Is Science Fiction Out of Ideas?

Vivienne Raper is working on a science fiction novel with the help of the Kingston MFA.


‘THE OVERWHELMING SENSE ONE GETS, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion… In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.’

So begins British science fiction critic Paul Kincaid’s 2012 review of The Year’s Best Science Fiction in the Los Angeles Review of Books. He argued today’s short science fiction ‘unadventurously’ rehashes robot and spaceship stories seventy years old, historical tales on Mars, or fairy stories where technology replaces magic. He concludes that science fiction authors have lost faith in the future.

Amazing Stories

          His review sparked debate, including a fascinating – although incoherent – essay by freelance critic Jonathan McCalmont. Entitled ‘Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future’. In it, McCalmont argues that speculative fiction authors are evading their responsibility to tackle political subjects.

But are Kincaid and McCalmont right? I’d argue not. The crisis in science fiction is not exhaustion or pessimism, but overload. At least four different technologies are advancing simultaneously. Their lockstep development over the next fifty years could reshape humans, nature and society in exhilarating and terrifying ways. 

Perhaps some science fiction authors are responding like customers in a coffee shop. Faced with a choice between mocha, frappuccino, cappuccino, latte, and Americano with syrup, cream and triple shot, they are paralysed by choice and novelty. The flight to nostalgia may reflect a desire for a plain filter coffee – to seek old certainties in a world of instability.The Windup Girl

There are numerous examples of original near-future science fiction, albeit with a western sensibility. For example, Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth, which begins with Africa as the dominant geopolitical power and climate change solved. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is set in a crapsack future Thailand and tackles environmental catastrophe, the ethics of genetic modification of humans, and gene patenting by corporations. It’s an uncomfortably racist and misogynist read, but its ambition is impressive.

 Intrusion by Ken MacLeod, meanwhile, creates a terrifying British nanny state that coerces mothers to change their babies’ genetic code ‘for their own good’.

IntrusionYet I can also see McCalmont and Kincaid’s point. Some well-regarded science fiction books are set in a far future almost indistinguishable from fantasy. Take, for example, Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age or Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. The Quantum Thief, in particular, reads like the novel of the video game.

These books reflect the challenge of writing optimistic science fiction set later than the next thirty years. We are entering an age where the genre must go beyond its popular image of, as Margaret Atwood put it “rockets, chemicals and talking squids in outer space”.

The next technological advances blur the boundaries between biology, chemistry, material and computer science. With today’s technology, you can already remote control a live rat, augment its brain with superhero infrared vision or have it mind-control a miniature car. You can build your own live cyborg cockroach at home (with a glue gun and tweezers).

You can bio-hack your own robotic cockroach at home. Remember to bring a cup of iced water to anaesthetise your roach before beginning surgery. EDITOR’S NOTE: Warning: Some readers may find this video disturbing as it is a live cockroach.

We’ve bred kittens that glow in the dark, goats that produce spider silk, created a ‘synthetic lifeform’, built a simple biological computer, and we can create children with up to six ‘parents’ (a surrogate from a developing world country, an egg donor, a sperm donor, a mitochondrial DNA donor, and two legal Western parents).

In the meantime, robots are becoming more like animals. We’ve created self-repairing robot chairs, robots that can copy themselves (‘breed’), wriggle like squid, dance, fly like real seagulls, and swarm like flies or ants.

Printing technology has advanced beyond your humble inkjet. We can now print living cells to make artificial ears, entire buildings based on impossible mathematical shapes, even draw 3D sculptures straight into the air.

None of these things are science fiction. They exist already. It’s real modern technology. No imagination required.

You can imagine a future where humans, computers and nature merge. Rooms could be literally ‘bugged’ by living flyborgs, people could alter their grandchildren to look like Barbie, print themselves new organs and upgrade them with extra senses. Insectoid robots could heal themselves and print swarms of offspring. Every bacteria and tree could theoretically be computer networked and reshaped. Welcome to Gaia 2.0.

The merge between biology, computing and materials has made the classic science fiction novel obsolete. You can’t create one technology and explore the social implications in depth. It’s not believable to tackle synthetic biology while ignoring social media. It would be like writing a contemporary crime novel without mobile phones.

Post-human fiction like The Quantum Thief and Culture novels contain every conceivable technological advance, including the smart-matter kitchen sink with nanotech bacterial digesters. There are too many technologies to explain in depth, causing these novels to look superficially like fantasy. They include stuff like rats communicating by ‘telepathy’. And that’s ridiculous, right?

Speculating about the future poses a huge challenge to modern writers. For a start, you often need to talk about biology. Biology is icky, unlike ray guns. Many people feel knee-jerk terror when encountering blood, guts, non-living things that look alive, things that aren’t quite human, or sound like mind control.

A sculpture by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini entitled "The Young Family" inspired by the ethical issues of growing human organs in other species, especially pigs.

A sculpture by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini entitled “The Young Family” inspired by the ethical issues of growing human organs in other species, especially pigs.

Biological science fiction merges inevitably with horror. Present a brutally realist problem for your characters to solve and you end up with Splice, not I, Robot.Splice

There’s a second challenge. Writers are human. When we write about soldiers exploring space, we base our fiction on the history of our culture – geopolitics, explorers or past wars. We work on shared expectations of what humans see, experience and feel. We extrapolate future societies from allegedly eternal truths about the human condition.

Or, as McCalmont puts it:

all cultural artefacts are born of a material world in which people struggle, suffer and die.

He goes on to write:

the ‘universal’ elements of an artistic vocabulary tend to be determined by social means

He’s talking about westerners writing about non-western cultures, and non-westerners writing western cultural tropes. He’s sweating the small stuff. A gay woman in a Kibbutz might have a different social experience to a white straight Anglo-American male, but you’d expect they’d share human universals. Seeing visible light or experiencing pain, for example.

You can’t use lived experience or human history to create compelling characters with beyond-human senses who are non-neurotypical – like people on the autistic spectrum today. At worst, the writing descends into wild fantasy or bad pop psychology. You think being a western guy writing about a woman’s life in 1950s Kenya is a challenge? How do you write a credible family life for someone who thinks in mathematics or can taste infrared light?

In such a future, we would be aliens to each other. We have no idea how families or society would or should operate if the average IQ was 170, if ten-percent of people had an augmented sense of smell, if people were an improvable consumer product, or where the potential for some criminal behaviours could be corrected before birth. And that’s before we get onto assassin drones, mass surveillance and challenges to privacy, climate change, and weapons of mass destruction small enough to fit into a fountain pen.

The ethical implications are brain burning. It’s not enough to rethink capitalism, as McCalmont argues, or piddle around discussing the legacy of the US Civil Rights Movement. You have to dismantle every fundamental belief of human societies. Western science fiction authors must reconsider the concept of work; the social contract; and the idea of equality beneath the law. Nothing can be taken for granted.

And that’s hard. No wonder many are writing mad scientists, steel men, princesses, magicians, steam-powered computers, and ray guns.

This blogpost has been overtaken by events! This week, scientists announced they have established the first ‘telepathic’ brain-to-brain link in rats. Rats thousands of miles apart in Brazil and America were able to share thoughts over the internet and collaborate to get food rewards (


Image copyrights:

The Buck Rogers picture has copyright info here

The Young Family image has copyright info here

The Splice film poster has copyright info here

The Roach video originally comes from here

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Davison
    Mar 01, 2013 @ 16:44:14

    Great post – really interesting even for a sci-fi reading novice.


  2. Bob Zwilling
    Jul 19, 2013 @ 05:54:09

    I think that speculative fiction in the 60’s and 70’s was written to warn people away from a dark future. Instead it only ended up offering a view of something no one was willing to change and was coming true. So why bother warning people who did not want to be warned. Simpler plots made easy money.

    While it is true a lot of what was science fiction is now ho-hum commercial reality, the writers of the 30’s and forties grew up with outhouses and horses at the beginning of their lives and entered into a world filled with everything that was hand powered now powered by electricity, petroleum and air, as well as radio, phonographs and movies. They had to look past the reality that was nonexistent when they were born so this is not the first time this has happened.

    The subject matter should be pulled from how people react to new situations. And you don’t have to go far. A device that allows people to feel the emotional responses of animals using their logic and understanding of the situation (their minds are processing data just not the way we see it) could open up a Pandoras box that could never be closed again. No different than a box that converts linux, apple or windows or any systems operating requests to the same kind of hardware everyone uses to express the same results.

    People seem to be hung up on the flashiness of technology taken out of context and not the effects that is has on them when using it probably because that would not be a “fun” thing to do. There is always a sense of a protective insulation that stops us from mentally ripping apart our ingrained neural pathways that always lead to the same results.

    The funny part is that these things probably have already been written about and are now just languishing under 50 billion terabytes of old sendimented data somewhere waiting to be rediscovered.


  3. vivienneraper
    Jul 21, 2013 @ 07:38:33

    We’re already opening that Pandora’s Box. There’s a growing body of studies into animal intelligence, which don’t need neural connections to show that we’re not the only intelligent lifeform on Earth. Take the studies with Alex the parrot where, frustrated that his handler wasn’t giving him a nut, he spelled out slowly “N…U…T..”

    We know we shouldn’t be treating animals the way we do, but society isn’t ready yet to stop using them that way. Once we lab grow meat, have the technology to stop animal experimentation and to communicate with non-speaking animals with a form of Makaton, etc. I think the next ‘rights’ movement will be for animals to have *rights* appropriate to their sentience (the way children do today).


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