To some people, science fiction is a toy-box packed with neat gadgets and shiny gewgaws, which they pull out and deploy in service to their story. They need, for example, a locale in which certain events happen a certain way, so they invent an alien world. That alien world needs to be distant, so some form of travel to reach it is required. And since distance in most people’s minds equates to time taken to reach the destination, some type of long-journey travel is required. To early writers of science fiction, there was only one model they could use: sea travel. And that worked pretty well because distant lands were exotic, and the distance – ie, journey time – itself was a signifier of exoticism.
Initially, Mars was pretty distant, but as we learned more about the Red Planet, so it became closer and less “colourful”. Locales in sf thus moved further afield. But by that point, the limits of the knowledge of the time had been reached, so imagination took over. The worlds were made-up, with no basis in reality. The universe itself became a fiction.
We now know a great deal more about the universe than we did in the 1920s and 1930s. We know that it is unimaginably vast, that the distances between stars preclude any meaningful relationship in human terms. The universe is no longer a fit place on which to map distant shores and strange new lands.
We also have over fifty years actual space travel, and we know how difficult it is to keep alive in space the fragile human organism and to travel useful distances in useful times. We also know there is an enormously expensive barrier between our world and the rest of the universe: our gravity well.
The spaceship-as-ocean-liner trope belongs to the fictional universe, not the real one. But the metaphor for the journey to far-off places has become so embedded in genre that it’s used as if it were no more than setting – as if it were a signifier of the genre itself. And while sf writers over the decades have rung a variety of changes over the spaceship trope – inventing new and more imaginative ways to explain how it circumvents the real universe, how it can traverse those distances beyond imagination in an eyeblink – the spaceship still operates very much as it did back in sf’s earliest days.
Except now, the spaceship trope is not enough. Now it has to be disguised, by referring to it metaphorically.
I work in computing, so the illustration of this which works best for me is that of the operating system. An OS is, according to Operating Systems Design and Implementation, by Andrew S Tannenbaum and Albert S Woodhull, a fundamental system program “which controls the computer’s resources and provides the base upon which the application programs can be written”. In the beginning, as Neal Stephenson once said, was the command line. Using it, computer operators could call on programs which would perform specific tasks. They understood that listing files from an area of the filesystem entailed reading data embedded in a magnetic media and then rendering that data in a human-readable format. But when computers moved onto the desks of business people and then into the home, that knowledge was unnecessary. Worse, it was potentially confusing. So someone invented the idea of a metaphor to represent the data on the magnetic media and the programs which performed operations on the data: the Graphical User Interface. (Invented by Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in 1973.) A GUI such as Windows or OS X or X11 is a metaphor which allows users to easily and simply perform complex operations on a computer using its built-in resources.
An interesting aside: several people have researched, and even built, orthogonally persistent operating systems. These are ones which run entirely in memory, and the complete memory-state is flashed to persistent storage (disk, flash card, etc) at regular and frequent intervals. Should the computer crash, the last memory-state image can be loaded back into memory, and the user returns to exactly where they were before the crash. The interesting thing about an orthogonally persistent operating system is that it needs a new metaphor. The existing one has become uncoupled from the underlying reality. The orthogonally persistent OS does not keep files in folders on a disk because it doesn’t need to put data way somewhere safe while it’s not in use. It doesn’t need to organise the stored data so it can be navigated. Everything is in use all the time. So it has a workspace, and everything is accessible within it all the time.
This concept of the operating system metaphor is one of the chief problems I had with cyberpunk as a subgenre – aside from its uncritical use, and tacit approval, of neoliberalism, of course. It took the metaphor that was the GUI and then layered another metaphor, cyberspace, on top of it. Cyberpunk writers wrote about the metaphor as if it were the thing itself.
And that’s what I see some twenty-first century sf writers doing. They’ve taken sf’s tropes, and are not only using them as if they were the thing itself but are adding a layer of metaphor on top. So when you dig deep into the story, you don’t find reality, you find a metaphor which has become uncoupled from its underlying reality. This is how I interpreted Paul Kincaid’s reference to “exhaustion”.
Personally, I think understanding how something works is key to learning how to do it better. It’s important to my development as a writer, I feel, to know what science fiction does, how it does it, and in what ways I can bend or break or subvert it to best effect. The uncritical use of tropes, and subsequent disguising of them, doesn’t appeal to me as a technique for writing sf. It pushes all the emphasis to the presentation layer, to the prose. Yes, good prose is important, I appreciate good writing. And I like to think my prose is good. But choosing pretty words is not enough for me.
I would sooner explore science fiction itself. I think as a genre we’ve stopped doing that. We’re either playing postmodernist shellgames, or metaphorising the metaphors, or deep-mining the genre for tropes as if those tropes were its sole raison d’être. Some might say these are indicators of decadence. Perhaps they are. But I don’t think it means science fiction is dead or dying, just that it needs a good kick up the bum…