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Month: December 2006

Flying Frogs And Crashed Rocketships

Some years back, Dr. Andrey Geim succeeded in levitating a frog through magnetic fields. Briefly, we lived in a world of hovering frogs. The other day, it was revealed that a parallel line of research has achieved the levitation of other small creatures through ultrasound. From my perspective, that was a strange day. Yesterday, animals were floating on music you cannot hear.

There’s a line in A E Van Vogt’s novel THE SILKIE, where it’s noted that the Silkies of the title, enhanced humans, have music that sounds like monotone drone to ordinary humans, because they can’t hear the ultrasonic variations built into it for superhuman Silkie ears. This connects with the minor cause celebre earlier in the year concerning messaging devices with sonic tones designed to be inaudible to adults. Only young ears could pick up the sounds. It’s probably no coincidence that most people of my generation (I’m 38) and beyond have had our hearing wrecked by loud music. I remember Kevin Shields gloating in an interview that all of us who listened to his band My Bloody Valentine’s “Feed Me With Your Kiss” with the volume cranked up have been rendered deaf as posts by the dissonance and feedback. Bastard.

I share a conviction with Steven Shaviro, whose most recent book was CONNECTED, that we live in a science fictional world. Not the one everyone expected, of course — no jetpacks. But good science fiction, challenging science fiction, is never about the future we expect. Sf has never been about predicting the future. It’s been about laying out a roadmap of possibilities, one dark street at a time, and applying that direction to the present condition.

People have spoken at length over the last few years about the death of sf, and even of the death of futurism. This isn’t new. In the 1980s, grand masters of the form such as Robert Silverberg and Robert Sheckley talked of sf losing its way when the common visions of the form were abandoned: Silverberg in particular (author, curiously, of some of sf’s most depressing stories) spoke of the cyberpunk/radical hard sf landscape being one he did not choose to inhabit, and so turned to writing fantasy. Today, sf, like so many arts, is utterly fractured, with several competing movements, none of them gaining much traction, while sales slip, magazines struggle and the written genre slides out of general view, dragged down to Davy Jones’ locker by the bony hands of the Western.

I’m a science fiction writer. I work in many other genres and areas, but first and foremost I think of myself as a writer of sf. I’m no good at science. My girlfriend still has to program the video machine for me. I love science for the fiction in it. Every great scientific innovation has poetry in it. In a BBC TV play about the discovery of the DNA molecule, Jeff Goldblum as James Watson says upon seeing the assembled DNA double helix for the first time; “I knew it’d be pretty.”

The challenge in sf now is, to an extent, the one William Gibson met in PATTERN RECOGNITION by not writing sf. When we live in the science fiction condition, what’s left but writing contemporary fiction with the eye for detail and extrapolation that comes from an sf writer? It’s what the Mundane SF movement (and, my God, what an exciting name) is referring to: if we’re living in the science fiction condition, why invent castles in the air? Especially when it turns out that the space elevator technology for reaching them will see you dead of radiation poisoning before you reach the top, as has recently been deduced — you can’t shield the ribbon from the Van Allen belt, and if you shield the car you pay a weight penalty that not even an array of frog-levitators can alleviate…

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