Patrick G Cox

SciFi; A Challenging Genre

Writers of science fiction face a number of challenges in the genre, not least because our scientific knowledge is expanding so rapidly. However, I think there are a number of other things a ScIFi author has to face as well. First is the possibly most basic aspect of the story; what sort of world is it set within? Here you have a wide range of possibles, from a completely alien world, through a fantasy one, into a 'future Earth', an 'Alternate Earth' and even a 'Past Earth' are all possibles. So are massive space station 'worlds' and even 'Space Ship Arks'. Having selected the type of world, one then faces the choice of what sort of society one is looking to build. A popular 'default' it seems is a sort of dystopia following a war, collapse of society due to a natural event or a pandemic. My choice is usually an extension (I'm an optimist!) of current political and cultural 'norms', often with an undercurrent of dissent and subversive activity.

An important aspect of creating a 'future' is understanding how the past forms and informs it. So you do need a certain grasp of current affairs, and certainly a reasonable depth of knowledge of the past history of the world and how that has shaped the present before attempting to work out how the future will be given the present. Will it be free-er, fairer, more just, and more inclusive? Or will it be a dystopia? Will it be a fragmented society in which 'everyman/woman for himself/herself' is the norm? That is perhaps much easier to imagine than one realises.Will 'democracy' as we know it survive? How will the future civic society work, be regulated, policed? 

Then there is technology, and here we really face a challenge. Just in the last 30 or so years technology has taken off in ways unimaginable when most writers my age were just trying to get to grips with early desktop computers. I confess to arriving in a new job to be confronted by "your personal computer" ... It took me a couple of days to figure out how to turn it on, and then how to access any program I could actually figure out how to use, and now it ofetn seems that children arrive in this world clutching a mobile phone that has more computing power than that early desktop (Top of the range then with a whopping 16 kilobytes of memory!). The laptop I'm using to write this post boasts 16 Gigabytes, and someone else I know has just bought a desktop with several Terabytes ...

And then there is the advances being made in AI programming! 

When I first started writing the Harry Heron series just over foruteen years ago most of the technology we are now using was not available. Artificial Intelligence was something still in the 'conceptula' stages of development. I remember having a conversation with a friend, a "systems architect" who designed the hardware to handle the sort of programs and functions you needed. Asked about how to create a "self aware" artifical mind for a starship, hos response was to the effect "you can't get there from here". Effectively he was saying that it needed something that would look entirely different to what we currently had as a "computational system", and proceeded to set out a concept of lots of small self-managing nodes each doing some part of a function which would all be networked, all exchanging information, and all managing some small part of a huge network. "Like your brain," he said.

That is how I have conceived my AI systems ever since.

Turning to the sort of societies we might live in at some hypothetical future, you need to ask yourself, will it face similar challenges, or will it have taken humanity down a new and totally different road? Here I tend to the view that human history has a habit of repeating itself. It may have new technology, it may look a little different, but the basic problem remains in that we tend to resist any changes that might be considered "too radical". So we have a tendency to "reinvent the wheel" at rather regular intervals. I find "apocalyptic" futures rather difficult to envisage, perhaps because I have lived through the collapse of one political system, and watched another die a long and lingering death. Far from resulting in the sort of "Wasted Earth; Survival of the fittest" scenarios, the vast majority of people just kept ploughing on and hoping it would all sort itself out in the end. Which, to some extent it has. This is what I mean by my "cyclical history" - new technology, more knowledge, better communication in the hands of humans whose collective "memory" is about 35 years. So we have a tendency to repeat the mistakes our grandparents made, and our grandchildren will most likely repeat them in their turn.

So, I tend to create a society similar to our own, but different in its concerns and the mix of its characters. Hopefully in the future race and "colour" will be less important than it is now. Unfortunately, I suspect we'll have found a new set of 'enemies' to worry about. As a species we tend to be afraid of anything "different". Instead of trying to understand the differences, we often submit to simply being repelled by them, and that is a downhill road to actual enmity. How we will react when we do finally meet "aliens" of similar intelligence and scietific development to our own is a very open question I think. I base my views on this from how we react toward the animals we share this planet with. Some of us seem to think most of the larger animals exist only to be 'hunted' as 'trophies' and a majority have difficulty with the idea that all animals and most fishes have 'feelings' such as fear, love, anger, etc., and certainly have the capacvity to 'think'. Scientists are slowing realising that the humble Octopus is probably at least as intelligent as we are - but has different needs so uses it differently.

What about robots, Androids and other artificial 'life', I hear you ask. Given the amount of effort currently being invested in that technology, I rather suspect that in the very near future Androids will be a part of daily life. Perhaps mechanical beings as sophisticated as C3PO are still a little way off, but I think they are a definite probability.

So, for Harry Hero and his friends and family, my 'future' world is an extrapolation of today's, with a Confederal union of nation states in Northern Europe, a North American Union, a World Treaty Organisation Assembly, a Sino-Asian Imperium and a Spacefaring Fleet that serves the signatory powers that fund and govern it. Society accepts a wider range of social 'norms' than we see at present, but has its problems as well, and those who believe they can change it or exploit it. For me the key is always to try to create a world, a society which my readers would feel is real. Yes, it has been challenging, sometimes even frustrating, but this is why I use a very good editor, and why I send the manuscript round to a range of Beta Readers to check and test what I have written before I publish the finished book.

And, in case you're wondering, yes, I do enjoy the challenge!

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