kept getting faster, and our enthusiasm for speed stayed strong, until some time well after the Apollo missions.

What's interesting is that though now so many science fiction writers are focused on information, transport wasn't the first thing to fascinate science fiction. Go back to the dawn of SF and you see an even earlier fascination with production, a concern even more distant from our own time. The early 20th century Socialist SF writers were always going on about production and efficiency and labor and all that other stuff that's as boring to us now as--no doubt--our present-day SF ramblings about gigahertz and petaflops will be to readers from the next century. If there had been more SF in the 18th and early 19th centuries, no doubt they would have massively obsessed over these new speculative political developments as much as we massively obsess over spimes and cloud computing.

This opens up a number of questions for any SF writer. The obvious one is, of course, what's going to engross the next century's SF writers? Politics, production, transport, information...then...what? Some new personal-scale sociological development? The creation and proliferation of new biological or digital organisms? We probably don't even have a word for it yet. But also--and here's one of greater interest to me--with the rise of various retro-future SF tales, from steampunk to neo-post-atomic-holocaust, it behooves us to analyze what drove the speculative fevers of previous eras, to see how we can use those concerns in our own fiction, rather than overwriting what interested a previous era and replacing it with our own fascinations. Steampunk's revolutionary original conceit--industrial-age people interested in information-age concerns--has grown a bit worn since The Difference Engine. I think a re-evaluation of our retro-speculation is in order, which would allow us to mix and match eras and obsessions. I love steampunk, but I'm getting a bit tired of seeing 19th century + information. I want to see new combinations of times and interests, new ways to bring later interests to earlier times, and speculation about how later eras, even our own, could return to the obsessions of previous centuries.