Altered Carbon and the Problem of Sci-fi density


I'm concerned about the science fiction genre.  I'm in the middle of Altered Carbon, which I think is
fantastic.  And it's the perfect example of my concern. First of all, a perennial problem with any sci-fi
that takes place with humans in the future is that it doesn't age well.  No author can account for the
black swan innovations and how emerging technologies will interact, so the result is a short shelf-life.
But Altered Carbon demonstrates an emerging problem I've been picking up on over the past couple
years.  Here's a partial list of the future technologies that play a significant role in the story. Clones,
Transhumans, Gene Editing, Consciousness Transfer, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, A.I., Alien
Technology, and maybe Robots? That's on top of the more surfacey stuff like exotic weapons,
flying cars and weird hair.


One thing I’ve learned from all my self-learning on writing is that for every new or strange concept that a
writer puts in a story there’s overhead that must be paid.  Whether that’s done with exposition or adding
more time for the reader/viewer to get acquainted with the new/strange thing, there’s a price to be paid.
However, shortcuts can be made if the writer narrows their focus on an audience that will already be
familiar with the new/weird concepts due to their proclivity for the specific genre.  Westerns don’t spend
pages explaining what a posse is. Fantasys don’t spend pages explaining that dragons are magical.
Sci-fi doesn’t spend pages explaining what hyper sleep is. The upside is obvious. The downside is that
the work has gates that keep non-genre-savvy folks out.


So my concern about sci-fi is that the number of these new/weird concepts keeps expanding.  And each
ONE of them could justify deep exploration on their own. But when an author wants to build a plausible
future world of humans they’ve GOT to include their take on SO MANY THINGS.  (See my list in the
first paragraph.) “Older” sci-fi like Star Trek have all sorts of silly things going on because they somehow
didn’t have the internet or VR or AR or or or. When I watch Altered Carbon I keep thinking how they are
missing AI augmentation in every level of life.  We don’t know how robust AI will become, but as our
interfaces for accessing computing becomes more and more intimate, even at our current AI level,
people doing investigations, teaching, combat, etc are all going to be radically altered by instantaneous
access to applications for optimizing our thinking and acting.  I think this is a near certainty, but what that
looks like is anyone's guess.


And that is also the case for the massive list of fascinating themes and technologies explored in Altered
Carbon and other modern Sci-fi.  Which is fine. But it’s making sci-fi incredibly dense and increasingly
obscure to general audiences. Keep in mind I’m talking about sci-fi that tends towards the harder end
of the spectrum.  This isn’t nearly as big a problem in sci-fantasy like Star Wars, Marvel, and Aliens.
But even those franchises are getting bogged down in retconning or bending over backwards to justify
the decisions that were made by pre-internet writers.  


This the same problem that animal species face. The larger they get the safer they are from predators,
but the other side of the coin is that they are forced to be more specialized to gather the necessary
calories. I feel like Sci-fi, out of the other fiction genres is getting too large and too specialized, hence
becoming precariously specialized. It's precarious because environments change. And hyper
specialized species are the first to go extinct when environmental change happens.

I wonder if this is a real problem I’m perceiving or not.  I wonder if it’s going to get worse.
What do you think?

Comments

Lex Keating said…
I dunno. A huge part of what made quality classic science fiction was that it explored questions. It used "setting" as a platform on which to stage the extrapolation of the "what ifs" the author wanted to thoroughly prod. The AI was not the point of the story, it was what exposed the question of "why do we need a shepherd?" That kind of thing. So much of science fiction--even the hard stuff--has moved away from those questions and into the tech. Readers fall in love with the setting, with the toys, with the imagination of getting away from the now, and they become writers who elevate the McGuffins and fail to see how those questions mattered. And the more we live in a world where people push the toys and don't consider the consequences, the more art will imitate life and become a morass of one-dimensional, disconnected curiosities.

If only there was someone who brought those questions back into focus. Someone who didn't see science fiction as "outre is the new black" and wrote in a way that opens the reader to participate in wondering, instead of watching the spectacle.

What are you working on? Because if you won't do it, I'll have to. ;)

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