the Little Red Reviewer

The Future Was Now, a guest post from Kamo

Posted on: January 5, 2014

Today’s guest post is from  Kamo, who blogs at this is how she fight start.  If that’s not an alluring enough blog name for you,  Kamo posts about speculative fiction, life in Japan, and food with a quippy wry style.

The Future Was Now, by Kamo

kamo blogs about books, Japan, and cake (in precisely that order) at this is how she fight start and sporadically twitters as @tihsfs. He doesn’t really own a cape.

“Vintage Science Fiction.” There’s an oxymoron right there.

In my day job I teach English to Japanese high school students. At night I don a sentient suit of armour (with cape) and deal out vigilante justice to the scum of the city in a psychologically disastrous attempt to displace my raging alcoholism and avenge the death of my parents at the hands of Big Mo’s henchmen when I was naught but a child. But I’ve been asked to write about Science Fiction here so I’m going to talk about the day job instead.

In addition to the linguistic aspects of English teaching, there are also certain cultural considerations that accompany the role. As such, I’m expected to be something of an ambassador for the entire Rest of the World. Me. This is hilarious.

I am patently unsuited to many roles, but perhaps none more so than Ambassador of the World (Ambassador OF THE NIGHT, maybe). But I’m getting paid real money for this so I may as well give it a go, eh? Thus we watch a lot of dvds and clips I’ve ripped off youtube. This year my students have been subjected to Jane Eyre (the BBC TV adaptation), Mad Men (the AMC mega-phenomenon), and The Matrix (the movie, singular. There is only one Matrix movie).

In preparation for their final presentations I’ve also shown them a couple of famous speeches: Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech (obvs) and JFK’s speech at Rice University launching the Apollo programme. I must have watched the same clips about fifty times by now, and the part that still surprises me is when JFK poses the question, “Why, 35 years ago, did we fly the Atlantic?” Thirty-five years ago. The speech was made in 1962. We are now further away from Armstrong’s moon landing than Armstrong was from Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight.

Let’s all just take a moment to consider that.

Compounding this is my suspicion that Red’s 1979 cut off for ‘vintage’ classification isn’t entirely arbitrary. It’s the year Alien was released, for one. More importantly, it isn’t so far off my own ill-starred emergence into the world and so Alien is to me (us?) what The Matrix is to this coming intake of students. They will have been born in 1999, and so if I choose to show them The Matrix (year of release: 1999) it will, for them, be very much ‘Vintage SF’.

Let’s all take a moment to consider that as well.

This is, needless to say, depressing as all fuck in a we’re not getting any younger time is ticking away every second you spend reading this is a second closer to your inevitable death kind of way. How do you cope with that? Besides drink, self-destructive extrajudicial crime fighting, and borderline sociopathy that is (none of which are really working all that well if I’m being honest)?

I suspect the answer is that you don’t fear the future, you embrace it. You welcome the inevitable march of time as taking us onwards to if not a better place, then at least a different one. Science Fiction is inherently forward looking in a way other genres are not. The speculative must inevitably speculate.

Because, and this is the point I really want to make, Science Fiction isn’t really about science at all. It’s not about rockets or robots or spaceships or purple aliens with seven arms and knees where their ears should be. I mean, sure, at its worst it’s about all those things and more, usually under the rubric of Worldbuilding (don’t get me started on Worldbuilding, I fucking hate Worldbuilding. It is the fart in the elevator of narrative elements, stinking the place out and requiring Characterization and Plot to breathe through their mouths while Dialogue repeatedly jabs at the button for the next available floor and Pacing slowly collapses into a heap in the corner), but really it’s not about any of that. It’s about people and what we do and how we cope.

This is why I think that ‘Vintage Science Fiction’ is an oxymoron, because the other yoking of opposites I want you to consider is this – the only constant is change. At heart SF is about people coping with, and on occasion creating, change at a societal level. The details of that change vary, but that’s what it’s really about. The temptation with older SF is to pick nits with what they didn’t get right, the failed predictions: the moon is uninhabited, we were not conducting odysseys to space 13 years ago, and as for the colour of a television tuned to a dead channel? Pah. Netflix all the way, baby.

But this is to miss the point. The best SF works because of what it got right, and what it got right ahead of time. Sure, the neologisms stick around (‘cyberspace’, ‘robot’, ‘utopia’), but the human factors are what really hold. Look through a sample of today’s fiction, or even reportage, and tell me you can’t find any number of Frankensteins or Moreaus playing fast and loose with the Law of Unintended Consequences or Nemos and Neos pacing the boundaries between freedom fighting and terrorism.

Vintage SF is a perfect singularity of past, present, and future tenses. It shows us the world as it was going to be. When the world is changing fast enough that it becomes unrecognizable within the space of a lifetime that’s a rare kind of unity. It’s not perfect, no endeavour is, but at heart it reminds us of what it is to be human: the core of how we define ourselves against this constant change. Even if the visions presented aren’t optimistic the fact of their presentation is, as it puts us in a time when anything was possible: when the Earth was hollow, when Mars had a princess, and when Big Mo was just another anonymous street hoodlum and my parents were still alive, goddamnit.

At least that’s what I tell myself as I perch brooding on a gargoyle, surveying the desolate urban landscape through night-vision goggles. You take your humanity where you can find it, whether in pulp novels from the 1950s or soaring through the night on wings of steel striking fear into the hearts of miscreants across the city.

Or pilates. That’s meant to be quite good as well. Try pilates.

16 Responses to "The Future Was Now, a guest post from Kamo"

I am more likely to pick nits with the characterization in vintage SF, finding it fascinating to see what societal and technological changes the authors imagined.

OT: Rachel Bach’s non-vintage Fortune’s Pawn is on sale today.

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Yeah, the characterization can be a bit more hit-and-miss in VSF, in my experience. That massive rush to explore new ideas often obscures the more human elements, somewhat ironically given everything I’ve said above. Still, Sturgeon’s Law is universal :)

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” It shows us the world as it was going to be. ”

THIS. a hundred times, THIS. I think that is the main reason I enjoy reading older science fiction. Is that how they thought we’d deal with overpopulation? Is that what they thought robots would be like, what a colony on the moon would be like, what AIs would be capable of? Is that what they thought humanity would be like 20, 50, or a thousand years down the line?

It’s like reading a time capsule of predictions.

These are the kinds of blog posts I come back to and read over and over again.

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Thank you. The brilliant part is that you know the stuff that seems cutting edge now will succumb to exactly the same ‘time capsule’ effect in due course. In many ways SF is constantly flirting with its own obsolescence, and that to me gives it a drive you really don’t find in other genres (not that other genres are worse, of course, just different).

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When someone is doing a Vintage read in 50 years, what will they think of Charlie Stross, or Kameron Hurley or Cory Doctorow? Is there anyway to predict what will feel dated and what will stand the test of time?

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That’s an interesting question. If only there was someone willing to give us a platform to discuss that at greater length…

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if only. give me about 12 hours.

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Great post, Kamo. I agree that there is much to like about classic science fiction, particularly if viewed for all the things it attempted to get right and for the effort to address that. It matters not to me if that future is now our past and they were wrong, it matters that they were trying and in the process wrote an enjoyable work of fiction.

It is easy to pick holes in older science fiction, but often I feel that ease is due more to laziness and prejudice than actual open minded assessment of the work. Classic science fiction often comes packaged with a sense of wonder and an optimism about our future that is sometimes lacking from today’s fiction.

I also think it is interesting that I read blogs where people denigrate older science fiction while praising current science fiction in the same breath. I find it interesting because, for example, the book Lisa mentions above, Fortune’s Pawn (which I’m reading and enjoying) is such a rehashing of older science fiction stories I’ve read. I don’t know that the author did this on purpose and given her age would suppose that she did not. What it proves to me is the old adage “there is nothing new under the sun”.

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Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? If proper scientists can talk about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ then it seems churlish for writers to deny the same influences.

And while the cynic/realist in me would like nothing more to agree with your last sentence, the optimist is certainly glad that people don’t stop trying to seek out the New. It’s not the journey, it’s the destination, and so on :)

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I’m happy that folks try new things as well, but it annoys me when I see authors or readers denigrating the classics without acknowledging that some story elements are timeless and, as you write, those new books are built on the backs of the old ones, which themselves are built upon the stories that came before them.

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Denigration, eh? Why do you suppose that happens? I can see more literary classics getting a bad rap because of the (often) enforced nature of consumption in the education system breeding resentment, but SF isn’t exactly over-represented on school curricula.

Maybe it’s the nature of SF to appeal to neophytes more than other genres, so repetition/recycling/homage/whatever gets assessed more harshly by that audience. Still, there are only meant to be seven story types (or is it eleven?), so unoriginality if fine, just as long as it’s done well. IMHO.

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Denigration AND dismissal – usually without thought and usually without any real experience with the older works to speak of. And, at least i terms of the “lack of/poor characterization” (folks always ‘say’ that but I hardly ever see them giving examples – just like they always manage to refer to old computer tech and/or lack of cell phones) – it’s largely, if not entirely just fine characterization that answers to a different dynamic.
The central character in most of those earlier SF stories was the tech or the BDO or the alien – not the people. Most of the characters were deliberate stereotypes so that the reader did get distracted from the big idea and so that the author didn’t have to waste short story space on unnecessary words. This is not “bad” – this is different, for a different audience. An audience that wasn’t as focused on other people’s personal details so much, nor caring about whatever back story they might have had.
And I’ll agree with Carl that much of the new work relies on re-working and re-telling the old ideas and much of it comes through as shopworn rather than new. I don’t care so much if readers want to avoid older/classic/vintage/antique works, but if you are going to write in the genre, KNOWING the genre is kind of something you ought to have in your bag of tricks.

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I’m not sure which was more entertaining: this essay, or the vanishing glimpse of your real name. I think you manage to answer, in fewer words and with more grace, the question I posed for myself awhile back, “Why Read Science Fiction?” I can only hope that decades from now, people are asking why we were all so dark and gloomy right now, rather than treating the early 2000s the way we do the “naive, utopian” visions of the 1950s.

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Ah, we like to tease, like all the best seductions. Twitch the veil, give you a glimpse, then whip it back in place quick sharp.

As for what we’ll think of the present in the future, I rather suspect Red will give us a chance to discuss that further sooner rather than later.

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[…] now for the second, far more interesting question, prompted by a guest post written here a few days ago by Kamo of this is how she fight start. Go read the post, it’s one of my favorites, but the […]

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[…] Group Stan Lee To Appear in Agents Of Shield Jamie Todd Rubin To Resume Vacation In the Golden Age On ‘Vintage’ Science Fiction On How To Recommend Science Fiction Shelley Letters Cache Discovered New Netflix SF Show From […]

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