Pointless Futurism

10 May 2001

Last night I went to a writers' group. There were some very nice people there. It seemed -- and maybe I'm wrong -- like we disagreed on what science fiction should be like. Specifically, we disagreed on the trappings of the future.

I think the food processor is a pretty good example of what I mean. The food processor -- an automatic machine that chops your vegetables! -- seems like a 1950s future device. It seems like the sort of thing someone would have thrown into a science fiction story as an indication that we were in the Cool Future. Well. Here we are in the year 2001. I own a food processor. And guess what? I don't use it when I'm making salads. I could have gotten a salad shooter, and I (surprise, surprise!) chose not to. I use the food processor when I have to chop two pounds of mushrooms for Hungarian Mushroom Soup. Times like that. Otherwise, I get out a cutting board and a knife. Just like my ancestors did, lo, these many years ago.

Because sometimes there's no reason for something to be futuristic. Sometimes a knife and a cutting board are a lot less effort than a food processor, and yield more satisfactory salads.

I'm wary of that in my stories. Sometimes newer and shinier isn't better and more realistic. Sometimes the way human beings interact is more important than what goes boom. And if I focus on the gadgets, it distracts the reader from the real changes in people's lives. Does it matter whether we have a cordless phone? Not really. Does it matter whether we have a cell phone? Yes. It changes the way we behave. So if I was writing in the '60s, should I specifically mention if a character is talking on a cordless phone? Probably not. How about a videophone? Well, indicating that the characters can see each other is important to their interactions. I'm not convinced that they'll start calling it a "vidphone" or anything like that, though. Look at the moving pictures. They started out "the movies," and then when they got sound, they were "the talkies" for awhile. But guess what? The old slang won out. It had established itself already, and the important thing was that one was going to the movies, not where the sound came from. Once a "talky" was not a novel thing, they were just "the movies" again. I think a video phone would work like that: it'd be a "vidphone" or a "picphone" or something silly like that for as long as it took to be used to them. And then it'd just be a phone again.

Science fiction writers are often criticized for vastly underestimating the actual changes in our society, but sometimes it's equally important to try to figure out what we believe would stay constant, and why. We were promised flying cars. But we didn't get them. We got a bunch of other cool stuff instead. It's not my job to try to predict the future for you. It's my job to try to imagine a compelling and interesting future for you, wherein some things do remain constant, because sometimes it just makes sense. And if the only reason a science fictional future is compelling is that there are neat toys, well, read somebody else. Larry Niven is not my hero, and he never will be. Sometimes The Shiny New Way is just silly. Condescending to the reader.

Some readers, I suppose, want to be condescended to.

Well. I'm going to read the paper and get cleaned up and try to get a little more work done here this morning. I got a story idea last night -- but it requires a political imagination and no pointless futurism.

And it's science fiction. Deal with it.

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