I recently got to read an advance reading copy of Conversations from the Edge by Joy Ward, a collection of interviews she conducted for Galaxy’s Edge magazine since 2014. I spend a lot of time thinking about SF—what it is, how it works, why I love it (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). It’s wonderful to hear SF writers talk about the genre and how they see it.
There were two quotes about science fiction in this collection that particularly struck me: one from Nancy Kress and one from Connie Willis. (This is an ARC so apply the standard disclaimer that the accuracy and page numbers of quotes might change.)
From the interview with Nancy Kress in which she talks about how science fiction gives her a big canvas to work with:
I like to be able to visualize in my books people from different societal levels, different classes, and different positions in life. Much of modern-American literature … focuses in a very small range. This family, this marriage, maybe this community, but it doesn’t cover a lot of time and it doesn’t cover a lot of space. The Victorians did do that. In many ways, the modern science fiction novel is the inheritor of the Victorian novel. … I liked the grandness of it, the size of it. (p. 45)
(Interview first published in Issue 28 of Galaxy’s Edge, September 2017)
From the interview with Connie Willis about how you have a responsibility to account for unintended consequences when you envision science fictional worlds:
Ed Bryant said that the ordinary person in 1895 might be able to predict the automobile. The visionary person would have predicted the interstate highway. The science fiction writer would have predicted the traffic jam. (p. 255)
(Expanded from the interview that appeared in Issue 16 of Galaxy’s Edge, September 2015)
I love the perspective of these two understandings. I think Kress is correct: very few other genres of fiction deal with stories of the scale and scope that SF does. Big Ideas require big playgrounds to explore them properly. While there are some modern-American novels I can think of which offer large scope, it’s not the norm anywhere outside of SF.
I sometimes forget that world-building is itself a Big Idea.
Willis’ quote makes me laugh and I like how it emphasizes the way SF writers attempt to extrapolate as much as they can from a given premise—what would it mean if this technology existed, if this scientific or fantastical idea were true? How would the world be different? What would it make possible?
The details matter. Examining the consequences of different possibilities is at the heart of the joy of reading SF.
It also highlights what I see as two intertwined but opposed threads in SF: optimism and pessimism.
I came to science fiction just before the advent of cyberpunk. I grew up on Golden and Silver Age novels. For me, SF is inherently optimistic and full of wonder. The classic works were written by men who believed science could make the world better and they were the prophets of that change. They believed they could save the world.
The classical Greek philosophers believed that philosophy begins in a sense of wonder—wonder at the world around them, wonder at the nature of human beings. I always felt this way about SF. I forged my love of SF on works written in a sense of wonder, an awe of the potential of humankind.
Because I tend to think of SF as, first and foremost, a genre of optimism and wonder, it seems too cynical to me to suggest the science fiction writer would predict traffic jams.
Clearly, though, optimism and wonder don’t describe all SF. Witness the glut of dystopian novels over the past couple decades (of which I’m actually a huge fan). Cyberpunk was exceedingly cynical, as is lots of military SF. Cynicism and pessimism were there even in the Golden Age (it just wasn’t the stuff I grew up reading).
SF doesn’t have to be optimistic. It doesn’t have to be wonderful. There are plenty of SF writers who predict traffic jams and go even farther: road rage, carbon pollution, urban isolation and rural desolation, cultural stratification.
So many classic SF authors thought science and science fiction could make the world better. But it didn’t fix things, not really. Science has made the world much better but not without costs and unintended consequences. We still don’t have flying cars. And people are people: you can’t make us “better” without essentially changing what we are. Pessimism has earned its place.
We could talk about how cynicism isn’t the opposite of hope—even cynical SF sees hope for the future, even if it’s only hope for our ability to survive apocalypse. Any genre which attempts to envision the future is inherently hopeful to some degree.
We could talk about the belief that people and the world can be made better and how that idea misunderstands the nature of people and society, how it can cross a shadowy line into vilifying human nature despite best intentions.
But those are MUCH bigger topics than I want to get into here. I just want to share my thoughts about these two quotes and how they inform and expand my understanding of SF.