I’m reading a book right now. SF. And I’m struck by how much world building the author is engaged in. He’s putting all this labor into describing future technologies, future cultural developments, future living structures… he’s working really hard to create a highly realistic and also highly disposable setting. I’m struck by how little the world he’s building actually seems to matter to the story.
The setting, while cohesive and technologically interesting, seems entirely divorced from the plot. He’s created a reasonable extrapolation of what life in 2300 might look like and what technologies might exist — and it is interesting, as an intellectual exercise — but I’m not really sure that the dating/networking tools that the characters are shown using are actually in any way relevant to the thrust of the story. It all feels like window dressing.
It’s as if he’s decided to write a story about the future, and because we know the future will look different than today, he is obligated to enumerate the differences. In the dating case, because we know networks will be big in the future, he’s showing how a social-networking tool like mySpace could be translated into meatspace so that people in a bar can pick each other up.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The tech is cool. The idea is fine. But it has nothing to do with the thrust of the story. It just feels like he’s spending a bunch of time futurizing his story.
Futurizing: The process of adding kick-ass gadgets, tools, and extrapolations to a sci-fi story to make it feel more futuristic so that it can fit more comfortably in the sci-fi genre. Closely related to Sense-of-Wonder Interior Designing.
Futurizing almost always has nothing to do with the core of the plot or the core actions of the characters. It’s just about the sci-fi bling.
I’ve actually had a story rejected because I didn’t futurize it enough. Basically, I was told that the premise was too outlandish for the relatively staid environment that I was placing it in: People were still basically people, they still had (updated) cars and malls, the setting just wasn’t out there enough. It was the future, quite distinctly, but the editor felt that the setting just wasn’t eye-poppingly different enough to support the core premise.
I’ve also had situations where I very consciously went back into a story and futurized it more so that it would be more appealing to market I was aiming at. I tried not to be cynically manipulative about it, but at root I was already satisfied with the story as it was and went back into the story to add more sci-fi bling to make sure it would fly in the market I was submitting to. So I’m guilty of futurizing myself. But I’m also conscious of the fact that every bit of futurizing I add means that a reader from outside the sf market is more likely to scoff at the story.
Last year, when I read stories submitted to High Country News for our attempt at a sci-fi issue, one of the major problems that cropped up was sci-fi’s determined techno-fetishism. We were looking for extrapolation, we got future fetish. These were not necessarily bad stories. Some of them were excellent. But the techno-fetish thing meant that they were entirely dismissable by readers from outside the sf genre.
A story that had a journalist in it inevitably meant that the journalist was going to be fitted with a camera for an eye. The response around the office when I brought this sort of sci-fi to people was “What the fuck’s going on with the whole cyborg thing?” Their bullshit meter for futurizing was extremely highly attuned.
Which makes me wonder about what parts of a sci-fi story are really necessary. It seems like in order to be cool and hot within the sci-fi genre you need to be adequately futurized. But in order to be relevant to the world outside the genre, this futurizing is a joke. Children of Men is sci-fi but (from what I understand, no I haven’t seen it yet, Lou) very little of its setting is. The core premise is sci-fi, and that’s enough. It doesn’t need any more sci-fi bling to carry it.
Personally, I write science fiction because it is the only literature which provides the tools I need to dramatize and crack open the concerns I have about the present. My fondest hope is that these stories will not remain inside the genre but will have some amount of impact on the larger world.
I want to be able to give a story like “Small Offerings” to my grandmother and have her really think about endocrine disruptors. I want someone to read “The People of Sand and Slag” and really think about our long love affair with techno fixes for the world’s ills. If these stories futurize too much, they become easily dismissed as silliness. Perhaps deservedly.