A History of the Future
It's a given that science fiction is really about the present. You need
only read pundits attempting to foresee the future of music, automobile
design or political trends to realise that a realistic prediction of the
next 12 months is virtually impossible, let alone the next 10, 100 or 1000
years. Science fiction is about imagining the present through the lens of
a speculative future.
There is no better place to start than Issac Asimov's Foundation trilogy.
Published between 1951 and 1953, Asimov's original trilogy (discounting the
1980s sequels) are an intriguing period piece that illustrates the
pre-occupations of America in the early 1950s, the marginal position of
sci-fi as a literary genre and the resolutely masculine outlook of its
Asimov, a Russian emigre with bona-fide scientific credentials, published
over 200 science fiction and non-fiction books in his lifetime. The
quality of his writing barely changed from the outset of his career in the
1940s. It was a barely functional, overly descriptive prose that often
appeared to have completely escaped the clutches of an editor. In this
classic example from Foundation, the first book of the trilogy, Asimov
explains that his character has just had lunch and wonders how long a day
is on Trantor, the imperial centre of the galactic empire.
"Gaal was not certain whether the sun shone, or, for that matter, whether
it was day or night. He was ashamed to ask. All the planet seemed to live
beneath metal. The meal of which he had just partaken had been labeled
luncheon, but there were many planets which lived a standard time-scale
that took no account of the perhaps inconvenient alteration of day and
night. The rate of planetary turnings differed, and he did not know that of
The three books, Foundation, Foundation And Empire and Second Foundation,
chart the fall and rise of a galaxy wide civilization and is largely based
on a retelling of the fall of Rome, but is riddled with the politics of the
Asimov's Foundation is a secular religion based on science and a high
rationalism. Its founder, Hari Seldon, is a mathematician whose
'psychohistory' is a predictive methodology based on statistics. It's as
if market research were taken to its logical conclusion; canvas the opinion
of absolutely everyone and you can tell exactly what's going to happen.
All you need is a pocket calculator and some mysterious computations.
"Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt... ...its
grey, glossy finish was slightly worn by use, Seldon's nimble fingers,
spotted now with age, played along the hard plastic that rimmed it. Red
symbols glowed out from the grey..."
Seldon has predicted that the Empire will fall. Only rational science can
save the multi-trillion population of the galaxy from thousands of years of
barbarism. The Foundation will publish an encyclopedia that will record
everything anyone would need to know to guide them through the dark ages.
"By the time Trantor falls, it will be complete and copies will exist in
every major library in the galaxy," explains Asimov. Obviously, to survive
the coming anarchy, all citizens must guard their library cards with their
Asimov's universe is divided between the rationalist Foundation and the
hysterical, emotionally enslaved followers of The Mule - a psychic mutant
whose followers can no longer think for themselves. The parallels between
the US and the Soviet Union in the 1950s are glaring. Seen through the
eyes of an author who believes in the rationalism of science, the "great
man" theory of history and the ultimate supremacy of technology, the books
are a kind of endearing comic opera.
Gigantic spacecraft fly vast distances through hyperspace to unload sacks
of mail at the other end. Buildings are so large that you can see neither
walls or roofs. Amazing but mundane inventions like pocket calculators are
mixed up with period genre details like flying cars, atomic engines and
planet sized cities. The characters speak in a way no human ever has. It
is, perhaps, an eerily accurate version of an alternative future that has
largely fallen out of favour in the 1990s.
Asimov's trilogy is a retrospective tour through the absurdities and
marvels of the distant future as seen from New York in 1950s. It's
ridiculous, provocative and a lot of fun.
One of science fiction's most compelling sub-genres is a small area called
'alternative history'. It basically posits the 'what if..." scenario.
What if computers had been invented in the 19th century? What if John F.
Kennedy had lived? What if, let's suppose, that Germany and Japan had won
World War 2? The publication of Niall Ferguson's authoritative Virtual
History, a collection of essays by up-and-coming history profs going wild
with the 'what if's' of historical turning points, is just one example of
academia catching up with sci-fi. Philip K. Dick's The Man In The High
Castle was published in 1962 and is probably one of the finest examples of
Dick was an infuriatingly variable talent, given to the most dreadful pulp
fiction ramblings and drug-induced inconsistency. But even at his worst,
his sci-fi always contained at least one great idea. Even a marginal work
like The Zap Gun, a tough read for even the most dedicated fan, is a good
case in point. Dick discussed at length the possibility of the end of the
cold war and the diversion of money from the weapons industry into...
domestic, electronic games where the player has an empathic reaction to the
fate of a small bear guided through a maze. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Perhaps the designers of PlayStation have a copy on their shelves.
But unlike Dick at his worst, The Man In The High Castle is the author at
his very best. We're confronted with not just one good idea, but many.
It's also a beautifully written book, subtly weaving together Dick's
trademarks: reality, spirituality and the concepts of self - a hall of
distorting mirrors that questions not just the framework of this particular
strand of alternative history (Germany wins the war) but also ours. What,
indeed, is reality? asks Dick.
The book opens in the late 1950s with America a conquered nation. On the
west coast the Japanese control everything from neutral Canada, south to an
Axis-allied Mexico and west to the California-Arizona border. The Germans
run the east coast from their headquarters in New York to the mid west.
Down the middle is a Vichy Free France style American state, neutered and
powerless, the last vestige of the pre-war USA. The rest of the world is
in darkness, Dick letting in only the tiniest details of what's going on.
The Man in The High Castle mostly avoids the big picture politics of this
alternative history. Instead, Dick focuses on the interweaving lives of
the novels characters - the owner of a shop specialising in pre-war
American antiques of dubious authenticity, a jeweler and his business
partner who supply the shop, an undercover German agent, a divorcee on the
run and the Japanese customers of the antique shop.
Behind all of this is the shadowy presence of an author hiding out in the
mid-west. A book has been published called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a
science fiction novel that dares to wonder what the world would have been
like if the Allies had won the war. As the Japanese characters (who have
taken on westernised names) explain:
"Interesting form of fiction possibly within genre of science fiction,"
"Oh no," Betty disagreed. "No science in it. Nor set in future. Science
fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced
over now. Book fits neither premise."
"But," Paul said, "it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science
fiction novels of that sort."
As Dick's novel progresses, more of the book within the book is revealed.
The alternative history that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy presents is yet
another alternative - the outcome of the Allies winning the war is achieved
in a distinctly different way to the one we are familiar with. And,
perhaps, in the book within the book, is another science fiction author
presenting another version of events. It's a mirror reflecting a mirror
into infinity, each diminishing reality subtly different to the one
Dick's prose is lucid and controlled with a nuanced shading of character,
detail and plot that few other sci-fi novels have achieved. The author
poses variations of his main theme which belie the pulp, 1950s ambience of
some of the later action. The Man In The High Castle is a testament to the
possibilities of the science fiction genre, taking bold steps in directions
few have been able to follow. The tragedy here is that Dick was rarely
better and in the wake of Blade Runner, released the year of the author's
death in the early 1980s, the focus of appreciation has centered on his
more obvious sci-fi writings. Although never truly terrible, Dick was
given to rehashing his own work. He had planned a sequel to The Man In The
High Castle that never eventuated. Luckily, with the book still in print,
we can appreciate a writer at the height of his craft.
Arthur C. Clarke is another proposition altogether. Even his most ardent
fans would admit that elementary devices like characterisation and
believable dialogue are largely absent from the dozens of books published
under his name.
What most people recognise as science fiction is what Clarke has always
delivered: tight plotting and painfully believable technical detail. It's
painful because, although always delivered with panache, that's all you're
going to get. Clarke's attempts at characterisation are laughable. Take
this gem from Rendezvous With Rama, where the author attempts to explain
how two of his space crew manage their simultaneous marriage to the same
woman, remembering of course that a menage a trios is futuristic. Crew
members Mercer and Calvert have established a stable working relationship
despite their personality differences but...
"...what was much more unusual was the fact that they also shared a wife
back on Earth, who had borne each of them a child. Commander Norton hoped
that he would meet her one day. She must be a very remarkable woman. The
triangle had lasted at least five years, and still seemed to be an
Or this about the prospect of women in space:
"Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed
aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn
distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they
started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any
warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least
one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction..."
About the only sympathetic vibration readers in the 1990s would share is
the desire to put a size 10 space boot up the author's arse. But Clarke
fans would argue that those necessary but absent devices in the creation of
the suspension of disbelief are beside the point - just give us some hard
technical detail about trajectories, transmission time lags and the
possibilities of alien visitors.
Published in 1973, Rendezvous With Rama is undoubtedly one of Clarke's
better books. It opens with a meteorite hitting the north of Italy,
totally annihilating Venice and the surrounding countryside. In the wake
of the disaster, the united people of Earth start up an organisation with
the pithy name of Space Guard. Their mission: to protect the earth from
wayward asteroids and meteorites. Commander Norton and the crew of the
Endeavour are out on a mission when an object is detected heading towards
the inner solar system. With no one else out in their part of space, it's
up to Norton to intercept and destroy the object. But then it turns out to
be a huge, slowly rotating cylinder - an alien space craft kilometers long.
The next logical step is go inside and explore.
Rendezvous With Rama is an adventure in the grand tradition and Clarke's
detail is staggering. The interior of Rama, the name given to the alien
visitor, is vividly realised and, despite the occasional lapse into boy's
own adventure, remains tightly focused on the task at hand. Clarke's
background in physics and chemistry (he's an old boy of Kings College,
London) is put to impressive use. It's as if Clarke uses the old tailor's
maxim: never mind the quality, feel the width. The author manages to create
an entirely convincing alien ecosystem with unique numerical and
architectural features thrown in for good measure. You do indeed forget
the quality - it's the wide-screen adventure that engulfs the reader.
Reading Clarke is a guilty pleasure. It's not the greatest book ever
written - in parts it's a perfect example of just what is wrong with so
much so-called "classic sci-fi" - but when you put the book down you feel
as though you've been somewhere. And that in itself is no small
By way of comparison, it's amazing to consider that JG Ballard's novel
Crash was published in the very same year as Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama.
It's even more incredible when you realise that both works fall under the
title 'science fiction'. No two books could be more dissimilar within the
same supposed genre.
By the late 1960s the utopian idealism that typified so much science
fiction had become untenable in the face of the escalating cold war and the
emergent 'counter-culture'. Ballard, along with authors like Christopher
Priest and Michael Moorecock in the UK and Thomas M. Disch, Harlan Ellison
and Roger Zelazny in the US, had created what was called 'The New Wave' of
sci-fi. Clarke and Asimov's starships were in flames: the genre returned
to an Earth overwhelmed by the arms race, overpopulation and pollution -
the touchstones of the counterculture. The New Wave also proposed what was
then a radical stance: everyday life is science fiction, not some
Ballard's Crash is probably one of the best examples of the New Wave; the
desire to invest fiction with some of the radical departures that other art
forms had achieved. But as a consequence some of its pre-occupations have
dated: S&M is now the stuff of mainstream Hollywood. The positing of
everyday life as the arena for sci-fi is now a standard genre device and
the approaching apocalypse in the form of the family car has been consigned
to the same bargain bin as Ralph Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed. The recent
movie version of Crash is no better proof that, despite the radicalism of
the book in the early 1970s, certain aspects have not survived the test of
time. On the other hand, it's Crash's very radicality that marks it out as
one of the true classics of 20th century fiction, not just as science
The literary proscenium is immediately demolished by Ballard's main
character: James G. Ballard. Writing in the first person Ballard,
character and author, takes centre stage as the novel's main protagonist.
Driving home from his job as the director of an ad shoot, Ballard narrowly
survives a car accident. Convalescing in a hospital near Heathrow Airport,
Ballard meets Vaughn, his guide into a nether-world of perverse
auto-eroticism. Vaughn is obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor and plans the
ultimate orgasmic/death scenario - a car crash where both will die. In the
meantime, Ballard is introduced to a society populated with the survivors
of car accidents who recognise the implicit sexual charge of the near death
experience. The faster and the more violent the accident, the bigger the
thrill. A gash on a leg caused by the incision of metal into flesh is
nothing more than an alternative point of entry for the sexually liberated.
Ballard's novel is also one to be read with a box of Panadol Forte to hand
- it has a headache inducing intensity that has been rarely matched. The
author cleverly combines pornography, violence and the fetishisation of car
culture to create a portrait of an entirely convincing alternative reality.
His prose is lean to the point of banality, but so charged with a
sexual/violent frission that, once read, is almost impossible to forget.
There is nothing like it in subsequent sci-fi - indeed, in fiction at
large. The closest thing this reviewer has ever read that compares to the
overwhelming intensity of Crash is Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho. A
book to be approached with caution.
During the late 1970s and the 1980s science fiction had to deal with two
The first was that the radical re-evaluation of modernism that brought
about the New Wave had created a no-win situation for sci-fi. It was stuck
in a rut. With the aesthetics of post-modernism in the ascendancy and
culture at large starting to take on the appearance of science fiction, the
normal genre mechanics of print science fiction, (space craft, f-t-l
travel, genetics, a cashless society, etc) began to look incredibly tired.
The second problem was Star Wars. George Lucas's 1977 film firmly placed
science fiction at the centre of Hollywood's money-making machine.
Publishing, which is after all another money making enterprise, followed
suit. Bookshelves were groaning under the weight of endless, multi-volume
series that rehashed sub-Arthurian legend for a decent profit.
In the 1980s, the work of authors like Neil Stephenson, William Gibson and
Bruce Sterling helped to resuscitate an increasingly irrelevant genre by
infusing it with a contemporary, post-modernist aesthetic. But the grand
space opera of classic sci-fi was still missing in action.
Which brings us to Iain M. Banks. Making his debut in 1984 with the
non-science fiction novel The Wasp Factory, Banks was a new voice on the
literary scene. Writing in a clear and concise prose, Banks was an ascerbic
commentator of life in the UK. After the Kafka-esque follow up, The
Bridge, it became clear that Banks had definite science fiction leanings.
Then Consider Phlebas was published - a full on science fiction novel that
spanned vast distances, alien cultures, war and fantastically groovy
technology. It was Banks first completed novel, but it had languished
unpublished until after the success of The Wasp Factory. It read like a
first novel but it had one great idea. Banks proposed a vast galactic
civilisation called The Culture. The book's metaphor was clear: western
culture in space. But unlike Asimov, Clarke, or pulp writers like E.E.
"Doc" Smith, Banks's future is a cynical, self-aware and avowedly ironic
recreation of 1950s space opera.
In Consider Phlebas, The Culture loved its enemy - a monolithic,
semi-fascistic mono-culture that stood in for the old Soviet Union.
Nothing could stand in the way of a culture that absorbs and takes on as
fashion everything that would defy it - either by simply being different or
actively opposing it. Everything from communism to aboriginal cultures
crumble in the face of a polymorphously perverse, insatiably curious
conquest. Weapons are a last resort when you can offer your enemy the
attractions of a free market economy.
Defying the law of diminishing returns, the tangentially related sequels
found detail in Banks's first novel that was worth exploring. Some were
merely diverting, like The Player of Games and The Use of Weapons. Others
were excellent; the short story State of The Art (for my money the single
best sci-fi Excession short story of the last 20 years) and his most recent
Excession finds The Culture unopposed in the galaxy. Its citizens -
humanoids, robots, artificially intelligent space craft, drones and
self-aware weapons - are busily deciding how the lesser civilizations will
develop, whether or not to contact one-cut-above-barbarism planets like
Earth (State of the Art puts the time frame as 1978) and how to spend their
copious free time. The Culture has achieved utopia - even dissension is
Then one day The Culture must deal with what is called an "Outside Context
Problem." As Banks describes it:
"An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilizations
encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter in the same way a
sentence encountered a full stop."
The Culture detects an object floating in space that it cannot explain - it
exists both within and outside the familiar multidimensional realms of
space-time. The object seems benign, but its mere existence challenges the
ordered universe of The Culture. Fleets are assembled, field agents from
Special Circumstances (a kind of friendly CIA) are posted and The Cultures
best Minds (self-aware spacecraft) are thrown into the fray. The Culture
will simultaneously stabilise the situation where needed and wreak havoc if
Banks lines up a series of breathtakingly realised vignettes, weaving
dramatic twists and turns into the narrative. In lesser hands (Douglas
Adams and Terry Pratchet, please stand up), humour and irony begin to grate
over several hundred pages, let alone over the 5 volume Culture series.
It's a testament to Banks's talent that he manages to maintain both a high
seriousness and a wicked sense of humour.
Which is not to say that Banks's writing is without fault. In a bizarre
reversal of the problems usually encountered with sci-fi, Banks is a
brilliant writer with vivid characterisation and artfully controlled
detail. But his plotting could do with some badly needed focus.
Interzone, the British science fiction magazine, is quoted on the back
cover as saying "the story is vital and urgent and has a brilliantly subtle
resolution." In truth, the conclusion of Excession is subtle to the point
of being almost subliminal. That aside, Banks deserves his reputation as
the saviour of contemporary science fiction.