Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 36 (Snow Crash)
There are two main ways into cyberpunk, and which one you pick is terribly important to how the genre looks to you. The first option is to go via Neuromancer, William Gibson’s 1984 novel. This is not the first cyberpunk work – the term had been coined a year earlier by Bruce Bethke, and had been around unnamed for a few years previous, including in other works by William Gibson. But it is in many ways the definitive one, where it broke out into the mainstream. A year later we had Max Headroom, which we’ve already talked about.
The other way people approach the genre is Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash. This is an altogether more interesting way, since Stephenson’s next novel, 1995’s The Diamond Age, was self-consciously framed as a post-Cyberpunk novel. The first character it introduces, Bud, is a blatant parody of cyberpunk heroes (the first sentence says it all: “The bells of St. Mark’s were ringing changes up on the mountain when Bud skated over to the mod parlor to upgrade his skull gun.”) and, more to the point, gets spectacularly and ignobly killed forty-three pages into the book. And while Snow Crash itself is not so prone to aggressively deconstructing cyberpunk, there is a somewhat odd sense of things that comes from having one of the iconic novels of cyberpunk be a book by an author whose later career consists almost entirely of actively moving beyond the genre.
Obviously, given the stated topic of this post, I’m taking the latter, although in my defense I did talk about Max Headroom at the time, which is almost like talking about Neuromancer. Though for the most part this is just a matter of accurately tracking influences. The cyberpunk influences on 1980s Doctor Who are few and far between. Warriors of the Deep, somewhere in its bowels, has a cyberpunk story trying desperately to get out from under the Myrka. Vengeance on Varos has some cyberpunk attitudes, but they’re largely incidental – any attempt to do a sci-fi Play for Today in 1985 would have been about as cyberpunk as Vengeance on Varos. Actually, the most cyberpunk story of the 1980s is probably The Caves of Androzani, which is just kind of too perfect if you want to think about it.
The New Adventures, on the other hand, are mad for cyberpunk. The primary embodiment of this is actually Andrew Cartmel, who has a cyberpunk trilogy spread out over the course of the line, the first book of which we’ll deal with on Monday. But scads of the books are heavily cyberpunk inflected. So we should probably, you know, actually look at what that genre was before we go too much further.
On a basic, factual level cyberpunk can be described as a sci-fi genre focusing on computers and digital technology (broadly construed), and with a gritty, street-level, punk aesthetic. Typically it’s set in a post-industrial and at least mildly dystopian future, and stars anti-hero hackers as its protagonists. And perhaps the first thing to ask is why these go together. Why is a dystopia-punk aesthetic and an interest in computers equivalent?
The answer, I would suggest, comes from the role that computers have in science fiction, or, more accurately, the role they don’t. An often-observed fact about the golden age of science fiction, when large swaths of our basic sci-fi iconography – rockets, ray guns, robots, et cetera – were laid down – is that they completely missed the Internet. It’s something that’s blatantly obvious to anyone watching 1960s science fiction, Doctor Who included. Everyone assumed that we’d have a substantial presence in outer space by the mid-21st century (depending on whether you want to believe About Time or AHistory, any of The Wheel in Space, Power of the Daleks, or The Seeds of Death are only twenty to thirty years in the future), but the idea of Facebook, or, heck, blogging is unimaginable.
It’s important to stress just how striking this is. It’s not just that most of the default sci-fi iconography of the 21st century proved to be an illusion, but that a completely different piece of massively socially transformative technology happened. There are two errors there, and the result is that computers are, in many ways, a spectre haunting science fiction – the future it failed to imagine.
As a historical accident the point where it started to be clear to people that computers and the Internet were the future was, chronologically, close to the point where the golden age of science fiction’s more generalized utopianism ran aground. We’ve tracked this thoroughly across the blog – the grand projects of a scientific utopianism that animated the 1950s and 1960s came into question in the 1970s before being largely rejected in favor of a more pessimistic view of the future in the 1980s.
So within science fiction – and really only within science fiction – there was a ready-made image for this. The golden age had called utopia wrong, and it had called computers wrong. And so within science fiction the one served usefully as a metaphor for the other, and cyberpunk became obvious. But crucially, this link is a very figurative. It’s a powerful figure, and cyberpunk’s success is hardly a surprise. But it’s still figurative. The figure of the computer hacker and the punk anti-hero are not, in fact, linked for anything having to do with the material reality of evolving digital culture.
And this split characterizes the split between Gibson and Stephenson in terms of approaching cyberpunk. Gibson freely admits that he knew nothing whatsoever about computers when writing Neuromancer, whereas Stephenson, although he makes some spectacularly wrong guesses in the course of Snow Crash, is a computer guy. Gibson, in other words, is first and foremost a punk interested in the utopia/dystopia debate, while Stephenson is interested in the question of how computers really might change culture.
That’s not to say that the novels aren’t similar. Stephenson is firmly in the general cyberpunk aesthetic, which can roughly be described as “badasses are cool.” The two canonical examples here are the opening of the novel – the single most epic description of a pizza delivery ever written – and the memorable and oft-quoted section, “Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied really hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I dropped out and devoted my life to being bad. Hiro used to feel that way too, but then he ran into Raven.” The book is suffused with a love of the cool, and it’s unequivocally a debt to cyberpunk that applies to Stephenson’s work even when he’s writing about 17th and 18th century mathematics and the history of currency. (And I’ll admit, the Baroque Cycle is my favorite of Stephenson’s works.)
In terms of the New Adventures it’s probably the Gibson tradition that carries the most weight. Coming off of the Cartmel era’s embrace of alternative culture the Virgin stable largely felt like they were embracing cyberpunk because it was punk sci-fi, and the computer stuff was largely incidental. This is, in practice, a bit unfortunate, especially coming as they did while cyberpunk was, within science fiction, starting to give way to other approaches (largely because the punk part could be just as easily affixed to other prefixes, while the computer stuff could be done with more nuance by people who know what they’re talking about). This left them in a kind of unfortunate position – right as the World Wide Web was launching and Doctor Who fandom was increasingly starting to organize around the Internet (via, initially, the rec.arts.doctorwho Usenet group, about which more in late September), the New Adventures were mucking around in a deeply non-materialist conception of digital technology that was useful only as a metaphor for other things.
And Snow Crash, in many ways, is interesting as the road not taken – the other sort of cyberpunk that the New Adventures, and really, to a big extent, Doctor Who as a whole failed to take. Because, as I said, Snow Crash is a novel that attempts to build a grand metaphor out of the materialism of technology. Even in the cases where Stephenson badly misses his future predictions about how computers will develop – and he does, frequently – there is, throughout Snow Crash, a sense that he has actually thought about the technology that underpins his fictional world as technology. It feels like real technology.
On top of this, Stephenson has a very solid trick up his sleeve as writer tricks go. His standard technique is to provide a stunningly detailed map of how a given technological innovation might impact human experience. Which is to say, he’s very good at taking his bits of quasi-plausible technology and then coming up with a user experience for that technology. He then parlays that into the usual sci-fi society-building games, but the fact that he stops off in user experience on the way to society stands out. Especially because he’s very good at tying the technology to big ideas.
In the case of Snow Crash, these big ideas draw from Sumerian mythology (clearly there was something in the air in the early 1990s – a legacy of the Gulf War, perhaps?), and the relationship between language and reality implied by various aspects of that mythology. Which is interesting – these ideas are ones that are usually more readily associated with the Alan Moore/Steven Moffat/Neil Gaiman end of the genre pool – an end characterized by a looser, more fantasy-inspired take on things than on the material focus on technology that Stephenson is coming from. And this gets at the real oddity of Stephenson – in a lot of ways, Snow Crash feels closer to what Doctor Who can do than the cyberpunk that actually proved an influence on Doctor Who in the 1990s.
But, of course, Doctor Who was never well-suited to the Snow Crash approach. It’s never been fond of hard science fiction. And even though Stephenson ends at a point that’s really Doctor Who-compatible – broad novels of ideas in which the material keeps intersecting in odd ways with the imaginative and the metaphoric – his approach is so far from what Doctor Who is historically good at that it makes for something of an odd bedfellow. But equally, it makes the cyberpunk that was influential on the New Adventures a strange bedfellow as well.
The problem is that Snow Crash really was, in a lot of ways, the end of that approach. Once you had really good cyberpunk that actually felt like it was written with an eye towards computers the purely metaphoric link that animated early cyberpunk started to evaporate. And you got the split where one end of the portmanteau went off and started mating with words like “steam,” “bio,” and “diesel” while the other realized that it was a bit silly to begin with and calmly retired itself to be replaced by what we might call the broader category of “computer literate science fiction.”
But with the perspective offered by twenty years of history since Snow Crash came out, it’s altogether obvious how to take the New Adventures. Because while they’re clearly influenced by cyberpunk, they’re also clearly on the end of that split that started attaching the “punk” moniker to other concepts. And though they feature cyberspace and digital technology type stuff left, right, and center, they are for the most part not all that invested in the material reality of computers or technology. But once you’ve got a history that lets you attach “punk” to other prefixes you can easily navigate a way out for the New Adventures. They’re not cyberpunk. They’re Gallifreypunk. And in that regard, it’s not the Cartmel novel we’re covering on Monday that’s the first real piece of Cyberpunk Doctor Who, it’s the Platt one we’re doing Friday.
But before we get there, we should nod at Snow Crash, an odd cousin to Doctor Who’s approach that is, in many ways, more like what Doctor Who eventually ends up being than anything in the Virgin era, and in many other ways something Doctor Who never came anywhere close to attempting – an influence that, strangely, never managed to influence the series.
August 22, 2012 @ 1:23 am
In the spirit of usenet pedantry, I should probably point out that it was rec.arts.drwho, not doctorwho…
August 22, 2012 @ 1:28 am
T-shirts. No one ever predicted that the world would be wearing advertising slogans and silly sayings on their undershirts and showing those to the world.
August 22, 2012 @ 1:50 am
There's a third way into cyberpunk, which was mine, and which I would say is probably the best, which is to first encounter Bethke's novel Head Crash.
August 22, 2012 @ 2:02 am
"coming as they did while cyberpunk was, within science fiction, starting to give way to other approaches"
The cruellest description of this I've ever seen was The Completely Useless Encyclopedia, which points out that, outside the New Adventures "cyberspace has gone the way of green men from Mars with ray guns. (They still use the Ice Warriors too)."
August 22, 2012 @ 2:29 am
When I think about the first realistic versions of the internet in science fiction, I think of Ender's Game. In one novel (and almost as background material) published in 1985, Orson Scott Card offers newsgroups, email, discussion boards, online news magazines, tablets, internet cafes…
I don't know if Card was the first to include these concepts (and I certainly won't stand by any of his other books), but it always struck me how dead-on he was with these details.
August 22, 2012 @ 2:45 am
There are a couple of interesting exceptions to your "no one predicted the internet" observation: Arthur C Clarke and Philip K Dick.
In Clarke's novel of "2001: A Space Odyssey", Heywood Floyd uses a computer to call up selected stories from various news sources on Earth, in much the same way as you might do on news websites today. Clarke didn't get the user interface right (Floyd has to punch in the appropriate number to call up the stories, instead of clicking on a link) but otherwise it's basically the same. This being a Clarke story, of course, Floyd is a sober, serious-minded professional downloading sober, serious-minded information. LOLcats play no part in the Clarkeian future.
The guy who did get that side of things right was Dick. In "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said", one character is addicted to what are effectively BDSM cybersex chatrooms, while in "Galactic Pot Healer" characters who have access at work to the global instantaneous communications network use it to arse around with silly games and jokes when they're meant to be getting on with their jobs. Dick didn't set out the technical workings of these systems in the way that Clarke did – he wasn't a technically-minded guy – but he did get the social aspects of global communications networks pretty much right. He has sometimes been called "The Godfather of Cyberpunk", and there is some justification to this.
August 22, 2012 @ 4:03 am
Oh, and note Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, where characters are so dehumanised and disconnected that they have to plug themselves into machines in order to share simulacra of real emotions with strangers in order to stave off the barren pointlessness of their atomised existence and desperately try to pretend that they are still part of the human race, when actually they have been reduced to barely more than the machines the protagonist hunts.
So that's an uncannily accurate prediction of Facebook, then.
August 22, 2012 @ 4:43 am
Also, in Heinlein's novel I Will Fear No Evil (1970), one of the characters asks: "this machine … has access to the Congressional Library St. Louis Annex, does it not?" and receives the answer: "Certainly. Hooked into the Interlibrary Net, rather, though you can restrict a query to one library."
August 22, 2012 @ 4:57 am
I'm not sure at what date we pass from "sf that anticipates the internet" to "sf that is about the internet," but if Ender's Game counts as the former, then so must Vinge's "True Names."
August 22, 2012 @ 5:48 am
It's true, though by 1985 a fair number of those things already existed – both Usenet and e-mail were around by then. Though I feel like XKCD pretty much said all there is to say on Card's prediction of the Internet: http://xkcd.com/635/
August 22, 2012 @ 7:44 am
I always thought XKCD got it slightly wrong; the network that Peter and Valentine posed on didn't seem like freestanding blogs so much as part of some larger community – either a discussion board like Usenet or a sort of amorphous blob of posts and responses like Tumblr.
August 22, 2012 @ 7:48 am
Interestingly, there's one short story that almost perfectly predicts the form and use of the modern Internet, and it's from 1946: http://www.baen.com/chapters/W200506/0743499107___2.htm0
August 22, 2012 @ 7:58 am
I'd say that a significant part of the end of cyberpunk was the realization that computers weren't just going to be mainframe monoliths that only evil '80s-style corporations could afford – in other words, tools of the existing order. The fact that personal computing meant that this power was democratized was as big a surprise as the importance of computing in the first place, I'd say. (Indeed, the recent flaps about SOPA and ACTA and all of that have been the corporations trying belatedly to take back control – only to find that not only is it too late, but that other corporations have already formed that are dependent on this status quo.)
August 22, 2012 @ 8:07 am
Also, Larry Niven's teleportation stories are excellent predictors of everything about the internet except the actual internet.
August 22, 2012 @ 8:12 am
On the subject of good and bad infotech predictions: in Star Trek TNG and DS9, the characters all read and write using things that look like a cross between a Kindle and an iPad. So, points for that. BUT whenever they want to give someone a report they hand them the whole iPad. So the captain ends up with a stack of iPads to read. So, gotta deduct some points there — especially for DS9, since at that point email had become widespread in the real world.
August 22, 2012 @ 8:14 am
August 22, 2012 @ 8:24 am
The earliest fiction I know of that tries to imagine the social effects of a world-wide network of mechanical communication and automation is E.M. Forster's 1909 short story, The Machine Stops. There was a wonderful adaptation by the BBC in the late sixties, which has been posted in various places online.
August 22, 2012 @ 10:00 am
It's kind of funny that SNOW CRASH is regarded as a cyberpunk classic today. I have very clear memories of when it came out — I was shelving the science fiction section at a Borders at the time — and I remember the initial reactions to it. On the negative side: "Oh dear, someone's trying to revivify the corpse of cyberpunk." On the positive side: "Hey, look! Someone's taking the piss out of cyberpunk!"
(Me, I liked it, though my interest started dribbling away around the time we got to the speedboat chase. I think THE DIAMOND AGE and CRYPTONOMICON are much better.)
August 22, 2012 @ 10:05 am
I prefer Cryptonomicon to the Baroque Cycle.
Partly because I think the Baroque Cycle has, despite all the picaresque and occult trappings, bought a little too far into a whiggish conception of the Enlightenment and scientific revolution (one that's not a million miles from the one Phil was criticising back at Ghost Light).
And also, because with the Baroque Cycle the asides are really just Showing My Research. It's highly entertaining Showing My Research and I wouldn't cut it and Stephenson is taking full advantage of having created for himself a genre convention that allows it. But Stephenson's asides on twentieth century culture in Cryptonomicon are more personal and more fun.
August 22, 2012 @ 10:05 am
SK: your Do Androids?/Facebook comment gave me chills. Well played.
Philip: great post. I loved Neuromancer and its sequels (Gibson's been a game of diminishing returns ever since, unfortunately, though I enjoyed Pattern Recognition), probably in part because Gibson's always been good at the kind of details that make the world feel real and I appreciate that.
Snow Crash, on the other hand, stars a character named "Hiro Protagonist," which at the time seemed like it could not possibly be more juvenile, a huge unnecessary THIS IS SATIRE, DUMMY sign waving in my face, which went a long way toward discouraging me from taking it seriously or falling in love with it. That said, I got through the whole thing and gave The Diamond Age a chance, which is great because I enjoyed the latter a lot more. That said, I don't doubt Snow Crash is today more interesting than Neuromancer for a lot of reasons, and certainly ought to have more of a relationship with Doctor Who.
However: "Gallifreypunk" is a mouthful. "Whopunk" sounds more like an accusatory question. How's about "timepunk"?
May 1, 2023 @ 7:19 pm
That eye-rolling character name turned me off from reading SC until very late, nearly ten years after this post. . .but now that I have I realize that among other things a feint, that obscures a couple of the more seriously interesting things about the book:
1) Underneath all the flash of the Metaverse and libertarian dystopia and ancient mind-viruses, a major running theme of the book is America’s long-term fall from grace, consumed by the sins of its past: most notably the pioneering of nuclear warfare and the ensuing proliferation, but its racist history is very present as well. Hiro’s very specifically defined biracial background connected to his father’s time in Japan grounds his initially outlandish-seeming name in something real and tragic.
2) The technical deuteragonist, Y.T., arguably edges him out as the most interesting and sympathetic character, and doesn’t seem to be talked about enough: her bildungsroman character arc is at least as fundamental as Hiro’s save-the-world-get-the-girl arc, she’s the one who really embodies the ‘punk’ half of the equation to Hiro’s ‘cyber’, and the material connection between those two halves is likewise encoded in the book’s themes: Hiro represents America’s striving to face and overcome those past sins, while Y.T. in her youth represents the possibility of hope for a better future.
May 1, 2023 @ 10:18 pm
All that said, I think SC is far from perfect, and I much prefer Cryptonomicon’s almost-but-not-quite-sf techothriller approach to the arc of the mid-to-late-20th century. I’m hesitant to even try the Baroque cycle, because I anticipate Stephenson’s approach applied to that era of historical fiction expanded to multiple volumes would feel very much like an even more rambling variation of The Sot-Weed Factor or Mason & Dixon, and I’m skeptical that he could pull it off as well as Pynchon or Barth.
August 22, 2012 @ 10:35 am
I first read Snow Crash while working as a Pizza Hut delivery driver.
Guess my favourite chapter.
August 22, 2012 @ 2:32 pm
Looking for anticipations of the internet in science fiction written and published in the days before widespread computer technology can certainly be fun (and it's a great way to humblebrag about how well-read we are). But the reason that game lets us show off how well-read we are is because of how much you have to hunt for imaginings that anticipate something like the modern internet.
Let's face it: no matter how many counter-examples we can dig out of the nooks and crannies of sci-fi over the decades, on the whole, Phil is right about this. When it comes to the vast majority of sci-fi — all the major trends, the most common ideas, the most popular images, the tropes by which we generally identify what sci-fi is as a literary, film, and television genre are spaceships, aliens, and interstellar travel. And the genre got the future development of humanity completely wrong. Just consider the title of Space:1999. Jules Verne's speculations about rocketry and submarines were generally correct, which led people to think of sci-fi as the genre that anticipated the future. But reality no more follows the imagination of sci-fi writers than it does anyone else.
One thing your games of digging for images of the internet was demonstrate how not-very-well-read-at-all I am in science-fiction literature. I've never actually read any Neal Stephenson before, though this essay has made me decide to jump in. I think I'll start with Cryptonomicon, though. Having done some cursory research, its ideas seem more in tune with what I tend to think about in my own work. Plus, for a book that's nearly 1200 pages long, it's really cheap online.
August 22, 2012 @ 2:35 pm
Oh, definitely agreeing. Though, to be fair, sci-fi totally anticipates the future – ALL the futures. It's how we pick which of those futures we want.
August 22, 2012 @ 2:43 pm
open question to the Eruditorum crowd of a certain age: when did the "Internet" begin for you—that is, when did it go from a niche thing to something your parents might know about?
My experience: started using email in '92, via my college computer lab. Got into usenet around then. First web page that I ever saw was in spring '94, via a guy I knew in the lab who had the Mosaic browser (I recall it was the MTV home page, a paltry box that was overwhelmed, on his computer, by background wallpaper that was a multiplied photo of Winona Ryder's face–some things never change…well, the actresses do). By summer of 1995, at my first job, the idea of the Web seemed fairly established ("a place you go to find weird things and maybe buy stuff") and by the following summer, my mother asked me about it, and thus, in my mind, inaugurating the mass-acceptance phase.
August 22, 2012 @ 5:08 pm
We also have to consider the fact that in many cases where sf correctly predicts the future, it has done that by actually influencing the future — as with Heinlein's Waldo arms, flipcover cell phones looking like Star Trek communicators, etc.
August 22, 2012 @ 5:11 pm
1994: I get my first modem. 1995: everybody I know has a modem.
August 22, 2012 @ 5:13 pm
I'm a fan of Ken MacLeod's neo-cyberpunk novels. His two main political influences are free-market libertarianism and Troskyist Marxism, so how can I resist?
August 22, 2012 @ 5:15 pm
It was first recommended to me by a friend who was a pizza deliverer.
August 22, 2012 @ 5:18 pm
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August 22, 2012 @ 5:22 pm
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August 22, 2012 @ 5:24 pm
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August 22, 2012 @ 5:27 pm
But I should add —
1977 or 78: I first use a modem, connecting a terminal at my high school to the mainframe at the local university.
And some time in the late 70s, my mother, introducing a visiting lecturer at our local church, said "Within a few years, information will be on tap in every home the way water is now."
Archeology of the Future
August 22, 2012 @ 6:32 pm
Growing up in the working class north of England, the internet was something that one computer in the school library had by the time I left school in 96.
There was no internet for me apart from seeing web addresses in other media until I was at university and using library computers in 1999. I didn't have an email address until 2001 and actual home access to a dial-up connection at the end of that year.
So I effectively lived in the pre-internet age until I was 24, limited to knowing through what I could actually get my hands on. My life would have been completely different if the internet had trickled down to our particular income bracket / cultural self image.
My Dad still doesn't have the internet at home, nor a mobile phone.
The internet just didn't touch us, despite me having grown up on William Gibson.
August 22, 2012 @ 11:01 pm
Even the "mainframe monoliths" were a surprise to the 'golden age' writers. Asimov's 1930s/40s Foundation trilogy for instance, supposedly set tens of thousands of years in the future, seems to take place in a world without information technology (I may be mis-remembering, but I think there's a sequence at one point where the calculations for an interstellar journey are worked out using a slide rule). When Asimov returned to his Foundation universe in the 80s, he had to shoehorn in information technology as a new future development…
August 23, 2012 @ 5:08 am
Because SF is primarily interested in the select few (generally the protagonists), it only really predicts the technology required for the resolution of the plot. Hence we get advances in travel, communication, teleportation, or weaponry. SF consistently forgets that in the real world it's the ordinary population who drive technical advances, desiring new ways to get drunk, shag and be entertained. The internet took off because it's the greatest source of porn, music and videos ever. What kind of story could ever have anticipated that?
Even Larry Niven, with his transport booths turning the whole Earth into one big endless party didn't think to consider what the couch potatoes of his world would be doing (although he edged close to it with his description of "wireheads").
August 23, 2012 @ 5:16 am
Crikey. 1997 at the age of 30, when I was working for a small Computer Consultancy as part of an IT Team of 3, and had to help administer the mail server. First experience of email and internet browsing. In fact that was the year I got my first free web-based email address…which I've still got and I've just realised is 15 years old!
August 23, 2012 @ 5:31 am
Things to do if I invent time travel:
1. Prevent 9/11.
2. Kill Hitler.
3. Deposit a buck in an interest-bearing account in 1899.
4. Write a social-realist novel set in 2012 filled with references to smartphones, social media, email, YouTube, satellite TV, etc., then publish it in 1950, then come back to the present and bask in my reputation as the most prescient sf writer ever.
August 23, 2012 @ 6:24 am
Oh come on now! Considering what blog you're commenting on, 1 has always got to be "Take 405-line-capable Video Recorder back to mid-1960s Britain."
August 23, 2012 @ 7:55 am
Spacewarp: Well, you can have a story concerned largely with the types of leisure activities the protagonists enjoy – see The Great Gatsby, or the Wooster & Jeeves novels, for instance. The problem is, no one thought to merge that style of storytelling with science fiction until – well, until the era we're going over in the blog just now.
August 23, 2012 @ 7:56 am
Oh yes. This is a thing that happens repeatedly; something in the real world that no one predicted that everyone struggles for a time to integrate. Mainframes were well-integrated by the '60s – see, for instance, Colossus: The Forbin Project.
August 23, 2012 @ 8:49 am
"In the Year 2889," a short science-fiction story by Jules Verne's son Michel, is "concerned largely with the types of leisure activities the protagonists enjoy." (This is true as well, though to a lesser extent, of his father's novel Paris in the Twentieth Century.) And I suppose of a number of futuristic utopias and dystopias, including News From Nowhere, Men Like Gods, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Logan's Run.
August 23, 2012 @ 8:53 am
And speaking of Men Like Gods (published in 1923), here's an excerpt predicting wi-fi and voicemail:
"For in Utopia, except by previous arrangement, people do not talk together on the telephone. A message is sent to the station of the district in which the recipient is known to be, and there it waits until he chooses to tap his accumulated messages. And any that one wishes to repeat can be repeated. Then he talks back to the senders and dispatches any other messages he wishes. The transmission is wireless."
August 23, 2012 @ 8:55 am
Yup, I've encountered slide rules in many early sf stories.
August 23, 2012 @ 12:28 pm
Another "they really missed it" thing is smoking. '40s-'60s SF is chock full of chain-smoking astronauts, space station workers, Mars colonists, etc.–the assumption apparently was that mid-century US/UK smoking rates would remain unchanged for centuries.
August 23, 2012 @ 1:09 pm
I had an old Apple Mac I'd bought while doing some graphic design freelancing back in my late 20s. I wasn't doing that anymore, though, so it was sitting unused in my spare room. But I'd heard about this new Internet thing, so I bought a cheap modem, signed up for a £10-a-month Demon account, plugged in my Mac, held my breath and jumped in…
I remember being blown away the first time I looked at a website. "This page is coming to me, right now, from a computer inAmerica*!"
.Net Magazine taught me that there was a thing called usenet, so I took a look at it in Netscape Navigator. I quickly found rec.arts.drwho and subscribed, expecting calm discussions of a beloved but long cancelled TV show. But no, it was a hotbed of controversy, full of people like Paul Cornell, Jon Blum and Kate Orman passionately defending something called "The New Adventures". Intrigued by the discussion, I popped into my local Manchester sci-fi shop Odyssey Seven and picked up a copy of No Future…
The rest, as they say, is history.
August 23, 2012 @ 7:50 pm
Berserk: There's always exceptions, naturally. But nobody did it as a rule – except in those few types of stories where building up the small details of the world was already part of the point.
August 23, 2012 @ 7:56 pm
To be fair, that's way more of a social change, and we're mostly talking about technological ones here. Naturally, the two are intertwined, but smoking in space goes on the pile with gender roles, the Cold War, and overpopulation – a discussion worth having, but one different from the one we're having here.
August 24, 2012 @ 8:55 am
…and, again, to be fair, but doesn't the Enterprise in Star Trek VI have a "No Smoking" sign? 😉
August 26, 2012 @ 6:59 pm
But in the future, they'll have medically harmless cigarettes and smoking wil be in again.
September 3, 2012 @ 6:01 am
I think Stepehenson's real gift is in finding the unfortunate, unintended use for technology. My favourite moment in any of his books is the bit about the guy with the video implants who gets hacked and is faced with a spam advertisement that runs in his head 24 hours a day, forcing his suicide. Classic sci-fi was all about "look at these amazing things we'll be able to do" and Stepehenson cut that mentality deeply with "yeah, but then bad people will be able to do this…"
And this is how I know that programmable nanotech will best benefit thieves, who can program tiny robots to become the correct key for any door. (Or, honestly, program the robots to disassemble the door, but that may be too obvious for anyone trying to be sneaky about their actions.)
October 5, 2012 @ 7:25 pm
I ye gods, I hated Snow Crash. I guess it was a parody..? But not being familiar with the genre it was parodying, to me it just read as OTT and stupid.