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On Books

The Future of the Future

by Norman Spinrad
 

THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit $28.00

SPACE STATION DOWN
by Ben Bova & Doug Beason
Macmillan $26.99

THE HOLE
by Brandon Q. Morris
Hard Science Fiction $16.99

What is the future? Not a dictionary definition, but what an individual or an entire culture means when it ponders “the future.” And to be more precise, when it comes to literature, what do we generally mean by the literature of the future?

The common answer is, of course, “science fiction.” But the wider and more true answer is “speculative fiction.” All science fiction must be speculative, but all speculative fiction need not be science fiction.

To speculate means to ponder the possible and not the impossible, and to do so cannot be to ponder the known impossible. It is current known science that differentiates the impossible from the possible, and hence fantasy from speculative fiction.

And to speculate on something possible that does not currently exist is to speculate a possible future. Fantasy by definition cannot do this. Historical fiction by definition cannot do this. Alternate history cannot do this.

Can fiction set in the present do this? Well, that gets tricky, all too tricky. As I write this I am writing in my current present, but as you are reading it, whatever I was then describing is now a description of history. So between the writing of something in the present, publication, and reading it, as far as any readers are concerned, it’s impossible for them to read any fiction set in their present.

And when it comes to writing science fiction or any speculative fiction, this problem makes it rather dangerous to set the story in your near future because by the time it is published and read, reality can make your speculation obsolete and turn it into alternate history, which is a form of fantasy.

I know this all too well. I wrote Bug Jack Barron in a speculative future in which Bobby Kennedy had been an American President. Before the book was even published Kennedy had been murdered, and I had to rewrite the manuscript. Russian Spring was set in a speculative future of the Soviet Union, and it was first published there and was indeed speculative fiction. But by the time it was published in English, the Soviet Union was gone, and it was turned into alternate history.

The current example is The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, surely an enormous, detailed, beautifully written, openly politically intended, future history of our entire planet as he wanted it to be in the near future. But it was written before the Covid-19 virus changed everything and was published as speculative fiction afterward, turning his visionary utopia into alternate history.

The Ministry for the Future is both a dystopian novel and a utopian novel, and rather than that being a paradox, that is its strength. Dystopian novels are dire warnings and utopian novels present futures that are at least better than the present. But without beginning in dystopia, utopian novels usually end up as boring political propaganda, since without a dystopia from which they emerge, there is no drama, no story.

The Ministry for the Future, an unfortunate title that seems to promise just that sort of utopian screed, is in fact a dramatic and literarily satisfying story that begins in dystopia and triumphs in a utopia.

The dystopia is set on our planet in the relatively near future, less than a century or so from now, amidst the all too believable, dire results of climate change. Robinson, as usual, has done his scientific homework. Also as usual, his descriptive powers are formidable, and his story telling properly dramatic.

In this novel, the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is reaching terminal condition, the heat has turned much of the land unlivable, the ocean level has risen to the point that it has drowned much of the Earth’s former seacoasts, and Robinson’s descriptive powers make his thoroughly scientific prediction all too emotionally probable.

But this novel was written before the first year of the Covid-19 virus and then published in the middle of it. Robinson’s near future of climate change disaster still remains speculatively relevant. But the drastic cultural, psychological, and economic changes of the planetary culture of Homo sapiens resulting from the pandemic will surely render his speculative dystopia significantly obsolete and turn it into alternate history, and probably not for the better.

That is the bad news, and not just for the speculation in The Ministry for the Future, but for the future of Homo sapiens. We are in the cusp on what I called the Transformation Crises in the long ago, we the people of this Solar System, and we the writers and readers of speculative fiction. Climate change, viruses, disintegrating democracy, and much more. Either we pass triumphantly through it and mature to a civilization that can last at least as long as the dinosaurs did or follow them into the tar pits far more quickly.

The future we get is the future we make, and while it may not be entirely in the hands of speculative fiction, there is inherently no other literature that can present the multiplexity of the possible futures.

But speaking as someone who has had at least one speculative novel turned into alternate history, it’s fair to regard The Ministry for the Future not as failed speculative fiction, at least on the dystopian end, but as what destiny has caused it to become.

And once you get through the alternate history in which it opens, it becomes a valid and formidable speculative novel.

The story is told primarily in the third person consciousness of its two central characters. Frank May is the singular survivor of a deadly super heatwave in India. His survival was accomplished by means that he at least regards as immoral. Mary Murphy is a medium and then high-level officer of the Ministry for the Future of the title.

The Ministry for the Future is a complex result of the Paris Accord. As set by the United Nations and other members, its mission is to reduce or at worst stabilize the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to a livable level for the generations to come by whatever means possible. These means include political, economic, monetary, and even undercover terrorist operations, which Mary deliberately chooses not to know about, even when she is boss of the Ministry.

The personal story is more or less centered on the chance relationship between Frank and Mary. This is never a romantic or sexual one, but something complex and both germane to the main story and personally interesting, to the point where it is successful in holding together this openly political, 563-page novel.

And Kim Stanley Robinson makes no bones about it; The Ministry for the Future is not merely a forthright political novel, not merely a speculative novel, not merely a utopian screed, not even Robinson’s thoroughly described vision of what the future of humanity and its planet should become, but the novel and Robinson’s forthright attempt to make it so.

I am often asked if I am a “political novelist.” And in English it’s difficult to explain why I am and am not. I am a writer, and particularly a writer of speculative fiction, concerned, as any person should be, with the political surrounds in which I live, but I am not a “political novelist,” as Robinson forthrightly admits to being, especially in The Ministry for the Future. When I want to actually broadcast specific realtime political opinion, I do it as a journalist.

Much simpler in French. Engagé. Politique/political but not politique/politician.

I think that in The Ministry for the Future Kim Stanley Robinson knowingly steps over that line. He has a detailed plan for dealing with our ongoing crises he wants his Ministry for the Future to create in the real world, and in his heart and mind he would be its prime minister.

He covers almost all the details as if he were running for office. And whether you like them or not, whether you agree with his fictional utopian result or not, you have to acknowledge that Robinson does a better and more convincing job than anyone who really is running for high office has thus far done.

Robinson bases his political, economic, and cultural program on the inevitable truth that if nothing radical is done, and done soon, the CO2 level in the atmosphere, its resultant heating of the world-wide climate, its melting of the polar ice packs and glaciers and resulting rising sea levels, will eventually render the Earth unlivable at least for human life, and possibly for the very biosphere itself.

Robinson, as usual, has done the scientific homework down to the numbers: exact terminal percentages of the present and future CO2 in the atmosphere, the rate of current rising temperatures and the geographical result, from the present he is writing from to the speculative time terminal that is the goal of his Ministry for the Future to prevent.

And the program for achieving this is both scientifically comprehensive and politically possible, whether you like his utopian result or not. Economically, make the downtake of CO2 the backbone of a worldwide currency. Reduce the growth of the human population, and then bring it down to something around three to six billion people and return half of the planet to animals. Replace capitalism with something like a combination of syndicalism and communism, without its political fascism à la the People’s Republic of China. Replace jet airplanes with blimps. Replace motorized ships with sailboats. Replace out-dated phallocratic religions with something like universal non-worship belief in the Gaia spirit of the planet Earth.

Could this really work? Kim Stanley Robinson makes a convincing argument that it could.

But would you want to live in this utopia? Would you want this static utopia to be the ultimate endpoint of human evolution? Would you want anything to ever be the static endpoint of human evolution, however utopian? Would you even be reading speculative fiction if you did?

The Ministry for the Future seems to be something meant to be both more and less than literary speculation on one possible future among the multiplex possibilities. It seems as if Kim Stanley Robinson really wants to do what he can to make it so.

Not that there is anything wrong with this desire. This is Robinson’s utopia, and he would like to live in it, and this novel will no doubt convince other people to wish likewise, to even do what they can do to make it so. Nothing wrong with that, either; it’s called democracy.

But will there ever be one inevitable utopia frozen forever among the multiplex possible futures, either in the so-called real world, or in the multiplex literary futures of speculative fiction? Not as long as any culture has the very concept of the multiplexity of possible futures.

The future we get is the future we make. And if we lose that very concept, if we lose the literary concept of speculative fiction, of real science fiction, of evolving multiplex futures, our current modern culture could indeed end up in timeless stasis or worse. Maybe much worse.

If you look at what is currently being published as “science fiction,” aka “SF,” aka “Sci Fi,” aka “Space Opera,” and sold as such on Amazon, what you find is that the overwhelming majority is not speculative fiction, not if you regard speculative fiction as the fiction of the possible.

If you regard fantasy as the literature of the proven impossible, the majority of what is now being published as SF or even as “science fiction” is really fantasy in science fiction costume clothing.

There is nothing literarily wrong with this as long as you know that this is what you are writing, and the readers understand what they are reading. But all too much of this stuff seems to be written in scientific ignorance, deliberately or not, and the danger is that much of the readership gets convinced that it is the real speculative deal.

Suspension of disbelief is a time-honored literary tool, but convincing the innocent that the fantasies you create are the speculative possible is, well, culturally dangerous bullshit.

Almost any book that is published, self-published included, is sold on Amazon, and Amazon divides the books into categories, including “science fiction,” and breaks that down into sub-categories. So it’s a perfect means for finding not only everything that is published as science fiction, but everything that is marketed in the various sub-categories of “SF:” Space Opera, Adventure, Series, Stand Alones, etc., and even “Hard Science Fiction.”

But these are really only marketing categories, not literary or scientific categories, and even in “Hard Science Fiction,” the overwhelming number of books are not speculative fiction as I’ve defined it here. The real deal is hard to find.

By scientific definition, faster than light travel is impossible. So by literary definition, galactic empires, galactic space wars, space operas, and so forth, while they can be and have been literarily masterful stories and novels, are not speculative fiction.

What we now already know is that there are millions, if not billions, of planets in our own galaxy alone, and billions, if not trillions, of galaxies in our universe, that the speed of light is the absolute speed limit and that these solar systems, including our own, are light-years away from each other.

This much is certain—hard science, period, not speculation. What we are beginning to learn is that H2O, whether as water, ice, or gas, is abundant in this universe, in our solar system and elsewhere, because it is the simplest, lightest, molecule there is, for straightforward physical reasons.

That at the moment is science. What we are presently attempting to learn is whether life as we know it, or even do not, is likewise a result of the physics of this universe and therefore common therein. And if it is, does it mean that biospheres are common evolving results? And if so, are conscious entities the next evolutionary step? And are advanced cultures in general likewise the next evolutionary step?

All of which is currently legitimately possible and therefore within the purview of speculative fiction. From a scientific perspective, a limit maybe; but from a literary perspective, a wide-open doorway to the multiplexity of fictional speculation.

This is where we are now. Perhaps even as I write this an extrasolar biosphere will be discovered and verified. Probably within this century an extrasolar civilization. And then many more. We will know that they are there, some of them will know that we are there. But will they be really able to even communicate with us, or us with them, given the lightspeed limit? And even if it somehow becomes possible, that would probably be centuries or millennia in the future. In the mean time, if not forever, we will be free to speculate, while knowing that those speculations will remain in the multiplex possible.

That is the inevitable future, yet we are now living in a dire era for speculative fiction.

From the bottom-line commercial publishing perspective of what is now being published as “science fiction” or “SF,” this doorway is closing. Most genre science fiction now consists of novel series. Even self-published novels, indeed even first novels, proclaim that they are the first novel in a series. To the point, at least on Amazon, that there is now a sub-genre called “freestanding” meaning novels that are not chapters in novel series of the past, present, or would-be future. And they seem to be less than 10 percent of what is published in the overall science fiction genre.

How and why did this happen?

Back in the day, when there were comparatively few science fiction novels published and most of them were in genre lines that limited their readership, science fiction series were a rarity. But when television and film series like Star Trek and Star Wars opened up science fiction to a much larger audience, the publishers began to calculate that tie-in science fiction novels to such series could make big bucks, because the TV and film series that they were tied into amounted to free commercials for the books.

But there were only a limited number of TV, movie, and then superhero series to tie into. So the publishers started, in effect, to create their own SF series, and then turned the tie-in biz around, selling TV, movie, and comics rights to show biz.

Visuals outrank books. Hollywood outranks New York. The bottom line outranks literature.

That’s how and why the present situation has happened.

That is the current bad news. Real speculative fiction is a smaller and smaller percentage of what is published as genre science fiction, and fading away toward the vanishing point.

But this is the Golden Age of Astronomy. Within the lives of those now living, or at least their children, at least if there is a human future, the good news for speculative fiction is that therefore it will be the Golden Age of Speculative Fiction.

And the current good news, such as it is, is that speculative fiction has never been completely confined to genre science fiction, at least for individuals with the chops and/or luck, and publishing street smarts to avoid it or escape from it.

Aldous Huxley. H.G Wells. George Orwell. Margaret Atwood.

Not every author of speculative fiction with just the chops and maybe not the luck to say the least. And, ironically, their chances are worse still if they have had notable publications in it.

For example, Ben Bova and his latest novel Space Station Down, written with Doug Beason. First of all, this novel seems to have been bought and published by Tor as more or less genre science fiction. Bova has a long and successful career as not only an author of science fiction, but as editor of Analog and Omni, and Beason, not as much a central figure in the publishing world of science fiction, has primarily been an author within the genre.

But the genre title is a misnomer. This novel is set not in some generic space ship, but in the real International Space Station of the near future. And it is at the same time as hard science fiction as anything can possibly be and politically and mediawise hard-boiled sophisticated. It is also an action-packed thriller, if you must insist on such plot identification. As well as a sort of non-love and love story between the central characters, two astronauts who were married to each other but since divorced.

In short, Space Station Down touched all the bases of hard science detail, exciting physical plot, sophisticated character relationship, political, military, and media realism, which is to say, a well-rounded, immediate future novel.

Kimberly Hadid-Robinson and Scott Robinson are the astronauts in question. To make their relationship more complicated, she is the daughter of a Japanese American mother and an immigrant Muslim American father, and he is something of a phallocrat and of higher rank in the astronaut and military pecking orders, which is the main reason why she ended up divorcing him.

Kimberly is on the ISS with six other astronauts when two ruthless Muslim terrorists get on it and brutally but professionally kill everyone but her. Without giving away more than is necessary, their mission is to deorbit the space station and drop it on New York City.

So the entire plot of the story is Kimberly’s attempts to stop them from doing it and to kill them for this practical reason, but also with the desire for vengeance. That is basically the story, a deadly, violent, cat and mouse chase throughout the ISS.

That sounds like a simple action adventure set-up, but it is a lot more than that. For one thing, Bova’s and Beason’s knowledge of the ISS is total, and not only is it total, it is, well, emotionally rendered, making the space station almost another character, an entity.

Then, too, Ben Bova has always been a writer who was at the very least engaged, and with a knowing, if perhaps not quite cynical, journalist’s eye when it comes to the dirty doings of politics, the media, the military, the doings of their bureaucracies, internally and with each other. So there is a feet on the ground story there, too.

In short, Space Station Down both is and is not a hard science fiction novel, is and is not an action novel, is and is not a political novel, is and is not a nuts and bolts novel—which is to say that it is all of these things.

Which is to say that it transcends genre SF. So why is it published as genre SF in an avowed SF line?

Can it be that Tor, the publisher, believes that a novel like this will only have a limited potential readership, not because it isn’t sophisticated enough for a more literary and scientifically sophisticated mass audience, but because such a general readership does not presently exist?

Can they be right?

Take the case of Brandon Q. Morris.

Have you read any of his many novels, both stand-alone and series? I hadn’t until I chanced upon The Death of the Universe, which upon reading, I reviewed here recently with enthusiasm. Which is leading me to do likewise with The Hole. He’s got many books for sale on Amazon, but I can’t even find him on Wikipedia. Some online fanzines say the name is a pseudonym for someone else. No Hugos or Nebulas.

As near as I can tell, Brandon Q. Morris is a self-published writer sort of hiding that too by calling his announced publisher on Amazon “Hard Science Fiction.”

What he writes sure is. And I have yet to come on almost anyone who is currently doing it better, or maybe even as well, and certainly not nearly as prolifically.

I’ve thus far only read two of his novels, but that’s been enough to demonstrate that Morris is the complete hard science fiction novelist. Not that there aren’t a few other authors who still can do it well and still want to, and maybe even with deeper literary style. But Brandon Q. Morris not only “plays the game with the net up” a lá Gregory Benford, but seems to be finicky about it.

The Death of the Universe really is set in that terminal time zone, and the characters are post-human entities close enough to being immortal and fully human psychologically without breaking any of the rules of mass, energy, or the light speed limit.

The Hole, on the other hand, is set in the comparatively near future in our own Solar System. The hole of the title is a black hole, a singularity that has emerged from another universe in the multiverse and is beginning to suck our star into it.

Not only does Morris stay within the scientific laws of mass, energy, quantum physics, and orbital mechanics—they are the point of the story. And he is able to make it all comprehensible and easy to understand, if not for everyone, then for anyone who would be interested in reading hard science fiction.

The main characters are a crew of asteroid miners who more or less find themselves having to save not merely the Earth but the Sun, and maybe the Solar System. The team consists of two lovers, one of whom has a dark secret that could destroy their relationship; an Italian chef who’s in zero g because his legs are damaged; their conventional AI; and another far more sophisticated AI they rescued who is trying to become a fully conscious entity even to the point of emotions.

This seems to be Morris’s formula, hard science fiction with a very human, or for that matter trans human, set of characters, at least some of whom the reader will find simpatico, and whose personal interactions are as interesting as the nuts and bolts and physics. And he does it with an amusing, but not sarcastic, sense of humor.

So why is a writer like this self-publishing? Why has he never even been considered for Hugos and Nebulas? Why hasn’t a publisher greedily gobbled him up?

Why did I, who have been writing columns like this for nearly half a century, not discover him until now?

Can it be that “Brandon Q. Morris” is indeed a pseudonym for someone else who writes other things under another name? Can it be that he hasn’t even tried to find a publisher for this level of hard science fiction because he believed that no publisher but a genre SF publisher would publish such hard science fiction as what he wanted to write because it was hard science fiction, and no genre SF publisher would publish it either because they believed there was not enough of a potential genre market for what he wanted to write because it wasn’t genre SF?

Worse still, could he be right?

If so, this would seem to be condition terminal for not only hard science fiction, but for seriously speculative genre SF, and perhaps even true speculative fiction itself. And if that should happen, in the not so distant future, for the concept of forward-looking multiplex futures itself.

That’s the ultimate bad news.

But the inevitable good news is that this is the Golden Age of Astronomy, and therefore the good news is that it can only be temporary. Once the existence of extrasolar cultures is confirmed, or maybe even just biospheres—that we know exist out there, although we don't know much else  about them—speculative fiction cannot help but be the central cultural literature, because anything else cannot be existentially front and center.

A long time ago I was told that science fiction, like any literary movement, had a beginning, an apex, and then an end. At the time, I didn’t believe the speaker, or maybe didn’t understand what he was really saying.

But now I do.

“Science fiction” may be on its way to the endgame as a genre, and even the name might disappear. But if speculative fiction disappears in the face of that reality, Homo sapiens will have lost the Transformation Crisis and be on the way out.

The future we get is the future we make.

Copyright © 2021 Norman Spinrad

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