(This essay has been published on the official Souvenir Book of Intersection, the 53rd World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) which was held in Glasgow, Scotland in 1995)
In almost all the science fiction books I’ve read what has always surprised me is the presumed absence of science fiction itself from humanity’s future. The past and present science fiction writers have written a multitude of stories which take place in thousands of futures basically different from our present. However, oddly, in none of these futures exists what actually gives rise to them, that is science fiction. Of course there are a few exceptions. Now and then there will be the shy showing up of a science fiction writer as a character, but this is quite unusual. All the same, such a character is generally no more than an elementary projection of the author himself, a sort of self-quotation, something close to Hitchkock’s walk-on parts in his own movies. More often the future described by science fiction writers does not take into consideration SF. Why? Why do science fiction writers seem to constantly forget to include SF literature in the futures they tell us about? Do they avoid talking about it because they think that in the future SF literature won’t be much different than today? Do they really commit such an ingenuous mistake? Or don’t they know what to say about it? Or didn’t it ever come to them that it is reasonable to think that SF will exist in the future? All these writers are willing and glad to talk about the past of science fiction and are telling us all the time about it’s history. Why is there all this attention and care for the past, and almost none for the future? When SF writers talk about SF, why do they always use the past tense instead of the future?
Well, there’s something very inconsistent here, I said to myself. It is of course very important and useful to know about SF’s history , but only to then try to imagine it’s future. Science fiction is much more about sensing the future than telling the past. So let’s try to guess science fiction’s future without, all the same, forgetting it’s past.
As most of us already know, science fiction arose in the second half of the nineteenth century. Before that, no one had ever written a story that took place in a future whose features were different from the present, so to take into consideration the changes caused by technological development. Why did science fiction arise only a century ago? Why did it arise when it did?
With the industrial revolution, during the XIX century, the progress of human technology abruptly accelerated. From thousands of years, through small and short steps, humanity has actually made great strides as far as technological development is concerned, that is to say the development that improved our lifestyle and our adaptation to the world. Infact, those that on an evolutionary scale were great strides actually occurred through time and on a psychological scale by small steps, so the phenomena couldn’t be felt directly by anyone. In the space of a generation there would rarely be more than one important breakthrough from a technological standpoint. A sudden discovery or invention could meaningfully change the life of people, but the event would be felt as an extraordinary exception to the well-known law of immutability of laws, or as a single miracle that was instantly accepted as the new and definitive normality. Even though history taught the more learned people that the past was dense of inventions, they wouldn’t dare think about a future substantially different from there own present. Infact, the present changed so slowly they couldn’t realise it was actually changing and that, moreover, it would continue to change.
The speeding up of technological development has caused such frequent transformations in people’s life that the idea of such development going on bringing changes in the future started to become acceptable.
So science fiction is the result of the evolving, in Man’s conscience, of the concept of future. Let’s go into this argument thoroughly. Why will the future of human society be different from the present? The answer that we have already given is: because of technological progress, that changes and will go on changing the contests in which we live and, moreover, our future. Is this the only true answer? Actually, this is a true answer, but incomplete and superficial. At a closer look, it is obvious and clear that the fulcrum of the changing is not technology itself (which is a product of Man). It is more likely to be Man himself, or better, Man’s psychism, Man’s mind, Man’s thought, Man’s Weltanschauung, Man’s standpoint, Man’s behaviour.
The mainstay of Man’s change is Man, and not the technology he evolved. The increase of technology is a symptom, an effect, and not a cause. The cause is the astonishing development of human mind. Today we know that human mind is evolving outstandingly. However… do we really know it? I do. More and more people do. When science fiction appeared, nobody did. They didn’t know but a minimum part of what we know today about human mind. Freud was inventing the unconscious and nobody believed him. Today, nobody believes Freud’s model of human mind anymore, because better models went beyond his. Those who still believe it are the kind of people who would never have believed it at the time in which Freud invented it. In the Nineteenth century Thomas H. Huxley said: “It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions”. No one understands a new truth, or only a few do, and nobody is willing to believe it. So, it is a heresy. Then, some brilliant young people start understanding the new idea. As years go by, the old incredulous progressively all die, and those who remain are those for whom the idea is either obvious or nothing at all. Subsequently, those for whom the idea is nothing at all learn to believe the idea, even without understanding it, basically because there is no one left to authoritatively assert it is a heresy, while all the new authoritative figures maintain the truth of the idea. From heresy to superstition through the transient flash of comprehension. This is how culture proceeds.
When SF was born, it was a heresy. Only few people understood it for what actually it was, and as a matter of fact even fewer wrote SF. If more people understood what SF really was, probably more people would have written SF. So, probably, SF wasn’t read for what actually it was, but only for what it was partially.
Today there are thousands of SF writers, and millions of readers. For all these people SF is no longer a heresy. However SF remains a cultural heresy for all those that never got involved in it. All the same, I think that a great number of those who read or write SF nowadays do not entirely understand what SF is at present, but instead believe it still is what it used to be.
As Orson Scott Card asserts, even though SF has been, and still is, the only real literary revolution of the twentieth century, it has never transcended itself to become something else, as in the nineteenth century it transcended fantasy literature and became SF. Instead it constantly enriched itself, swollen by the increasing notions that the human mind has progressively produced. It enriched itself without transcending the initial intuition that gave life to it, that is the fact that technological development would have made our future and our descendant’s future different from our present.
Well, I think that we are quickly moving towards the moment in which SF will transcend the identity it gained with the initial intuition we’ve mentioned to become something new and superior from a evolutionistic standpoint; something that will initially appear as a heresy, so it will probably be almost invisible in the enormous world-wide production of SF stories. However this “something”, within the space of a generation or two, will become the new thought workshop of humanity’s most refined minds, just as SF has in many ways been during the whole of the twentieth century. Why am I convinced about this? Let’s try to explain it.
I care to say once again that the mainstay of human evolution is the human mind and not technology. The human mind creates technology and uses technology to increase itself. This is not so immediate to most SF writers, whom infact insist that a good SF literature must be strictly plausible from a scientific point of view. I don’t think this is true. It is an old and surpassed vision of SF, previous to the multitude of recent notions that have made this standpoint obsolete or at least naive. I think that good SF literature has to be strictly plausible from a mental point of view. Scientific consistency is of course important, but it should be hierarchically subordinated to this new criteria.
Let’s put it in another way. Let’s say we’re a trivial gang of extraterrestrial humanoids landing on earth just to see who ever lived there. We find the remains of a humanoid civilisation like ours, and we ask ourselves what kind of culture they had, that is to say how vast there comprehension of things was. The most significant find for us would of course be written documents. So we read the most ancient writings we find, the Bible and that sort of stuff, and we start to think that the poor guys must have been completely mad or at least a bit nuts. More recent writings demonstrate that the human mind had a very fast progress, up until SF. Well, SF literature will show us that humanity realized about their technological progress, nothing else. Nothing else!
But now we know that it’s the human mind to evolve at a bewildering speed, and that everything else is just a consequence. So which will be the next archaeological find?
Hold on! I go on repeating that it’s the human mind to evolve. Somebody could disagree with me about this. So I’ll better talk at length about this argument.
I assert that the evolution of Man’s mind has caused the great transformations that have drastically changed the life of our specie in the last thousands of years, and that go on today, year after year, faster and faster. I’m not the only one to maintain such a thesis.
In the seventies a fascinating theory on the evolution of Man’s psychism was spread. The author is the American neurologist Julian Jaynes. According to Jaynes, human activities are guided by human conscience (in the modern meaning of “metaphoric mental space”, in which each one of us “narratizes” the events, so to give significance to Time), only from a few thousands of years. Before conscience, there was what Jaynes calls “the bicameral mind” to guide human actions. To put it in a simple way, it more or less worked this way: one half of our brain (generally the right hemisphere) would elaborate the operative solutions to the problems life would naturally give and would communicate such solutions to the other half of the brain (generally the left hemisphere), in charge of action, that would obey and carry out the solutions. Such communication would happen through the language mankind had just developed – and this is the mainstay of Jaynes’ theory. The left hemisphere would have actually heard, each time there was need for it, a peremptory voice (coming from the right hemisphere) that would order it what to do, and it would have automatically obeyed, with no will. Many civilisations, from Mesopotamia to India, to Egypt, could have flourished within people with bicameral minds, that is to say with a state of consciousness unknown to us today. This theory is maintained by a careful analysis of the archaeological finds we achieved from those ages. All those nice characters of the Old Testament and of the Iliad that went on all the time hearing voices that told them what to do were either crazy (schizophrenic), liars, or bicameral minded. (The theory says that the first and the third option probably overlapped). Actually we are still living in a contest in which the traces of bicameral minds persists: regression to schizophrenia, medieval “diabolic” possessions, somnambulism (during which conscience infact disappears), hypnosis, and the idea that there are one or more gods that have however from some time quit appearing to us. The world-wide existence of religions could be the most obvious of such traces, a sort of nostalgia for our lost bicameralism and for the vanished voices that our right hemisphere produces no longer. This nostalgia could lead us into drinking alcohol, take drugs, go to churches and discotheques, just to lower the level of our conscience and drive us closer to the total absence of it, as in the age of our ancient bicameralism.
I personally think this theory is persuasive. In this contest I could obviously only touch on it. I don’t want to develop the thematic of this theory, but just tell you it does indeed exist and drive your attention and curiosity towards it. Even if it is plausible, it clearly is a heresy for the academic world, just as every really new idea has always been. We’ll probably hear about it in a couple of decades, when the present elder official wise and dogmatic men will have left us together with their certainties. Then many people will start to believe it without understanding it, just like with the theories of Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Bohr, Maxwell, and all the other genius humanity never recognized during their lifetime.
If Jaynes theory is well-grounded as I think, because I’ve understood it, this means that the space of some hundreds human generations would have been enough to sensationally transform the architecture of our mental organization. The hardware, that is to say the brain, is the same (biological evolution requires a terribly longer time), but the software, the modalities of organization of the information, seem to have turned the beast into a complete human being, who is conscious, self-conscious, and conscious of being self-conscious.
Time has indeed past since man invented the wheel, but the most astonishing consideration isn’t that now we’ve got another three wheels sticking to the first one (and possibly the whole car). It is that the genius that invented the wheel would easily be committed to a mental hospital for schizophrenia if there were a way to bring him to the present.
The difference between us and our ancestors, that is how we now are and how we were up to a couple of thousands of years ago is huge and immeasurable.
The difference between us and the outlook the great grandfathers of our great- great grandfathers (just a few hundreds of years ago) had on life, on the world, the universe and on themselves is also huge, but all the same, measurable. They knew nothing about chemics, about electricity, about psychology and about everything we know today, so their beliefs can seem totally absurd now.
In paintings there was no perspective up to the twelfth century. Since our ancestors didn’t draw it, they probably did not know it. They knew that something was more or less near or far, but probably they couldn’t see the lines of perspective. The reality their eyes saw was very different from the one ours do. Isn’t that incredible? When a hundred years ago the Lumiere brothers invented the movies, they projected the movie of a train, seen frontally. The audience saw something different from what we would have seen. They didn’t see the movie of a train in movement. They saw a real train that was about to hit them, so they fled from the movie theatre in panic. Incredible! Mental categories sure change fast.
The idea of death was also very different in the past. There was a time in which going to die in war was no problem for anyone, just as Japanese kamikaze, or as some Islamic extremists still do today. From our standpoint these people are mad. So thinking it over, in our standpoint, no more than a couple of centuries ago everyone was mad. It is true that they all had a very different mind, which lacked the branches of thought that today are the most important for us, first of all the awareness of being alive and the will (not only the instinct) to remain alive. “War” has been a noble art up until the First World War. In order to accept the idea of beginning a war we’ll nowadays call it “peace mission” or “restore hope”. Categories of thought change really fast and one has to be up to date with the tags.
In his essential genetic features Man hasn’t changed in the last hundred thousand years. The transformations are instead astonishing if we consider the features that actually distinguish mankind from animals: that is to say his mental features.
A huge share of science fiction starts to be ridiculous when it considers the possibility in a not to far away future of important spontaneous transformations in our genetic structure. It is quite unlikely for such improbable events to happen tomorrow or the day after just to satisfy our plots. However, mental evolution is much faster. Cultural growth constantly modifies our vision of the past and of the way we are. It sometimes can cause outstanding evolutionary improvements, like the one that brought us from the bicameral age to the consciousness that distinguishes us today.
Before Man invented Time, a hundred thousand years went by, during which the hardware of his brain remained more or less the same. This means that it took him a hundred thousand years to invent something that his brain could have actually conceived at the beginning. Time came to Man’s mind after he developed a language able to define it and a mental space where to represent it. If there is no language to quantify and circumscribe it, one cannot possess the concept of Time. In order to imagine Time, we have to think about it as if it was a space. So it is a metaphor, which, in hand, can’t exist without a language. Man conceived the idea of Time a lot after conceiving his language. The invention of Time depends on the software, not on the hardware. The hardware of Man’s brain of course is adapt to conceive Time, but it is actually the software that does.
From Einstein on, mathematics have suggested that Time is not separate from Space apart from in our own mind. Schrödinger’s cat suggests that whatever exists at the same time doesn’t exist if there isn’t a mind to observe it’s existence. From this century it is clear that, apart from technology, what changes with great speed is the concept of normality.
The idea of normality is an essential product of the human mind. If such idea changes, the mind itself is changing.
The concept of normality changes from year to year. At a first and superficial look, this change produces the alternation of fashions. Well, there are no fashions among cats. Cat’s minds are static. On a subsequential level and in a longer period of time, the transformations of the idea of normality gives as a result different cultures. When two persons who have a different idea of normality get together, they’ll often argue and disapprove each other. And when two people with two different concepts of normality interact they will certainly disapprove each other but can also go as far as getting involved in a war. Maybe mankind will start solving his problems when the idea that everyone can and should have his one concept of normality will become normal.
Today most people are still mystically convinced that the future won’t be a big deal different from the present in any aspect. If things were different, everyone would read science fiction. Moreover, all those old guys over twenty years old wouldn’t be so bothered and shocked at the idea that one or more new fashions can replace the ones that characterized their youth, just as if they were the symbol of absolute and unalterable values.
The readers and especially the science fiction writers should be perfectly aware of the fact that the future will be different from the present. They realise that an evident trend will not stop just to please us. And they indeed apply this line of reasoning to the tangible field that concerns the material transformations as a consequence of technological evolution. However they almost always forget to also apply it to the even more important field, that considers the non-material transformations of our mental organization.
The first thing to evolve in a human being is his mind, together with his idea of normality. To say “idea of normality” or “culture” is substantially the same. Culture expands and transfigures the past while it evolves, and constantly tends to reconsider it, generating a more and more unforseeable future. Technology is no more than a detail in such a contest.
However SF seems to persist in not transcending it’s old dogmas. Even the best contemporary SF writers ape their ingenious masters and are proud when they dress up their plots with all the technologic notions (and the relative implications) that humanity has piled up in the last decades. But this can’t continue for a long time without producing a sensational improvement.
Infact SF writers have a hard time dealing with the speed of technological progress. Outlining scenarios becomes difficult because they tend to be partially already obsolete. Asimov’s enormous computers working on valves are so sweet… But how sad it is to read some books of minor contemporary writers, in which their obvious and pathetic ignorance stands out as far as scientific knowledge is concerned, without mentioning the ostentation of pseudo-technological ideas that are actually already surpassed by real facts… which demonstrate the author’s ignorance. All the same, famous writers have their problems too. In our age, at the end of the millennium, newspapers and television and people constantly bombard us with scientific every-day miracles. So surprising someone with a science fiction story becomes very difficult. We are in the Age of Miracles. What isn’t possible today will with no doubt be easy tomorrow. We are in the Age of Miracles and we indeed expect miracles; we require that what is not possible today must be possible tomorrow. Miracles are becoming an acquired right. If the actual trends don’t stop (and there is no reason for them to, except in the case of a catastrophe, which is not so unlikely after all), we’ll soon be in the Age of Daily Miracles or something like that. Once again, future will differ from present in a way we won’t even dare to imagine… and then which will science fiction’s role be?
In an age in which we’ll have a real miracle every day or even more times a day (and not every other month or year, like nowadays) who will want to read about the fake ones in a science fiction book? And, moreover, who will ever dare to write stories that will be surpassed before they get published?
We can all see the ineluctable end of SF, at least as we mean it. The SF we know will not disappear, but it will no longer be a revolutionary literature like it’s been during the twentieth century. Maybe it will be taught in schools and universities (or in their data transmission surrogates), and it will be the new official culture. So even if it will produce a lot of money, people like me and I won’t be interested in it any more.
The new revolutionary SF, the one no one will talk about in schools and universities, the one that will have transcended itself, will be something very different.
I think that the SF of the future won’t care about negligible details like all those little technological miracles (that by the way wouldn’t surprise anyone anymore). Since it will be evident that the mind is constantly evolving, SF of the future will explore the vast sphere of the possible evolutions of our mind, indulging it’s fancy in creating mental ecosystems or new semantic structures, or new systems of normality or who knows what else.
For a century science fiction literature has been the expresssion of Man’s consciosness of the fact that technology will continue to develop in the future.
Today even children are expecting new technological miracles, so it becomes boring to try to imagine only the shape of these magic objects. These are only negligible details.
The unexplored universe of human imagination is the future of Man’s mind. Together with technology the mind evolves at great speed, and the moment has come to start realising about these transformations, just as Jules Verne and others realised about the transformations of technology. Fifty years before the affirmation of SF in the world, Mary Shelley brought forward what would have afterwards developed grandly. Is there any ahead of time SF writer now to give us a modest anticipation of what will develop grandly in the space of a decade or two from today?
Maybe there is. Or better, there has been. You all know him: I’m talking about Philip K. Dick. His obsessive attempt to distinguish between what is real and what seems real could be the prelude to the symphony of conceptual explorations that will characterize the twentyfirst century. Well, will Philip K. Dick be as Mary Shelley? Who knows? All the same, Dick had no idea he was opening a new stage of human thought, and of course Mary Shelley didn’t either. One can be a genius without knowing it, just as a lot of people who are conscious of being genius actually aren’t at all. There is a gulf between reality and the consciousness one has of reality.
In the space of a few hundred generations our mind has invented Time, the Past, Remote Past, Future, Remote Future, a Universe of the extent of 15 billion light years, the Parallel Universes, the I, the Consciousness of Life and of Death and many other cute ornaments. What will our mind make up in the future? Let’s forget those stupid aereo taxis and silly shining and unlikely spacecrafts. The inventions future will show us will of course be astonishing and grand, as Time, Universe and Death have been. It may be interesting to try to participate to such inventions, what ever they’ll mean, since some of them could take place during our lifetime because of the increasing speed of our mental evolution.
The future of science fiction will have nothing to do with anticipating little technological miracles that will be immediatly surpassed. The future of science fiction will be.. or better is already exploring the differences that the changes of Man’s mind will imply in Man’s life. Just as in the past science fiction has explored the differences that Men’s technology would or could imply in Man’s life.
A new name to this more evolved form of literature, or mental form, will surely be invented in a close future. At the moment I can’t think about anything brilliant and what comes to my mind is obvious and trivial, like “psyco-SF”, “mind fiction”, “thought fiction”…
I’m positive someone of you will make up something better.
© ROBERTO QUAGLIA 1995