Posted by: AnubiSphinx | August 6, 2010

SF and Predictions

In the introduction to the Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin writes:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like – what’s going on – what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent in telling lies.

“The truth against the world!” – Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!

Lying sounds harshly extreme. I prefer thinking of speculative fiction writers as aware and speculating on society’s and technology’s possibilities.

After Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1869, submarines were popularized and improved. They had been used for exploration and warfare since the 17th century with varying degrees of success. Verne named his submarine after the Nautilus built in 1800. Ironically, Verne was ambivalent towards technological advances.

Closer to home is William Gibson’s Neuromancer in which a cyber-thief is hired to hack into a computer network. It was published in 1984, before computers became commonly used and popular. Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” and began what would become a SF subgenre, cyberpunk. Published in 1992, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash includes virtual reality, viruses, hackers, and avatars. In the acknowledgments section of a more recent edition, Stephenson writes:

The idea of a virtual reality such as the Metaverse is by now widespread in the computer graphics community and is being implemented in a number of different ways…

In thinking about how the Metaverse might be constructed I was influenced by the Apple Human Interface Guidelines which is a book that explains the philosophy behind the Macintosh. Again, this point is made only to acknowledge the beneficial influence of the people who compiled said document, not to link these poor innocents with its results.

Finally, after the first publication of Snow Crash I learned that the term “avatar” had actually been in use for a number of years as part of a virtual reality system called Habitat…(which) runs on Commodore 64 computers.

Connected to computer technology, Stephenson had a few ideas about their possibilities. Nowadays there’s Second Life and way too many hackers inserting viruses and thieving. There’s currently a massive virus camouflaged as an anti program with seven in its name. Beware, it’s one of the worst out there and is an extremely delicate, lengthy, and pain in the ass operation to remove.


Tired of searching through my SF notebook, I’m finally posting an index. It’s a collection of notes taken during panel discussions, reading lists, and other bits of randomness about speculative fiction that caught my interest.

With the SF reading challenge and WorldCon approaching, my brain is shifting towards science fiction. Australia is sadly too far for me to participate in this year’s fascinating discussions and con fun, but I am considering attending next year when it’s in Nevada. It’s a slight possibility, but a possibility none the less.



  1. I haven’t read any Ursula Le Guin, and feel sure that I would like it. Oh, for more hours in the day. I certainly appreciate the quote above, which raises sci-fi above considerations of genre and makes an inarguable case for literary sci-fi. I feel sure that Wilde would agree; well written books and badly written books are irrespective of morality and genre.

  2. It certainly does. I think most of those who snub sci-fi haven’t given it the proper chance. Hollywood minimizing it to aliens and robots doesn’t help either.

    I’m biased because Le Guin is one of my long-time favourites, but I think you’d like her novels. Lathe of Heaven, Left Hand of Darkness, or the YA Earthsea series are good intros.

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