Sunday, August 28, 2016

WC Recap: Does SF Still Affect the Way We Think about the Future?

Does SF Still Affect the Way We Think about the Future?
Adam-Troy Castro, Michael Swanwick, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Cynthia Ward
  • Castro: depending on the age of fans, they've lived through SF and come out the other side.
  • Is SF still shaping the future we want to see, as opposed to dystopias we want to avoid, or highlighting negative situations we're already caught up in.
  • Refrain that we would be return to: where's my flying car? We return to in the sense that: flying cars are impractical, why do we focus futuristic hopes around them?
  • Nielsen Hayden makes a great point about SF being not just about whizzy tech. It was and is important for a much larger group of people than scientists, engineers: activists, artists.
  • Swanwick on a tipping point where people outside SF started using SF extrapolation-techniques to think about the future, while people in SF remained writing "inaccurate present-day fiction" rather than thinking up new futures.
  • Ward: We've won the culture wars, talks about ubiquity of SF/F (Star Wars/Trek, LOTR, GOT, etc.) that isn't even thought of as nerdy anymore.
  • Long thread on (portions of) the SF community being stuck on old, impractical visions of the future. Swanwick calls this fossil science fiction, mentions tech that only seems cool if you're wedded to outdated notions of futuristic: holograms, hoverboards. Nielsen Hayden references Vinge's library of failed dreams.
  • Another long thread on different attitudes towards the future generally and how those change over time. Swanwick describes an aspirational 1930's future, a big beautiful thing coming to save us. That's gone now, but it's still very present some places in the world--China, for instance, where rapid improvement in quality of life tied to technology has created a very optimistic, energetic science-fictional attitude.
  • Nielsen Hayden on future slowdown, cites relatively little change in physical life since the 1970's.
Probably a good thing this is not how we commute
to work, in other words.
  • Castro on hobbyist futures: drones, wingsuits, etc. Wildly futuristic technologies are here, but they may not be widely adopted or relevant. Also brings up KSR's Aurora as example of thinking about how those big old dreams aren't going to work.
  • Swanwick: anytime you have a consensus is a good time to bet against it, cites examples of robot pessimism just prior to the robotics boom. Says the fact that we have lots of smart people saying we'll never go to other planets is immensely cheering. There's a method to his madness, as the panel starts talking about the difference between science and engineering, how there can be practical solutions to seemingly insurmountable on-paper problems. Asimov's story Not Final!, about getting around Jupiter's gravity well, used as an example. Castro also brings up another Asimov story, My Son, The Physicist, about an unexpectedly simple way to deal with time-delayed communications.
  • Audience question about medical tech that sends us on a digression about vampires, and thence to Watts' Blindsight, which has Nielsen Hayden & Swanwick in a kind of quiet ecstasy they like it so much. Swanwick describes it as full of great, GREAT, depressing ideas.
  • Audience question/comment that dystopias are the only vision of the future now. Nielsen Hayden says nope, there's lots of them, lots of other stuff too. Makes a plug for Palmer's Too Like the Lightning. Which also has much to do with flying cars!
  • Brief aside on surprisingly (and perhaps accidentally) accurate predictions: Swanwick refers to Heinlein's The Door Into Summer, Castro to Morgan Robertson's 1898 Futility, which bizarrely anticipated the wreck of the Titanic by 14 years.
  • Audience question/comment that the population today is largely sure that the future will be worse. Panelists don't necessarily disagree, but Nielsen Hayden sez: SF is always saying that thing Marxists say--another world is possible.
  • Swanwick picks up on that also, saying that SF gives us tools to fight back with- imagination, creativity, engagement. Points out that Neal Stephenson is so wildly popular for exactly this reason--it's optimistic, idea-rich science fiction.
  • Nielsen Hayden relates a story of Gibson being told that Neuromancer is a grim, pessimistic novel. Responded "no, it's a wildly optimistic future: there's a future!"
  • Ward brings up the idea of polarity management and how these good/bad extreme futures can help us think about how to navigate the present. Nielsen Hayden pairs Bradley's Darkover Landfall with Russ's We Who Are About To... and Heinlein's Starship Troopers with Haldeman's Forever War.
  • Great audience comment that YA dystopias's are anti-cynical, they're revolutionary, not defeatist.
  • Getting back to the future again, somebody mentions that Gibson was the first person they ever saw with a Walkman. Swanwick claims to have been standing next to Gibson when this pink laser came down...
  • And we're out of time.

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