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Sci-Fi Books

Overly Familiar Sci-Fi 368

An anonymous reader writes: Science fiction author Charlie Stross has a thoughtful post about an awkward aspect of the genre: too often, books set in the distant future seem far too familiar to us. Our culture evolves quickly — even going back 100 years would be a difficult transition to get used to. But when we're immersed in a culture 500 years ahead of us, everything's pretty much the same, but with spaceships. He says, "You can make an argument for writing SF in this mode in that it allows the lazy reader to ignore the enculturation issue and dive straight into the adventure yarn for which the SFnal trappings are just a brightly-colored wrapper. But I still find it really weird to read a far-future SF story that doesn't deliver a massive sense of cultural estrangement, because in the context of our own history, we are aliens." Some authors put more effort into this than others, but Stross points out that most just use it as a backdrop to tell a particular story. He concludes, "if you're not doing it to the cultural norms as well as the setting and technology, you're doing it wrong."
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Overly Familiar Sci-Fi

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  • by Mr D from 63 ( 3395377 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @08:29AM (#48541975)
    Because there is a right well to tell fictional stories?

    If your express something using cultural references nobody has ever used before, maybe you're doing it wrong.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Exactly. There is no right or wrong in fiction writing. This guy is just full of it and stuck in his own rut.

      • by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Sunday December 07, 2014 @10:41AM (#48542357) Homepage Journal

        Exactly. There is no right or wrong in fiction writing. This guy is just full of it and stuck in his own rut.

        Even worse, he feels entitled to tell writers that they ought to be catering to his preferences specifically, and implicitly that they should feel bad about writing for other people's preferences.

        He should, instead, be writing nice reviews about the authors who write the way he likes. Maybe it will catch on by increasing popularity, but the only effect the entitlement mentality ever has is to drive people away from his position. His essay will probably have no impact at all, but if it does, not in the direction he hopes.

        • by BarbaraHudson ( 3785311 ) <barbarahudson@gm a i l.com> on Sunday December 07, 2014 @11:03AM (#48542443) Journal

          The real problem is that he doesn't recognize the various purposes of story-telling.

          1. Teaching: Making people consider some aspect of themselves, their ideas, prejudices and presumptions. You can't do that effectively with all the clutter of a completely alien setting.

          2. Entertainment: People are not going to be entertained if they have to spend all their attention trying to figure out what the context is - if it's so alien that they need a series of intro courses in xenology before they can grok the story, they're not going to be entertained any more than trying to entertain them with a game that has a rule-book thicker than an encyclopedia (Sheldon Cooper excepted).

          3. Reflection of society as it is and (optionally) as what the writer thinks it could become: Think of it as running a thought experiment, while at the same time preserving on record the social values of the day. Look at the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, etc.

          4. People. It's about PEOPLE, people! Ultimately, if all the characters are so alien (no humans or human-like characters) that we cannot see even a bit of ourselves in any of them, it's more an exercise in mental masturbation than in story-telling.

          5. Motivation: Sci-fi gradually got enough people used to the idea of going to the moon that, when Kennedy gave his speech, he wasn't laughed out of office. Imagine if he had given that same speech 50 years earlier ... (see - fictional story lines with alternate universes aren't that hard to come by, as long as they have to have something the reader can relate to :-)

          In other words, whether it's a sci-fi, a crime thriller, an adventure tale, for our purposes we're doing it right.

          • by xevioso ( 598654 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @12:00PM (#48542741)

            All of these are true, except that this holds true for all genres. Sci-Fi isn't just any genre; it has an additional purpose, which is to explore ideas, settings, and technology that don't yet exist. It is, by it's very nature speculative, and that should be item #6 on your list. And I think the argument is that sci-fi is not speculative enough. In this I would tend to agree.

            The last good book I read that was truly speculative and actually pushed sci-fi in ways I havent seen in a long time is China Mieville's Embassytown.
            A must -read.

          • I imagine that, if a book portrays a future too different, the reader may not find it enjoyable, relate-able, or worth recommending to their other sci-fi reading acquaintances

            So, unless the author has other revenue streams, they are dis-incentivized to write something 'too far out.'

            • Compare historical fiction - and note that most historical fiction depicts a culture far more similar to our own than that which actually existed at the time.

    • by Morgaine ( 4316 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @10:03AM (#48542239)

      Because there is a right well to tell fictional stories?

      There isn't a single right way because there are infinite possible futures, and it's reasonable to assume that inventive SciFi authors would want to explore that huge space of possibilities. There are unlimited right ways.

      Nor is there a single wrong way, but if all authors narrow their horizons to describing only simplistic futures in which most cultural elements remain unchanged then clearly there is a problem of deliberate myopia which will inevitably lead to a poverty of novel material.

      It's a bit like surrounding oneself with yes-men --- it doesn't promote pushing the envelope and expanding the mind in new directions. In the context of SciFi, if cultural elements are shackled to present-day norms then it creates a literary monoculture with very few interesting elements. Even worse, it's factually incorrect, since we know that cultures change strongly with time.

      It is acceptable to be factually incorrect in fiction, but when a whole genre that is predicated on gazing into the future knowingly avoids addressing cultural change then there is indeed a problem, and a very big one. SciFi readers deserve better than just present day stories adorned with spaceships.

      • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @10:44AM (#48542363)
        Probably one of the biggest problems authors in-general have is making the societies or protagonistic characters advocate for things that they don't agree with. That seems to be easier for authors of historical fiction since they have an existing historical context from which the character's perspectives can be built, but it's much harder to create a protagonist or society that's not seen as flawed within the context of itself but has opinions, characteristics, or behavior that we as readers find to be wrong. Those traits are usually reserved for the antagonsitic characters, to help us to judge them.

        Even the heavyweights have done this. It's not common to find a society built on an intentional oligarchy or dictatorship that's viewed in a positive light by the main characters. It's not common to find sexual behavior that we find to be truly anathema nowadays (and I'm not talking simple polyamory or group sexual encounters) to be represented as positive or normal.

        Trouble of it is, if an author develops a culture in a fictional work that does advocate something far outside of what's socially legal or acceptable, that author will probably not find a large audience for the work, and might find one's self made an example of as a degenerate author on the evening news. The "Think of the children!" aspect.

        As a consequence you'll never see these things portrayed as socially acceptable and positive at the same time.
    • by Z00L00K ( 682162 )

      We have cultural familiar elements that persists, we also have cultural familiar elements that changes.

      A century ago it wasn't granted that women could vote - much less colored people.

      But the core values within a family - has that changed much?

      • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @11:03AM (#48542439) Journal

        "But the core values within a family - has that changed much?"

        Yes. First off women could not vote as you pointed out. Secondly women had far fewer career choices and thus less economic freedom. They were expected in general to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. If they aspired to anything more than that the husband was often expected to "keep his wife in line", which often meant administering regular beatings. Women and children were considered chattel, a state not much better than live stock. Women could have their bank accounts raided by their husbands, assuming the bank allowed her to have one, and he could drink it away but she had no access to his. Children could essentially be sold into slavery in a factory or mine. Men were also expected to 'keep his kids in line'.

        And the biblical version of 'traditional family values' often involved polygamy and an exchange of cattle.

        Whenever I hear some preacher or politician talk about returning to traditional family values I shudder.

        • You don't have to go that far back in history.

          1st black president - would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. Now every kid can become president.
          Same-sex marriage - ditto.
          TV comedy and drama shows starring blacks, TV talk shows hosted by lesbians or gays, etc.
          Abortion on demand.
          Tampon commercials on prime-time TV.
          Beating your spouse or kid gets you arrested.
          The "house with the white picket fence, 2.5 kids and a dog" is getting more and more unobtainable each passing decade, and isn't seen as i

      • One hundred years ago may have been the end of a long period of change in attitudes towards children. The drop in child mortality rates heralded a change in how parents treated their children. wiki [wikipedia.org]

    • by danaris ( 525051 ) <danaris@@@mac...com> on Sunday December 07, 2014 @10:55AM (#48542407) Homepage

      The biggest problem with what Stross is saying is that people, in general, want to read about situations that are familiar to them. It's damn hard to come up with a truly believable far-future culture in the first place, but it's much harder to do so in a way that makes it both alien to us and something that people can identify with enough to actually enjoy reading.

      If you really follow Stross's advice when writing far-future sci-fi, you're likely to lock yourself into a very small niche of potential readers. And if you're writing that way because that's the story you want to write, or because you truly believe it's important to the integrity of the story that the culture be very different than our own, and you're OK with selling a few thousand copies or less, then that's fine. But I dare say most sci-fi authors who actually publish do so because, at least in part, they actually want to have people read their books, and to make a little money off them.

      Dan Aris

      • A lot of SF is a satirical funhouse mirror held up to the present. You're supposed to read the story in terms of a familiar society.

    • Because there is a right well to tell fictional stories?

      You are implying that there is no right or wrong way, but then say this:

      If your express something using cultural references nobody has ever used before, maybe you're doing it wrong.

      So clearly there are wrong ways of doing it. Every bad book is the wrong way of doing it.

  • Nonsense (Score:5, Insightful)

    by crow ( 16139 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @08:31AM (#48541983) Homepage Journal

    Look how similar our culture is to that of the Roman Empire. Yes, technology has changed every aspect of how things are done, but the culture itself isn't much different. The Roman historian Suetonius was writing thousands of years ago about how they were upset about the decay of family values.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Pretty much. Powerful empire heavily extended into foreign occupations? Social mobility degraded and rotting from within? Permanent underclass who have to serve in the military for a chance at life? Completely open bribery of politicians?

    • Re:Nonsense (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Trepidity ( 597 ) <delirium-slashdot AT hackish DOT org> on Sunday December 07, 2014 @09:25AM (#48542151)

      Have you read much about Roman culture? You can pull out bits that are similar (like the timeless complaint about decay of family values you mention), but by and large the societies seem quite foreign to me.

    • Re:Nonsense (Score:5, Interesting)

      by novium ( 1680776 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @09:43AM (#48542191)

      If you think that Roman culture is familiar, it has more to do with the way you're projecting your own cultural interpretations on ancient texts. That isn't really a harsh criticism, everyone does it. we make sense of things by the tools we're used to.

      But you should be leery of the familiar, it's usually a tell-tale sign that you're misleading yourself. Suetonius is a great example. You miss a lot of what he's actually saying- in the context of his times and culture- and what he actually meant and was responding to.

      • Suetonius is a great example. You miss a lot of what he's actually saying- in the context of his times and culture- and what he actually meant and was responding to.

        Interesting.....what did he actually mean and what was he responding to?

      • "Projecting your own cultural interpretations on ancient texts."

        For a very clear example of this, look at anyone who uses the phrase 'biblical marriage.'

    • Exactly. It's a bit like traveling to other countries and foreign cultures today. Languages, daily habits and circumstances of living can be very different from the outside, but once you've get to know them people are essentially the same everywhere - worrying about jobs, love, passions, etc.

      If you'd be catapulted into the 15th Century, you'd be able to connect immediately to the people without any problems except for the language and some external habits (norms of politeness, classes, way to dress) that ca

      • And you cannot change the latter arbitrarily as an author, because you would not be understood and you're writing for today.

        This. Without some connection to the reader he wouldn't read it.

        This, perhaps, is why so many stories based on animals - Watership Down, Duncton Wood, Fluke - anthropomorphise them.

    • by fermion ( 181285 )
      Absolutely. I really hope this was written by some adolescent who is fustrated because no publisher will accept the book, and not by someone anyone considers a real writer. First, the world has changed but no changed so much. For instance, my mother who was born a few years after the first war had little trouble assimilating late 20th and 21st century technology, or adapting that technology to her own uses. She owned a computer and a flat screen TV.

      Second, most writers still use the novel format, which

      • Second, most writers still use the novel format, which is around 400 years old in it's current format. This is different from older western forms, which tended to be more spoken word, such as Beowulf You can still buy 400 year old novels such Don Quixote. I would suspect that if one were doing something new, then moving from the novel format, or at least messing with it as Kurt Vonnegut did, would be the minimal requirement.

        Another interesting one to read if you can is "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Sha

    • by plopez ( 54068 )

      Ummmm.... nope. Very different. Women and children were chattel for instance. Slavery was still considered a good thing and institutionalized. Education was reserved for the rich. Often to get something done you had to talk to your village or neighborhood 'patron'. Talking to the patron was, from what I have learned of it, basically like making a deal with 'The Godfather'. And you had to venerate the Emperor as a living manifestation of the voice of the gods.

    • Disagree. Look how different our culture is to just 3 centuries ago, before the Industrial Revolution and the telegraph. The steam engine was in its infancy, too recently arrived to matter much at that time, and such railroads as existed used wooden rails. There used to be massive business ecosystems that revolved around horses and sailing which hung on until the 1920s and the 1850s respectively. The fastest a message or person could travel between London and NYC was 18 days, if the ship had favorable w

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Lois McMaster Bujold does it very well, in her Vorkosigan-saga books, where she touches upon cultural attitudes to sex.

    On Beta colony, when a girl has her first period, she visits the doctor and has her hymen removed, an pregnancy-suppression device inserted, her ears pierced, and get to pick colour-coded ear-studs, signalling to everybody what her relation-status is, and what she is interested in.

    And she gets to have sex with whoever she wants, there are no STDs anymore, and she can't get pregnant without

    • Which is a fascinating thought, because let's face it: Controlling people's sexuality, has a lot more to do with cultural and especially religiously ingrained norms, than it has to do with any kind of harm.

      And her culture (which seems to require that young girls be forced to wear a sign showing her sexuality and availability) is less controlling and better than ours... how exactly?

      • by SteveAstro ( 209000 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @10:25AM (#48542303)

        Which is rather Stross' point. Here is an example where the cultural norm is wildly different from your own, and you can't imagine it. It might be perfectly acceptable in that culture to say "not interested", it was also important, in the context of the culture Bujold was describing, for reproduction to be controlled, because of extremely limited resources under a dome colony. An extra mouth to feed, and lungs to breath the air was significant to everyone's resources.

      • by plopez ( 54068 )

        It may be functional. A colony often has limited resources. Reproduction would have to be controlled to ensure the population did not out strip resoureces.

    • Lois McMaster Bujold does it very well, in her Vorkosigan-saga books, where she touches upon cultural attitudes to sex.

      But it seems like a kind of superficial gimmick. And most SF doesn't deliver any culture at all - art, music, religion, politics, etc - unless it directly relates to the plot.

      What we need is someone who will do for SF what Tolkien did for fantasy.

      • I'd say Frank Herbert did. The Dune series laysa out a culture wildly different in key respects from ours. Even the march of technological innovation we are so used to has been arrested and certain humans (Guild navigators, Bene Gesseret, Mentats) have taken on the roles of "thinking machines." But then again Herbert did put a lot of work into background; history, philosophy, ecology, economics and politics.

      • What we need is someone who will do for SF what Tolkien did for fantasy.

        Alien elf songs?

    • by plopez ( 54068 )

      And don't forget Ursula K. LeGuin.

    • Pfft, the sexual revolution might be THE most familiar topic of the entire 20th century, so it's a perfect example of simple extrapolation.

      If we're really supposed to want to read thing we can't relate to, don't look to sci-fi, because people (including authors) aren't actually capable of not being themselves. Look to the past, plenty of obscure foreign stuff from centuries past. Go read a few thousand pages of pages of Islamic philosophy from the 5th century. You'll be bored silly. But then, that's

  • as society progresses in to the future it brings with it ideas and things from the past and present, look at the car, from Henry Ford's Model T to a 2014 Ford Mustang, sure they are very different but they both have four wheels and a windshield and steering wheel, gas & brake pedal, seats, etc... the idea does not change, it just gets refined and improved upon
  • A lot of sci-fi has its roots in an earlier era where it was risky to question the way things were. Authors of the time got around this by setting everything in an alien setting to disguise what it really was. Most sci-fi to this day continues the tradition of being more about social commentary than getting things accurate.

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )
      Lem is a very good example of that, as is Phillip K. Dick for other consequences of risk. Lem may have been executed if his satire had a contemporary setting. Phillip K. Dick couldn't sell his contemporary novel "confessions of a crap artist" but publishers accepted his style when he wrote SF.
    • Most stories whether they are sci-fi or not are based on past stories(Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella) and are basically just two steps).
      1. Find something or someone to hate.
      2. Rejoice when they are defeated.
      There is not much difference between Harry Potter and Star Trek since they will say a few words and use some device to produce a desired result. In both cases the viewer or reader does not even need to understand why they produce any given results.
      As for sexual commentary one only has to look at Playboy

    • Agreed. Although not a book, I'd say "District 9" a good example: sci-fi critique on apartheid.

  • by MrKaos ( 858439 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @08:45AM (#48542027) Journal

    Eon is a particularly good place to see how it is done properly. Far too many stories like Star Trek and Star Wars are just accelerations of today, which is fun, but ultimately unsatisfying.

  • Yes, some science fiction is little more than cowboys & indians "in space", or a detective novel "in space", etc because the primary impetus for science fiction (and its claddistic cousin, fantasy) is rarely only about hewing to some speculative verisimilitude.
    Of course a culture set in the far future would be almost incomprehensibly different; it would also use language in a way we are unlikely to understand. Does that mean that it should +always+ be written in some sort of incomprehensible syntax? I

    • it would also use language in a way we are unlikely to understand. Does that mean that it should +always+ be written in some sort of incomprehensible syntax?

      The author makes certain assumptions toward the audience. One I have always allowed when reading is that I speak the language. Near-future I expect to be in my native tongue, with differences in usage and wording similar to the same distance in the past. 2050 slang should be as unintelligible but learnable as 1950 slang, in other words.

      But 1000 year

  • The late George Turner had a few things to say like that too. A technology that is a major game changer is going to alter society a great deal so that someone kept in suspended animation or returning from an extended time in space is going to dealing with an increasingly alien society. He was writing in his late 80s though and had seen a great deal of societal change first hand.
    However, the reader needs "somewhere to stand" to understand the idea the writer is putting forward, so the far future can be rep
    • So did Spider Robinson. Go read "The Time Traveller" in Callahan's Crosstime Saloon.

      Transplant shock.

  • Cultures change in some ways but in other ways do not.

    The only thing that has truly significantly changed society into something less recognizable has been the technology of reliable birth control, which in many ways society is still trying to come to terms with.

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @09:21AM (#48542137) Homepage Journal

    It's not like science fiction is new, it's got a history. And anyone who's familiar with that history knows that writers write in their era for an audience of that era. Not to mention for the acquisitions editors of their era.

    So Victorian wonder story writers took imperialism for granted. Golden age writers took gender roles for granted -- even women like C.L. Moore. Sci-fi in the sixties was imbued with counter-culture and counter-counter-culture in a way that strikes us as dated today. And it's OK; if you like the good old stuff, as many of us do, much of the pleasure is in the perspective it offers in how the real world has changed.

    An author has no duty other than to reward the time a reader spends with his work. It's certainly an admirable ambition to entertain people by challenging their assumptions, but the very nature of that challenge is a moving target. Ultimately you still have to tell a story that makes sense to your contemporary readers, unless you plan on dumping your story straight into a time capsule -- and good luck with that. Fortunately future audiences can make allowances for things you don't get right today, just the way we make allowances for the good old stuff.

  • by Zobeid ( 314469 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @09:25AM (#48542149)

    Yes, I also have griped about SF that shoehorns the distant future into the mold of today, or of the past. I have special disdain for those who want to recreate the wild west, or the age of piracy, or empires of the past with space opera trappings. If you love the old west, write westerns, man! The obsession with FTL travel (which seems unlikely to ever really become possible) also ties in with this.

    To my way of thinking, conventional literature at its best explores the human condition. SF at its best explores how the human(-ish) condition could be different. SF that doesn't make it different seems like wasted potential, a missed opportunity.

    However...

    I learned a long time ago that SF stories and SF writers have limitations that they must work within. SF is about ideas, and there are limits to how many new and unfamiliar ideas you can cram into a story without either losing your readers or getting lost yourself. Your readers are embedded in the culture of today. Even if you as a writer can mentally break out of the culture of today, bringing your readers along for that ride is extremely difficult.

    You might want to write a story exploring the potential of AI and robotics. Or nuclear fusion power. Or asteroid mining. Or molecular manufacturing. Or life extension. All good topics. Now try to write a novel where *all* of those scenarios have become real and are interacting with one another. Oops... That's going to be really hard to pull off without ending up in a muddled mess, and it's also going to be hard to explore each of those ideas in the depth it deserves. (Especially if you also have, you know... characters, and a plot, and so forth!)

    • by lkcl ( 517947 )

      Yes, I also have griped about SF that shoehorns the distant future into the mold of today, or of the past. I have special disdain for those who want to recreate the wild west, or the age of piracy, or empires of the past with space opera trappings. If you love the old west, write westerns, man!

      in the turkey lexicon written by bruce sterling to help new sci-fi writers, there's a special phrase to describe the type of book where "laser pistol" replaces the word "six shooter" and "steed" replaces "six-legged mounted alien beast". it's called "The Western"!

      http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/tu... [sfwa.org]

      there are many more: you are not alone in encountering badly-written sci-fi by novelists who quotes want to get in on the sci-fi genre act quote. but one that really really surprised me: a book in the "Eve Online"

  • by lkcl ( 517947 ) <lkcl@lkcl.net> on Sunday December 07, 2014 @09:30AM (#48542161) Homepage

    bruce sterling wrote an extremely funny and valuable guide to sci-fi writers which i've mentioned here before on slashdot, and it has been expanded ever since. ah yeah here we go: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/tu... [sfwa.org] it's well-worth reading just for amusement value. the ironical thing is that this well-known sci-fi author, charles stross, is telling us that many sci-fi authors today are falling into some of the traps outlined by that lexicon and valuable guide.

    whilist it seems flippant therefore to be telling them "write better sci-fi!" it has to be said that sci-fi writers have set themselves a much harder task than any other writing genre. first and foremost: they need to be good story tellers! and almost secondary to that, they need to be extremely knowledgeable about technology... *because their readers are*. whenever i read a new sci-fi novel by an author that i've never heard of before - and i do not do that often because it is a risk - i often find myself critiquing the author's style. anything where they assume i am an idiot (by doing things like explaining cloud computing to me), that's when the magic of the story is lost, and i know i just read a story by someone who is not going to ever be a successful sci-fi writer. it's a fine line to walk.

    • by Bite The Pillow ( 3087109 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @10:51AM (#48542393)

      There are plenty of bright ideas that don't require the elaborate setup, and the point could be lost if constructed against that background. This expectation seems to be a preference for a particular style of far-future sci-fi, where other people may have a different preference. Stross is mistaking his own preferences for wisdom.

      The difficulty is in framing the story, so that the reader is a natural audience for the narrator.

      If you are a tyrant of Jupiter, for example, there are things that people on Earth might not be aware of, and those things can be described as if they are new. There are things, though, that you would not explain, because they are universal. Communications would need no description, fashion would need only the differences pointed out.

      It is no different from telling a timeless story of just people, without describing the people directly. Letting their actions define if they are good or bad, friendly or distant, all with no actual descriptions. Only now you have to have a narrative point to describe all of the differences, without sounding like a dictionary.

      Stross doesn't seem to care about the readability or art - just the scenarios. Sure he claims the opposite. But if I created an entirely new culture for every story, there would be so much work going in to the backgrounding, of the environment and the people and how everything is interconnected - you're asking for epic invention every time. Vast amounts of outlining would be required, just to make sure that points don't contradict each other. The notes and fact sheets or "encyclopedia" could well be hundreds of times larger than it would be in order to get a point across. And none of that work is the actual writing that people will read.

      A thousand page book would benefit from a huge amount of background work. But there's the normal work, and on top of that creating a new culture. I would expect that from maybe 10% of the writers, with the rest forgiven for not being so thorough because the writing is better, or the ideas are better, or even the books are cheaper, or are popular among people not named Stross.

    • ...thanks for sharing it.

  • by NicBenjamin ( 2124018 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @09:40AM (#48542181)

    But one thing that I always think is really weird when watching it is that all the cultural references are things that would be familiar to a late 20th century NPR-listening American. One of my favorite book series (Honor Harrington by David Weber) uses a lightly different period. It's references are almost universally to things that would be familiar to people who spend a lot of time with late 18th the early 20th century Western Military History.

    It seems weird, but in a lot of ways that's the point. Star Trek isn't a sophisticated imagining of how culture could change if certain technologies appeared. It's about how a polity built on principles every 60s liberal would love (including a fairly muscular, militaristic, foreign policy that a lot of current liberals hate) acts IN SPACE. You don't hear anything about post 20th-century culture, shit that happened outside the main storyline, internal Federation politics (ie: who did Kirk vote for? why?), economic matters (for example once replicator technology exists almost all sectors of the economy are obsolete, because instead of spending months raising a chicken you can spend 2 seconds beaming a perfectly cooked chicken breast into existence, yet half the time they act like the economy is identical to the current US economy and the other half it's a socialist utopia), etc. It is barely Sci-Fi, because (unlike Star Wars) it actually cares how the technology works, and occasionally has story-lines based on said technology (ie: Riker gets cloned by a Transporter, every one of those hateful Holodeck episodes, etc.).

    Weber's Honorverse is a bit more Sci-Fi, because he has actually put an awful lot of thought into precisely how the tech affects the culture, but he designed the tech specifically so that he could do things like create a massive ethnic Chinese Empire based on Frederick the Great.

  • This is one of the reasons I much prefer near-term science fiction like Andy Weir's "The Martian."

    I remember reading The Foundation Trilogy as a kid and thinking it was preposterous reading a story set thousands of years in the future, as we'd have no idea how humanity would look at behave.
  • On the one hand, an SF writer wants to challenge the reader's beliefs, but if you take things too far, the characters become unrecognizable. How do you write dialog, for example, between beings with digital RF implants instead of speech? And let's face it, with advanced technologies, the human body itself will likely become obsolete in a century, tops. Stories like this are not only a huge challenge to write, readers won't know what to make of them. People read for escapism, and to have their perspectives s
  • If you write about a society to far in the future and want to show all the changes probable by then, your work will consist mostly of footnotes and explanations and definitions. Not a great way to tell a story.
  • you want change? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Connie_Lingus ( 317691 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @10:44AM (#48542365) Homepage

    about a month ago i was reading a 20th century US history book and discovered that Calvin Coolidge, Jr,, president Calvin Coolidge's 15 year old son, died from a blister on his foot he got when playing tennis on the White House lawn in 1924.

    consider that for a moment...only 90 years ago, the son of perhaps the most powerful and well connected man on the earth died from a blister. playing tennis.

    if this doesn't explain truly how much and how quickly things have changed, i'm not sure what could.

    • by Livius ( 318358 )

      What, because humans never get infections any more? That exact scenario might be less probable, but it's not beyond the comprehension of people today.

  • It's called 'social science fiction' and my experience is that it tends to anger people and be poorly written, though on the whole there isn't a complete overlap between the two and the first can be due primarily to the latter. It's one of those places where having an actual idea of how society and cultures actually work makes a huge difference, and the majority of writers seem to try backfilling from the culture they want the future to have regardless of how likely it is, in fact, to ever happen--the purpo

    • by Livius ( 318358 )

      the purpose, ultimately, is wish fulfillment and to try to push their own sociopolitical ideology, though it's not necessarily their authorial intent.

      I find the greatest weakness to be that the political agenda is precisely the intent and that the intent is painfully transparent.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @10:49AM (#48542387)

    That is a reason why he will always have trouble being really successful, because most people want what is familiar in their entertainment, spiced only with a little divergence. On the other hand, those that do not have this limitation (few) will always be looking at what authors like him produce and with global distribution selling enough of what cannot sell to the masses because of its high quality gets easier.

  • ... it perhaps overreaches. Some 2,000 years later, most Westerners still idenitify themselves as "Christian". Over a century-and-a-half after John Tyndall demonstrated that changing the composition of a gas affected its ability to absorb energy, many in the public deny any anthropogenic contribution to global warming. Oh, and where are the flying cars?
  • If you read them later, it's interesting to see where the blind spots were. My grandfather had a bunch of 50's-era scifi books that I'd read while visiting. In one series they had faster than light spacecraft but would do all the calculations to go to light speed with slide rules. Earlier authors would often be set on Mars, Venus or the Moon, which all naturally had perfectly breathable atmospheres and Earth-like gravity. That doesn't mean the stories were in any way bad. Often they were written to provide
  • I think the premise of the TFA is stupid. Yes, culture changes. And yes, we can incorporate such changes into our stories.

    However, It seems to me that the essence of science fiction (or, as Heinlein also called it, "speculative fiction") is to identify a particular change in something. A change in culture, a scientific breakthrough, a technological innovation or some other event or idea, then explore how such a change could impact people, and tell a story which incorporates those implications.

    Essentially

  • I'm hearing lots of carping, but not a lot of citerefs of SF stories set in the far future that do honestly depict the impact advanced technology would have on society, culture, etc. at least in a way Mr. Stross would expect it to. Any /.ers have any in mind?

    .
  • by fikx ( 704101 ) on Sunday December 07, 2014 @12:59PM (#48543115) Journal
    this from an author that includes slashdot in his far-future scifi
  • Almost all sci-fi is a warning about how things can go wrong, in the times the author wrote the story.

    In a future 100,000years from now, what would the warnings be that the author's of today could pen?

    I think probably the best example, written in 1895, is "The Time Machine", giving the technocopian/distopian example that, if we're not careful, humans would split into cattle (Eloi) and those that eat them (Morlock). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

    As someone that is a computer programmer, I see that warning

  • TFS says: "Our culture evolves quickly — even going back 100 years would be a difficult transition to get used to"

    I don't think that comparison is an apt one. Our culture does evolve quickly, but I'd posit that given the technological culture that's developed over the past 150 years or so, it would be much more difficult to adjust to the culture(s) of the past than of the future. No antibiotics, no ubuiquitous telecommunications infrastructure, much more primitive agricultural techniques, etc., etc.

  • Of course it's a familiar cultural setting. Unless the nature of the culture and social interactions is the theme, you would rather have something that the reader can relate to. You need to relate it to something the reader will understand, because, otherwise, you will either use up inordinate space and words describing it, or leave the entire thing unexplained which loses the reader.

    Moreover, human nature hasn't changed consequentially for 10,000 years. The same motivations, reactions, and

  • "going back 100 years would be a difficult transition to get used to."

    Perhaps for him or you but not for many of us. Things are substantially the same as they were 100 or even 200 or more years ago. Yes, we have great new things like the Internet but that was a fairly minor invention compared with the really important things like hot water and pipes. Dropping back 100 years means you'll lose some of your gadgets but life was not all that different and it is substantially similar to how it is for many of us

  • by Leo Sasquatch ( 977162 ) on Monday December 08, 2014 @08:25PM (#48552133)
    This morning, the radio switched itself on and gently brought me awake with the news. After 10 minutes, I rolled out from under the duvet and reflected how the money we'd spent on that memory foam mattress had been totally worth it. 5 minutes in the shower saw me both cleaner and more awake in equal measure, and I rapped on my son's door as I went past. I'm sure he was on the Xbox until 3:00 a.m., and he knows it's a uni day, but there was no response. I made some scrambled eggs in the microwave, and by the time the toast had popped and the kettle had boiled for a cup of instant, I felt almost human. The bus stop isn't far from my house, and I paid my £3 and took my seat. My phone picked up the wi-fi automatically, so I pointed my browser at the BBC and started streaming an episode of ISIRTA I hadn't heard, before settling in for a few games of Angry Birds. Halfway to work, the sun was rising over the Pentlands, so I grabbed a couple of quick shots, and updated my facebook status.

    When I got to work, I flashed my badge at the building and it let me in. I'd checked the rota the night before and knew I was gutter rat this week- cleaning up the messes, so I downloaded the overnight error logs to my workstation and got busy tracing batch script failures. Peter, Mandy and Eddie were already there, but my team leader, Meera, was off ill, so I covered her phone. 3 cappuccinos, and 16 error logs later it was lunchtime, and I'd been so busy, I hadn't even gone out for a cigarette.


    A normal morning, slightly compressed to fit everything in. There's a lot in there. Socio-economic status, employment, I'm old enough to have a son at university, the fact that my immediate boss is both female and non-Caucasian, no smoking in the building. The team's split roughly equally on gender lines. Eddie's gay, but that won't enter into the story so I'll never mention it. There's a lot of implicit assumptions - the reader will know what an Xbox is, cultural references. Never mind 100 years, you only have to roll it back 10 years for the 'Angry Birds' and 'Facebook' items to have no intrinsic meaning. Roll it back just 50 and we lose 'Xbox', 'microwave', 'memory foam', 'wi-fi', 'browser' as words, and the concepts that go along with their use. And how would I take shots of the sunrise without a camera? 'Streaming' is still a word, but the context is missing. And in 1964, the idea that my boss at any job, let alone a technical one, would be female and non-Caucasian, would be pretty unusual. Why would I leave the building for a cigarette? And what's with £3 for bus fare to work - where do I live, the Outer Hebrides? How did I get cappuccinos at work? Why have I got a phone on a bus?

    We live in a world that would have largely been science fiction just 50 years ago. Extrapolating was hard then, and harder now. You don't need the Singularity or a post-scarcity economy to mess things up, just the micro-processor and the Internet. Nobody saw them coming. The changes they've brought have been so staggering in magnitude that it makes it all the more obvious that attempting to predict the future changes is getting sillier all the time.

    Mr Stross writes lovely Mythos stories, and Accelerando is pretty good. But the one I'm trying to read at the moment, about the immortal robots all pretending to be human after the humans all died out is purely fucking tedious. It's super-futuristic, and the hard science of long, boring planetary travel is well done, but I can't remember its name right now, or the main character, and that never bodes well.

Going the speed of light is bad for your age.

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