Thursday, December 11, 2008

Article 16: SF Archaeology.

Wow, things date really quickly in SF if its not set some centuries in the future, and in this article you can see how things date even quicker when you're writing about SF. The X Prize as been taken and not so long ago I put a post here about a tank-mounted laser weapon.


The idea that old is bad and new is good is one that permeates some quarters of our culture and sees its expression in the New Labour verses the ‘forces of conservatism’ in the political world. The former seems intent on destroying anything old even when having nothing better to replace it, the latter wants to hang onto the outmoded even when something better is available. But before anyone switches off, I’m not going to get into a rant about all that – this magazine isn’t big enough – I’m going to look at it as applied to science fiction.

For many, SF has to be primarily new and innovative. Now, while I agree that SF should open our eyes to possibilities never seen before (though that is by no means all it should do), I also feel it should never close our eyes to the eminently likely.

Some while back I produced a story in which I named an android manufacturing company ‘Cybercorp’, and was told the name was nothing new. But being much used in fiction, is that name less or more likely to be used in fact? Already we are coming out the other side of rebranding for the sake of it. Consignia is now once again the Post Office and most people know that Corus really means British Steel. Of course I could have named my company Epsilion Floogle Bugler Ltd or Rumbatious Pumpwhistle, but I came up with the Cybercorp in the same way as many company names are formed (when advertising executives are not becoming ‘creative’ and disappearing up their own fundaments): Microsoft, Vodaphone, Telecom, Railtrack – simple basic and descriptive. But my real contention here is that though something may be old hat, that doesn’t make it bad, wrong or unlikely. I know it’s a distasteful prospect for some, but it is quite possible that sometime a company will be formed and it’ll be called Robotics Inc. Though, going off at tangent here, the most likely name, for a future manufacturer of androids, is Honda.

Zap guns and rocket ships (or squids in space) are what SF is all about, apparently. I can take issue with that straight away. 1984 certainly isn’t and, despite what Jo Brandt might think, it’s classic SF. Other books in the genre that don’t fall under that supposedly derogatory description: The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Frankenstein, Half-Past Human (T J Bass), Hawksbill Station (Silverberg) … I’m probably preaching to the converted here. However, what’s wrong with zap guns and rocket ships? Certainly the terms themselves are cliches, but what about the ideas and the reality behind them? Must they be abandoned because they are no longer new?

Many years ago the American military asked Congress if they could test a ground-based laser for knocking out satellites (refused). Microwave beam weapons were employed during the Gulf War to screw Iraqi communications. The taser has been in use for a ages and now, in the process of being developed, is a taser that uses no wires – the utterly cliched SF stun gun. Even my nieghbour, working years ago for Marconi, was developing specialist transformers for powering military lasers. All zap guns, all real. As for the rocket ships … well erm, there’s this thing called the space shuttle, a couple of years ago the first ion drive was tested in space, there are plenty of contenders for the $10 million prize for putting a privately-funded craft up into space (twice in a limited period to prove it’s viable proposition), there’s the prospect of many more missions into the solar system, rocket ships have put two robots on Mars. I won’t go on.

Only writers of utterly dystopian futures of technological collapse think zap guns and rocket ships won’t figure in them. To ignore these supposed old cliches of SF makes about as much sense as ignoring trees because they have too often been used in fiction. It is plain wrong to discount something because it is old and well-used. Things, in general, become that way because they work, because they are right, and because no one has thought of a plausible alternative. New doesn’t mean good or right and old doesn’t mean bad or wrong, they just are what they are.


John said...

A world without ray guns in SF is not a world worth living in, in my opinion!

I like originality too, but people like me who grew up with Apollo and Star Trek expect a certain level of "probable" science in our science fiction. As you pointed out, many of these "cliche's" are reality! SF that leaves out the "S" sounds like alternate history or fantasy to me. :)

Bring on the rocket ships, lasers, robots and aliens! You write it, we'll buy it!

John said...

I agree with your(dated)post. You might not be soliciting new comments to old rants, but what they heck:

It's silly to abandon current or near-future technology just because it's been used before. I personally think your stories are, "new" and "innovative". It's the story itself that has value, not the instruments characters use to fight or travel! And just because something's familiar doesn't mean it's ineffective or has lost it's appeal. I can see someone being so original that their work is unintelligible! I'm afraid that approach won't sell many books or be very entertaining.

Whether it's music or literature, I like new takes on old themes, as long as they're not simply redundant. "Rock" radio plays 30 bands that all sound just like each other. Most new fantasy is so redundant as to be unreadable. And do we really need another romantic vampire series? I think the SF genre has been the hallmark of inventiveness compared to these others!

So, keep the robots, lasers, spaceships and aliens coming!

Neal Asher said...

Right on, John. Interesting one in the news just recently (I heard about this a year or so ago but that's how long this stuff takes to get to TV): 'scientists discover a massive black hole at the centre of the universe'. Damn, but I bet Larry Niven is chuckling.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

if you can take all those things, zap gun, rocketship, cybercorp, and fit them on a whisker with a diseased human dna card deck pushing broken glass porn.... i think i will need to read that book.

i love what A.E. Van Vogt did with a rocket ship in the Space Beagle. then after that i read Weapon Makers of Ishtar which was piles of cliches dipped in other words of whatevers, then strained of interest. what you do with the genre, rather than how well you can drop it in a toilet at a penny a word (or turd) is what counts for me.

P. K. Dick hit the sf nail head with his gloss of dystopian garbage advertising on top of 50s, 60s, and 70s culture and came up with some pretty dead on predictions. I can't think of one story of his with trees in them offhand though.

Neal Asher said...

Probably because the plant life he got closest to was in greenhouses, Vaude.