Saturday, September 16, 2017

Where Did Far-Future Science Fiction Go?

Many of the most beloved science fiction series of the 20th century are set thousands or even millions of years in the future: Frank Herbert's Dune series, Ursula Le Guin's Hainish Cycle (which includes The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed), Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, and so on.

By comparison, relatively few science fiction stories written in the last 20 years take place more than a couple hundred years in the future and most take place in the 21st century.

Where did all the far-future science fiction go?

This is a question I've thought about a lot lately.  I recently re-read the last book in the Dune series and am working my way through the delightfully/impossibly difficult Book of the New Sun, which my Goodreads review describes as "like taking an acid trip through a thesaurus."

These days far-future stuff is harder to find.  There's even a popular genre of science fiction that takes place in the past: steampunk.  Contemporary readers will call a book "far future" if it takes place a mere few hundred years or even sooner. See this list of allegedly "far future" science fiction that puts Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 on the list, and even more weirdly, Charles Stross's Accelerando.  One of the main complaints about Neal Stephenson's Seveneves was that people didn't care for the the part that takes place in thousands of years (which for the record was my favorite part -- see my review for more).

Given the domination of superheroes and dystopia in our cinemas, it's hard to think of a big budget science fiction movie in recent years that takes place more than one thousand years in the future (maybe parts of Cloud Atlas?).

It's not that there's no far-future science fiction these days.  Ann Leckie's far-future Ancillary Justice won the Nebula and Hugo in 2014, and Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit was a Hugo finalist this year.  And there was plenty of near-future or contemporary science fiction back in the day.

But still, it seems to me that far-future science fiction is not as big as it used to be, particularly works in which our contemporary world is a distant memory, myth and legend, or entirely forgotten.

Why is that?  One hypothesis is that we simply don't like to think that we might be forgotten by our descendants in the distant future.  In the Dune universe, you have to be a god-like spice addict to remember anything about us.

Another hypothesis is that for whatever reason what I call Engineers' SF has been more popular these days.  The most salient recent example is Andy Weir's The Martian.  Engineers' SF focuses on technical problem solving, almost always in a contemporary or near future setting, which allows authors to explore the latest science and technology and their probable extensions.  A lot of science fiction fans see the genre as basically a predictive enterprise, and given the proliferation of cool new technologies like smart phones and the internet, it's maybe natural to wonder where it will all go.  But we still don't have flying cars or bases on the moon or Mars.  Maybe Weir will help us get there.

A third hypothesis is that fantasy has been a lot more popular in recent decades, thanks to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies as well as massive tome producing fantasy authors like George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and their many protégées and wannabes.  Far-future science fiction, thanks to Clarke's Third Law, often reads more like fantasy than near-future science fiction.  A lot of Le Guin's Hainish novels are like this.  I'm almost through Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun (which I will review soon), but that's a great example of science fiction masquerading as fantasy.  So is Rosemary Kirstein's The Steerswoman.  The greatest contemporary example is N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy (I haven't gotten to the last book yet, but you can see my reviews of parts one and two).  Will Jemisin lead a return to far-future science fiction masquerading as fantasy?  Maybe only the future will tell.

So my thought is that, with notable exceptions, more traditional fantasy has basically supplanted far-future science fiction for most denizens of fandom; if you want to spend time in a world radically different than our own, why not just go to a fantasy realm?

My fourth hypothesis is that far-future science fiction tends to be rather difficult.  You have to immerse yourself in a world really different from our own, often without the fairy tale tropes of fantasy.  There are few, if any, touchstones from contemporary reality in worlds where that reality may be entirely forgotten.  It's going to be weird.  And difficult.  And not immediately rewarding.  You will have to work for whatever rewards there are.  As science fiction and fantasy fandom has expanded to include more casual fans and more easily digestible film and TV options, it may be that the appetite for difficult literary works has decreased, if not in actual numbers but in influence within the genre.  Or maybe not.  Again, Jemisin's success may belie this point, as her Broken Earth books are as complex as Le Guin's or Herbert's.  (I'll leave Gene Wolfe and Samuel Delany as the undisputed champions of difficult SF).

Whatever the causes of the decline of far-future science fiction may be, what's the harm?  Don't such fashions come and go?

One harm is that if you think of science fiction as basically a predictor of future technology set in the near future, that stuff will get stale really quickly as technology goes beyond it (or we get sick of waiting for it).  Dune and The Left Hand of Darkness will be classics for a long time to come, but I doubt anybody who's not writing a dissertation on early 21st century science fiction will read The Martian in 50 years, by which time we'll either be on Mars or have stopped caring about going there.

To go a bit deeper, far-future science fiction tends to have a basic form of optimism in that it usually assumes human beings (or whatever our descendants will become) will be around in thousands of years.   Given the popularity of dystopian science fiction and all manner of "grimdark" these days (not to mention the looming threats of climate change, bigotry, and nuclear war), I wonder how many of us share this optimism any more.  Optimism is a strange thing.  Can it be forced?  What does it tell us about our zeitgeist that it seems so hard for so many of us?  Or is it even a matter of optimism or pessimism?  Might the galaxy be better off without us, anyway?

Whatever the benefits of optimism (or "optimism") may be, one of the things I love about far-future science fiction is that it stretches the imagination more.  Far-future stuff is more likely to be what I call Big Ideas SF where the focus is on mind-expanding ideas rather than the technical problem solving of Engineers' SF (of course, one might combine these two as greats like Arthur C. Clarke did).

I worry that the current dearth of far-future science fiction represents not only a pessimism about humanity, but a focus on the surface level of our contemporary world rather than the depths of our minds or the vastness of the universe.  We're too busy looking at our smart phones and dazzling at the latest apps to dream of doing anything big or imagining a different sort of world.

I'm not saying everyone has to love far-future science fiction as much as I do.  I still like contemporary and near future stuff (some steampunk is even okay).  But I have to wonder if we're losing one of the best parts of what science fiction can do for us and to us.  I have to wonder if we need to imagine a world of the far future for there to be such a world.  Whether our far-future descendants will remember us or not, given the real challenges we face today, maybe they will need us to believe in them so they can exist at all.


  1. Might look into FAR FUTURES I edited back in 1990s...

  2. This post was mentioned on File 770, where it received some mostly critical, but worthwhile comments:

  3. I consider the fantastic Takeshi Kovacs novels to be far future, and my near future (2137) novel came about by wondering what some tech I saw in those books would have been like in its infancy.