IEET > Vision > Bioculture > Fellows > Mike Treder
Post-Millennial Malaise in SF?
Mike Treder   Aug 14, 2007   Responsible Nanotechnology  

Inspired by a fleeting reference in the latest science essay by CRN’s Chris Phoenix, I recently started re-reading Larry Niven’s classic novel Ringworld. It must be two or three decades since I read the book, and revisiting it all these years later, I’m blown away once again by the novel’s startling originality and by the “bigness” of its thinking.

This got me wondering: Where are all the big ideas in science fiction? Has the well gone dry?

When is the last time you read a new SF novel that wasn’t either a retread of earlier ideas or a dystopian commentary on future (and present) decadence? As I scan back over my reading history, I can find several recent novels that I enjoyed quite a lot, but if I’m looking for the kind of huge thinking that characterizes the greatest SF writers, it seems in short supply today.

For me, the last truly great science fiction novel was Greg Egan’s Diaspora (1998); that one can go alongside any of the early masterpieces from Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, et alia. The only newer book that I might put in that category is John C. Wright’s The Golden Age (2002). Before that, the best of cyberpunk—Steel Beach, Holy Fire, etc.—is great stuff, but remember, it’s also 10-15 years old.

Maybe I’m just evincing some general curmudgeonliness or longing for the (non-existent) good ol’ days, but I suspect there is more to it than that.

Consider this observation:

In William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, there is a line that alludes to, among other things, the plight of the science fiction writer in the early 21st century. “Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day,” a marketing mogul theorizes, “one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration.”

So, perhaps we are experiencing a sort of collective post-millennial malaise, a contraction of imagination and energy stemming from the realization that we already are living in the future and it’s not what we’d hoped for or expected.

Is it a coincidence that many of the forward-looking movements/groups that started up in the 1980s and 1990s seem to have run out of steam?

Even here at CRN, we’re wrestling with the challenge of how to get people excited enough about our work to get involved, stay involved, and actually accomplish tangible progress. It’s not easy, and I think there may be some connection between the recent problems of future-focussed organizations and the evident lack of big ideas in modern science fiction.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.

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