I'm sure I've ranted about this r/evolution debate in the past, but this post about Bruce Sterling's new novella in F&SF fired up my feelings on the subject, so here it goes.
First off, let me establish that I'm going to use the term evolution in an explicitly non-technical sense. I'm often annoyed that any sort of gradual change or adapatation is refered to as "evolution," when in a technical sense, this isn't even a good analogy to what's happening. But that's a different rant, for now I'm going submit to the dominant lexicon.
Secondly, I haven't read Sterling's novella, and this isn't a reaction as much to Sterling as it is to Cory Doctorow's gloss of the Novella. Just to be clear.
From the blog post:
"Sterling says of this story, "I've been in an eight-year struggle to write 'a kind of science fiction that could only be written in the 21st century.' With the possible exception of my forthcoming novel, this story is my best result from that effort." I think he's right -- about the story, anyway; I haven't seen the novel yet."
This seems to be a false premise. At least to me. The 21st century is an arbitrary unit, and while I think we do live in a very different world today than we did eight or ten years ago, that is always the case. Interestingly boingboing, gets a lot of milage out of looking back at forward looking bits of "culture" from the turn of the century, and the 20s-40s. These cultural artifacts seem as antiquated to us as "the kind of science fiction that could only be written in the 21st century," will surely look in the next dozen years.
Which isn't to say it's the wrong thing to write, or bad, just that if you look at it the right way, "writing SF that could only be written in today's world," is exactly what every SF writer is (or should) always already (be) trying to write. And if you've been in eight year struggle to do this, maybe there some other issue that we should talk about. But then authors of cyberpunk are all about arguing that the present marks an revolutionary advancement from whatever went before.
Doctorow goes on to say:
"This is a genuinely 21st century piece of sf. It uses the slightly stilted, comic dialog form of great sf to unravel the social and technological implications of automated search, copying, governance and communications, with an enormous amount of compassion and heart. Sterling's way of thinking about technology has often struck me as kind of stern, but years of living in Serbia appear to have given him a bit of a melancholy Slavic outlook that creeps into the story in a hundred little ways that tell you how much affection he really has for our poor tired human race."
I fear that this mode of writing utterly current SF is really based on some sort of ill gotten notion that if we write about the present we'll be seen as being "more real," than if we write about space ships and lasers. Which is all kinds of silly, and this sort of critical trend is dangerous, because it doesn't promote a diversity of opinion and approach. This is sort of a reenactment of the downfall of cyberpunk all over again. Or maybe more correctly given that it's being propagated--at least primarily--by Sterling and Gibson (and Doctorow, though he wasn't publishing during the "high cyberpunk period"), part of the protracted decent of that movement.
Don't get me wrong, I rather enjoy the concept of cyberpunk, and some of the post-cyberpunk imaginations in much the way that I enjoy space opera: as a platform for story telling that isn't necessarily true to what's going to happen, but enjoyable and full of possibility nonetheless. At the same time I think the argument that cyberpunk is more real, and in touch with everyone's lived realities, because it is gritty, and dark, and current is absurd.
And I think this goes back to the r/evolutionary argument: do we understand history as a slow progression, or a series of distinct epochs?
The question is open of course, but I tend to believe that revolutions, of the intellectual/cultural/historical scope that cyberpunk seems to be responding to, don't really happen. Other kinds of revolution? Maybe, and if/when they do, they're never has temporally clear cut as anyone would like them to be.
Onward and Upward!