Sep 24, 2016

Sci Fi Event Horizon

Here in 2016, I have been celebrating several science fiction milestones. Recently I celebrated the 75th anniversary of Isaac Asimov's robot story, 'Reason'. Shown in the image to the right on this page, I am working on a new blog post called 'Scientific Romance' that is a subjective and very personal look back at the first 150 years of the Wells Era.

I've also recently blogged about 1) the fact that we are now at a point in time 200 years after the publication of Frankenstein and 2) 100 years into the Vance Era and 3) we are now also 50 years into the Star Trek Era. With all this gazing into the past, I want to explicitly explore the idea that science fiction stories are ephemeral products of their time and they all come with an expiration date.
Language Barriers
'Runaround' (first published in 1942)
One problem (that is not unique to science fiction) is the transient nature of languages. Each generation of readers falls in love with the literary works that are written in their time. Then, slowly, times change, language itself changes and eventually new generations of readers can no longer understand those wonderful old stories that were written in earlier times.

Science fiction often has additional related problems. Some science fiction stories are set in a future time. Then, when readers of an old story find themselves living in those future times, they can feel disappointment that the imagined future of the old story failed to align with reality.

That's no moon!
Historical Example. Many early science fiction stories failed to "write into the future" the ubiquitous radio communications technology that we now take for granted here in the 21st century. Asimov's robot stories from the 1940s provide a case in point. In 'Runaround', the story takes place in about the year 2015, but in Asimov's imagined future, radio communication techniques have hardly advanced beyond the state of the art in 1940.

Right at the start of 'Runaround', Asimov sets the scene by explicitly commenting on how rapidly robot technology is developing in the early 21st century. However, only 12 hours into their mission on Mercury, robot trouble-shooters Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan are confronted with a problem arising from a glitchy robot, a new model of robot that they brought with them from Earth and who was sent out on the surface of the planet to get a desperately needed bucket full of selenium. This task should have been easy for the robot, a device that was designed to survive the super hot conditions of Mercury where there are pools of pure liquid selenium.

However, after the robot reached the nearest selenium pool (17 miles away), it began endlessly circling the pool. The base of operations on Mercury and this robot (called 'Speedy', serial number SPD-13) rely on antiquated equipment that does not allow for radio communications with robots who have gone more than two miles into the "sunside" of the planet.

For readers here in 2016, Asimov's story quickly gets itself into trouble from a technical perspective. Around 1965, astronomers realized that Mercury does not have a "sunside" that is gravitationally locked so as to always face the sun. Personally, I find this fact about Mercury's orbital dynamics to be an annoying feature of our Solar System, similar in nature to the terrible idea that there is an upper limit to the speed of travel through the universe. For the purposes of science fiction story telling, I prefer an imaginary Solar System in which Mercury does have a "sunside" and I prefer a fictional universe in which it is possible to both travel and send communications signals through the universe at faster-than-light speeds.

The Future!
In 'Runaround', Asimov imagined that the antiquated radio equipment available to Donovan and Powell does function in a low-bandwidth mode that allows them to track the positions of robots like Speedy who are sent out to complete tasks on the sunside. However, verbal communications are not possible with poor Speedy, so Donovan and Powell can only watch helplessly while Speedy marches in an endless loop around the selenium pool. Sadly, they had brought to Mercury new "ultrawave" equipment that would improve communications with robots working on the sunside, but they will need a few weeks to set up that new ultrawave equipment.

For younger readers here in the 21st century, Asimov's story and these technical constraints might be nearly incomprehensible and unbelievable. They are likely to ask: you went all the way to Mercury, but you could not bring along the kilo of selenium that you would need for the photo-cell banks? It will take you weeks to install and start using the new ultrawave equipment? And, of course, Asimov imagined humanoid robots who would speak English. He did not imagine a future like our 2016 with the type of non-speaking, non-humanoid radio-controlled robots that are actually out there exploring the Solar System.

Out of Touch
Not only are Donovan and Powell severely limited in their ability to communicate with Speedy, but they are depicted as being cut off from communicating with Earth. This kind of communications deficiency for spacemen was also part of Asimov's story 'Reason'. While on their mission at a solar power station in space, Donovan and Powell never send or receive radio messages from Earth or spacecraft.

Lucky for me, none of the many "flaws" in Asimov's robot stories ruin them for me. 'Runabout' is a "hard science fiction" romp, a kind of thought experiment for exploring the potential implications of the Laws of Robotics. Asimov's language from the 1940s still feels alive and it is not cluttered with too many dead and dying words.

cover art by Chris Moore?
In Asimov's youth, electronic devices were powered by vacuum tubes. When he wrote 'Reason', he imagined that a solar power station would be built around an L-tube. It does not matter what an L-tube is, but readers who were born in the transistor age might not have the same appreciation for 'Reason' as someone who has actually worked with glowing vacuum tubes. Still, all of science fiction from the late 1920s on is still accessible to me as a reader in 2016. I worry that some aspects of Asimov's old stories are gradually becoming incomprehensible to younger science fiction fans.

cover art by Robert Schulz
Proto-Science Fiction
For me, proto-science fiction (such as the 'Scientific Romance' stories of H. G. Wells) is slipping away beyond the science fiction event horizon. Wells was writing for an audience that could be amazed by scientific advances and new technologies, but that was just an industrial age extension of the same sense of wonder that had for centuries before been stimulated by magic and pre-science-age fantasy.

When H. G. Wells wrote about a time machine, he made absolutely no effort to explain how it worked or how one man, working alone, built it in his back room. There was no science behind the time travel in The Time Machine.

cover art by Stephen Youll
In my view, it is not useful to view old stories such as Frankenstein or The Time Machine as science fiction because they were not written for a scientifically literate audience. I suppose reader interests change through the centuries, but it is almost impossible for me to imagine the reader of 200 years ago; someone who could be content to plow through a 3,500 word account of Victor Frankenstein's uneventful trip across Europe. Of course, I grew up reading Doc Smith's stories about travel to the stars and I'm thankful that styles in story writing have changed: Smith could move readers between galaxies in just a few short paragraphs.

Les Robots
Flowery stories written in the English language of 200 years ago have become almost unreadable for me. In Frankenstein, among the hundreds of exclamation marks and 19 cries of "alas" I suppose we can be thankful that Shelly used moderation and only 13 of these are cries of "Alas!" Stories by H. G. Wells are in a gray zone where it is clear that he was writing for a different kind of audience than what Asimov had in mind. And Asimov was actually trained as a scientist, which is a huge plus for a science nerd like me.

H. G. Wells in an alternate Reality
I'll continue my look back at the stories of H. G. Wells in my next blog post. Fair Warning: I view Wells as more of a political fiction writer than a science fiction writer. I don't think it is sensible to look back at an old story like The Time Machine and say, "Golly, Gee! A time machine! This must be science fiction!" However, I do think that Wells was an important influence on both of my favorite science fiction writers; Asimov and Jack Vance. And I can't resist having fun by imagining what might have been, in some alternate Reality, where Wells actually did write science fiction stories.
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