Sunday, September 5, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : The Future is Overtaking Us

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.

Here's the blurb for The Future is Overtaking Us :
"Science fiction used to be a means of extrapolating today’s technology and society, and predicting the future. More and more often, however, our ideas of the future simply aren’t turning true. What happens when the real world starts advancing faster than the imaginations of science fiction writers?
Kim Stanley Robinson, John Scalzi, Mike Scott, Norman Cates

Unfortunately Kim Stanley Robinson was unable to make it, due to a scheduling conflict.

Droid X.  Call home.  Navigate to McDonald’s.  Find Green Skinned women.  This makes him feel like he’s living in the future.  But he can also get frustrated when it misunderstands him.  What he doesn’t like is that we’re all “suddenly” in the future.  Every generation has the moment when they realize this is no longer in the children’s world and have become adults and they’re now in the future, this brave new frontier, and every generation feels this way, that they have this unique problem, but really it’s something that happens to everyone.

N: I’m going to busk for a moment – who here, hold up your iPad.  Excellent.  You’re living with Star Trek technology, do you realize that?  It’s pretty cool.  But when it first came out I looked at that and said “What’s the use of that?” and I’ll own my mistakes, I was wrong, and for me that was one of those inflection points where I suddenly went “That’s pretty cool.  This is the future.”  I work at WETA digital, so I do have something to contribute here, I don’t write the stories, I do the effects, but sometimes we see something in film known as the reduction of the ‘wow factor’, like fifteen people talking to a computer and it responds, and back in the 60s that was amazing, but now it’s just totally old hat.  What do we have for a ‘wow factor’ now?   Enjoy a lot of hard sci-fi, partly because of that ‘wow factor’.  You have galaxy-spanning civilizations and constructs the size of a star, and your brain is going “Wow, what is that?” and the characters in the book are doing the same thing.  Sometimes I think film reduces the wow factor of science fiction because it is sometimes really hard, something you have scrolling the projector of your mind, is something way better than anything the movie can show you, but sometimes it isn’t.

M: And sometimes you have budget considerations.

N: And sometimes you have script considerations. (Laughter)

J: sometimes you have a confluence of amazing idea and thoughts and it somehow results in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  And then you get a movie like Moon, which had a $3 million budget, and people find it hard to relate to because it is so low-budget, yet it got nominated for a Hugo.

J: One of the ways that James Cameron dealt with living on an alien planet in the future was to ignore it, so he could use Vietnam-era flying machines, and it was very straight-forward because, in one kind of sense, while he was imagining these beautiful landscapes, but when it came to the technology, he didn’t really take that technology and put it into the 23rd century, so it was still grounded in the 1960s, so what do you do when it’s easier to use than the new technology?

M: The problem with new technology is that is destroys plots.

N: Transporters.

J: There’s a video on youtube of about 50 people in movies with ‘no signal’, and it’s really just use to create tension, because it would be too simple to dial up your GPS and find a way out of the dark cave.  So should writers compensate for the fact that technology obviates a lot of their plots, or should they try to write a story that encompasses that?

N: I’m one of those guys who loves technology, but it’s nothing without a human element.  If it doesn’t have a human element, then it leaves you cold, you want to feel that connection.  Technology can’t be used as an excuse to not have character, or plot, so one of the ways for getting around technology in stories is to concentrate on the characters.

J: Yeah, definitely, and another thing that I think is really important especially because our technology is moving rapidly and it’s hard to keep up, but also in the 1930s, 40s, 50s there were a lot of people concerned with the future, or mostly how to get money to eat, so they’d pick up whatever technology was new and write about it, and if their idea was discredited 6 weeks into the future, they don’t care because they got paid, and they can’t take it back, because they’ve already spent it on booze.

J: One of the things that Charles Stross writes is near future, and you need to worry about whether or not you’re going to get it wrong, because one of the things he was talking about recently was Halting State where a heist occurs in an MMO, then recently there was a heist in Eve that came down to real money, and I don’t think you can worry about it or you’re never going to write, and the fact that it’s no longer the future doesn’t obviate the fact that it’s a brilliant book.

N: Space elevators.  Who wants to see a space elevator?  Great, that’s everyone.  There have been conferences on these, and, honestly, I just want to say, “Come on!”

J: Old Man of War has a space elevator in it, and people come up to me and say “That’s not futuristic, that could happen” and I say “Yeah, but it hasn’t, so it’s still set in the future!”  (Laughter)  I mean, any time you get some little thing wrong, people can pick  it apart, and people complain that Ringworld isn’t stable, according to MIT, but back in the 70s, what happened in MIT stayed in MIT.  As an example, I had an asteroid in a parabolic orbit, and I knew it was wrong and it had to come out, and it didn’t come out and then it got published.

M: But it’s a lot easier these days, because you just go to Wikipedia and edit it to support your opinion. (Laughter)

N: There’ something known as Fridge Logic where if people get home after they watched your movie and they get home and open the fridge and then they go “Wait a  minute…” that’s okay.

J:  build my stories two questions deep, and if people ask “Why did you do this?” then I say “I did it because of X” and they say “Why did you do X?” and you say “I did it because of Y” and most readers will go “Oh, okay,” but there’s that’s 5 percent who will go “What about Y?” and I’ll say “I don’t know, I have 100,000 words due in 3 months, fuck off!” (Laughter).  But people will come up to me and say this thing that I wrote in my book happened, and they can see me as a visionary if they want to, that’s cool.
J: It’s like people who like Nostradmus, they say he’s a visionary, but they always forget the section of his book that say “The cheese will envelop the pigeon” and if you ask them they say it’s a metaphor for new York city and…

N: Actually, I’ve had cheese do that. (Laughter)

M: But back to your brief…

J: Did we get off-topic?

M: Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, it’s about making an interesting future for you, so it might not be right, but it’s entertaining, so like in the 70s they were completely focussed on spaceflight, but they completely missed the internet and cellphones, and you know why?  Because we have to sell our books now.  We have to write a future that seems similar enough to you that you’ll pull out your wallet and pay for it, and occasionally someone gets so freaky that you’ll still pull out your wallet, and we love you, but most people tend to want futures they can imagine.

N: And some screenwriters don’t even try.

J: I’m going to buy you a beer later.

N: I’m sorry, is my slight bitterness showing? (Laughter)

J: I think what it is, is that most screenwriters are generalists, they don’t specialize, so when they get asked to write a science fiction story, they go to the library and they borrow some Arthur C Clarke, or they latch onto what that remember from their childhood and they run with that.

J: The problem with technology is not that it’s advancing at too fast a rate, but that there’s such a glut of information that you’re worried that your audience are going to know more about what’s happening than you are, and that’s really a valid fear right now, because it used to be you could subscribe to Gizmodo and Wired and be done, but now there’s so much more out there that it’s impossible to keep up with it all.

J: Something that a lot of people are getting away with is going more literary sci-fi, which isn’t really science, it’s mostly fiction, and there are people who write for Oprah, who aren’t the kind of people who are in our audience here, and the reason people like a film like Avatar is because they’re not immersed in the culture, and it makes sense to them.

N: A lower budget in movies though, sometimes allows people to make a film that actually depicts what they enjoy, and it gives them more freedom to do what they want, and this is where I think independent films can really deal with tech in this was.

J: I think you’re right, in that high-budget films or a book with a huge advance puts expectations on the writer, and it’s an artistic compromise, because you have to make sure that what you’re writing will sell sufficiently to make up the numbers. 

J: The people who will get overtaken by technology first are the geeks, because they’re so into the culture, and it kind of filters down through society ,like I still have elderly relatives still angry about the fact that they phased out rotary phones.  There are also people who simply don’t care if the technology is wrong, because they’re entertained.

N: And I’d say that’s because of the characters, not the technology.

M: There’s been a lot of books dressed up as science fiction that aren’t science fiction, like Halting State or Faces of Gravity, which aren’t sci-fi but are dressed up like it and I wonder if we’re just going to keep seeing more of that.

J: Do they make money?

M: Probably.

J: Then yes, we will see more of it. (Laughter)  It’s like that fad at the moment where we’re taking old classics and putting in zombies and mummies and vampires, and I don’t begrudge them that one bit, because they’re making a lot of money, and one day that will collapse and we’ll be done with it. (Laughter)

N: In terms of movies, you have something like Inception, where the only real technology is what allows them to g into people’s dreams along with an undefined drug cocktail, and we don’t care, because it works.


J: For one thing, people 30 years ago were generally satisfied with their lot.  Unless they’re hungry or in pain, they’re generally satisfied.  Medical advances are all well and good, one thing that I want is I don’t want to die, but there are other things like rocket cars, promised and never delivered, or my robot butler, I mean, I can talk to my phone, but it’s not going to go get me my cheese…

M: Your pigeon-enveloping cheese?

J: Yes, my pigeon-encrusted cheese. (Laughter)

N: I would actually argue that technology has actually decreased our satisfaction, because hoe many times do you hold up your phone or computer and go “What?!”  Sometimes I want to be a peasant in the 16th century.

M: Except you’d be dead by now.

 J: These days it certainly takes a lot more expert knowledge to become renowned in their field, so what we need to look at is the curve we’re being marked against, which is looking at how the science fiction writers off the 1940s related to their technology, and how we relate to ours, and if the curve is staying the same, then we’re good, but if we’re not, then we need to look at what’s going on there.

Q: Do you think people are turning to fantasy more than sci-fi because they’re afraid of being wrong?

J: No, they’re turning to fantasy because it sells and because their higher echelons are grumpy and unwelcoming, and that’s a failing of sci-fi in that they won’t listen to people who aren’t geeky white males, whether they say it or not, but this institutional crankiness is absolutely having an impact.  The other side is that people grew up with fantasy and they like it, so it might have nothing to do with technology at all.


J: Can you have optimistic sci-fi? Absolutely.  Can it be more like Heinlein, or is it darker? I tend to write optimistic sci-fi, and it seems to be selling quite well, so I can’t complain.

N: Films tend to be more optimistic sci-fi, because people want to go to a movie and enjoy themselves, so something like Moon could have been darker, and Pandorum was certainly very dark, so those are kind of the exception.

J: We should note that sci-fi movie buffs, sci-fi tv show buffs and sci-fi book buffs are completely separate pools and don’t necessarily overlap, so if for example I sell 100,000 books, I’m doing really well, but if 100,000 people go to see his movie, someone gets fired, hopefully not you.

Q: What’s the earliest date you would put someone on Mars in a human colony?

J: You’re making an assumption I don’t make, which is that I don’t feel the need to put a date on things.  Unless it has a big bearing on the story, it’s not necessary to tie your story down.  But if I had to, I’d say 2500s, and something pretty seriously awesome has to happen between now and then.

J: A lot of sci-fi not coming true is to do with the commerce of life, because technology didn’t go toward rocket cars, it went toward things that make our lives easier, thing like this (hold up cellphone).

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