Give Me That New-Fangled Future

I saw on Facebook recently that the millennial generation doesn’t want the family treasures. They’re not interested in finding a place to put all that stuff that’s been accumulating for generations.

I’m quite a bit older than the millennials, but I feel the same way. Earlier this year I wrote about giving up nostalgia.  I have fond memories of college and the exciting and turbulent period generally called the Sixties (though it ran into the 1970s), but I don’t want to go back there. And while there are other high points in my life – times and places I really loved – I don’t want to repeat those, either.

There’s certainly no historical period from before my time I’d want to live in. I like computers and modern medicine and exposure to a variety of cultures, not to mention living in a society that at least tolerates independent women.

But there is another time besides the present where I would like to live: The Future.

Things may be changing very quickly right now, but even though I get as overwhelmed as everyone else — not another Apple update! — I find myself looking at things like renewable energy and cancer treatment and space exploration thinking how much better things will be in twenty years. Or fifty years. Or a hundred.

We’re on the cusp of progress all the time, and I’m impatient for it. I was really hoping to spend my final years on the Moon, where the lower gravity would reduce the pain of arthritis.

And while I’m sure there will be some damned scary crises in the future, near and far – climate change, anyone? – I’m basically an optimist. I think that over time, human beings will become civilized. I’d particularly like to live in that future.

So I was pretty gobsmacked to find out that the justification for hijacking the Hugos was to promote old-fashioned science fiction.

Old-fashioned science fiction? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Of all the genres out there, science fiction is the last one that should be doing things the way it was done in the past. Our knowledge of our world and our universe is changing all the time, so any fiction that incorporates the word “science” into its name needs to be changing as well.

Or, to quote Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (since I went to a reading by Adrienne Maree Brown, one of the editors of Octavia’s Brood, last night and she mentioned this quote):

The only lasting truth is change.

Octavia's BroodOf course, science fiction isn’t a projection of what will happen in the future. With a few exceptions, the direct predictive efforts of SF writers haven’t been all that successful. But all the speculation about what might happen, all the efforts to play with it and examine it, those things have opened our minds to possibilities.

Science fiction is a reflection on what might happen based on what we know and understand right now. And, of course, our right now is not the same as it was fifty years ago. Or even ten years ago. And it’s going to change again in the next ten or fifty years.

Time was I could read stories set in the 1930s without feeling like I was reading historical fiction; now I have trouble reading stories set in the 1980s without feeling like they’re a product of their time. The world is changing faster than ever in the 21st Century.

It’s not that stories written fifty years ago or five hundred years ago or even a few millennia ago aren’t worth reading. It’s that new work needs to acknowledge that times have changed.

Above all, science fiction is about ideas. That’s what sucked me into its orbit; it was about something bigger than divorce in suburbia (even if the story itself revolved around a divorce in suburbia). And ideas change with knowledge – or at least, they do if you’re paying attention.

Look, I love a good adventure story as much as anyone. But if you’re going to set that adventure in the future, you have to keep up with the way the future is changing.

People are free to write old-fashioned stories just as people are free to cling to old-fashioned ideas. But they can’t really expect other people – especially other science fiction people – to find their stories interesting.

Most of us aren’t stuck in the past.



Give Me That New-Fangled Future — 12 Comments

  1. So you believe climate change won’t direfully impact the quality of life for anyone surviving into the next century?

    Young adults seem to feel deep anxiety about the future and survival — if one judges by the popularity – ominpresence of the future as dystopia — thought, of course that’s not enough to make a judgment call by. I tend to judge by the state of the oceans, the toxification of the arable soil and water supplies and the constant destruction of the forests, the planet’s lungs.

    • No, I think climate change will affect all our lives, and will be devastating for many, if not most of us. We should have done many things years ago and we’re still not taking it seriously. My “optimism” is that we will survive the chaos that will come with the worst of it with most of human progress toward civilization intact.

      I could, of course, be wrong. But I hope I’m not.

      • I should add: I heard only yesterday that the progress on batteries that store photo voltaic energy — probably the weakest link remaining in solar renewables — is going great guns. OTOH, the drought here in California is getting worse and our state policies are just barely starting to address it. It seems like every day I see some amazing progress in understanding or technology coupled with deep idiocy in dealing with climate change and each other as human beings.

        But I’m still an optimist. Can’t help it.

      • I hope you’re not.

        But even if you are right, the amount of evil and suffering that will ensue is staggering and terrifying.

  2. I love this! Thanks Nancy. I particularly like this quote: “Look, I love a good adventure story as much as anyone. But if you’re going to set that adventure in the future, you have to keep up with the way the future is changing.”

    I find it fascinating that some folks in science fiction think that the only change that ever occurs is technical. They’ll admit to different gadgets, but not to different relationships within societies and between individuals. If the only thing that ever changed about humanity was the stuff we use to get through the day, then wouldn’t slavery still be the law of the land? And going back even further, wouldn’t we still be living in a feudal society, or even further back, wouldn’t we still be practicing human sacrifice?

    • Oh gawd, we still are: aren’t wars the greatest demonstration of human sacrifice there is?

      • I’d say the various genocides based on religion or ethnicity or some other perceived difference are more like human sacrifice than war itself. But I also think Steven Pinker is right that human violence is on the decline, despite all the evils in the world. We are, at least, more appalled these days, and that has to count for something!

        • I’ve always believed that humans are going through the adolescent phase of our evolution: rebellious, supercilious, reckless. If we can hold on long enough without doing something irrevocably fatal, we just might be able to survive into adulthood.

          It could also be that we’re still in our willful four-year-old phase and have a long haul to even get to adolescence, in which case we are truly doomed. Mind, four-year-olds eventually submit to parental authority and nap time, and we do seem to be past the napping stage, so I’ll put my bet on adolescence as the more optimistic view…

          • Adolescence. I like that. I was once on a panel at a con and ventured that I didn’t think we were civilized yet, and everybody looked at me like I was nuts. Sigh.

    • It’s particularly interesting, since the changes in relationships are also based on science, particularly biology. And, of course, biology is on the cutting edge these days — so much we’re finding out.

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