Bringing the Future Back from the Dead
Has science fiction died, or does it just look different now?
Image by Marta Parszeniew
Welcome to the weekly column from award-winning comic, novel and television author Warren Ellis. The column will look at the stories of today and turn them into a vision of the future that is nothing less than 99 percent accurate.
GOOD MORNING SINNERS #2: BRINGING THE FUTURE BACK FROM THE DEAD
In the new science-fiction film I saw a couple of weeks ago, there’s a funny scene where a woman is trying to make her car work. The car comes with handprint recognition instead of a regular lock, and so she has to spend half a minute awkwardly splaying her hand on the driver’s-side window, trying to get the goddamn thing to find her print and open the car. Eventually, the car relents and lets her in.
For her second trick, she has to get the car to start. No key, see? The driving system uses facial recognition to start the car, just as some Android phones today will unlock themselves on "seeing" their owner’s faces. However, it would appear that, on the day she set up the facial recognition system, she was wearing a little eyeshadow and a little lipgloss. Because the car doesn’t recognise the fresh-faced girl sitting there on this summer’s day, she has to reach under the armrest to fish out a little lipgloss and a little eyeshadow and try again. Just to get the car to start.
Because the future tends to arrive a little bit broken. We have workarounds for everything, because very few things turn up perfectly functional.
Which isn’t something you tend to see science fiction focusing on much. But then this wasn’t a traditional SF film. The film, A Digital Tomorrow, produced by Nicolas Nova of the Near Future Laboratory and colleagues at the Media Design Program in Pasadena, was a design fiction.
A design fiction is a short video, usually issued by a practise specialising in user interaction, created to illustrate possible futures in the social technology space. Literally, a fiction about design. This is where science fiction lives now.
Science fiction’s been in a bad way for some time. The present condition develops too quickly for near-future SF to remain near-future by the time it’s actually hit print. Publication schedules can easily render a concept antique. Consequently, that part of the field’s all but abandoned: unless you’re a full-bore neophile like Charlie Stross or Cory Doctorow, or a word-artist like Lauren Beukes, you don’t want to chance it.
Hence, some people started talking about the death of science fiction: the loss of socially-aware work about what might be around the corner, a lack of relevance or relatable characters. Science fiction, which in many ways has been the incontinent mental patient in the basement of Modernism, was rarely big on character and art in any case. Pick up any book by the “acknowledged masters” and you’ll usually find six plots in search of a character.
User Interface, however, is in a sense all about the characters. All about the people. And, as in A Digital Tomorrow, has things both speculative and critical to say about the approach of the next New Normal. In the way that core science fiction, which acts as social fiction, speaks to the potentials of the present and the strange weather of the future.
And a lot of this stuff does have the authentic chill of the weird, in a similar mode to old black-and-white episodes of Doctor Who with Cybermen stalking through East London must have had. The Wrong operating across the space of the Real. It operates exactly as science fiction should.
It’s easy to believe science fiction’s dead. It’s hard to find in the bookstores, the cinemas peddle fairytale crap dressed up as SF and TV’s record is spotty at best. But it turns out it’s alive, and being made in the offices of people who actually build the near future for a living. Which, like the best science fiction, is something you wouldn’t necessarily have predicted.
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