Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Watch Out For The Torpedoes

Cory Doctorow damns every torpedo. If there's a law he disagrees with, its proponents are insane, or morons, or evil, and usually all three. If there's a book he likes, it's an amazing work of genius, untarnished by a single flaw. It makes buying books off recommendations on BoingBoing an insane crapshoot: every book is a work of staggering genius, yet only one out of three turns out to be any good. I often wish his praise was more specific.

Here's Doctorow damning the torpedoes in another way:

Every writer has a FAQ—Frequently Awkward Question—or two, and for me, it’s this one: “How is it possible to work as a science fiction writer, predicting the future, when everything is changing so quickly? Aren’t you afraid that actual events will overtake the events you’ve described?”

It’s a fresh-scrubbed, earnest kind of question, and the asker pays the compliment of casting you as Wise Prognosticator in the bargain, but I think it’s junk. Science fiction writers don’t predict the future (except accidentally), but if they’re very good, they may manage to predict the present.

Like many science fiction authors working today, Doctorow isn't telling us anything that William Gibson hasn't said before, and better - and if you don't believe me, check out Doctorow's post on Gibson saying this back in 2007. One of the superiorities in Gibson's way of putting it: he doesn't deny that science fiction is also good at predicting the future. Doctorow damned that torpedo, saying it only ever happens by accident.

Doctorow says:

Orwell didn’t worry about a future dominated by the view-screens from 1984, he worried about a present in which technology was changing the balance of power, creating opportunities for the state to enforce its power over individuals at ever-more-granular levels.

Gibson said, two years before:

1984 is a powerful book precisely because Orwell didn't have to make a lot of shit up. He had Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin as models for what he was doing. He only had to dress it up a little bit, sort of pile it up in a certain way to say, "this is the future."

But the reason it's powerful is that it resonates of history. It doesn't resonate back from the future, it resonates out of modern history. And the power with which it resonates is directly contingent on the sort of point-for-point mimesis, like sort of point-for-point realism, in terms of what we know happened.

Note the absence of any sweeping generality equating the ability to predict the future with some kind of random luck. To quote the article Doctorow linked to in 2007:

Gibson's elaborate vision of the internet - before it existed - and Reality TV - before it existed - has led many to call his work prophetic.

Since Gibson owes a lot of his success to his prescience, you're not going to see him writing off that vision as luck. It could have been just luck, but when you check out the sheer literary density of Gibson's interview, you'll understand why I opt for a different explanation. I think Gibson thought hard about the future, and came to conclusions which were correct.

Doctorow's assertion that predicting the future is only a matter of luck would come off as a lot more plausible, and a lot more respectful of his peers in science fiction, if he (like Gibson) had an actual track record of successful and accurate predictions. I also find it hard to believe that he ever even hears this alleged Frequently Awkward Question in the first place. His last book, Little Brother, was set only a few years in the future, and his current book, Makers, appears to either follow the same model or to be set in the present.

On top of that, I don't think anybody even thinks of Doctorow as a science fiction author at all. I think of him as a blogger, and most other people I know (who have heard of him) think of him the same way. Long story short, I'm calling shenangians on this nonsense. Doctorow's posted a Cliff's Notes rewrite of a great William Gibson interview. Rewriting Gibson is like rewriting Hemingway or Shakespeare. Don't waste your time. Just read the interview.