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Charlie Stross and Near-Future Fiction
Alex Steffen, 31 Oct 08

Charlie Stross says some very smart things about near-future fiction and the difference between techno-thriller science fiction and the sort of science fiction that is about predicting the present in ways that illuminate change:

In my view, near-future SF isn't SF set n years in the future. Rather, it's SF that connects to the reader's life: SF about times we, personally, can conceive of living through (barring illness or old age). It's SF that delivers a powerful message — this is where you are going. As such, it's almost the diametric opposite of a utopian work; utopias are an unattainable perfection, but good near-future SF strive for realism.

Orwell's 1984 wasn't written as near-future SF, even though he wrote it in 1948, a mere 36 years out: it explicitly posits a global dislocation, a nuclear war and a total upheaval, between the world inhabited by Orwell's readers and the world of Winston Smith. You can't get there from here, because it's a parable and a dystopian warning: the world of Ingsoc is not for you.

In contrast, Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire is near-future SF, even though it's set nearly a century out; his heroine, a centenarian survivor from our own times, is on the receiving end of a new anti-aging medical treatment that has some odd side-effects, and so we get a chance to tour the late 21st century vicariously. You're meant to think, "I could end up there" — that's the whole point of near-future SF.

Technothrillers aren't near-future SF. Technothrillers are thrillers first; they play against the background of the world as we know it (albeit the world of drama and espionage and public affairs) without considering the way the technology trappings they rely on might change the human condition. The high-tech stuff is window dressing.

Near-future SF does different things with the same tools; they come front-and-centre -- or rather, their effects come front-and-centre, and the world is changed thereby. And they're not necessarily such obvious new technologies as smart bombs and wrist-watch radios; they might equally well be a new way of looking at the memetic spread of fashions, as in Connie Willis' Belwether, or social network mediated economics, as in Bruce Sterling's Maneki Neko.

(There's a key scene in "Halting State" where I played with this: Jack and Elaine are walking through Edinburgh, circa 2018, and Jack is explaining how it would outwardly look mostly familiar to someone from 50 years ago -- except that underneath the building facades and differently styled cars and clothing, everything works differently. Whereas in a traditional technothriller, everything works the same but the cars are very gosh-wow and all have machine guns behind the headlights, so to speak.)

The whole thing is here

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Charlie Stross opposes near-future sf to utopian sf, because utopias are perfect. But the first near-future sf that came to my mind is the climate crisis triology by Kim Stanley Robinson, ("Forty Signs of Rain," "Fifty Degrees Below," "Sixty Days and Counting.") By the end of "Sixty Days" the national agenda is creating a "permaculture" which essentially is a utopia in a constant state of becoming. A realistic goal, and one I hope we are about to embark on after November 4.

Posted by: Captain Future on 31 Oct 08

It's always great when you discover that your favourite blogs read each other. Oh, the joy of cross-pollination!

I think that one of the dangers of utopian sf is that it's prone to too much finger-wagging, which in turns leads to "transactional" thinking: the idea that if we make enough symbolic gestures or do enough penance, the problem will be solved. But the best near-future SF shows us not what a new invention can do, but what a whole new lifestyle can do. That's the kind of change that needs to be made: one that occurs on the level of everyday existence.

Posted by: Madeline on 1 Nov 08



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