Friday, January 3, 2014

Science Fiction Universes That Become Historically Incorrect Are Not Alternative History

First, let's all agree that science fiction is awesome (how many tech entrepreneurs today can't rattle off a list of their favorite novels based on the ideas within?) but the predictions are not all that astonishingly accurate. A currently circulating article of Isaac Asimov's 1964 predictions for the 2014 World's Fair has been combed its accurate predictions - but these have to be considered in light of the total denominator of all predictions he made. There are a lot of clunkers in there. (Glowing wall panels? Polarized touch-sensitive windows?) Yes, there are some good ones. But we need a science fiction version of Bonferroni correction; i.e., a broken clock is right twice a day.

People have been writing science fiction as a self-conscious genre unto itself for close to a century now, which means a lot of the basic political and technological realities of the world have changed in the meantime. Ender's Game referred to the Soviet Union dominating Europe in the novel's past; in Card's defense, he does later (after the Cold War ended) explain that actually it's the New Soviet Union. Old Isaac himself more than once in his robot novels has a scientist, in the midst of artificial intelligences and domed cities, whipping out a slide rule to do calculations. It seems an easy solution to this is that these are science fiction writers, and they're not perfect, and they don't have crystal balls. Even the climate around how certain topics could be addressed in respectable prose changed during Asimov's lifetime, i.e. sex, and he (quite honestly, I think!) justifies his characters' differing treatment of the subject within the novel has his characters address this within the story. But critics insist on inventing ways of interpreting what are clearly missed targets as having some literary meaning.

Outside of science fiction, an egregious example is the insistence by some of the literati that Shakespeare's use of anachronism was deliberate. For example, in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's Rome has chimneys and books and toga pockets. But these things just did not exist in Caesar's Rome. And Occam's razor applies here as well: there's no meaning, no point Shakespeare is making; he wasn't even consciously trying to make his audience more comfortable. He's a sixteenth century English writer, and he made a mistake, relative to historical fact, and that's fine - because he wasn't a Near East anthropologist, and he wasn't writing historical textbooks. Maybe it's more interesting to believe he had some purpose, but only rarely do the imaginations of critics of any genre match up with the conscious designs of the art's producers. Listen to any popular musician being interviewed about the deep meanings in their lyrics and this becomes obvious and uncomfortable.

I've seen critics living in the same region of fairy-land claim that we can think of science fiction universes with an ascendant Soviet Union, or future scientists with slide rules, as alternative histories. As much of a devotee of that sub-genre as I am personally, that's foolish, and here's why. Alternative history is explicitly about the importance of specific events in history to the real, based on the implications of their having occurred differently. There's a control and an experimental condition. The intent of the author matters, because it is the basis of what the work is for. David Wingrove's Chung Kuo is about a China-dominated world of the future, but it's not explicitly in contrast to any other world we expect, even if (like 1984) it's not one most of us would want to live in. On the other hand, Harry Turtledove's Southern Victory series stands in contrast to the world the writer and authors know to be real, and the author and the text clearly know that, and she or he makes points on that basis. Turtledove knows what's actually relevant to us in 2014 and how that might have been different, and he uses the book to tell us. Wingrove doesn't know what will be relevant in 2200, so the back can't be consumed that way.

My favorite incorrect future (unintentional alternate history) that I've read recently is Better Days: Or, a Millionaire of To-Morrow by Thomas Fitch, written in late Belle Epoque San Diego (although the epoque might not have been so belle here) which anticipates world peace breaking out with the invention of weapons of mass destruction, out of fear of terrorists. (If only.) Kim Stanley Robinson has darkly opined that anyone writing today about a near-future Earth without climate change must know that they are writing alternative history. It's clear what he's saying here, but they're not writing alternative history: they're human, and they're just not able to see the whole future clearly, even when parts of it are already set in stone.

Another trick is explaining didn't-come-true science fiction written in the past as crypto-history - this is what really happened, but it's been kept from us. Again, this is an interesting way to think about the text, but it still doesn't tell us anything about the author's intentions or indeed how best to enjoy the work. This is how (for hardcore fans who cared) Star Trek explained the apparent absence of the Eugenics Wars in the real 1990s, which the original show mentioned. (You know who I haven't noticed leading legions of genetically superior followers to conquer Asia? KHAAAAAN!) It's also the basis of the narrative in All Nightmare Long, the second-best Metallica video ever. Come on, it has the Tunguska blast!

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