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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Trends I'm sensitive to in current science fiction

This post began as part of my review of The Man Who Sold the Moon. I began contrasting Heinlein’s subject matter with what’s hot in SF these days. Gradually I realized I was eliding too much in my attempts to be as succinct as possible, so I was faced with the choice of expanding an already long review … or excising most of the discussion. Fortunately, I have a soapbox all my own where I can put this kind of stuff.

First, a disclaimer: science fiction is a diverse field. Nor do I claim to have a comprehensive knowledge of recent SF works. I’ve been pretty good about reading some of the most notable releases each year, mostly thanks to my Worldcon membership for Hugo voting. Nevertheless, this is not intended to be a survey of the current state of the field. Instead, I’m looking at some of the current obsessions within SF based on my own particular lens.

It’s a truism to claim that science fiction becomes hung up on the future of the technology fetishes of the present. Heinlein, of course, talked a lot about atomic power, the bogeyman of his day. Probably the most memorable recent obsession in SF for me was cyberpunk, which I caught wind of towards its decline in the later 1990s. It was the 1990s’ response to computers in every household. But when we realized the Gibsonian cyberspace in the actual Web/Internet, we moved beyond that, into a kind of “netpunk,” in the 2000s. Moore’s Law provided a fertile field from which science fiction authors could extrapolate superintelligent AIs of varying degrees of hostility, killer robots and star-sized computers from ancient civilizations. The Singularity was born, died, born again.

Now the Internet of things has caused the pendulum to swing the other way, back towards a remarkably familiar and punk vision of the future. What we didn’t see coming was that computers are no longer recognizably computers. Do you think of your car as having a computer? It’s probably easy to do this if you have a newer car with a touchscreen, or even a rudimentary display. But yes, cars are increasingly more computer-controlled than human controlled—and soon, they will be entirely computer-controlled. Still, even if you’ve wised up to cars, what about your toaster? Your kettle? Kitchen appliances are increasingly computerized, network-enabled … and hackable.

Our clothes are next (wearable computing), soon to be followed, logically, by our bodies. It’s 1984 all over again, and Deckard and Case and Molly are back in vogue. Are you ready to be hacked?

Though there are a few techno-optimists still clinging to good coming from a fusion of cyberpunk and the Singularity, many authors are not so sanguine. There’s a reason that dystopian fiction and environmental disaster SF are so popular. We no longer fear the forgiving swiftness of an atomic explosion but rather the brutal, drawn-out suffering of dying with the knowledge that we killed our own planet…. What I haven’t yet noticed is an uptick in gerontological motifs, but I think these are an inevitable submotif of the already popular idea that we are overcrowded.

The Baby Boomers are retiring. But they aren’t dying. In Western society, our population pyramids are getting narrower. Better medical care and higher standards of living mean that people are living longer. Yay for them! Of course, this is leading to all sorts of interesting tensions. On the one hand, we are terrified of ageing, and we aren’t great at caring for our elderly. On the other hand, the people doing the ageing aren’t quite ready to pass the reins on to the next generation (which is, itself, in its 30s and 40s already). Many boomers feel healthier than ever, or certainly fit enough to keep going—and some can’t afford to retire. But where are the jobs for the young, for the people my age or the people who are just now entering the workforce?

So in addition to the reactions to the Internet of Things, I predict we’ll see more stories dealing with the fallout of our ageing population. How do we deal with the blessing and curse of our parents’ longevity? What will the nature of work and employment be in three decades, when global warming has changed the landscape and the young have trouble finding work because the robots took it all away?

These are the questions science fiction is great at tackling. And it is not the purpose of science fiction to predict our future; rather, through speculation, SF can shed light on possible futures. Maybe it can offer potential answers, or even just nudge us in a better direction. One can only hope….