Is it time for a rethink in Science Fiction?

Serendipity

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Below is a copy of a post I put on my blog, which may be of some interest to people here....

The pandemic has thrown the world into confusion and chaos. Sadly there have been too many deaths and people who have ended up being permanently damaged by this horrible disease. The devastation has extended to all parts of our society, and that includes science fiction.

Like the rest of the publishing industry, science fiction has struggled. Big publishers have reduced their publishing list during the pandemic, small publishers have ended up with book stocks they cannot move on because conventions have gone virtual, a few have gone out of business and those with print of demand capability have complained they are not selling their books through the likes of Amazon. It is not helped that this is also election year in the USA when traditionally book sales go down in numbers. There is a hiatus in film production with live actors and of course unless people can work from home, there has been limited access to production facilities for animated films.

It will take quite a few months to see the full impact of all this. One thing we do know is that in the publishing industry as a whole, an unprecedented 600 books will be published on 3rd September – a combination of delayed publishing and hoping to catch the Christmas market. On the minus side a lot of people have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, which means people will not have as much to spend. So it is a greater number of books chasing a smaller pot of people’s spare cash for entertainment.

Yes, you could counter-argue that reading books is a safe pandemic activity and therefore more likely to be taken up. But people have missed socialising, as the boom in the next best thing, zooming over the internet has shown. And it is socialising that will take priority over home entertainment for people in general.

One side effect of the pandemic is to make people aware of how science can and does advise society, and more importantly that going against of science can cost people dearly. The focus at the moment is quite reasonably on surviving and beating Covid-19. It’s the nearest crocodile snapping at everyone’s feet. But the point is well-made. You ignore science at your peril.

Of course science fiction will supply a tranche of new stories based on the pandemic. This is what writers are experiencing at the moment and they have to write from experience too a greater or lesser extent. I view that more as a way of recording the impact of the pandemic through story. And we need to record this pandemic because this is the first time such a devastating virus will be fought not just with the traditional quarantining, but also in due course and soon as safely possible with a vaccine.

Science fiction stories based on the pandemic will also provide a wish list of what we wanted to see during the pandemic, like for example the vaccine being developed far more quickly. This will help develop a roadmap for the research scientists for tomorrow and many decades to come.

What of other not so pressing global problems?

Another close snapping crocodile is climate change due to pollution. Yes, work is being done to reduce the projected pollution of so many substances, including carbon dioxide, methane, plastics… this list can go on for quite a bit.

We have seen quite a few stories about the impact of climate change, written as warnings for our future society. Yes they have had an impact, but not nearly enough for solving the overall problem. All that has been done is delay the inevitable.

Part of the issue that we do not fully understand all the interactions and impacts of climate change. Research is ongoing, and every so often there is a significant new piece of research that alters our perception what is actually going on, and therefore we must act in a slightly different way. (Slightly here refers to method rather than quantity of action.)

What is needed is solutions. Science fiction writers can suggest some of those, based on the science and understanding of what is going on in climate change. The point here is that a science fiction writer has to understand the subject they are writing about before they can make viable suggestions.

This is true of any subject. If you look at the very successful science fiction writers of today, you’ll find a lot have studied the subjects they write about before they even put fingertip to keyboard. Alastair Reynolds with his degrees and work in astrophysics, Adrian Tchaikovsky with his understanding of insects to name but two.

A science fiction writer also needs to keep up with the latest thinking in their subject area. They need to read about the advances to build on what they already know. Also science fiction writers need a basic understanding of the effects of the development of other sciences. They need to read the science news columns about what things can do in the near future. Where to find these columns?

Yes they are few and far between, but they are there where you know to find them. Only issue is that their coverage of the science subjects is rather hit and miss. They go for the spectacular ideas that catch the imagination, not the little detail that makes all the difference downstream.

What is really needed is a go-to place for such reports. This was the original idea behind the New Scientist magazine. But commercial pressures have slimmed it down in terms of content over the years. It has more the feel of specialist magazine commercially than the general magazine it wants to be to the public, certainly judging by the price.

A true hybrid between science reporting and science fiction stories does not really exist. Yes there are science commentary columns in some science fiction magazines or a thread for science topics tucked away on some science fiction websites. But a balanced offering? Not really.

Maybe now is the time to produce such a hybrid science and science fiction magazine or website, particularly as the value of science has recently been shown to have an impact on society.
 

Brian G Turner

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writer has to understand the subject they are writing about before they can make viable suggestions.
This is one reason why chrons - since the very beginning - had sections for history and science news. Not so much because I expect writers to use these to come up with solutions for modern problems, as much as because I always hoped some of the articles posted there would help inspire writers in the community.

Another issue, though, is that writers are limited by their inspiration. I'd love to write a science fiction novel about planetary exploration in the solar system, but I don't have inspiration for a story to go with it. Instead, I'm working on a non-fiction book to cover the subject. I suspect any notion of trying to solve world problems through science would also veer toward non-fiction rather than fiction writing, too.
 

Moonbat

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We live in a time of anti-science and we've all supposedly had enough of experts. We have (in the UK) a government that says it is following the science for its Covid rulings but I don't think we are doing particularly well in the grande scheme of things, is this a problem with the scientific advice, the scientists, the government or just the population?

I used to regularly read New Scientist and use it for inspiration (when I had time, back in the BC (before Children)). I have since joked with my neuro-scientist cousin that NS is very speculative. There would be an experiment that showed that three monkeys working together were able to use brain power to control a robotic arm in 3 dimensions (each monkey controlling one axis) and the article would talk as if we had to watch out for monkey's working in our factories or human cloud computing in the queue at Tesco. The article headings are bit click bait like, but I don't have the time to read it as much as I used to.
 

tinkerdan

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I've never seen Science Fiction or even other fiction as trying to solve our problems.
It's more of a matter of putting the focus upon those problems and often upon potential problems that might come up...If things keep going the way they are. In fact some of the best usually showcases how attempts at solving one problem creates several worse problems.
Where is this coming from.?

Has Covid changed things? Sure.
How long will it affect things? Hard to say just yet.
Covid hasn't really stopped the world.
It would be nice if it did then we wouldn't have the
Out of control wild fires.
Super highway of out of control hurricanes washing the gulf coast away.

All I'm doing right now is jigsaw puzzles and reading.

I've spent more on books at Amazon now than at any other time.

I am guilty of stemming the tide of books; because I haven't done much writing while I've had the chance.
That has nothing to do with Covid; though if I need another lame excuse I could use that: I suppose.

Real science is our best bet--although it is troubling that we have this global warming thing while man made and naturally ignited fires are sending horrible fog of smoke across the entire US--that can only be making things worse. Maybe it's nature's way of telling science that some of this might be out of their hands just now. In fact, the triple threat of hurricanes, wildfire, and rampant out of control virus are things that are challenging science's ability to steer our future.

That's enough; I need to bury my head in a science fiction book.
 

J Riff

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Fiction should be easy when writin about the 'virus' there's every story already out there.
 

Paul Meccano

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Yes. Agreed.
I like the idea of balancing views, would welcome something real that speaks to the fantastic. Not to be a harbinger of doom or anything though, but systems will always fail right, won't they? – systems like, Capitalism, Consumerism, everything including whole societies, and species.
Science-fiction – rightly so – has always had its head in the sky, but us humans ( for no reason other than our slowly evolving physical attributes) we need to have our feet firmly on the ground sometimes – now more than ever. Near future Science-Fiction needs to write about staying on the planet, not only escaping it. It needs to write about solving while knee-deep in failure, not after the stable door has fallen off – horse bolted. Perhaps then, we can't save everyone – we need to write about that, without it being considered too much like doomsday writing. And we should at least talk to grounded endeavours that will continue to offer Terra-firma to stand on in the first place. Save the planet for standing firm, before we try to escape its gravitational forces.
 

hitmouse

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I have some trouble with the premise of this thread, as stated in the title question.

In essence it asks: does SF need a new manifesto to deal with the current problems of the world?

I think this implies that sf has or has had some sort of overarching manifesto or mission in the first place, which is demonstrably false. SF is a very broad church. Once or twice a year we get into an interminable debate on Chrons asking what defines sf. We fail to agree on a definition.

People will write whatever they want, or whatever they think will sell. At the end of the day readers will read whatever interests or entertains them. For the majority that is light entertainment and a bit of escapism. Some people will gravitate towards more “ serious” stuff with an environmental or political polemic, but tbh that is likely to be a minority even if there is something truly exceptional about the writing.
 

Stephen Palmer

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I also disagree with the premise, for the same reason that I don't think steampunk should be about steam-powered global solutions.
You only have to look in this very forum to read threads about blowing up stars with mega-weapons.
Fiction is about people.
 

Toby Frost

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I think that, if you read the original post the wrong way, it gets very close to one of my pet hates: "The only real SF is hard SF". (Funny how you never see anyone saying the opposite.) But read correctly, I think it has a point, in that it is wrong to use science fiction to peddle outright lies, and that, by doing so, an SF writer quickly becomes a propagandist.

SF is a setting rather than a style (if those are the right words), and so we have SF novels that are really war stores, crime stories, Westerns and romances, but "in space". There's nothing wrong with pure escapism, provided that's what it genuinely is. There's room for a gentle, environmentalist novel about ecology on another planet, and also a gung-ho story about the marines shooting goddam Martian commies. The problem comes when either of these is used to advance theories that are false or deeply partisan. This is a sliding scale but you can usually tell.

I also suspect that many of us writers lack the skill and knowledge to make viable suggestions. It's one thing to say something like "the colonists have lots of solar panels and wind farms to protect the environment" (as I am currently doing) but another to explain how they make the solar panels isn't really within the ambit of the writer. I think a writer is entitled to say what would be a good or bad outcome without having to fully explain the backstory that would get them to that outcome.
 

Venusian Broon

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I think that, if you read the original post the wrong way, it gets very close to one of my pet hates: "The only real SF is hard SF". (Funny how you never see anyone saying the opposite.) But read correctly, I think it has a point, in that it is wrong to use science fiction to peddle outright lies, and that, by doing so, an SF writer quickly becomes a propagandist.

SF is a setting rather than a style (if those are the right words), and so we have SF novels that are really war stores, crime stories, Westerns and romances, but "in space". There's nothing wrong with pure escapism, provided that's what it genuinely is. There's room for a gentle, environmentalist novel about ecology on another planet, and also a gung-ho story about the marines shooting goddam Martian commies. The problem comes when either of these is used to advance theories that are false or deeply partisan. This is a sliding scale but you can usually tell.

I also suspect that many of us writers lack the skill and knowledge to make viable suggestions. It's one thing to say something like "the colonists have lots of solar panels and wind farms to protect the environment" (as I am currently doing) but another to explain how they make the solar panels isn't really within the ambit of the writer. I think a writer is entitled to say what would be a good or bad outcome without having to fully explain the backstory that would get them to that outcome.
Good comments Toby. I wouldn't go perhaps as far to say that the original post was really going to 'the only real SF is hard SF', but taken to it's logical extreme it seems to head that way. Want to write about space travel, well, you'd better have a PhD in astrophyiscs, a la Alastair Reynolds. I'm being a tad unfair, but that seems to be the general jist!

Science fiction is not just about 'solutions' to to solve scientific problems. SF writers write about truths and ideas that they are passionate about and some may want to frame their stories with current science. And a few may want to write 'what if' stories based on current speculations that real scientists are pondering. And as you point out, some are just keen to provide entertainment with a SF setting. SF, to me, is a broad church with many distinct genres - it's what makes it vibrant and interesting. Hard SF has it's place as one of many genres inside that. The above seems a call to a slightly more focused genre or manifesto for a sub-genre - like "mundane science fiction"*.

But if I want to read real science and possible solutions, then I read what real scientist are writing, not SF writers. There are plenty of outlets today that disemminate new findings and papers, many with the actual practitioners themselves making content. I'm not sure there needs to be this hybrid thing as I'm swamped with material and interesting content that is real science related.

However, after being a bit negative, if you're passionate about there being such a gap in the market, use that energy to build this sub-genre/outlet. My passions lie elsewhere, but I'm sure if you wave a flag, make a noise and lay down a manifesto, you will find people willing to follow.



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* it's on wikipedia if you want to look it up, but in a nutshell, this genre assumes that travel to the stars is impossible, humans will never get further than the solar system, no aliens and a hard SF approach to tech and science.
 

Serendipity

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Good comments Toby. I wouldn't go perhaps as far to say that the original post was really going to 'the only real SF is hard SF', but taken to it's logical extreme it seems to head that way. Want to write about space travel, well, you'd better have a PhD in astrophyiscs, a la Alastair Reynolds. I'm being a tad unfair, but that seems to be the general jist!

Science fiction is not just about 'solutions' to to solve scientific problems. SF writers write about truths and ideas that they are passionate about and some may want to frame their stories with current science. And a few may want to write 'what if' stories based on current speculations that real scientists are pondering. And as you point out, some are just keen to provide entertainment with a SF setting. SF, to me, is a broad church with many distinct genres - it's what makes it vibrant and interesting. Hard SF has it's place as one of many genres inside that. The above seems a call to a slightly more focused genre or manifesto for a sub-genre - like "mundane science fiction"*.

But if I want to read real science and possible solutions, then I read what real scientist are writing, not SF writers. There are plenty of outlets today that disemminate new findings and papers, many with the actual practitioners themselves making content. I'm not sure there needs to be this hybrid thing as I'm swamped with material and interesting content that is real science related.

However, after being a bit negative, if you're passionate about there being such a gap in the market, use that energy to build this sub-genre/outlet. My passions lie elsewhere, but I'm sure if you wave a flag, make a noise and lay down a manifesto, you will find people willing to follow.



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* it's on wikipedia if you want to look it up, but in a nutshell, this genre assumes that travel to the stars is impossible, humans will never get further than the solar system, no aliens and a hard SF approach to tech and science.
Challenge accepted....

...and to be absolutely clear, I wrote that post in reaction to reading a novel written by someone who's supposed to be a science-based science fiction writer - he could have easily checked the facts on the internet and obviously didn't. Slip-ups in obscure facts is excusable, but not the blatant stuff.
 

Phyrebrat

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I’m in similar opinion as the comments above. I don’t read stacks of SF but I have enjoyed ACC and Niven and Crichton especially.

The thing that sounds odd to me referring a rethink is the premise that sf is meant to have some universally applicable manifesto. Does it? Sure there are lessons and opinions in SF literature but I don’t see it as occupying a position where it might need a change of direction as it’s not doing ‘what it’s supposed to’.

If I was more immersed in SF I might have seen a pattern that made me feel it was getting stale or outmoded but ... I don’t.
 

-K2-

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Though off the discussion's track, I believe there is one aspect science fiction should always strive for. Whether to the positive or negative, it should always inspire readers to wonder 'what if?' and when toward the positive, 'why not?'

K2
 

Robert Zwilling

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There are all kinds and flavors of science fiction. No one is saying it should all be written the same way with the same ideas in mind. It would be nice is people who could step up to the plate might consider taking a few swings at a very elusive target.

Covid has slowed the world down. No telling how ,long. Aside from all the fires burning, the air is cleaner, the water is cleaner, animals are doing better in some places. The garbage blowing around is a mixed bag. The slippery slope animals were given as habitats have developed treads and foot holds in some cases. The birds are singing louder. The hum of The Tommy Knockers has subsided a bit. Covid is helping to stabilize the environment regardless of what we want to happen or get back to. It could be SOP for Nature when things get out of balance. Natural antibodies for the Natural World.

I have always appreciated science fiction that expanded my horizons. It doesn't have to apply to current affairs. The problem with covid is that consequences of actions can now be felt in 2 weeks, instead of sliding through a lifetime of flawed decisions. It might be a good idea to start rethinking things over now, rather than waiting for a long time to go by.

One funny thing about covid. I have not read anything since it started in March. I bought 2 P K Dick books on eBay at really good prices and would have read them immediately as I always did, but they sit somewhere, unread. I was writing new poetry every week, now I rewrite old material, making it easier to understand and even more relevant to current conditions. But nothing new written, until 2 weeks ago, then I wrote some new stuff based on current conditions. Perhaps I was thinking things were getting better, even though the poems did not reflect a good outlook. The large metro/urban/suburban/rural region I live in was showing signs of 1 percent infection rate as determined by testing, which is its own quagmire. But now the hospitalizations have gone from 2 digits state wide to 3 digits, and once again growing every week, just like last time. People are tired of flowing with the routine. Following routines is what science is all about. Getting tired of following rules that keep one and those around alive and instead doing your own thing with no regards to consequences is a sign of immaturity.

Covid is having a profound impact on the graphic art I have been creating. Putting designs on paper, canvas, wood, or whatever, is a great way to spend the time without ever wondering where it went. Because covid has cut me off from the usual routes I have found myself making major changes to my art, even creating the opposite look of what I thought was the only look I wanted to portray.
 

Serendipity

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Science fiction as a genre is always looking for the new, no matter what sub-genre the writers and readers are interested in. And there have been several times in its history when a lot of people have asked whether it is dying or can we get out of the variations on the themes that have seen before. So far, it has always come back fighting. (The start of new wave and cyberpunk being the classic examples.)

I think Robert is right - now, through horribly unfortunate circumstances, is the time for the writers to see what really new science fiction can be generated. A lot of those who are not on contract will have had and continue to have the time providing they have not reacted with shock or depression at this epidemic.

Yes, I can see one such 'newness' would be examining the impact of the epidemic on people - this is the first time in history we will have dealt with a severe epidemic using vaccines. (Smallpox though dangerous was not as prevalent.)

But there may be other 'newnesses' to explore. Does anyone here have suggestions what this to these might be?
 

Toby Frost

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In terms of newnesses, how about a story to be written that reflects the experience of not being able to go near people? Perhaps a society where contact is taboo, or contrary to religion? The trouble with that is that the logical ending is that the people discard the taboo/religion as useless, which isn't exactly the ending you'd want, given the inspiration. Another answer might be a more character-based story about a spaceman and the sense of isolation he experiences. Neither of these would be "hard" SF, but they could be perfectly logical and wouldn't be science fantasy. The first example might be quite like Asimov's Nightfall.

While SF has dealt with many apocalypses and total collapses of society, I can't think of many stories that deal with a society just about pulling through in a time like this. So maybe that would be one way to go. Personally, I find my current writing tending to themes of corruption and fascism, and the danger of sociopaths in positions of power. I can't go much further with that because of forum rules, but let's just say that the Covid situation has made those themes feel more urgent to me.

EDIT: Sudden random thought. Perhaps there are three sorts of SF, rather than a simple line of "hard" to "soft". There's hard, techy SF, the more outlandish Dune-type story where the tech isn't explained, and is hence seen as "soft", and a a kind of SF that is purely about societies and the accurate effects of society on characters, rather than tech. Books like The Handmaid's Tale or 1984 would be at the extreme end of this sort of SF.
 
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Serendipity

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Here's something I'd like to see elaborated on in a science fiction story...

Scientists have shown they can float toy boats the wrong way up beneath a levitating body of liquid. That’s right liquid on top of air and toy boat sailing on the lower surface of the liquid. A kind of upside down thing. This is effected by the use of the right kind of vibrations. Details here. More details here.

So here we have something that looks like antigravity, only it isn’t. Other forces make it look like antigravity.
 

Robert Zwilling

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I always had a special interest for sonoluminescence, that's where rapidly collapsing micro bubbles in ordinary plain water creates light. The collapsing air bubble creates a burst of heat, around 10,000 degrees F, conservatively predicted up to 35,000 F, but claims of 100,000 degrees might be possible. It works in room temperature with ordinary water and ordinary air bubbles and is powered by low power ultrasonic sound. Up to 10 milliwatts but only for a few picoseconds. No laser light has been created yet, but people are thinking about it.
 

Serendipity

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I gather sonluminescance is a science mystery and people are grabbing at various theories to explain it. I'm trying to get my head around it, and have got stuck on the silly business of what really is heat. At school we were taught get can be transferred by conduction (i.e. touching materials), convection (think air currents moving masses of heated particles) and radiation (which I take to be infrared in the electromagnetic spectrum). How are conduction and radiation related in the physics sense?
 

Toby Frost

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I remember that someone - Philip Jose Farmer, maybe - once wrote a story where some demon-like aliens went around possessing people's brains and taking them on violent joyrides, and society had partially evolved to deal with it. However, ultimately nothing could be done to stop the aliens and it was basically the end of normal life. A depressing ending, but it was one of the few stories I can think of where a society had tried to adapt to something that wasn't a full-scale apocalypse.
 
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