The future has been canceled (2010-01-23)




Today I dropped by my local library, the Mt. Lebanon Public Library to return a book (Susan Cooper's Seaward, for those of you keeping score at home). As is my habit, I swung by the Science Fiction section to browse. That didn't work out so well this time, because there no longer is a Science Fiction section. Instead there is an alarming orange sign informing alarmed readers that, "Science Fiction books are being shelved with the Fiction books".

Picture of sign: Science Fiction books are being shelved with the Fiction books.

The non-alarmed among my readers are doubtless thinking, "So what?". Why does Science Fiction deserve an independent section, as opposed to Historical Fiction, Romance Fiction, or Russian Fiction? That's a fair question. People are certainly entitled to enjoy other kinds of fiction more than SF. Also, there is an argument that interspersing different kinds of fiction on a shelf breaks down barriers by helping readers discover they enjoy a wide variety of books. So what's the problem?

I think that Science Fiction is different. Science Fiction is the literature of the future, and we all aspire to living in the future. In fact, we have no choice but to live in the future, which makes it very important that we make intelligent choices about which future we live in. Ideas take a long time to percolate through society. If we're going to possess the technology for complete surveillance (and we are!), we need to think (for decades) about how to use that technology and limit its uses, so it's a good thing we've been reading 1984. If we're going to possess the technology to edit the human genome in ways which could split humanity into subspecies (and we will!), we need to think (for decades) about that, so it's a good thing we've been reading Brave New World (and also, hopefully, Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix Plus).

In other words, I'm claiming that, just as your local library probably has a Travel section among the non-fiction shelves, we are well advised to have a "Travel to the Future" section, depicting both places to visit and places to avoid, somewhere. That "somewhere" is necessarily part of Fiction. Why should it be (despite the choice of my town's library staff) a separate, free-standing section? I think that thinking about the future is a good habit which should be encouraged, and the emphasis provided by an independent shelf helps. But beyond that I think it is beneficial for the various (and varied) visions of the future to sit side-by-side on a shelf, jockying for our attention, belief, and commitment (or rejection). Just as our hands pick one book or the next, we will choose to emphasize, develop, or restrict the engineering, social, and political technologies which will shape our future.

Maybe you buy my shelving argument and maybe you don't. But while I have your attention (however that happened), I'd like to discuss something else on my mind. Some people enjoy reading about possible futures. Sometimes Science Fiction is derided as escapist literature, and there is some truth to that. People who aren't escapists, or who find other escapes more enticing than SF, should be forgiven for not reading all the SF, or even all the good SF, that's out there. But there are some SF books which I wish "non-SF" people would read. I believe they're well-written and address timely topics; they're about people, not laser guns.

Deepness in the Sky (Vernor Vinge)
I think this is a great book about the nature of authority, the potential malleability of human society, and an important reminder that the sweep of human history, which has already outlived the collapse of particular civilizations, probably will again. The aliens are alien but oddly approachable. Other works by Vinge: Marooned in Realtime embeds the (possible) end of history known as the Singularity in a detective story (or the other way around); Rainbows End examines the near-future implications of an internetworked world.
Fountains of Paradise (Arthur C. Clarke)
This book is carefully crafted by a masterful writer. It's a plausible, non-confrontational reminder of how engineering developments (and choices) quietly change the course of history. The particular technology envisioned is probably less than 20 years away (as of 2010). Another recommendation: Songs of Distant Earth (in what sense might we have an interstellar civilization if we're stuck with slower-than-light travel?).
Schismatrix Plus (Bruce Sterling)
This book contains medium-length, approachable stories exploring what it means to be human when humanity has, and uses, the power to reshape our species.
Ophiuchi Hotline (John Varley)
What should we do if we don't matter? What could we do if if immensely powerful, totally inscrutable aliens invaded our solar system and threw us permanently off of Earth, leaving us to eke out an existence on the least-desirable real estate in the solar system? Actually, we could probably live interesting, fruitful lives--even if they would be odd from the perspective of present-day humans. What kind of lives should we try to lead?
Becoming Alien (Rebecca Ore)
There's an old joke about a final exam in Philosophy: there is just one question, which is "Define 'Universe'. Give two examples". Rebecca Ore, who I believe deserves greater recognition, examines who we are by comparing us to what we aren't. If you like this book, there are two sequels which I think are worthwhile.
Four Ways to Forgiveness (Ursula K. LeGuin)
Ursula LeGuin is a powerful and highly skilled writer. This book contains four stories about freedom, bravery, and responsibility. Science Fiction allows the author to set the stage as she wishes; in her universe (as in ours!), technology makes different futures possible, but what determines humanity's fate is the choices we make.

Back when my library had a Science Fiction section, people could drop by to study the future. I don't believe the future has been canceled; if Vernor Vinge (among others) is right, we have more choices, and less time to make each one, than those who came before us. I think we'd be better off if our future histories were collected and displayed for review on a single shelf. Otherwise I won't be browsing my library's SF collection, and I don't think anybody else will, either.



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