Science fiction and futurism

While I was completely absorbed in reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, someone else saw me reading it and said that she had started it and had given up. When I asked why, she said that she did not like science fiction in general. But Atwood herself in some interviews has rejected the label of science fiction for her work, saying that she prefers to call it ‘futuristic’. She says that she is merely extrapolating from today’s science to see what the future might be like and that she does not postulate any radical new scientific ideas.

This started me thinking about the difference, if any, between the genres represented by those two labels. It is not easy to draw a line separating the two.

It seems like if the plots involve development of things like time travel, or the ability to quickly travel intergalactic distances by means of hitherto unknown mechanisms (hyperspace, wormholes, and the like), or human-like robots or fully developed artificial intelligence, then people immediately classify such stories as science fiction, because as yet there seems to be no way of realizing such things.

On the other hand, a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Arthur C. Clarke’s books in general) did not incorporate spectacular new scientific developments either but also just extended the science we have now. So using Atwood’s definition, we might call those things futuristic too, not science fiction.

Any story that involves contact with extra-terrestrial beings also seems to be automatically considered science fiction, though this need not necessarily involve any major new scientific developments.

It seems to me that while authors of both genres try to predict what the future will be like, the difference might lie in the extent to which developments in science and technology based on extrapolations from the present dominate the narrative. Futuristic stories are those that focus on people and try to predict how society will respond to future conditions, and do not depend that much on some new scientific or technological development to serve as a deus ex machina to solve some problem in plot development.

Conversely, those stories for which the scientific and technological developments are the main source of plot development and interest might be called science fiction.

But pinning down the labels is not a very fruitful exercise. What is clear from either genre is that predicting the future is hard. The easiest way is to extrapolate the present and this can be done in an optimistic utopian way or pessimistic dystopian way.

In the latter case, for example, we might imagine a future in which global warming is unchecked and in which rising oceans and warm temperatures and changing climate have completely changed the global landscape, submerging the currently densely populated coastal areas, and shifting populations and political power to entirely different parts of the globe. Or we might see a future in which we run out of energy and have polluted our world, with fresh water supplies depleted, the land depleted of its nutrients with resulting lower crop yields, and the population being reduced to a much lower standard of living, except perhaps for a small elite. In other words, we might in essence retreat to a medieval model with a few nobles living well and almost everyone else living as peasants. This dystopian model cannot avoid having constant battles between nation-like entities over scarce resources or brutal suppression of the majority to preserve the privileges of the elite.

An optimistic vision might see us as having successfully harnessed new forms of sustainable power (say solar) and united to conserve water, land, and resources, and controlling population growth, resulting in greater well being for the vast majority. I can only see this happening with the kind of global cooperation that comes from some kind of world government, that sees the futility and waste that comes from wars and competing for scarce resources.

One lesson that I have learned from reading science fiction is that if I ever write such a story to not put a date on it. Those writers rash enough to put a date on their creations (1984, 2001) have seen those dates come and go with few of the technological innovations realized, though the human and political questions are still relevant.

Extrapolating the future from the past is risky. For example, in the early days of computers, more power came with larger computers. Early science fiction writers correctly saw that computers would revolutionize life as they became more powerful, but they mistakenly extrapolated that early trend and made the computers of the future more and more massive, and this led to computers becoming large and looming and malevolent presences, as in the films Colossus: The Forbin Project and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Computers became Darth Vader-like entities.

As far as I know, although miniaturization was an idea that was around (for example in the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage) as far as I know no futurist or science fiction writer applied that idea to computers, or foresaw personal computers or communication networks such as the internet, and the democratizing potential of such networks. I know that many of this blog’s readers are much more knowledgeable about this genre than I am and I hope they will correct me on this if I am wrong.

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  1. dave says

    I think Oryx and Crake is best described as ‘speculative fiction.’

    From wikipedia:

    Speculative fiction is a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history.

  2. says

    …as far as I know no futurist or science fiction writer applied that idea to computers, or foresaw personal computers or communication networks such as the internet, and the democratizing potential of such networks.

    Off the top of my head, I’d say William Gibson fits the bill. When the infant internet was less than two years old, he coined the term “cyberspace” and described in his fiction a visually operated, globally interconnected computer network (about which he also used the term “matrix”). His fiction further imagined that such a development would change human society to such a great extent as to rival both the advent of the automobile, and even cities.

    If we can credit Gibson with the forsight you’re speaking of -- and I think we can -- it’s not too big a jump to find other “science fiction” writers who were similarly prescient. The two easiest jumps, at least insofar as Wikipedia readily suggests, are John Brunner (most specifically his novel The Shockwave Rider) and J.C.R. Licklider. While “Lick” was not a science fiction author, his work and writings might be appropriately called “futurist.”

    I’d also like to suggest Arthur C. Clarke, but I’m not sure that any specific one of the great ideas in his fiction was original to him, and more than a few of his predictions might yet prove accurate, but have so far not seen realization in the real world.

  3. says


    His short-story collection “Burning Chrome” is a great place to start. If you want to check out what I consider to be the best sci-fi trilogy I’ve ever read, two of the short stories in the collection (Burning Chrome itself, and also Johnny Neumonic) are an excellent lead-in to Neuromancer. I find Neuromancer to be a thrilling read, and it’s easy to want to pick up the next book in the series once you finish the last page.

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