How to read science fiction? Why did Microsoft invite writers to its secret laboratories? What role did “Star Wars” play in popularizing the sci-fi genre?
It is more interesting to see not what the science fiction writers predicted, but what “elephants” they missed
One of the biggest such elephants is computers, or rather the trend towards their miniaturization. If we look at American science fiction of the 1940s and 1960s, computers are becoming more and more common. Let’s recall the famous story of the British fiction writer Arthur Clarke “Nine Billion Names of God”. There, the computer is such a gigantic giant, capable of the most complex calculations, which is asked the fundamental questions of humanity. Or Harlan Ellison’s canonical story “I Have a Mouth, But I Can’t Scream”: there’s a computer the size of a planet. The real story turned out to be quite different.
Another “elephant” about which science fiction writers did not particularly think is probably the Internet. Global communications often took the form of sophisticated technologies using objects similar to walkie-talkies; some thought of telepathy. But for some reason, the world wide information network did not particularly occur to the minds of science fiction writers.
Also, science fiction writers tend to depict technologies as if they successively replace each other. Although we know from life that what Henry Jenkis calls convergence occurs more often: old and new technologies coexist in the same way that in a world where cars fly, horses may very well exist.
However, the most interesting blind spot for me as a philologist is that science fiction practically does not reflect art and culture, including, in fact, literature itself. It turns out that they do not fantasize about what they are doing: it is quite paradoxical. Of course, writers, artists, musicians become heroes of science fiction. But writers rarely understand, in fact, the role of a writer who creates fantastic worlds. Perhaps this happened historically: scientists and inventors often became the heroes of science fiction works. It was their activities that were considered important for global political or social change, rather than art and cultural practices.
The question of how science fiction affects the world around us is very popular, but it is almost impossible to answer it
We can talk about a literal one-way influence: we know several stories about how famous inventors admit in interviews or autobiographies that they read Jules Verne or H. W. Wells as children and, inspired, chose a path in life that led to discoveries. Here, Elon Musk likes to say in interviews that he read novels by Asimov, Heinlein and others as a child, they inspired him to become what he has become. But in essence, these are historical anecdotes. But the situation becomes much more complicated when we understand that the images, ideas, and concepts of writers can enter various production chains, passing through an extremely difficult path, where there are many stops and branches.
There are known cases when manufacturers of certain technologies try to appeal to science fiction, as if creating a sense of recognition and fulfillment of expectations in the audience. From the screen we are told: “The future is here.” And they offer a supposedly new product wrapped in science fiction iconography. There are cases where manufacturers try to initiate this influence. For example, in 2014, Microsoft invited writers into its secret labs to show what it was working on. It was supposed to be such a motivator of imagination – each writer, reflecting on what he saw, would write something amazing, and the developers would read and be even more inspired. In essence, it worked simply as commercial advertising, although the project had a condition that the writers would write for free. Apparently, the lack of a fee also played a role in the fact that
Similar initiatives have arisen before: in 2011, the famous writer Neil Stevenson launched the “Hieroglyph” project with a social activist link. It was supposed to assemble a team of writers that would generate a positive and more humane perspective on the development of the world and society than is usually possible for science fiction writers. Several collections were released, also interesting in their own way.
I tell this in order to show: the question of influence can be asked in very different ways. Including the word “influence” can be understood very differently. For example, a dispute, a challenge is also an influence. Here is an extremely bright and unexpected example. In the movie “The Fifth Element” there is an iconic scene: the blue alien first performs Donizetti’s aria from the opera “Lucia di Lammermoor”, and then switches to a composition written especially for this film by the composer Eric Serra. This aria was specially written so that a person could not perform it: each note was recorded separately, which is why the aria was so impressive. But what happened to time? People took the fantastic scene as a challenge, began to train and gradually got closer to the original, see for yourself on YouTube.
Science fiction is not about the future, it is always about our present
Herbert Wells wrote a very unusual, innovative and very short novel in his own way – “The Time Machine”. The hero, sitting in one room, instantly moves between ages and millennia. I tried to imagine how a reader of the 20th century, unfamiliar with neither airplanes nor hypervelocities, should have perceived this text. It must have been a strange experience. In this situation, the writer appeared to be the one preparing the reader for the changes that would take place over many years. He seems to have contributed to the adaptation to modernity, which was just beginning to come: certainly, people at the beginning of the 20th century felt that the world was beginning to change at an alarming speed, and this speed was increasing. In the preface to the reprint of the novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin says that science fiction, of course, does not predict and show the world of the future. Science fiction involves a metaphorical reading of modernity, it is a metaphor for the problems, sensations, feelings of a person who lives here and now. A few years later, this opinion was reproduced by the philologist, scientist, researcher of science fiction Fredric Jamison: he noted that science fiction does not show the future, but presents the present as the past of something future. The point is the same: science fiction conveys the experience we are currently living through the lens of our projection into the future. Accordingly, there is literally no point in reading fiction: it is the most frustrating experience, because it becomes outdated in 5-8 years. But if you read it metaphorically, it turns out to be much more productive. scientist, science fiction researcher Fredric Jamieson: he noted that science fiction does not show the future, but presents the present as the past of something to come. The point is the same: science fiction conveys the experience we are currently living through the lens of our projection into the future. Accordingly, there is literally no point in reading fiction: it is the most frustrating experience, because it becomes outdated in 5-8 years. But if you read it metaphorically, it turns out to be much more productive. scientist, science fiction researcher Fredric Jamieson: he noted that science fiction does not show the future, but presents the present as the past of something to come. The point is the same: science fiction conveys the experience we are currently living through the lens of our projection into the future. Accordingly, there is literally no point in reading fiction: it is the most frustrating experience, because it becomes outdated in 5-8 years. But if you read it metaphorically, it turns out to be much more productive. it is the most disappointing experience as it gets old in 5-8 years. But if you read it metaphorically, it turns out to be much more productive. it is the most disappointing experience as it gets old in 5-8 years. But if you read it metaphorically, it turns out to be much more productive.
Because the world around us is made of words. Science fiction offers a new language to describe the world around. Case in point: the word “rocket” originally meant a projectile, sometimes a weapon. It takes a science fiction writer to reinvent the projectile as a form of transportation: Jules Verne sends his characters to and around the moon in a cannonball. That is, the imagination of the writer was needed, that is. a person who works with words to make a metaphorical transfer – from weapons, from projectiles to transport. The same thing happened with the word “ship”. The phrase “spaceship”, which seems natural to us, arose only at the beginning of the 20th century, when writers were faced with the need to talk about something unfamiliar: about space. And then space was associated with the sea, and what moves through space with a ship. Further, the cultural meanings carried by the concept of a ship as a vessel that sails the seas and explores unknown lands was transferred to a spaceship. And it turned out that spaceships are doing the same thing as Columbus. They open America, new fronts. Why was this necessary? To domesticate and approximate the unknown.
Cyberpunk remains relevant, so it helps people make sense of their experiences. For example, the experience of disembodied communication
Cyberpunk has become a phenomenon that seems to have arisen not only in literature, but also in cinema and some other forms of art. This is a transmedia phenomenon: when we talk about cyberpunk, we mean not only plots, some narrative structures, but it has a special visual aesthetic associated with fogs, some underworlds, detectives in cloaks, something in general, noir. Neon. And with oriental hieroglyphs and so on.
I think that in the history of science fiction, the very idea that text immediately evokes visual associations probably originated in the late 1970s with Star Wars. The film made science fiction for the first time in the life of this genre a mass phenomenon, accompanied by a lot of visual associations and narrative paths. A similar story happened with cyberpunk: it immediately captured very different media spheres.
The main cyberpunk novel “Neuromancer” was published in 1986. He defined a new kind of science fiction: before him it was one, and then it became another. It should be borne in mind that in the first half of the 1980s there was a struggle between different groups of writers. One was led by cyberpunks William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and in the other group, the so-called group of humanists – the main figure was Kim Stanley Robinson. Literary awards came first – you can trace how one group receives the prestigious prize for a short story, another for a novel, then again for a short story, and finally, William Gibson takes the top prize for a novel. Everyone, victory. And then, as you know, in the early nineties, Bruce Sterling unexpectedly announced that cyberpunk was dead.
What a strange fate from avant-garde to death in a few years? It is clear that “death” did not mean that no one writes like that now. Vice versa. But the genre stabilized, all the socio-critical pathos left, a set of persistent visual and narrative conventions remained: fog, cigarette, raincoat, neon, hieroglyphs, etc. The very fact that we can enumerate it so easily became a symptom for Sterling that the living phenomenon had ended, leaving only a set of stamps that could be produced endlessly. Of course, the writer here behaves as a “gatekeeper” who wants to dictate the rules of the game. He acts as a bearer of some truth about how it really should be.
But if the images begin to be actively conventionalized and find a response in the audience, this indicates that there is definitely “something” in them. They convey a specific experience that is important to a wider audience. Probably, this experience is no longer necessarily connected with the criticism of capitalism or the fight against transnational corporations. Perhaps we are talking about a more “eternal” or intimate experience that we can imagine for ourselves with the help of cyberpunk images. For example, bodily-intimate experience. Cyberpunk asks what corporeality is without a body. Or contact without touch, which virtual space “allows” us. Out-of-body communication is probably something we both want and fear.