Charles Shar Murray: We're all in the future now

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One of the standard tropes of fantasy-writing is the "soft place": a location where the barriers separating different planes of existence, different dimensions, become permeable, where there are portals through which protagonists can move from world to world. Science fiction (SF) itself has become just such a "soft place". It has not been closed off from the mainstream of literature and the arts for quite some time.

One of the standard tropes of fantasy-writing is the "soft place": a location where the barriers separating different planes of existence, different dimensions, become permeable, where there are portals through which protagonists can move from world to world. Science fiction (SF) itself has become just such a "soft place". It has not been closed off from the mainstream of literature and the arts for quite some time.

Not everybody considered the convergence of SF and literary fiction to be welcome or desirable. The late Auberon Waugh once told me, when I proposed the idea of a regular SF column to appear in The Literary Review, that the magazine already employed a Science Fiction Editor: his brief was to make sure that no SF ever appeared.

For those who like their SF and fantasy in the most orthodox forms, there are still 30th-century galactic sagas aplenty, in which interstellar warlords oppress entire star-systems until overthrown by gallant young pilots: a process which generally takes several thick books. If this kind of stuff is your idea of fun, Peter F Hamilton will be more than happy to oblige. And lovers of "jive Tolkien" have no reason other than complete and utter penury to deny themselves a steady diet of evil wizards, ancient scrolls, enchanted swords and haunted jewels. Just as late-night cable and satellite schedules are teeming with intrepid guys and gals and cute and/or menacing aliens on very long starship voyages, the specialist stores still supply the traditional wares to readers.

But the days when the future was the province of a clump of underpaid hacks in small-circulation magazines, with the occasional mainstream intervention like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four or A Clockwork Orange, are long over. Yet, just as SF has changed the mainstream, the mainstream has changed SF. Our real future has become more menacing, with economic, ecological and cultural meltdowns imminent, and terrorism, war, famine and plague at every elbow. So the imagined future has become an increasingly overpopulated and strip-mined setting.

As a result, and as far as many many of SF's brightest sparks are concerned, the present and the past are the new futures. As the "cyberpunk" vision detonated in the early 1980s by the William Gibson's Neuromancer and the trail-blazing Mirrorshades anthology became first a mainstream fantasy and then almost mainstream reality, many of the visionaries associated with the movement's early days - Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Jack Womack - began to shift the focus of their interest elsewhere: to the nearer future, the present and, finally, the past - but still exploring the conventional concerns of SF - the impact of new ideas and new technologies on human life and the human spirit.

SF has traditionally fulfilled three functions. Star Trek has, at its best, done all three. The first, and most high-minded, is to be an innovative literature of ideas: on how we create stuff, and how this stuff we create will affect us. Hence Kingsley Amis's notion of the primacy of satirical SF, and JG Ballard's dictum that the only truly alien planet is Earth, and the only truly relevant future is 15 minutes away. This kind of SF is designed to make us think seriously about how we live, and how we are going to live.

Then there's SF as the literature of "wow": amazing adventures in time and space, unfolding centuries of future-time, explosive galactic conflicts, interstellar war, and freaky aliens. Finally, there's SF as comfort-food: the future times and alien worlds which are far more familiar and soothing, far less threatening and frightening, than the world we actually inhabit every day of our real lives. (Jive-Tolkien fantasy is probably the most extreme case: the cosy embrace of a past that never could have happened, as opposed to a future which never will.)

And SF is everywhere: it is virtually (no pun intended) the new mainstream. It is the dominant metaphor of computer games, and an inescapable presence on TV and movie screens. It's everywhere from the geekiest website to Richard & Judy.

SF is the way we live: from the highest high-tech to the grimiest street-life, from digitised, automated comfort-zones to hopeless dystopias. Answer the phone and there's a robot voice trying to sell you something: it's straight out of a 1950s Frederik Pohl story. SF is a soft place, but of all the generic forms of literature and entertainment available to us, it may just be the one which enables us to survive the hard place in which the real future we currently inhabit has left us.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away

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