My Wednesday turned out quite unusual this week. I spent four hours on a Virgin train and seven hours in a meeting. I rarely spend more than two hours at a time sitting these days – eager to leap on my bike, or speed walk somewhere. This occasion was special. I was reading my Auditory Crescendo short story to a group of experts interested in whether science fiction could play a part in predicting aspects of the future. Four of us there were science fiction writers – although wore other hats too – while the others were captains of industry, academia and researchers in future-casting. We were treated to an inspirational talk and discussion from Intel’s leading futurist, Brian Johnson via Skype from his pre-breakfast laptop in California.
The issue for me is can science fiction be helpful in predicting the future? It seems to me it can but that it shouldn’t be its main aim. I write stories for entertainment: mine and my readers. I explore ideas and push boundaries in my stories, which is what all SF writers do. The readers enjoy the escapism in SF (and in other genres) and most don’t expect our fiction to be a serious attempt to test the future. However, it’s possible that when our stories envisage a new development, whether it is in politics, social structure, technology or a what-if situation, then the fiction could be a useful exploratory tool.
Sadly, one of our SF writers must have thought it would be cool to downplay the role of SF in predictions. Paul Raven of the Pennine Water Group insisted several times that SF cannot predict the future. He is wrong and his examples were mostly wrong. For instance he said it is widely assumed Arthur C Clarke predicted three geosynchronous satellites could relay telecommunications. He didn’t do that as a SF writer but as a researcher in radar communications, and his ideas was predated by Hermann Oberth‘s 1923 book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space). I’m sorry, Paul, but a scientist would never try to prove a hypothesis by stating a handful of cherry-picked opposites. You can disprove a theory that way. There are many gadgets envisaged in early SF – eg flip-phones in Star Trek, robots in the 1927 film Metropolis by Fritz Lang and his wife, invisibility and cloaking devices in many films and in fiction all the way back to Plato. Science can now cloak tiny objects. This is missing the point, though. Even Paul Raven encouraged the use of SF as a sandbox for its narratives to test ideas. Good.
Fascinating to me was a talk on Smart Cities by Rashid Mehmood from the University of Huddersfield. It struck me as he outlined in many diagrams and equations how future cities need to be ‘smart’ with respect to its occupants, environment, transport, infrastructure, impact, etc how these ideas really are already in many SF cities of the future. Not all successful.
My turn came and with the use of Powerpoint slides and being demonstrative with my hearing aids, I read and excerpt and explained how I was inspired to write Auditory Crescendo (available on Kindle and paperback in Escape Velocity: The Anthology) [Free download at the moment) because of my own hearing aids. For example, setting my aid to the T-switch for the telecoil, I could hear a neighbour’s TV when near a radiator! I could also hear the eulogy of another neighbour but only when I stood in the church. As soon as we were told to be seated my hearing aid was out of range of the loop system’s induction field! Auditory Crescendo involves a Gulf War veteran who was fitted with an experimental cochlear implant enabling him to hear conversations four miles away while everything in between was filtered out. Problems emerged when he heard conversations he didn’t want to hear, but he was fascinated by being able to hear electricity in cables in the walls. There, see what I did? Explore the social and emotional consequences of potential new technology. That’s what SF can do.
There are pundits who claim SF isn’t changing, or is already dead, but I detect a shift at the so-called bleeding edge. Mainstream SF readers still enjoy the space operas and the Paul Asher type action futures but the more thought-provoking novels from the likes of China Mieville, M John Harrison, Hannu Rajaniemi, Lauren Beukes et al are creating a more literary niche in the genre. Of course there have always been the occasional literati there including the excellent Times Arrow by Martin Amis that was even shortlisted for the Booker. Damien Walter on “Why Science Fiction is the literature of change“? asserts that SF is gaining a place in mainstream literature at last. I agree – in spite of Charles Stross’s denial on his website: “… around 1900-1920, the nascent modernists in literature came to a fork in the road: they could choose to document the existing human condition in photographic detail, or they could choose to explore the human condition via metaphor, confabulation, and extrapolation (the tools of SF and fantasy). They took the former path; thus defining SF/F, by virtue of having taken the other route, as a refutation of the literary virtues.”
The Futures meeting on Wednesday was at BAM – the British Academy of Management and gloried in the fancypants title of ‘Strategic Visions and Future Business Models: Exploring Future Technology, Smartness, Creative Science Prototyping and Consumer Technological Landscapes.’ Phew! A mouthful and yet accurate. My SF story is a Creative Science Prototype you see. As Dr Gary Graham said, the meeting was inspirational and as with many gatherings one of the best aspects was for people to meet face to face who’d only known each other online. I like that too. After missing her at BristolCon, it was particularly good to meet up with fellow BSFA Orbiter, Rosie Oliver. It was fascinating for me to have a completely novel audience for my stories. I hope they enjoyed the experience as much as I did.