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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Science Fiction: Golly vs. Gloom

One of the things I like the most about Science Fiction is the speculation about new technologies. This comes in two parts: 1) look at all the cool things you could do if only such and such were real; and 2) look at what would happen to the world if only such and such were real. Both are equally valid views on the subject, and both are worthy of serious contemplation -- at least to me. Ideally, good Science Fiction will tackle both.

Certainly, there are have been plenty of examples of Science Fiction throughout the years that have handled only the first part, the "cool" factor. A significant amount of "space-opera" and various other forms of science fiction adventure has been written over the years, targeted specifically at people (primarily males) who wanted some golly-gee escapism. Buck Rogers, John Carter of Mars, Star Wars -- they all exist primarily as a mode of providing fun and adventure to the consumer with little consideration to the real impacts of science on our everyday lives. Even Isaac Asimov was guilty of it, with his Lucky Starr series, but at least he tried to sneak in a bunch of education along the way.

There have also been produced a number of examples of Science Fiction that only satisfying the second part of the equation, the "here's what would happen" speculations. Dean Koontz has written numerous novels about the horrors of technology gone awry, and he's just one of the latest in a crew that can trace its roots at least as far back as Mary Shelley. While some of these works can be considered classics, all of them take a doom-and-gloom approach to the march of technological progress, and all of them suffer, Science Fiction-wise, from their omission of the other half.

Of course, even Science Fiction that contains a well-measured balance of both sides of the technology is not guaranteed to be good. I've personally read thousands of Science Fiction stories -- novels, novellas, novellettes, and the classic Sci Fi shorts -- and a goodly chunk of those that look at both sides of the coin still do not make their way into my list of worthwhile reads.

I recently read a couple of novels by Greg Bear, considered one of the modern masters of Science Fiction: Slant, and Blood Music. Both take a hard look at the effects of technological progress, with Slant examining a world transformed by nanotechnology, and Blood Music probing the impact of advanced biotechnology left unchecked. Both provide some very cool golly-gee moments in relation to their technology of choice, with Blood Music showing how the technology improves the health (and love life) of one of the main characters, and Slant offering up countless examples of how cool the world will be once nanotechnology really catches on. However, the action in both works also devolves into sordid tales about how technology run amok will corrupt us all: in Slant, at a societal level, and in Blood Music, right down to the very fabric of space-time.

Interestingly, while I enjoyed reading both of these novels -- Mr. Bear is an excellent writer -- I can't say that either of them will make it into my "Top Science Fiction Stories Of All Time" list. Perhaps it is their resolutions that limit them in some way, or perhaps they are almost too effective in their pursuit of speculation.

Or maybe it's just because everything I read gets compared to Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson. Them's some tough competition to be up against.



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