Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Debate Continues . . . (As Paul Kincaid Answers)

Over at his blog Through the Dark Labyrinth Paul Kincaid has posted the first part of a response to the buzz his September review of three anthologies of year's best and award-winning science fiction for the L.A. Review of Books generated online, complete with links to dozens of essays and commentaries which caught his eye.

My post of September 17th made the list, and was actually addressed in his remarks. Kincaid makes it clear that he is "agnostic" about the idea that the future will be incomprehensible in the way that I mentioned, but that he finds the presentation of the future as incomprehensible an unsatisfactory approach to writing science fiction. He points to the experience of rapid change in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which led to things we take utterly for granted (trains, planes and the rest), and the way in which we quickly "domesticate the new" (as we have the personal computer in recent decades).1 Accordingly, he notes, writing a future-set story means dealing with the tension between the differences which "scream" at the reader, while being familiar to the characters, with the writer's job
negotiat[ing] that tension . . . display[ing] the strangeness to the reader while at the same time evoking its familiarity for the residents of that future. My feeling is that an increasing number of writers have taken this notion of the singularity as an excuse for not engaging with the familiarity of the future, only with its strangeness.
The result is that we get strangeness rather than a "sense of a lived future, . . . [a] thorough inhabiting of the world."

I agree. In fact, this tension was a significant concern for me when writing my future-set novel Surviving the Spike. As I told Maria Violante in an interview about the book last year, I specifically chose to eschew the common cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk approach of overwhelming the reader with flashy detail (what Bruce Sterling called the "literary equivalent of the hard-rock wall of sound," and what I described as "an ad for the future") in favor of a world just as densely imagined, but which was made to "feel like a place people lived in," those quite different lives ordinary to the people actually living them.

1. Of course, the claim of the Singularitarians is that the change ahead of us would simply have no parallel in our past experience, plausibly overwhelming our ability to domesticate change in this manner - but again, Kincaid's focus is on the quality of the results as fiction, rather than futurology. It seems worth noting, too, that there is little in the Singularitarian package that did not appear in, for instance, Arthur C. Clarke's 1956 The City and the Stars (mind uploading, designer bodies with 1,000 year life spans, immersive virtual reality, etc.), which he managed to present as something other than a succession of strange spectacles.

More Reactions to Paul Kincaid
New and Noteworthy (Spielberg's Early TV Work, The Dark Knight Returns' 25th, Niall Harrison at the Strange Horizons Blog)
New and Noteworthy (Ian Sales and the Hugos, SHIELD TV series, "Geeks" on Big Bang)
Paul Kincaid and Last Year's Best
Interview With Maria Violante
New in Print . . . (After the New Wave: Science Fiction Since 1980)

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