[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Award Winner

SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > The Future is Already Here

The Future is Already Here:

Is There a Place for
Science Fiction in the
Twenty-First Century?

by Robert J. Sawyer

A speech presented November 10, 1999, at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. and December 1, 1999, at The Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya's Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción Awards Ceremony, Barcelona, Spain

Published as the cover article in the Autumn 2000 edition of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction.


Copyright © 1999 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved


There are countless definitions for that amorphous entity we call science fiction, but one of the most succinct is that employed by Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the famed Mars trilogy: "Science fiction stories are stories set in the future." And, of course, for decades now, we've thought of the 21st century, the dawn of the third millennium, as the very embodiment of the future.

But now, the future is here. We're right on the doorstep of the 21st century, and, indeed, the year 2001, with all the resonances that magic figure has had for us since the film of the same name debuted thirty-odd years ago, will soon be a historical date.

If the future is already here, what role does science fiction have in it? Was SF a literature of the 20th century, the way gothic romances were a literature of the 19th? Or is there a place — a societal role — for science fiction in the new millennium?

To answer that question, it's necessary, of course, to define the current societal role of science fiction, and that role, I firmly believe, comes out of the central message of most of the memorable, ambitious stories in the genre.

Now, of course, there are those who think that fiction is not the place for messages: "If you want to send a message, call Western Union" — the old American telegram company — used to be standard advice given in creative-writing classes. Still, whether the authors are consciously aware of it or not, all fiction does convey messages or fundamental moral statements.

Before I delve into what the central message is for science fiction, let's set the stage by first looking at another genre closely allied with science fiction — another category with its own publishing imprints and dedicated magazines. I'm talking about mystery fiction.

What is the fundamental message present in every mystery story? There's one that, in fact, is virtually required — without it, the story falls completely apart. The central moral statement of all mystery fiction is this: "Don't commit murder, because you won't get away with it." In just about every mystery novel, a character tries to take the life of another human being. And in just about every one, despite clever planning on the part of the murderer, the killer is brought to justice.

Now, let's assess how successful the writers of mystery fiction have been at convincing the general public of the truth of their fundamental assertion "Don't commit murder, because you won't get away with it." Do we still have murder? Yes. Are murder rates decreasing? No. Despite hundreds of thousands of iterations on this theme in mystery stories from Edgar Allan Poe through Agatha Christie to Sara Paretsky — a theme which, put another way, is often stated as, "There's no such thing as a perfect crime" — there has been no societal change. Murder is rampant.

And that's good news for the mystery-fiction writers of the world. It means they have job security. It means they still have work to do. It means their message still needs to be heard.

But what about me and my colleagues? What of the SF writers of the world? How good have we been at communicating our central message? And, indeed, what is the central message of SF?

To my way of thinking, the central message of science fiction is this: "Look with a skeptical eye at new technologies." Or, as William Gibson has put it, "the job of the science-fiction writer is to be profoundly ambivalent about changes in technology."

Now, certainly, there are science-fiction writers who use the genre for pure scientific boosterism: science can do no wrong; only the weak quail in the face of new knowledge. Jerry Pournelle, for instance, has rarely, if ever, looked at the downsides of progress. But most of us, I firmly believe, do take the Gibsonian view: we are not techie cheerleaders, we aren't flacks for big business or entrepreneurism, we don't trade in utopias.

Neither, of course, are we Luddites. Michael Crichton writes of the future, too, but he's not really a science-fiction writer; if anything, he's an anti-science-fiction writer.

Indeed, both Gregory Benford and I have discussed with our shared agent, Ralph Vicinanza, why it is that Crichton outsells us. And Ralph explained that he could get deals at least approaching those Crichton gets if — and this was an unacceptable "if" to both me and Greg — we were willing to promulgate the same fundamental message Crichton does, namely, that science always goes wrong.

When Michael Crichton makes robots, as he did in Westworld, they run amuck, and people die. When he clones dinosaurs, as he did in Jurassic Park, they run amuck and people die. When he finds extraterrestrial life, as he did in The Andromeda Strain, people die.

Crichton isn't a prophet; rather, he panders to the fear of technology so rampant in our society — a society, of course, which ironically would not exist without technology. His mantra is clearly the old B-movie one that "there are some things man was not meant to know."

The writers of real SF refuse to sink to fear-mongering, but neither do we overindulge in boosterism — both are equally mindless activities.

Still, we do have an essential societal role, one being fulfilled by no one else. Actual scientists are constrained in what they can say — even with tenure, which supposedly ensures the right to pursue any line of inquiry, scientists are in fact muzzled at the most fundamental, economic level. They cannot speculate openly about the potential downsides of their work, because they rely on government grants or private-sector consulting contracts.

Well, the government is answerable to an often irrational public. If a scientist is dependent on government grants, those grants can easily disappear. And if he or she is employed in the private sector, well, then certainly Motorola doesn't want you to say cellular phones might cause brain cancer; Dow Chemical didn't want anyone to say that silicone implants might cause autoimmune problems; Philip Morris doesn't want anyone to say that nicotine might be addictive.

Granted, not all those potential dangers turned out to be real, but even considering them, putting them on the table for discussion, was not part of the game plan; indeed, suppressing possible negatives is key to how all businesses, including those built on science and technology, work.

There are moments — increasingly frequent moments — during which the media reports that, "Science fiction has become science fact." Certainly one of the most dramatic recent ones was made public in February 1997. Ian Wilmut at Roslin Institute in Edinburgh had succeeded in taking an adult mammalian cell and producing an exact genetic duplicate: the cloning of the sheep named Dolly.

Dr. Wilmut was interviewed all over the world, and, of course, every reporter asked him about the significance of his work, the ramifications, the effects it would have on family life. And his response was doggedly the same, time and again: cloning, he said, had narrow applications in the field of animal husbandry.

That was all he could say. He couldn't answer the question directly. He couldn't tell reporters that it was now technically possible for a man who was 35 years old, who had been drinking too much, and smoking, and never exercising, a man who had been warned by his doctor that his heart and lungs and liver would all give out by the time he was in his early fifties, to now order up an exact genetic duplicate of himself, a duplicate that by the time he needed all those replacement parts would be sixteen or seventeen years old, with pristine, youthful versions of the very organs that needed replacing, replacements that could be transplanted with zero chance of tissue rejection.

Why, the man who needed these organs wouldn't even have to go to any particular expense — just have the clone of himself created, put the clone up for adoption — possibly even an illegal adoption, in which the adopting parents pay money for the child, a common enough if unsavory practice, letting the man recover the costs of the cloning procedure. Then, let the adoptive parents raise the child with their money, and when it is time to harvest the organs, just track down the teenager, and kidnap him, and — well, you get the picture. Just another newspaper report of a missing kid.

Far-fetched? Not that I can see; indeed, there may be adopted children out there right now who, unbeknownst to them or their guardians, are clones of the wunderkinds of Silicon Valley or the lions of Wall Street. But the man who cloned Dolly couldn't speculate on this possibility, or any of the dozens of other scenarios that immediately come to mind. He couldn't speculate because if he did, he'd be putting his future funding at risk. His continued ability to do research depended directly on him keeping his mouth shut.

The same mindset was driven home for me quite recently. I am co-hosting a two-hour documentary called "Inventing the Future: 2000 Years of Discovery" for the Canadian version of The Discovery Channel, and in November 1999 I went to Princeton University to interview Joe Tsien, who created the "Doogie Mice" — mice that were born more intelligent than normal mice, and retained their smarts longer.

While my producer and the camera operator fussed setting up the lighting, Dr. Tsien and I chatted animatedly about the ramifications of his research, and there was no doubt that he and his colleagues understood how far-reaching they would be. Indeed, by the door to Dr. Tsien's lab, not normally seen by the public, is a cartoon of a giant rodent labeled "Doogie" sitting in front of a computer. In Doogie's right hand is his computer's pointing device — a little human figure labeled "Joe": the super-smart mouse using its human creator as a computer mouse.

Finally, the camera operator was ready, and we started taping. "So, Dr. Tsien," I said, beginning the interview, "how did you come to create these super-intelligent mice?"

And Tsien made a "cut" motion with his hand, and stepped forward, telling the camera operator to stop. "I don't want to use the word `intelligent,'" he said. "We can talk about the mice having better memories, but not about them being smarter. The public will be all over me if they think we're making animals more intelligent."

"But you are making them more intelligent," said my producer. Indeed, Tsien had used the word "intelligent" repeatedly while we'd been chatting.

"Yes, yes," he said. "But I can't say that for public consumption."

The muzzle was clearly on. We soldiered ahead with the interview, but never really got what we wanted. I'm not sure if Tsien was a science-fiction fan, and he had no idea that I was also a science-fiction writer, but many SF fans have wondered why Tsien didn't name his super-smart mice "Algernons," after the experimental rodent in Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon.

Tsien might have been aware of the reference, but chose the much more palatable "Doogie" — a tip of the hat to the old TV show Doogie Howser, M.D., about a boy-genius who becomes a medical doctor while still a teenager — because, of course, in Flowers for Algernon, the leap is made directly from the work on mice to the mind-expanding possibilities for humans, and Tsien was clearly trying to restrain, not encourage, such leaps.

So, we're back to where we started: someone needs to openly do the speculation, to weigh the consequences, to consider the ramifications — someone who is immune to economic pressures. And that someone is the science-fiction writer.

And, of course, we do precisely that — and have done so from the outset. Brian Aldiss, and many other critics, contend that the first science-fiction novel was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and I think they're right. In that novel, Victor is a scientist, and he's learned about reanimating dead matter by studying the process of decay that occurs after death. Take out his scientific training, and his scientific research, and his scientific theory, and, for the first time in the history of fiction, there's no story left. Like so much of the science fiction that followed, Frankenstein, first published in 1818, is a cautionary tale, depicting the things that can go wrong, in this case, with the notion of biological engineering.

Science-fiction writers have considered the pluses and minuses of other new technologies, too, of course. We were among the first to weigh in on the dangers of nuclear power — memorably, for instance, with Judith Merril's 1948 short story "That Only a Mother" — and, although there are still SF writers (often, it should be noted, with university or industry positions directly or indirectly involved in the defense industry) who have always sung the praises of nuclear energy, it's a fact that all over the world, governments are turning away from it.

The October 18, 1999, edition of Newsweek carried an article which said, "In most parts of the world, the chance of nuclear power plant accidents is now seen as too great. Reactor orders and start-ups have declined markedly since the 1980s. Some countries, including Germany and Sweden, plan to shut down their plants altogether ... Nuclear-reactor orders and start-ups ranged from 20 to 40 per year in the 1980s; in 1997 there were just two new orders, and five start-ups worldwide. Last year [1998] construction began on only four new nuclear reactors."

Why the sharp decline? Because the cautionary scenarios about nuclear accidents in science fiction have, time and again, become science fact. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that there were 508 nuclear "incidents" between 1993 and 1998, an average of more than one for each of the world's 434 operating nuclear power plants.

It certainly wasn't out of the scientific community that the warnings were first heard. I vividly recall being at a party about fifteen years ago at which I ran into an old friend from high school. She introduced me to her new husband, a nuclear engineer for Ontario Hydro, the company that operates the nuclear power plants near my home city of Toronto. I asked him what plans were in place in case something went wrong with one of the reactors (this was before the Chernobyl accident in 1986, but after Three Mile Island in 1979). He replied that nothing could go wrong; the system was foolproof. Although we were both early in our careers then, we were precisely fulfilling our respective societal roles. As an engineer employed by the nuclear industry, he had to say the plants were absolutely safe. As a science-fiction writer, I had to be highly skeptical of any such statements.

Science fiction has weighed in on ecology, overpopulation, racism, the abortion debate (which is also fundamentally a technological issue — the ability to terminate a fetus without harming the mother is a scientific breakthrough whose moral ramifications must be weighed), and, indeed, science-fiction has been increasingly considering what I think may be the greatest threat of all, the downsides of creating artificial intelligence. From William Gibson's Hugo-winning 1984 Neuromancer — in which an organization known as "Turing" exists to prevent the emergence of true AI — to my own Hugo-nominated 1998 Factoring Humanity, in which the one and only radio message Earth receives from another star is a warning against the creation of AI, a last gasp from biologicals being utterly supplanted by what they themselves had created without sufficient forethought.

Which brings us back to the central message of SF: "Look with a skeptical eye at new technologies." Has that message gotten through to the general public? Has society at large embraced it in a way that they never did embrace "Don't commit murder because you will never get away with it"?

And the answer, I think, is absolutely yes. Society has co-opted the science-fictional worldview wholly and completely. Do we now build a new dam just because we can? Not without an environmental-impact study. Do we put high-energy power lines near public schools? Not anymore. Did we all rush out to start eating potato chips made with Olestra, the fake fat that robs the body of nutrients and causes abdominal cramping and loose stools? No.

And what about the example I started with — cloning? Indeed, what about the whole area of genetic research?

Well, when the first Cro-Magnon produced the first stone-tipped wooden spear, none of his hirsute brethren stopped to think about the fact that whole species would be driven to extinction by human hunting. When the United States undertook the Manhattan Project, not one cent was budgeted for considering the societal ramifications of the creation of nuclear weapons — despite the fact that their existence, more than any other single thing, shaped the mindset of the rest of the century.

But for the Human Genome Project, fully five percent of the total budget is set aside for that thing SF writers love to do the most: just plain old noodling — thinking about the consequences, the impacts, that genetic research will have on society.

That money is allocated because the world now realizes that such thinking is indispensable. Of course, the general public doesn't think of it as science fiction — to them, thanks to George "I can't be bothered to look up the meaning of the word parsec" Lucas, SF is the ultimate in escapism, irrelevant to the real world; it's fantasy stories that only happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

I'm not alone in this view. Joe Haldeman has observed that Star Wars was the worst thing that ever happened to science fiction, because the general public now equates SF with escapism. According to The American Heritage English Dictionary, escapism is "the avoidance of reality through fantasy or other forms of diversion." I do not read SF for escapism, although I do read it for entertainment (which is the same reason I do a lot of my non-fiction reading). But I, and most readers of SF, have no interest in avoiding reality.

And yet, SF is seen as having nothing to do with the real world. At a family reunion in 1998, a great aunt of mine asked me what I'd been doing lately, and I said I'd spent the last several months conducting research for my next science-fiction novel. Well, my aunt, an intelligent, educated woman, screwed up her face, and said, "What possible research could you do for a science-fiction book?" SF to her, as to most of the world, is utterly divorced from reality; it's just crazy stuff we make up as we go along. And so the bioethicists, the demographers, the futurists, and the analysts, may not think of themselves as using the tools of science fiction — but they are.

Our mindset — the mindset honed in the pages of Astounding, the legacy of John Brunner and Isaac Asimov, of Judy Merril and Philip K. Dick — is now central to human thought. Science-fiction writers succeeded beyond their wildest dreams: they changed the way humanity looks at the world.

Years ago, Sam Moskowitz quipped that anyone could have predicted the automobile — but it would take a science-fiction writer to predict the traffic jam. In the 1960s, my fellow Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, made much the same point, saying that, contrary to the designers' intentions, every new technology starts out as a boon and ends up as an irritant.

But now, everyone is a science-fiction writer, even if they never spend any time at a keyboard. When a new technology comes along, we all look at it not with the wide eyes of a kid on Christmas morning, but with skepticism. The days when you could tell the public that a microwave oven would replace the traditional stove are long gone; we all know that new technologies aren't going to live up to the hype. About the only really interesting thing the microwave did was create the microwave-popcorn industry — and, of course, microwave popcorn, fast and convenient, is also loaded down with fatty oils to aid the popping, taking away the health benefits normally associated with that food item. The upside, the downside — popcorn, the science-fictional snack.

And what I'm talking about is a science-fictional, not a scientific, perspective. As Dr. David Stephenson, formerly with the National Research Council of Canada and a frequent science guest at SF conventions, has observed, scientists are taught from day one to write in the third-person passive voice: they distance themselves from their prose, removing from the discussion both the doer of the action and the person who is feeling the effects of the action.

But SF writers do what the scientists must not. We long ago left behind the essentially characterless storytelling practiced by such early writers as George O. Smith. We now strive for characterization as sophisticated as that in the best mainstream literature. Or, to put it another way, science fiction has evolved beyond being what its founding editor, Hugo Gernsback, said it should be: merely fiction about science. Indeed, even Isaac Asimov, known for a rather perfunctory approach to characterization, knew full well that SF was about the impact progress has on real people. His definition of science fiction was "that branch of literature that deals with the responses of human beings to changes in science and technology."

And those responses, of course, are often irrational, based on fear and ignorance. But they are responses that cannot be ignored: we — science-fiction readers and writers — do share this planet with the ninety percent of human beings who believe in angels, who believe in a literal heaven and hell, who reject evolution. As much as I admire Arthur C. Clarke — and I do, enormously — the most unrealistic thing about his fiction is how darn reasonable everyone is.

On May 31, 1999, CBC television had me appear on its current-affairs program Midday to discuss whether or not the space program was a waste of money; I was debating a woman who worked in social services who thought all money — including the tiny, tiny fraction of its gross domestic product that Canada, or even the U.S. for that matter, spends on space — should be used to address problems here on Earth.

And her clincher argument was this — I swear to God, I'm not making this up: "We should be careful about devoting too much time to science. The people who lived in Atlantis were obsessed with science, and that led to their downfall."

My response was to tell her that perhaps if she spent a little more time reading about science, she'd know that Atlantis was a myth, and she wouldn't make an ass out of herself on national television. But the point here — one that I will come back to — is this: she already understood the central 20th-century science-fictional premise of looking carefully at the ramifications of new technologies, such as space travel. But she was unable to look at them rationally, because of her faulty worldview, a worldview that rendered her incapable of separating myth from reality, fact from fiction.

If the central message of science fiction has indeed been co-opted by the public at large — if, as I think is true, Frank Herbert's Dune did as much to raise consciousness about ecology as did Rachel Carson's Silent Spring — then what role is there for science-fiction writers in the new century?

I always say whenever a discussion at a science-fiction convention brings in Star Trek as an example, we've hit rock bottom; you can't imagine Ruth Rendell turning to Scott Turow at a mystery-fiction conference and saying, "You know, that reminds me of that episode of Murder, She Wrote, in which ...'" But I am going to invoke Star Trek here as an example of how quaint and embarrassing SF ends up looking when it continues to push an old message long after society has gotten the point.

In the original Star Trek, we saw women and black people in important positions. Uhura, the mini-skirted bridge officer, was hardly the most significant black example; much more important were the fact that Kirk's boss, as seen in the episode "Court-Martial," was a black man, played with quiet dignity by Percy Rodriguez, and that the ship's computers, as seen in "The Ultimate Computer," were designed by a Noble-prize-winning black cyberneticist, played with equal dignity by William Marshall.

During the era of Martin Luther King and the Watts riots, it was a powerful, important statement to have the white captain of the Enterprise deferring to black people; as Marshall observed thirty years later, the single most significant thing about his guest-starring role was that he, an African-American, was referred to as "Sir" throughout the episode.

But time passed. In 1993, Paramount made much of the fact that we were going to see a black man as the leader on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — despite the fact that, by this point, blacks had been elected to prominent political positions throughout the United States, and even in South Africa, a bastion of racism in the 1960s, a black man, Nelson Mandela, was about to become president. But, somehow, Star Trek thought it was making a profound statement.

And then, just as embarrassingly, two years later, we were supposed to be stunned by the fact that on Star Trek: Voyager, a woman was the captain of a starship — this, despite the fact that countries from Great Britain to India to Canada had all already had female prime ministers, that women had risen to prominence in all walks of life.

My colleagues and I have long tried to reflect reality in our fiction, and so, naturally, we have diverse casts in our stories. Kurt Vonnegut's famous statement that the most unrealistic thing about science fiction is the preponderance of Americans — practically nobody, he correctly observed, is an American — was no longer news to anybody. And, by all means, in a Star Trek of the 1990s we should indeed have seen women and non-whites in prominent roles. But to make it the message, to try to pass it off as a gutsy thing to do, looked ridiculous.

Indeed, David Gerrold famously quit working on Star Trek: The Next Generation back in 1987 in part because of that series' failure to address the reality that a lot of people are gay in its depiction of the future; Star Trek had become irrelevant, because the only messages it was comfortable sending out were ones already fully received by the audience.

And, I firmly believe, SF as a whole is now in danger of being perceived as just as quaint, just as dated, just as irrelevant, as the current Star Trek is.

In our search for a new role, should we fall back on the one the media has so often cast us in — that of predictors of the future? I don't think so. Many SF writers, myself included, are content to occasionally call themselves "futurists," if that helps get us TV or radio interviews, but we aren't really (indeed, I'm not sure that anybody really is, in the modern sense of the term, as someone who claims to be able to predict future trends; Bill Gates is the world's current technological leader — a futurist if ever there was one — and he, of course, is the same man who once said that no one would ever need a computer with more than 640K of memory).

No, when what we science-fiction writers have written about comes to pass, it usually means society has screwed up. The last thing George Orwell wanted was for the real year 1984 to turn out anything like the vision portrayed in his novel.

Orwell, of course, wrote his book in 1948 — he simply reversed the last two digits to make it clear that he was really writing about his present day. Science fiction is indeed very much a literature of its time, and should, of course, be read in historical context.

Still, anyone who needs further convincing that science fiction isn't a predictive medium need only look at the events of the last few decades. Numerous science-fiction writers predicted that the first humans would set foot upon the moon in the 1960s, but none of us predicted that we would abandon the moon — indeed, all manned travel beyond Earth orbit — just three years later. Exactly twelve human beings have walked on the Moon; a mere dozen people (all white, all male, all American — hardly a representative sampling, but, then again, all of this occurred back when the original Star Trek's message of an interracial future was one that hadn't yet been fully received) — and there is no sign that that number will increase in the next couple of decades.

We science-fiction writers also utterly missed the fall of the Soviet Union, something that now, in retrospect seemed inevitable — indeed, it was amazing it lasted as long as it did. But we were writing books like Norman Spinrad's Russian Spring right up to the day of the collapse.

And, perhaps most significant of all, we completely missed the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web. The genre that gave us Isaac Asimov's Multivac, Arthur C. Clarke's HAL 9000, Robert A. Heinlein's Mycroft Holmes, and even William Gibson's Wintermute completely failed to predict how the computer revolution was really going to unfold.

Of course when something new comes along — such as the terrible plague of AIDS — we're quick to weight in with speculations. But we're usually so far off the mark that the results end up seeming laughable. Poor Norman Spinrad again: his vision of a world of people having sex with machines — instead of, of course, simply wearing condoms — because of the threat of AIDS, as outlined in his 1988 story "Journals of the Plague Years," seems absolutely ridiculous and alarmist when we look at it now, a scant decade later.

Some science-fiction writers still gamely try to set stories in the far future — a hundred, two hundred, a thousand years down the road. But the predictive horizon is moving ever closer. No one can make a prediction about what the world will be like even fifty years from now with any degree of confidence. What will be the fruits of the Human Genome Project? Will nanotechnology really work? Will true artificial intelligence emerge? Will cold fusion, or another clean, unlimited energy source, be developed? Will humans upload their consciousnesses into machines? And what wild cards — things we haven't even thought of yet — will appear?

As Bruce Sterling has observed, people in the future won't even eat; as Nancy Kress has postulated, with Beggars in Spain, they may not even sleep. What likely predictions could we possibly make about such beings?

In May 1967, Arthur C. Clarke revealed his now-famous "Third Law" during a speech to the American Association of Architects: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The question, of course, is how far ahead of us is "sufficiently advanced" — and the answer, I believe is fifty years; the world of 2050 is utterly beyond our predictive abilities. With the accelerating rate of change, any year-2000 guess as to what 2050 would be like is almost certainly going to be as far off base as a guess Christopher Columbus might have had about what 2000 would be like.

The pressure for SF to change has been building for a long time. In North America, the sales of science fiction books that aren't related to Star Trek, Star Wars, or other media properties, are the worst they've ever been. Sales are down about fifty percent across the board from 1990, and the readerships of the principal SF magazines — Analog and Asimov's — have been cut in half. There is no doubt that the reading public is turning away from SF in droves.

The prime cause of the decline in SF readers is that today's young people are finding all the things that have always attracted young people to SF — big ideas, sense of wonder, action, wish-fulfillment fantasies, stunning visual imagery, nifty aliens, engaging characters — more readily in movies, TV, role-playing games, computer games, and on the Internet than in the pages of printed works.

There's no doubt that we've been outclassed in terms of visual imagery by the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic. Any space battle or alien vista we might care to describe they can realize more vibrantly in pictures than we can with words. To put it crudely: in the past, many of our finest SF writers, including Robert Silverberg and Mike Resnick, supplemented their income by writing pornographic novels. But there's almost no market left for porno fiction: what's now shown on videotape is much more vivid and real than anything the reader can imagine. Well, as went novels with titles like Nurses in Need, so, too, will go the space opera that was once a staple of printed SF.

SF will have to change if it is to survive. The public wants something other than what we've been giving them. One change we'll likely see is a move away from the far future as a setting for stories. I don't even think we need to invoke Kim Stanley Robinson's criterion that SF stories must be set in the future; I took great pleasure in setting my novel Frameshift, for instance, entirely in the present day, and suspect we'll see it become much more common for serious SF novels to have contemporary settings.

Indeed, if science fiction is going to have relevancy in the next century, it must assert itself to be part of real life, not far-off tales of escapism. And that brings me back to where we started. We need a new message for the new millennium. Far be it from me to try to impose an agenda on SF — but I think the agenda is already there, implicit in many of our texts, and, indeed, explicit in the actual name of our genre: science fiction.

One of the great intellectual embarrassments of the 20th century is that five hundred years after Copernicus deposed Earth from the centre of the universe, virtually every newspaper carries a daily astrology column — the horoscopes — but astronomy gets, at best, a column once a week, and in many papers not even that.

It's likewise embarrassing that a hundred and forty years after the publication of The Origin of Species, ignorant people are still succeeding in outlawing the teaching of the fact of evolution.

And it's mortifying that while the SF section of bookstores shrinks like a puddle under noonday sun, the "New Age" section — full of fabricated stories penned by charlatans — grows like a cancer.

If there is a message science fiction can promulgate for the 21st century — a message that the world needs to hear — it is this: the rational, scientific worldview is the only perspective that effectively deals with reality.

And, at the risk of repeating myself, let me emphasize again that reality is indeed what science fiction is all about. I cringe with embarrassment every time I see that stupid t-shirt not quite concealing a massive belly at a science-fiction convention: "Reality is just a crutch for people who can't handle science fiction." What a ridiculous, offensive statement! Science fiction — in its probing of the deep questions, in its abiding concern with moral issues, in its unrelenting quest to expose truth and speculate on consequences, even in its most mind-bending explorations of the quantum nature of the universe — is, more than any other form of entertainment, absolutely about reality.

And reality is the totality of everything; not to invoke Star Trek again, but in the movie Star Trek IV it is revealed that Kiri-kin-tha's First Law of Metaphysics is that "nothing unreal exists," a statement no less profound than Descartes's "I think therefore I am."

The scientific method is the single greatest tool of understanding ever devised by humanity. Observe phenomena. Propose an explanation for why the phenomena are as they have been seen to be. Devise an experiment to test whether your explanation is correct. And, if that experiment fails — and this is the powerful part; this is where the beauty comes in — discard the explanation, and start over again.

There will be those who argue that there are other ways of gaining insight to the nature of reality: mystic experiences, contemplation in the absence of experimentation, divine insight, consulting ancient texts. Such methods are demonstrably inferior to the scientific method, for only the scientific method welcomes the detection of error; only the scientific method allows for independent verification and replication.

Now, some will say, well, that's the western view, and, after all, to paraphrase Damon Knight, hardly anyone is a westerner. Maybe so, but it must be recognized that science fiction is, in fact, a western genre. Fantasy, perhaps, can trace roots all over the world, but science fiction, born of Mary Shelley, nurtured by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, grew out of the industrial revolution. It is inexorably tied up with western thought.

And the scientific method is the crowning glory of western thought — the glory that allowed us not to simply declare, as the United States's founders did, that it is "self-evident that all men are created equal" while they still held slaves, but rather that allowed us to prove, through genetic studies that showed that genetic variation within races is greater than the average deviation between the races, and through psychological and anatomical studies that showed that the sexes are equally endowed intellectually, that in fact racism and sexism have no rational basis.

Stephen Jay Gould recently wrote a book called Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, in which he argues that the spiritual and the rational should have a "loving concordant," but are in fact "nonoverlapping magisteria" — utterly separate fields, with some questions solely appropriate to the former and others exclusively the province of the latter.

I reject that: I don't think there's any question, including the most basic philosophical conundrums of where did we come from, why are we here, what does it all mean, and, indeed, the biggest of them all, is there a God, that cannot be most effectively addressed through the application of the scientific method, especially with its absolute requirement that if an idea — such as the superstition of astrology — is disproven, then it must be willingly discarded.

How can science have anything meaningful to say about whether there is a God? Easily. If the universe had an intelligent designer, it will show signs of intelligent design. Some argue that it clearly does: the relative strengths of the four fundamental forces that drive our universe — gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force — do seem to have been chosen with great care, since any substantial deviation from the present ratios would have resulted in a universe devoid of stars or even atoms.

Likewise, the remarkable thermal properties of water — most notably, that it expands as it freezes and that it has higher surface tension than any other fluid except liquid selenium — seem specifically jiggered to make life possible.

Do these facts prove whether or not God exists? No — not yet. But the best response to those who say science doesn't hold all the answers is to say, on the contrary, science does indeed hold all the answers — we just don't have all the science yet.

My favourite review of my own work was a recent one for FlashForward by Henry Mietkiewicz in The Toronto Star, who said, "Sawyer compels us to think rationally about questions we normally consider too metaphysical to grapple with." But I'm hardly alone in this. Science fiction right back to such great works as Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Star" and James Blish's A Case of Conscience, through Carl Sagan's Contact, and, more recently Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, and, if I may, my own Nebula-winning The Terminal Experiment and Calculating God, show that SF, because it embraces the scientific method, is the most effective tool for exploring the deepest of all questions.

So, does science fiction have a role in the 21st century? Absolutely. If we can help shape the Zeitgeist, help inculcate the belief that rational thought, that discarding superstition, that subjecting all beliefs to the test of the scientific method, is the most reasonable approach to any question, then not only will science fiction have a key role to play in the intellectual development of the new century, but it will also, finally and at last, help humanity shuck off the last vestiges of the supernatural, the irrational, the spurious, the fake, and allow us to embrace, to quote poet Archibald Lampman, "the wide awe and wonder of the night" but with our eyes wide open and our minds fully engaged. Then, finally, some 40,000 years after consciousness first flickered into being on this world, we will at last truly deserve that name we bestowed upon ourselves: Homo sapiens — Man of Wisdom.


Robert J. Sawyer — "the dean of Canadian science fiction," according to The Ottawa Citizen — won the 1995 Best Novel Nebula Award for The Terminal Experiment; that book, as well as his novels Starplex, Frameshift, and Factoring Humanity have all been finalists for the Hugo Award. Rob's twelfth novel, Calculating God, was published by Tor in June 2000. Visit his extensive web site (called "the largest genre writer's home page in existence" by Interzone) at www.sfwriter.com.


More Good Reading

Another speech by Robert J. Sawyer

Is SF endangered?
More nonfiction by Rob
Information on Rob as a speaker
A list of Rob's keynotes


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