So, after reading Jason’s latest, I’ve been thinking about science fiction. It happens.
I think we’re coming back around to the main thesis of the Golden Age, that technology can advance mankind. All those pulp stories about rocket ships piloted by chisel-jawed adventurers and green-skinned beauties of questionable moral character had, at their core, the idea that humanity’s ability to innovate, to learn, to take leaps of faith, they’d all allow us to get out of the cradle and walk amongst the stars. (They’d also allow us to get mightily laid, which also ties in with Rakunas’s Theorem of Innovation, ie nothing drives technology better than sex. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, John W. Campbell’s secretary-whose-name-I’ve-forgotten.) Those stories appealed to our need to explore, and they fit in perfectly with the times. The world had just finished beating the bejeezus out of itself, and America was poised to dole out freedom, liberty, and rock ‘n’ roll. In other words, Have Jetpack, Will Travel.
That all started to unravel pretty damn quickly with the Cold War. If Korea was someone lightly slapping us out of our dream, Vietnam and all its accompanying turmoil was a fifty-gallon trashcan of ice water. The New Wave supplied the mirror now, and the image wasn’t that pretty: a world teetering on the edge of ecological collapse, filled with petty, cowardly individuals who’d just as soon sell their mothers out as they would have sex with them. By the time we got to Cyberpunk, the Golden Age ideal had been beaten to a pulp as one writer after another wrote about a dirty, broken-down society with gaps between rich and poor that grew wider with every technological advancement. In other words: No Jetpack For You.
Which brings us to now, which is a pretty weird time. Like Jason said, we’ve got machines that are the first half of a working transporter; we’ve got the FDA saying that cloned meat is perfectly safe; we’ve got virtual worlds with real economies; we’ve got phones that are more powerful than the desktop computers of last decade; we’ve got people becoming their own media powerhouses. And all of these people are trying to get laid, too.
We’ve also got a fight between the forces of control and those of liberty. As clumsy and simplistic and addle-headed as George W. Bush’s constant refrain of “The terrorists hate us for our freedoms” is, I do agree with the core of his statement. The defining struggle of the 21st Century is that of limitations versus liberation. Information wants to be free, and the people who transmit that information, whether it’s on a blog or in a cafe, want to be free to pass it around.
That struggle is present with Islamic fundamentalists and their desire to keep us from flying kites or wearing lipstick. It’s there with our homegrown Christian millenarian assholes who are terrified of catching teh gay. It’s there in the boardrooms of media companies who are seeing their profit margins slip as people say, “We’re tired of your pabulum entertainment and your condescending newscasts. We’re going to get our own now, thanks.” And it’s there in the last campaign cycle as a fresh crop of Democrats got into power on a wave of people who told them to put a stop to the past six years’ worth of bullshit.
But it’s more than that. It’s also a matter of pace. I can see why the previously mentioned millenarian assholes are all a-tizzy, because the rates of cultural and technological change are increasing every day. Today, it’s civil unions and iPod Nanos; tomorrow it’s going to be gay marriage and mp3 implants. Today, a woman and a black man are playing with the idea of running for President; tomorrow, it’s going to be a cloned hybrid of Marilyn Monroe and Thurgood Marshall taking the oath of office. Today, it’s YouTube and del.icio.us and MySpace and Second Life; tomorrow, it’s going to be the other side of the Singularity.
Which brings me to the snappy way to encapsulate the current movement of science fiction, at least the one that I think matters. It’s not alternative history or gaspunk or mundania or metafiction or any of that tat. This is the Accelerando Age, and not everyone will be able to cope. Our current business, cultural and governmental institutions are all behemoths that are too slow to react and too stupid to realize they’ve already walked into tarpits surrounded by armies of hackers, activists and entrepreneurs. Of course, they’re also surrounded by six and a half billion people who all want clean food, air and water. How everyone works with this is going to mean humanity snuffing itself out or evolving into something strange and wonderful.
What is the motto of the Accelerando Age? Simple: Surf Or Die. There’s a tidal wave of concurrent forces that’s rising up in the distance, a mash-up of cultural change and technological advancement, of rising superpowers and declining empires. You can either hold up your tiny fist and squeak at it to stop, or you can grab your board and paddle for dear life. The latter course isn’t a guarantee of success, but, dude, you can bet your ass it’ll be the ride of your life.