Visions of the Future?

The British Library panel on Sunday was a strange beast, but full of interesting material all the same. I’m not entirely sure what it was supposed to be about, but the panellists managed to entertain us anyway.

On the panel were Neil Gaiman, who I guess is primarily considered a fantasy writer; Rachel Armstrong, who I last talked about here; Peter Hamilton, who mostly writes space opera; and Kari Sperring who has a PhD in Celtic history and writes fantasy but was also very useful for her knowledge of Hong Kong cinema. Farah Mendlesohn had the difficult job of forging a conversation between these people without much of a topic.

Neil started out by noting that the visions of the future that people his (and my) age had admired as a kid — those produced by Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein — had mostly not come to pass, whereas those of Ballard and Dick had. I’d add John Brunner to the list of startlingly prescient writers.

Rachel is a bundle of irrepressible fangirl squee when it comes to whiz new science, and what she’d love to get out of us science fiction types are lots of stories enthusing people about science and coming up with great new ideas for avenues of research. She has boundless confidence in The Future, which is kind of rare in the West these days.

The panel showed early signs of degenerating into an Us Against The Americans rant, but Neil, who lives in America and has an American wife, so like me has a much more nuanced view of Over There, started talking about China, and suddenly we had a topic.

You see, while we Westerners might be deeply disillusioned about science (as I said in a question towards the end, our prevailing narrative of science appears to have come more from Michael Crichton than any other SF writer), other countries are not. Neil noted that a couple of years ago he was invited to an SF convention in China that was sponsored by the Chinese government. The Chinese had got the idea that they needed innovation as well as manufacturing expertise, and they had noticed that young engineers in places like Silicon Valley were all science fiction readers. Consequently they decided that SF needed to be encouraged. Damien Walter writes more about this here.

China, of course, is by no means the only country with an economy on an upswing and the confident view of the future that SF feeds off. Places like India, Brazil and Nigeria are all looking to become economic powerhouses. This could make for some interesting and different science fiction. Kari mentioned Aliette de Bodard’s recent post on getting away from American cultural tropes. We could soon be seeing some very different futures.

China, however, is by far the biggest market, and also the least known in the English-speaking world. Frankly, they don’t need us. China’s biggest science fiction magazine, Science Fiction World, claims a print circulation of 300,000. There are other publishers as well. New Realms of Fantasy & Science Fiction is apparently one of the best new magazines and is available free as a PDF or EPUB. It is all in Chinese, but it looks fabulous.

Finding Chinese SF in English is rather more difficult, but we did publish a Chinese story in Clarkesworld last month. It is by Chen Qiufan, who uses the Anglicised name of Stanley Chan. I was delighted to see that he was one of the people following the live Hugo coverage that Kevin and Mur Lafferty hosted from Reno, and he works for Google, so he’s definitely “one of us”. The translation was by Ken Liu, who kindly helped me with some of the research for this post.

As you should all know, science fiction is not really about predicting the future. Mostly it is about looking at the present through the distorting lens of speculative fiction. Even when it does try to look forward, it can be nothing more than a thought experiment. But if we start seeing SF from all over the world we will get some very interesting experiments.

These won’t all agree on what sort of future we should be envisioning. While I was tweeting about the panel a link came through for this Guardian article about British scientists creating an “artificial volcano” to test out ideas for combating climate change. I showed it to Rachel afterwards, and she was all over it, but I can just imagine what a committed environmentalist like Mark Charan Newton would make of the idea. I suspect that the drive for bold technological solutions will come mainly from other, more confident cultures. Hopefully they will find our doom-saying a useful corrective to their more wild imaginings, and they will manage to forge forward in a more considered way than we did.

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8 Responses to Visions of the Future?

  1. Well, since you asked… :)

    It’s an interesting point, where technological dreaming and practical realities coincide. I can understand their viability. I can understand the pressing need to imagine, and the benefits to science. It really is most beneficial when there is no sense of urgency, because when there is, it is actually damaging to the cause somewhat.

    In the case of climate change: initially comes the *facepalm* about the fact that there are only a few years left to sort our current houses out before it is, genuinely, too late / that this doesn’t target the actual problems of dumping greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere/ that it is diverting attention, political and financial resources away and into some wish-fulfilment future or playing into the hands of lobbyists who will use it as an argument to delay urgent action at the benefit to [insert polluting organisation here].

    But you knew I was going to say something like that!

    More here on that one: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/02/giant-balloon-and-hosepipe-geoengineering

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  4. Jared says:

    I left pretty disgruntled, mostly because of the “us vs the Americans” ranting.

    I was also a little baffled by some of the China discussion – there was a lot of lofty, unmitigated praise bandied around and absolutely no consideration of human rights. Or even labor laws. (The Chinese infrastructure did not spring up overnight because of their “strong sense of community”).

    However it was, as you say, great to see some non-US/UK SF futures discussed in a serious venue. There was an impressive talk at the London Book Fair this spring that brought Russian genre fiction to the forefront as well – apparently there’s a new Golden Age of SF happening in lots of places, we’re just waiting for the translations.

    • Cheryl says:

      It did occur to me that China’s success in manufacturing is not entirely due to engineering skill. Some of it may be a result of low wages, poor safety standards, and disregard for the environment. Somewhere in China there is a young writer who will be their equivalent of John Brunner.

    • Cheryl says:

      Oh, and the Russian market has been huge for years. They publish something like 400 SF novels a year. What’s new is that the Russian publishing industry is now making a major push to sell some of their material to the West. We are getting maybe 1% of what they produce.

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  6. Jared says:

    Holy cow! That’s really exciting!

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