Plastic Futures

Everything ages, and I hope that we can all accept that. Science Fiction is not immune to this. Indeed, it easily falls afoul of time easily by depicting futures which never come to pass and could never have happened. Even when we acknowledge the dictum that SF is always about the present this problem is not wholly solved. We can consider it side-stepped, and made to go away until some future reader looks back without any of the information it was assumed the reader possessed when the story was first written.

If we accept that all science fiction will overtime become more impenetrable to new readers we have to ask how can we deal with this? Yes, we can ignore the problem and carry on telling stories without caring about how legible they are in the future, or we can start to think about how our fictional futures might age and use this to form an understanding of how these stories work. I think that as a first step we can divide our science fictions into two broad categories: the plastic and the organic futures.

(Now this isn’t meant to be a value judgement on the quality of different types of SF; more a comment on the longevity and how the enjoyment of a story will be spread out over time. Please don’t shoot me!)

Organic futures are science fictions which are eclipsed by the real world soon after publication. They are not necessarily predictive, although they may be, but the quality that may best be assigned to them is that they are perceptive. They are intense reads about futures which fall apart five, ten years after publication. Our memories of these stories and the principle enjoyment we gain from them is rooted in their freshness and originality. However overtime these stories become less accessible and enjoyably to new readers. I would argue that the classic works of John Brunner such as: ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ and ‘The Shockwave Rider’ would typify this category. Another writer who works in this spectrum I would suggest is Charles Stross.

Plastic futures are the stories disconnected from the present. They are as enjoyable on the day of publication as they are a generation later. They have long half-lives1. A consequence of this is that they can possess less of an emotional resonance than more organic stories, but the effect that they have is longer lasting as the concepts and themes which these stories tackle are broader than more organic stories. My suggestion for a writers who’s work appears in this category would be Issac Asimov and Iain M. Banks.

Of course there are stories which are neither wholly plastic or organic. 1984 is one example of a novel which has, I think, lost none of its relevance since its 1948 publication.

I discuss this topic because I think that it is a worthwhile way to analyse science fiction. Asking if a proposed future is organic or plastic looks at our relationship with science fiction stories. Do we want futures that last forever, or do we want violent bursts of the future for five minutes?

1 I was tempted to use a radioactive metaphor originally, but I like plastic more. To elaborate, organic futures are like uranium which is energetic and gives off radiation freely until it decays into lead, and plastic futures are like gold and stable and hard to tarnish.

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