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Transcript of Stephen Baxter
Is science fiction going out of date? No point asking me – I’m too old – so I had a talk with Randy-at-the-bank, who looks to me to be about 25. (That may mean he’s 35: as you get older the young look younger, just as when you’re young the old look older. Time is relative. I know that from reading sci-fi.) I knew he was a sci-fi fan because he said he liked Oryx and Crake . So as he was setting loose the key I had somehow got stuck in my own safety-deposit box, I asked him what he thought.
The first part of our conversation was about the meaning of the term science fiction. For Randy – and I think he’s representative – sci-fi does include other planets, which may or may not have dragons on them. It includes the wildly paranormal: not your aunt table-tilting or things going creak, but shape-shifters and people with red eyeballs and no pupils, and Things taking over your body. It includes, as a matter of course, space ships and mad scientists and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong. Plain ordinary horror doesn’t count – chain-saw murderers and such. Randy and I both agreed that you might meet one of those walking along the street. It’s what you would definitely not meet walking along the street that counts, for Randy. And he doesn’t think these things are going out of date.
I agree with him. Not all of science fiction is “science” – science occurs in it as a plot-driver, a tool, but all of it is fiction. This narrative form has always been with us: it used to be the kind with angels and devils in it. It’s the gateway to the shadowiest and also the brightest part of our human imaginative world; a map of what we most desire and also what we most fear. That’s why it’s an important form. It points to what we’d do if we could. And increasingly, thanks to “science”, we can.
cloned specifically to donate their organs, one by one. And what of Nobel-prizewinner Doris Lessing and the “space fiction” of her wonderful Shikasta novels, and Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most famous novelist, to whom critics attribute science fiction themes in novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? The lines between what we define as science fiction and “mainstream literature” may be increasingly blurred, but the genre will no doubt always have its own a section in the bookstore, even if only for the mind-bending stuff – aka “hard” sci-fi – that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Like the dinosaurs that, far from vanishing from the Earth, changed into the birds which still populate the length and breadth of the planet, science fiction has morphed into a multitude of forms, many of which are alive and kicking. The speed of change, highlighted by Sagan, has simply raised the bar for the imagination of the current generation of writers. There is no reason to believe that they will not rise to the challenge . Marcus Chown ●
Marcus Chown is the author of Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You (Faber & Faber, 2008) and the children’s science fiction book Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil (Faber & Faber, 2008).
Margaret Atwood’s most recent work of “speculative” fiction is Oryx and Crake
www.newscientist.com 15 November 2008 | NewScientist | 49
It’s true that many of the old dreams of science fiction have been fulfilled, or bypassed. And it does feel as if we’re living through a time of accelerating change. But science fiction has – rarely – been about the prediction of a definite future, more about the anxieties and dreams of the present in which it is written. In H. G. Wells ’s day the great shock of evolutionary theory was working its way through society, so Wells’s 1895 classic The Time Machine is not really a prediction of the year 802,701 AD but an anguished meditation on the implications of Darwinism for humanity.
As science has moved on, a whole variety of science-fictional “futures” has been generated. In 1950s and 1960s we had tales of nuclear warfare and its aftermath, like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz . The 1980s saw an explosion of computing power that led to “cyberpunk” fantasies such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer . Today we have the possibilities of a trans-human future opened up by information technology and biotechnology – see books like Paul McAuley’s The
Secret of Life as a response. And the great issues of climate change are explored in, for instance, Kim Stanley Robinson ’s Science in the Capitol series and my own Flood . Science fiction is a way of dealing with change, of learning about it, of internalising it – not so much prophecy as a kind of mass therapy, perhaps. Of course nowadays you get a book like Maggie Gee’s The Flood , a disaster story of the near future, published without any reference to the genre at all. I don’t particularly think this is bad. In fact it shows the success of sci-fi and its methods. Science fiction has been assimilated, but it’s still there, still serving the same function.
In the coming years, whatever else we run out of – oil, fresh water, clean air – change itself will not be in short supply. So there will be no shortage of raw material for science fiction, and a need for it, however it’s labelled in the bookshops.
Stephen Baxter’s latest book, Flood , came out in July