In his article “Where Are the Jobs?”, David Brooks observes that outside of the information technology arena, we have made little progress in realizing the ideal future imagined thirty or forty years ago. We still depend largely on fossil fuels for energy. Medicine still hasn’t found a cure for cancer. Flying cars and cities on the moon are both a bust. The litany goes on.
Brooks attributes this slow-down of progress to two factors: the first is an unavoidable reality of scientific discovery, the double-humped learning curve. A lot of scientific fields were in their infancy a few decades ago: computing, genetics, robotics, spaceflight, etc. The first breakthroughs then seemed like the start of an inevitable watershed of progress. Then scientists reached the top of the first learning curve and were confronted with fundamental issues of physics that forced them to rethink their approach. This is the second, steeper learning curve. If you want to build a colony on the moon, for instance, you must find a solution for the enormous demands of material and energy such a project requires. You must figure out how to make the colony self-sufficient and cost-feasible. This is a lot more complicated than launching a few guys into space.
At this point, I still agree with Brooks: “breakthroughs will come, just not as soon as we thought”. Where I take issue is with Brooks’ conclusion that modern science fiction has also become “moribund”. It’s true that science fiction has changed a lot in the past thirty years: you’re unlikely to find a story in which technological advances act like a deus ex-machina to usher us into a utopian future. (Even these stories haven’t entirely disappeared; Charles Stross’ superb Accelerando is a perfect example.) Brooks argues that “the new work is dystopian, not inspiring,” and that “the roots of great innovation are never just in the technology itself. They are in the wider historical context.”
If there was one question I could ask David Brooks about his article, it would be “How much science fiction have you actually read?” His above conclusion belabors the obvious to anyone who has a little culture in the genre: the idea of a less-than-rosy future has had roots in science fiction since its inception. Dystopia is not a new product of an uninspiring present; it is a commentary on the present in which it was written, a subtle but crucial difference. Jules Verne’s Paris in the Year 1961 and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man are two early examples of dystopia. I especially recommend John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, a dystopian vision of the year 2010 (written in 1968) which eerily predicts some aspects of the present (while getting others completely wrong, of course).
Science fiction, as much as science, is a product of its wider historical context. If sf stories have moved away from worshipping science, this is a sign of maturation, not stagnation. The new SF has moved into grittier territory, examining the role of science against the dark background of history, misuse, and yes— even the human fallacy of thinking that progress makes perfect. Human emotions, desires and foibles have gotten into the mix. In fact, science fiction is starting to look a lot like literature. And that isn’t a bad thing.