Rick Poynor | Essays

Everything has Become Science Fiction

The Funhouse, 1959. Cover illustration by Ben Shahn

On the back of my office door I have a poster produced by product design students at the Royal College of Art in London for their degree show a couple of years ago. It consists of just two sentences: “Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the new century.”

The speaker was the visionary British SF writer J. G. Ballard and the students, participants in a group called Platform 11, cheated a bit. What Ballard actually said, writing in 1971, was “the 20th century,” but no great harm is done because his point is even more relevant today than it was 40 years ago. Everything has become science fiction. In both positive and negative senses, we are living in a version of the future that mid-20th century SF writers dreamed about. The digital world is thrilling. Could there be a more SF consumer product than the iPad? Meanwhile, unrepentant, unrestrained turbo-capitalism speeds us towards dystopian catastrophe.

That leaves science fiction, always a marginal, lowbrow and unfairly underrated genre, in a curious position. Many people, particularly those who never read SF, view it as primarily a literature of prediction, offering fantastic panoramic visions of how life might be in the future. SF’s first great writer, H. G. Wells, was a brilliant predictor and early SF abounds with images of new technology, new vehicles and new forms communication, incredible cities and interplanetary travel.

But another purpose of SF — the task that engaged the late J. G. Ballard — was to probe and understand the present by extrapolating new social, technological and media developments into the near future to see what they tell us about ourselves. This is SF as social criticism rather than as a naively optimistic R&D dept.

In the January issue of Wired (UK), two columnists argue the case for the different kinds of SF. Russell M. Davies hankers after some inspiring future possibilities from writers like William Gibson who have given up on speculation because the complexities of the present make prediction too difficult now. “We want [SF writers] to predict,” writes Davies, “because we want to know what future to build.”

His colleague Warren Ellis takes the extrapolatory view. “Science fiction has other work to do, the work of showing us where we’re really living and who we really are.” The best SF can hope to offer now, he suggests, is a three-minute-warning siren. I’m with Ellis on this one, on balance, though warnings can be as hard to get right as prediction.

“In this biting and satiric novel,” runs the back cover blurb of The Funhouse (1959), “a major American writer looks forward to the day — surely not far away — when machines have taken over all the productive work, the government consists of a battery of Thinking Machines, and the people are turned loose on a perpetual spree . . . this is the America of the Future, a whole country transformed into one gigantic playland.”

So, in Benjamin Appel’s Pleasure State of 2039, the two-hour workday will be optional thanks to the liberating machines. We don’t hear so much about that idea these days. 

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [4]

Science fiction, or its clunky brother "speculative fiction," has never been a real predictor of the future. It's an engine of wonder. Sci-Fi has always been a hope-and-fear shadow-play of where we are now.

It's like assessing the Errol Flynn Robin Hood vs. Russell Crowe's—their depictions (green tights or leather?) say more about the time the films were made than they do about the abstract character of Robin Hood.

Then again—what is a reliable predictor of the future? Check out 15-year-old Wired magazines and see which predictions came true.
Loyd Boldman

Just wait till nanotech gets here.

Food = N, C, O, H, S, & P - 3 of those can be pulled from the air, 1 from water, and the others are trace - or pulled from your excrement.

Computer chips? Si and trace elements, ie: sand.

How much stuff that's made of metal do you need? Many houses are made of wood (uhh, food in a different format, ask a termite) Clothing? Infinitely recyclable into brand-new fashions.

Of course the corps and gov will hate this, and shut it down as much as possible. And with sensors the size of dust-particles, with automated face recognition systems - you don't even need to pay watchers, nor shock-troop goons. You can automate your command and control and keep the sheep in line without hiring guards.

That's going to come as a real nasty surprise to some military contractors, prison guards, & cops. Probably gonna hit the firemen too. They're going to be really unhappy when they're unemployed, unemployable, and ending up behind bars (or dusted).

My favorite comment along these lines is that of the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who once declared at a conference: "I don't try to predict the future. I try to prevent it."
James Sanders

Very nice, James. I also like this observation from the theorist Donna Haraway: "the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion." ("A Cyborg Manifesto," 1991)
Rick Poynor

Jobs | July 12