June 25, 2016 03

This is a collection of interviews with science fiction writers about the role that science fiction plays in predicting the future.There have been many examples of when science fiction has foretold the future, such as Jules Vernes’ prediction of the 1969 moon landing involving astronauts launched in an aluminium capsule from a Florida site in his 1865 book From the Earth to the Moon.Other times science fiction has played an active role in shaping or inspiring the future, such as the American teen science fiction series Tom Swift, named after the protagonist who was a genius inventor. One of his inventions was the electric rifle, later brought to reality by NASA physicist Jack Cover (and Tom Swift fan) as the Taser, or ‘Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle’. For many science fiction authors, writing about the future, be it in 20 years or 200 years time, is a way to make sense of the present and to express complex ideas of what’s to come.I asked the four writers – Tobias Buckell, James Cambias, Vandana Singh and Ahmed Khaled Tawfik – four key questions about their intentions for their work and what they feel that science fiction can do. From the realm of Arabic science fiction to perspectives from the Caribbean, each of their works stem from diverse backgrounds. Further, they are interested in exploring a wide range of themes including aliens, climate change, technological advances and more.Click the tabs to the left to explore their insightful responses

….3…2…1… BLAST OFF!!

'From_the_Earth_to_the_Moon'_by_Henri_de_Montaut_31

An illustration from the novel ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ by Jules Verne drawn by Henri de Montaut.

This article is part of the Prophecies theme by the Node Center Art Department where we are exploring how artistic visions of the future have shaped us today.

Tobias Buckell

What kind of themes are you interested in exploring in your writing and why?

That’s always tough for a writer to honestly respond to as a lot of deeper thematic concerns come out organically as a result of who we are while we write. The unconscious river runs deep, and we are a product of our larger experiences and worldviews. I do note that I tend to often return to themes of power differentials due to colonialism, escapism, adventure, and often diasporic identities. But I’m also fascinated by technology that’s just around the corner and its impact on human beings. Like many SF writers, the future fascinates me, I mainly just want to make sure that the people I grew up with and that are my family, people from the Caribbean, also have a voice in the future.

What kind of ideas or actions do you want readers to come away with after finishing reading your work?

Primarily I am fighting for your beer money, so I am trying to give you a fast-paced adventure within which I’m burying a lot of my fascinations with technology and post-colonial history that I’ve learned along the way. My favorite email is the one I get after I keep someone up all night reading a book because they couldn’t put it down and are now tired at work!

Do you think that science fiction can or should predict the future?

I think science fiction should engage with the future. That doesn’t mean predict it, though that’s often the common perception. We also warn about the future. Beg you not to go down a certain path. Warn incessantly about horrible possible futures. Wonder if a certain future would be interesting. Dream about a certain future. There are many different ways to engage. Quite often though, science fiction is really about us today, and by saying ‘if this goes on’ we are critiquing something based on a starting point that is here and now. By positing the future, we can then point to consequences and point a light further down the path.

What role do you feel that science fiction has in shaping both current society and the future?

As I mentioned above, I think we warn, encourage, and boost. Importantly, I think science fiction gets people thinking *about* the future, one way or another, and that’s important. In order to have a place in the future, we have to get on with engaging with it. We ignore it at our own peril. I think if we don’t have a voice in imagining our warning about futures, then others write it for us. So I’m here trying to make sure my voice is heard as we slink toward the future.

Tobias-Buckell

Photo Credit: Marlon James

Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, which influence much of his work.His novels and over 50 stories have been translated into 18 different languages. His work has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author.He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at www.TobiasBuckell.com

James Cambias

What kind of themes are you interested in exploring in your writing and why?

I have always been fascinated by alien intelligence and alien biology, and how one affects the other, so many of my stories focus on interactions between humans and alien civilizations. I’m also interested in how technology may affect the way we think, and how society will adapt to that. As to why I’m drawn to these themes . . . that’s what we call a Damned Good Question. I suppose it’s partly due to the fact that I’m not religious, and have a pretty solidly materialist view of the universe. Which means that I know as a fact that human intelligence — and presumably any other forms — are simply mechanistic phenomena. But as a human myself, I resist the notion. It’s deeply unsettling to think that my thoughts are simply a bunch of electrochemical reactions and my sense of personal identity is just a by-product of a complex brain.

What kind of ideas or actions do you want readers to come away with after finishing reading your work?

If my writing advocates anything, I guess it’s knowledge. The world, not to mention the Universe, is vast and full of wonders. I like to write about people seeking knowledge and experiencing those wonders. Even when I’ve written about crooks and thieves, as in Corsair, they’re thieves who understand orbital dynamics. The flip side of that, surprisingly, is that since I think everyone should enjoy learning and knowing things, I am actually rather suspicious of people who claim special knowledge or use that to justify exercising power over others. If there’s one old strain in science fiction that troubles me, it’s the frequent contempt for mere democracy and the fetish for giving power to “experts.” If I can encourage readers to trust their own judgement, so much the better.

Do you think that science fiction can or should predict the future?

I wrote a whole essay on that topic for the Hieroglyph Project (you can find it here). To boil it down considerably: no, and no. Science fiction stories which manage to predict future events (usually, but not always, future technologies and occasionally their effects on society) do so by accident. Elements introduced for literary reasons may turn out to anticipate later events, but only because science fiction writers are reasonably well-informed laymen who can read the gee-whiz articles in Popular Mechanics along with everyone else.What science fiction can, and should, do is to promote the idea that we live in a world where knowledge is power. Where that knowledge is available to all, and requires no sacred bloodline or special status to make use of. Rather than predicting the future it can encourage people to build the future.

What role do you feel that science fiction has in shaping both current society and the future?

Science fiction has blundered into a position of surprisingly powerful influence. We shape people’s expectations of the future and their perceptions of science. (Actually, I suspect movie set and costume designers are even more influential in this respect.) But since (as I mentioned above) science fiction writers aren’t actually any better at predicting the future than anyone else who pays attention, this can have some terrible effects. For instance, most people’s understanding of issues related to nuclear power and nuclear weapons is based on the past seventy years of apocalyptic SF stories rather than reality. How much does the current hysteria about genetically-modified organisms owe to Frankenstein? I think this imposes on science fiction writers a duty to get things right whenever possible.

Would you like to mention something in addition or is there an extra question that you wish was asked?

The question you should have asked is “Will science fiction continue to influence the future?” To which my answer is, “no.” We actually passed Peak SF some years ago. The current crop of tech billionaires, moviemakers, and video game designers grew up on the results of the science fiction boom of the 1980s. But since then written science fiction has diminished in sales and influence. Even within the “science fiction” literary genre itself, actual science fiction takes a back seat to fantasy and alternate history fiction. It seems paradoxical that just as science fiction has almost literally conquered the world, science fiction itself is declining, but that’s what seems to be happening.The center of influence has moved away from written SF, to television, film, and especially video games. Tomorrow’s technology pioneers are today’s gamers, and the creators of those games are in a position to shape the attitudes of a much bigger audience than I will ever reach.

JamesCambias_profileJames L. Cambias writes science fiction and designs games. Originally from New Orleans, he lives in western Massachusetts.A Darkling Sea, his first novel, came out in January 2014 from Tor Books, followed by Corsair in 2015. His stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Shimmer, Nature, and several original anthologies. Mr. Cambias has written for GURPS, Hero Games, and other roleplaying systems, and is a partner in Zygote Games, a small company specializing in science and nature-based games. His most recent game title is Weird War I, from Pinnacle Entertainment Group. He is a member of the notorious Cambridge SF Workshop. www.jamescambias.com

Vandana Singh

What kind of themes are you interested in exploring in your writing and why?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I can only answer the question by looking back at what I’ve done, since I typically don’t have a list of themes in mind when I write. So historically I guess the theme that engages me is the human relationship with the non-human (other species, aliens, artificial intelligence, the physical universe, and of course those who are human whom we regard as other). Braided into all this is my fascination with science as a way of seeing patterns, interpreting interactions in Nature, and also my deep concern for social-environmental justice. I am a particle physicist by training and I was born and brought up in India through my early twenties. So when I write, all these things come together. Currently some of my academic work is on climate change, and I feel an urgent need to write about it in fiction as well. The climate crisis is the quintessential science fictional problem, not only because it is a real-life apocalypse in the making, but because it involves science, social justice, environmental collapse, and ultimately, at the core, modern human society’s messed up relationship with the rest of nature, all on the same canvas. We have a very dangerous power nexus of governments and corporations that run the world — they have brought us to the brink of disaster and show no signs of stopping. Apart from continuing to pillage the remaining fossil fuel reserves, they have declared war on the world’s indigenous peoples, whether it is Adivasi tribals in India or Native Americans in Canada or tribes like the Guarani in Brazil. Those who resist, those who present different ways of living in the world than the standard model, often pay with their lives. Another consequence is that we are in the midst of a mass extinction of species. So my rage and sorrow inevitably surfaces when I write. But it is still true that the world we inhabit, the universe in which we find ourselves, is extraordinarily beautiful. My background makes me sensitive in particular to the non-human, whether it is a proton or a kingfisher, a mountain or a gravitational wave. I write to celebrate these things as well. But I can’t write to a theme in advance, because that freezes my creativity! My writing starts with a character, a setting, perhaps the hint of an idea. After that I have to write to find out what happens next. And the theme emerges as I write.

What kind of ideas or actions do you want readers to come away with after finishing reading your work?

I don’t ‘want’ the reader to come away with anything – I am not interesting in manipulating the reader. I am not writing advertisements! I write because I have to get the story out from some place deep within. What the reader does or does not do after reading my story is really up to the reader and his or her interaction with the story.The way I write, I can’t prescribe to the story, let alone the reader. And I don’t keep the audience in mind when I am writing, that is too distracting and at that moment irrelevant. But I write to be heard, to be not alone, to be a voice reaching out in the hope that someone somewhere will listen. Other people’s writings have saved me, inspired me, given me insights and revelations. I hope that in some modest way I can do the same for others.

Do you think that science fiction can or should predict the future?

There are very few ‘shoulds’ in art, I think. Who am I to say what science fiction should or should not do? I can tell you, though, what I think it does, based on my limited reading. Science fiction can be about the future but it doesn’t have to be. There’s science fiction about alternate worlds, and there’s science fiction about our world a hundred years from now. But most of the good science fiction I’ve read, whether set on our world or another one, whether in the present or the future, is also about us at this moment. Good science fiction has layers and tessellations, a richness of texture, where the metaphorical entangles with the literal. A story about the future can simultaneously reflect current reality, with certain aspects emphasized or exaggerated, as a way of pointing out our peculiarities as humans.

What role do you feel that science fiction has in shaping both current society and the future?

Science fiction often mirrors our current concerns and issues, and some science fiction – the best kind, I think – shows us other paths, alternative ways to be. Probably the bulk of science fiction is no different from mainstream fiction in that it implicitly contains the unexamined assumptions, prejudices and paradigms that are prevalent in the society in which it is being written – but really good science fiction examines and makes apparent these paradigms, and allows us to question our assumptions, making the invisible visible. I don’t know if science fiction can shape society as it is now, or in the future – perhaps that gives too much credit to science fiction. But it can help us recognize and question the way things are, and that makes it revolutionary. Through its thought-experiments on alternative social arrangements, technologies, universes, science fiction allows us to dream of different ways to be. That does not mean these dreams necessarily become action, become reality. But they can inspire people. Ideas are powerful, and science fiction is in some sense a literature of ideas. So indirectly, yes, in this sense, science fiction may well have the potential to be an agent of change. I am hopeful that with regard to the climate crisis and its many dimensions – scientific, political, environmental, social – science fiction can reveal our problematic, taken-for-granted relationship with nature and with each other. Any socio-economic model that destroys the basis for life on earth, that creates the kind of horrendous inequality we see in the world around us, that creates the climate crisis – such a socio-economic model is a failure. It doesn’t matter how glamourous it is, or how it feeds and exploits the worst in human nature to give us our momentary satiations. It is a failure. The beauty of science fiction is that it can help us imagine alternatives to the way things are. And we need this because one thing that global capitalism does really well is to atrophy our imaginations, so we can’t even think of alternatives. Perhaps good science fiction can be a breeding ground for new ways to be, new ideas and imaginings. At the very least it can free us – at the moment or reading it or writing it – from the assumptions and constructs of the current paradigm. Perhaps it can inspire movements, become a literature of resistance and change, especially at this historical moment, when more and more writers from other nations than those of the West are writing science fiction.

VandanaSinghProfileVandana Singh was born in New Delhi, India, and grew up in a cultural milieu that fostered the traditions as well as creativity and independent thinking. She acquired an early interest in the sciences as well as in writing and art. She holds a Master’s degree in Physics from Delhi University and a PhD from the U.S., where she currently resides. Singh divides her time between teaching college physics and writing non-Euclidean tales of science fiction and fantasy, as well as children’s stories. Her science fiction and fantasy short stories, deeply rooted in an Indian ethos, have been published in various anthologies and magazines in the U.S. and U.K. Her stories have appeared in ‘Year’s Best’ collections and have been short-listed for the BSFA and Parallax awards. Her writing also includes the books for children Younguncle Comes to Town and Younguncle in the Himalayas, the collection of short stories The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet, and the novellas Of Love and Other Monsters and Distances (which won the Parallax award in 2008). She is presently working on a second collection of short stories. vandana-writes.com

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik

What kind of themes are you interested in exploring in your writing and why?

Dystopias are always interesting, because they tell us about the worst possibilities of our future. In fact, they are as attractive as any horror movie, because they give you enough catharsis. Besides, you feel relieved because things have not reached this ominous grim level yet. The theme of ‘what if’ or Uchronias tempts me also very much, for it’s some sort of lab experimentation in your mind. The test tube is your imagination.

What kind of ideas or actions do you want readers to come away with after finishing reading your work?

I am not trying to convey ideas. This would be very didactic, and perhaps writing an essay would be better. I just express my own apprehension, hope or disgust. In Utopia, my novella, I was very afraid from what may happen to my country within years, and I expressed that on paper, never intending to deliver any messages except a loud scream. When writing, I don’t try to prove that A + B = C. I discuss A and B and see what may happen to them.

Do you think that science fiction can or should predict the future?

It can predict the future, has always predicted and MUST predict the future. Sometimes it creates it. Sometimes I think Bradbury, Wells, Asimov, Clark etc… are real prophets.

What role do you feel that science fiction has in shaping both current society and the future?

To shape a wide panorama of the world in the light of science. Science fiction is the actual compromise between science and imagination, thought for long time to be contradictory. Sci – Fi proved they can be one thing. I don’t think people, after 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 or Time Machine or Brave New World, think the same way they used to. A stranger in a strange land became some sort of religion for hippies in the seventies.

Would you like to mention something in addition or is there An extra question that you wish was asked?

A question about Sci-Fi literature in the Arab world. As the Syrian writer Zohair Ghanem puts it: In Arab world, we have some great Sci-Fi writers, but we don’t have Sci-Fi literature yet!

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik profileAhmed Khaled Tawfik is a Professor of Tropical Medicine at Tanta University , Egypt. He was born on 1962, married and has 2 kids. Since 1993, he wrote a lot of POP fiction dedicated for youth mainly, college age. He is the first contemporary Arab writer to write horror and science fiction and the first Arab writer to explore the medical thriller genre. He has a special interest in Sci-Fi literature and he has translated, and simplified, many works by Bardbury, Clark, Asimov, Verne ..etc to Arabic. His novels typically feature all Egyptian characters but set both in Egypt and around the world. He wrote the scripts for many comic stories (bande dessinée), and he writes some political articles regularly. Away from youth, he wrote 3 grim novels ; Utopia, Al – Sengah and Like Icarus. His 4th novel, (Passage of mice) will be released soon. aktowfik.blogspot.com.eg

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