Science fiction as time travel

I grew up on a solid diet of science fiction, and as a young man in the 1970s and 1980s I had a wide range of style to choose from — New Wave, Old Guard, the Cyberpunks. To read them all at once was like the old Evolution of Man posters, the history of the future all in view.
Like the time-traveler who uses knowledge of the future to succeed, I became a technology early-adopter by reading science-fiction. When I saw it happening for real in the 1980s, as limited and clunky as it was, I already knew what it was going to be. Twenty years ago I even lucked into a job in the field, first learning then explaining to others just what “online” was. That job is done.
I am running out of futures.
The world is catching up to my adolescent studies. For years I’ve been saying that our phones will become our computers. Now Ubuntu is really trying. That’s another future lived through.
I would like to find something to nudge me forward again, someone to read to give me the long view. Or who knows, a job.
William Gibson says that the world we live in is science-fiction enough for all his stories, and he has a point. Imagine a world where half the world’s digital resources, half the vaults in which the people of the world store their entire lives, are all compromised by great Russian ‘botnets, ready to extort the world. Hint: it’s ours.
But all of Gibson’s work stays in the Van Allen Belts. Gibson don’t warp.
There’s always new strangeness. In the 1970s everyone was convinced undersea habitats were inevitable. Except for one (and impressively futuristic, save for actual life on submarines) TV show the ocean is a popular sci-fi bust. Probably James Cameron’s fault. Still, if bell-bottoms and werewolves can come back, anything is possible.
I am late to note the passing of the great Frederik Pohl. His ideas flew because they were so grounded, in both style and science, but his characters were damaged and desperate.
I once read a Pohl essay debating the merits of electronic versus paper books — written in the 1970s, twenty years before the first handheld computers. And he was completely right to note that paper books would still be easier to use, and recover better from both sand and surf. It was a lesson in original thinking.

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Anthony Dobranski Posted on

Novelist, writer, game designer, skier.


  1. Hmm, you seem to be reading these older works as purely *predictive* with tidbits of tech that coincidentally came about rather than good stories… Even if you “run out of futures” the stories will remain. And most were NOT written to “predict” but rather invented futures that could nicely couch their characters, their social ruminations… etc.

    1. Thanks for commenting JB!
      I used a narrow perspective in this post, but you are seeing omission where I meant only focus. SF is more than gear, and invented futures usually comment on the present. Still, looked at broadly, late 20th-Century SF got a huge amount — and continues to get a huge amount — right in seeing our present and future, not only in gear but in social interactions and the role of race and culture. To take one example among many, Stand on Zanzibar is almost a present-day novel. That’s crazy.
      No other imaginative tradition in the history of the Western World has such a successful real-world predictive outcome. It’s OK to celebrate this, for itself.
      Since you ask, I read the Old Guard with both excitement and reverence as a boy. Joe Haldeman got me to grow up, then Ellison, then the charged work of the New Wave. Reading Jerry Cornelius at age 13 messed with my head, and I’m pretty sure Bug Jack Barron had a hand in getting me to try pot. I’m in the middle of a post about my sci-fi antecedents and how they schooled me, but it’s turning out to be hard to write. Look for it someday.

  2. I’m a historian so I’m naturally obsessed with the Old Guard — but, due to my age (mid-20s) read them within the last 9 years or so.
    I still think predictive is such a loaded word. Think how many novels predicted that we’d be on Mars, we’d be on other planets, we’d have this and this and this and this — but we don’t. There’s a point where you hundreds of authors to come up with a few things and some are bound to come out. Unless you were writing for Campbell, Jr. I’m still not convinced that “predicting” is what most authors are interested in.
    As for Stand on Zanzibar being “a present-day novel”? What? The US is not an overpopulated place, it does not have the mass societal homogenization that Brunner is fascinated by….

  3. Stand on Zanzibar’s dystopic vision of gender relations also in no way pans out in our current society (or at least most Western Societies)…. So no… I disagree.
    (regardless, it’s really interesting seeing how SF influenced people when they were younger. So I will definitely read your upcoming post :))

  4. I take your point about “predictive” being loaded. Or at least fuzzy. Still, because I spent so much of my childhood in an imaginative tradition where computers were as commonplace as six-guns in Westerns, when computers started actually coming onto desktops (all 20 lbs of them) and talking on phonelines (at .024 Mbps), I knew it would be big.
    That predictive thing worked out pretty well for me myself, and I in turn helped spread the word. But now I want new things to be ahead of the curve on!
    No prediction is ever perfect. In Triton, Samuel Delany posits a floridly sexual future society where sugar is a drug and the government earns money by selling you the chance to enter a booth and see old surveillance footage of you. I don’t think we’ll have people orbiting Neptune soon. I don’t think we’ll watch anything in public booths. I totally think the NSA will create a subscription web channel, and if they have an IPO I will buy.
    Yes, some of the anxieties that drove Zanzibar’s setting did not come to pass. And we don’t have a Shalmaneser and its ridiculous back door and people who smell like peace. I think we do have the homogenization, though ours is happening naturally, as subcultures interact with each other. The people in Zanzibar are our people, especially city people; that is our media, and our weird interactive relationship to it. Those are our celebrity stylists and hectoring pundits and eternal students. And, writ satirically, that is how divorced our society is from its military.

  5. Thanks for the kind words.
    As I sort of said before, Zanzibar’s future says so much more about the concerns of Brunner’s day then it does about our day despite it being in the “future.” It is relevant to us to some degree because it was written in an era that had some similar concerns as ours. I think the comparing how things turned out vs. how they were predicted is a fun exercise for sure but the value of story is not always found there…. Of course, such visions of the future were inspiring and did influence our own time but in a more indirect sense… At least that’s my take on it.
    I did enjoy Triton….

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