I love the idea of science fiction turning its lens on the present, of finding the same frisson of futuristic speculation in looking around at the contemporary world.
(from Boing Boing.)
Ok, so I haven't read *Spook Country* yet, which is Gibson's newest novel, though I probably will at some point. For those of you playing at home, it's a science fiction novel set one year in the past.
With due respects to William Gibson, wrong!
At least for me, the futuristic (or even alternate history) elements of the genre make it possible to write and think about the relationship of current issues to their historical moment.
So so lets imagine a story idea I've just summoned up, for the purpose of demonstration...
So imagine a world where people are horribly overcrowded, all over the world, the climate is changing and people don't want to do the things that would be needed in order to save the planet (consume less, carpool, recycle, pay taxes etc.) even when people start dying because the overcrowding and poor environment has weakened immune systems and made it possible for a virus to spread like wildfire...
Clearly this is a story about consumption and modernity, and in some ways a criticisms of current environmental policy. I hope we can agree on this. So, then, we could set this story in one of several time periods:
1. We could set it in in late medieval europe, and use one of the last outbreaks of bubonic plague as a means to explore this issue. 2. Put the story in the middle of the industrial revolution in, say, london. 3. Set it in present day, and have it be about a treehugging blogger who's an art teach at an elementary school where kids start dying of bird flu. 4. Set it 500 years in the future, were the overpopulation issue isn't just an issue in big cities, but everywhere, and the people are basically suffocating.
Now I've handicaped this example, by making the present day option sound really lame, but they're all pretty good, so lets imagine that they're all equally entertaining.
If you write it in the present day, the ideas you're writing about, which are in all cases actually about present day issues, become simply about present day issues, and are only thinkable in-terms of the present historical moment. And you have people reading your story say "gee if we only had better environmental laws and values, restricted access to hand-sanitizing gels, universal health care, and a non dick-wad president, we wouldn't be so screwed when this happens." Which is a potentially fine thing to think; however, the readers in this situation are not thinking about other things that are important and related to the point that you're trying to make: that humans have always had an effect on the planet, and that you can't go "against" technology on a society wide level, and so forth.
But if you take the story out of the present time you're able to say, lets see how these ideas are related to our present historical context, and how they are always located in a historical moment but also never located in one historical moment. If you set it in the past, your reader can think, "well, we got over the plague, perhaps we'll be able to get past bird flu," or "well, we found fuel sources that are more effective than coal, maybe we'll be able to move off of our reliance on gasoline." If you put it in the future you can do more or less anything with history; you can turn present day subtleties into major issues, you can write about revolutionary ideologies that are virtually unknowable in the context of contemporary politics.
This ability to experiment and test ideas out, could at its heart be understood as the "science" referred to in the term "science fiction." Yeah, everything science fiction writers write about is about the present, but then so is everything that "mainstream" fiction writers write about, science fictions brilliance is--among other things--in it's ability to denaturalize this connection. So where does this leave Spook Country? Numinous, indeed but maybe not exactly a huge step forward for the genre that Gibson (and Cory Doctorow et al) seem to think it is.