Mind Meld: The Imagined Possibilities of Science Fiction

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In Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, he states works of science fiction “may be credible projections of present trends or fantastic images of imagined impossibilities. Or an amalgam of both.”

Q: Do you enjoy science fiction that is more a reflection of where today’s society could be headed in the near future, or science fiction that reflects a far, far future, and why? What are some recent works you’ve enjoyed?

S. C. Flynn
S. C. Flynn is a speculative fiction blogger and the author of Children of the Different, a YA Australian post-apocalyptic fantasy novel (September 2016). He blogs at www.scflynn.com and tweets @scyflynn.

Personally, I prefer books of the first type; those that reflect where our world is potentially headed.

There are so many important issues that confront us or will shortly confront us: the environment, resource shortages, over-population, alternative energy sources, ageing societies, the technological singularity and many more. It is really important that these matters and the world they might produce are considered by as many people as possible. Science fiction offers, as it always has, a way of doing that.

Science fiction of this sort does not have to be purely pessimistic. It can recognise the problems, as is necessary, but it can try to imagine solutions without being naively utopian.

Above all, I think science fiction can and should encourage young people to prepare themselves to confront the great challenges they will inevitably face in the future. For most people in developed societies, ignoring these problems has been an option. Those who are teenagers or younger today will not have that option. Science fiction has a valuable role.

Recent books I’ve enjoyed that relate to some of the issues referred to above are Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, Wool by Hugh Howey and Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.

Mike Underwood

Michael R. Underwood is the author of ten books across several series, including the Ree Reyes geeky urban fantasies and his current project, Genrenauts, a cross-genre SF adventure series told in novellas. By day, he is the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books, and he is a co-host on podcasts The Skiffy & Fanty Show as well as Speculate! You can find him at @MikeRUnderwood on Twitter or on his website.

My love of science fiction takes many forms, and I have adored works across basically every different form that the genre takes. I’ve raved over near-future SF re-framing our present through a speculative lens of ‘what if’; far-flung futures with galactic empires, cadres of super-soldiers; and self-defeating prophecies of dystopian societies where injustices seen in our world are magnified and universalized.

Some recent works of Science Fiction I’ve enjoyed for the way they use the tools of the genre: Infomocracy by Malka Older, which focuses a speculative lens on politics, the flow and control of information, and the implications of globalization. It makes politics cool, fascinating, and reminds us that everything is political. My favorite recent dystopian SF is Delilah S. Dawson’s HIT, a YA novel where the banks buy out the USA’s debt and tap debtors to serve as hit-people to eliminate the “undesirables.” A scarily plausible premise serves to ignite a visceral, messy, and very human story of how one young woman copes with the world turning upside down.

I’ve also been delighted by the flourishing of SF in the world of comics, from thoughtful and deliberate explorations of empire in Invisible Republic (written by Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko, art by Jordan Boyd, lettered by Sylvester Cazadero) to Joyride (written by Jackson Lanzing & Collin Kelly, illustrated by Marcus To, colors by Irma Knivila, lettering by Jim Campbell), a bright, youthful and enjoyable new space adventure that sneaks in some social commentary while you’re enjoying the ride.

Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne Gilman is the Nebula- and Endeavor-nominated author of Silver on the Road and the forthcoming The Cold Eye. More information can be found at www.lauraannegilman.net, or you can follow her on Twitter as @LAGilman

I first discovered SF as a pre-teen, when the choices seemed to be either space opera, or hard SF. As a 9-year-old, neither really appealed – I wanted adventure and science, not an extreme on either side. But, since I was 9, I went with space operas, instead. And then, when I was a teenager, there was the surge in cyberpunk, which was more depressing than invigorating (I love my tech; I don’t want to hear how it’s ruining us).

In keeping with that “please don’t depress me, that’s what the news is for” preference, as an adult I prefer my science fiction that projects possibilities, rather than expanding current trends. It may be just as messy a world, but it doesn’t feel like it’s going be tomorrow. That said, it also needs to be credible as well as fantastic, otherwise I think “ehhhh” and fall out of the plot.

So I guess I’d have to say that my reading preference is a 60/40 amalgam, with the higher percentage on “imagined possibilities,” but leavened by “credible projections.” Or, in marketing terms, “soft” SF.

This probably explains why my favorite bust-your-head SF is still Phil Dick’s UBIK, although what was far future at the time of publication (or my first reading) came uncomfortably close for a while, then faded again (that’s the risk of projective literature: it ages). But of the more recent works – I supposed I should have asked how we defining ‘recent,’ since I tend to either be reading ARCs of books that won’t be out for a year, or catching up on stuff that was published 2-4 years ago.

So yeah, here are three SF novels that left a significant impression on me, over the past few years, ranging along that spectrum from possibility to projection:

Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. Seriously, what? What the hell, Jeff. If we have a modern successor to Phil Dick, without the crazy, it may be him.

Updraft by Fran Wilde. “Soft” SF at its very best, for me, pokes a finger into the soft belly of cultural assumptions, while tickling out adventure bone with the other hand. Updraft did that exceptionally well.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta. A quiet, thoughtful book about a probable near-distant future. I thought this was flawed in many ways, but it stirred my brain cells and left me thinking, long afterward.

Andrea Phillips

Andrea Phillips is an author and experience designer. Most recently, she’s written for the serials Bookburners and ReMade. She’s on Twitter at @andrhia and blogs once in a while.

When I was a kid, science fiction was a fun game of possibility for me. What would happen if? Under that rubric, it’s a lot more fun to read and dream about far-away starships and blasters than it is to grapple with the looming consequences of, say, climate change. Now, though, I view science fiction in a new light. It’s not just about fun for me. I don’t turn down fun! But there’s a lot of fun out there to be had, and now I need something more.

We’ve seen countless things first dreamed of in science fiction become real, from rockets to hovercraft to (just about) tricorders. The mere act of imagination is the necessary first step to invention. You could say science fiction creates in us a shared vision of the future for us to work toward. How can you make a world you’ve never even dreamed of?

But the further we project into the future, the more guesses we have to make, and the more wrong we’re likely to get. Not to mention, the harder it is for us to see the steps that get us from here to there, so we can adjust accordingly. That’s why in the end, I prefer my science fiction to be close to hand: a shared dream of how we can change as a society to deal with what we face now. And the thrill of this-could-really-happen? Yeah, that’s plenty fun.

K. C. Alexander

K. C. Alexander is the author of Necrotech, an aggressive transhumanist sci-fi with attitude. Check out more at kcalexander.com, and then go read something awesome.

When I pick up a sci-fi, I find myself gravitating these days to ones that echo, if not outright predict, our future course. While I have long been inspired by the far-flung science fiction stories set in odd worlds or mysterious dimensions, it’s the ones that speak of us as a people, a society, a path we are already on, that stick with me. Most powerful of my recent reads—or re-reads, as it turns out—is Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan. In the wild chaos and over-teeming population drawn in those pages, in Spider Jerusalem’s frenetic journalism, in the haunted eyes of the outcasts and the forgotten—or deliberately cast down—I see our future.

We are already halfway there: politicians without compassion, classism without mercy, hatred, violence, and perhaps worse, the civil erasure of entire populations. Transmetropolitan has long served me as an inspiration, a warning, a prophecy…and a roadmap to the trainwreck we are letting ourselves become. Even if we don’t have to.

Ultimately, Spider Jerusalem had a gift for finding the heart in a living hell. If nothing changes, that is a good skill for us to learn. I hope to, which is why I re-read this set of graphic novels often. Even as I also hope that we learn from fictional sources before our dystopians become more of a reality than we are prepared for.

Malka Older

Infomocracy

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Malka Older (@m_older) is a writer, humanitarian worker, and PhD candidate studying disasters and governance. Her writing can be found in Leveler, Tor.com, Sundog Lit, Capricious, Reservoir, Inkscrawl, Rogue Agent, and in Chasing Misery, an anthology of writing by female aid workers. Her science fiction political thriller Infomocracy is the first full-length novel from Tor.com, and the sequel Null States will be published in 2017.

I find that the wonder of science fiction often comes through its ability to do both (get you a genre that can!). Much of the joy comes from recognizing ourselves—recognizing sharp observations about our society or vivid depictions of our humanity—in a setting that stretches our imaginations in new directions. Take Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy, set so far in the future that humans don’t even remember which planet they are from, but which nails hard questions about gender, AI, identity, and power that are all familiar today.

Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves combines the immediate with the extremely distant. While the first section is set in a world at or only slightly ahead of our technological level, it posits an event so drastic that, while not fantastic, it draws a dramatic line dividing a different future, and calls for an imaginative leap. The far future section, with its nods to fantasy tropes and depictions of a vastly changed humanity, still begs the tracing of a long, long line not only from the first section of the book, but from our reality.

For myself, I enjoy diversity in my reading: near future one book, far future the next; technology, fantasy, combinations of the two. But whatever the setting, the reflection of our present world is what makes it interesting, useful, and entertaining.

What’s your SF preference?

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