The Pain of Prescience That Missed the Train

When I was at the Clarion West workshop back in 2006, Vernor Vinge (our last instructor) spent a certain amount of time talking about the idea of “future-proofing” an SFnal story. The idea is that, since you’re talking about the future, you’re likely to get a bunch of things quite wrong. Anyone who’s read older SF knows this problem well, the signal example being the one everyone cites, of people on spaceships calculating the math for some complicated ship maneuver using slide rules, because nobody imagined calculating machines might get invented (and/or that such machines might become small enough to use in space ships).

When you future-proof a story, you’re basically trying to extend its shelf-life by avoiding problems like that; in some ways, you can do this by leaving out specific details about how a technology works, or using more abstract explanations, for example. And it’s only one example, the one that comes to mind as I am now reading Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, with all the discussion of software archaeology.

Future proofing is one of those things that is, well, difficult sometimes.

For example, one of the stories I wrote during that summer of 2006 was about a farming family, and indeed a farming community, in Saskatchewan, pretty near where I spent my high school and undergraduate years. When I’d last lived in Saskatchewan (in 1998), it had been one of the poorest provinces in Canada, with high unemployment and most young people fleeing for greener pastures upon graduation from university, if not sooner. In 2006, I was maybe a bit out of touch with the changing reality, but not too much.

But now, Saskatchewan has one of the best economies in Canada, at least on paper; it is no longer one of the poorest places in Canada, and employment is very high. Not only that, but the villain of the story was the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, which had morphed (mostly offstage) from being a collective created to help farmers sell their goods at a reasonable price, to being the lackey of agritech interests. Well, here in 2011, there is no Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, in fact by the end of summer 2006 there was no longer a Wheat Pool — it had become a business called Viterra.

Fixes for these problems are possible, of course: I can make my futuristic Saskatchewan either the product of a downturn in oil mining, or accentuate the wealth disparity between city folk and the few family farms that still hold out against agribusiness, or have the economy in Saskatchewan go sour in terms of unequal distribution (which is already a problem in Saskatchewan, and has been for a while… and which can have serious repercussions, as explained in this wonderful video on I can always have a new neo-Wheat Pool crop up, or make the villain some other successor business to Viterra, one that doesn’t yet exist.

But the dilemma that bothers me much more is the dilemma I face with the opposite problem, one I’ll call The Pain of Prescience That Missed the Train.

SF authors often like to talk about the speculations they’ve made in published stories that they “got right.” As if speculation and prediction are the same thing. Well, but when you do get something right, it hits you with this strange feeling of having done exactly that: having predicted something correctly.

As Occupy Wall Street has gone from a flicker in the distance to something people are talking about all over the world, I’ve felt a sinking feeling. Not in terms of the action — whatever on thinks about their rhetoric, I’ve kind of thought that we have been in a situation where this sort of uprising was inevitable. (Just as people eventually were bound to rise up against the Church in Europe, the kind of lopsided, pro-rich capitalism we’ve had since the 1980s has been something I’ve expected people to start fighting against sooner or later.) The sinking feeling is more related to one of the stories I drafted months ago, and then never finished drafting or sent out. Which is discouraging for me not just because I like the story, but also because the events within it eerily resonate with how things are unfolding with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

It’s not exactly the same. After all, protesters in my story dress up as superheroes; they actually engage in military/terrorist-style violence in the streets of New York (and presumably Washington, and other major American cities); the US military is called in, and a radical technoanarchist group of corporate discards from Japan show up to aid the protesters (in battlebot waldos, after having liberated the Japanese economy from greedy executive leeches). The main characters are, well, not much like the people in the streets of New York these days, and the economic collapse that triggers the uprising is more closely tied to trading in carbon credits, and the final results of that industry.

But it’s the sort of story that, if I were to get it published now, people would probably feel that the story is “about Occupy Wall Street” where, in fact, I arrived at the idea far before.

I don’t know whether the story is salvageable, but I suspect it is, with some work. After all, if one thinks about the coming reaction to Occupy Wall Street, or thinks about it as a movement that could continue for some time, then new possibilities crop up. If I try, I think I can make the story work, but it won’t quite be the same. Whatever fixes I might make, what has happened in the real world has already happened, and the story will no longer have a ring of crazy strangeness in its central claim: that people could simply rise up in large numbers and decide to stick it to Wall Street. There’s not much to be done for the fact that this claim will be met with, “Well, duh. They’re already doing that!”

The lesson I’ve learned is that sometimes, you need to get a story done and sent out. Sometimes, there’s a risk reality will eat your story not just because you got things wrong, but because you somehow imagined something relatively close to how things end up playing out in the real world.

6 thoughts on “The Pain of Prescience That Missed the Train

  1. If you search hard enough, you can always find some sort of meaning in things that can be used either for you or against you. It always amazes me how critics go on and on about how they know just what point, or message, the director was subconsciously trying to get across to the audience when, afterwards (in the dvd extras), many directors say that that was never their intention in the first place. Usually, they say that they went with a certain shot/take just because it looked good or they couldn’t afford to try anything different because of a lack of money–such as was the case in a lot of film noir movies.

    Both your Saskatchewan story and Occupy Wall Street have elements in them that sound an awful lot like one of Sci-Fi’s greatest novels, Heilein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” And if we are to believe Arthur Quiller-Couch and his seven plot theory, all that current and future writers can do is to only add new wrappings to these basic plots. Anyway, it’s been done before to great success: “The Magnificent Seven” arose out of “Seven Samurai,” “Star Wars” out of “The Hidden Fortress,” the various “Spider-Man” films and TV shows out of some cheap 12-cent comics written for kids almost fifty years ago, etc., etc., etc., …

    Take your lesson to heart and send it out. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by doing so.

  2. John,

    I get your point, though you know, I’ve also hear people say, “That was never my intention” about things that are definitely in a text or film, whether or not they consciously realized it. (And in fact, most writers openly acknowledge the experience of people “seeing” things in their own work that they didn’t consciously realize, but which do make a lot of sense in terms of understanding a given text.) That’s the subconscious mind… :)

    I haven’t read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress yet, though I do have it on the shelf now, at least… maybe I’ll move it up the pile.

    Thanks for the encouragement, anyway. I’m sure I can find a way for both stories to work — the one set in Saskatchewan much more easily, the one that is eerily like Occupy Wall Street probably only after some time has passed. But you’re right that I shouldn’t just give up on them… and I haven’t. It’s just to note that sometimes the real world catches up with you, I guess…

    (Having just finished Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky — see my latest post — I figure one way is to recontextualize the event in universals and imagine it happening in a place and time where one can introduce interesting technical differences and so on. Or something…)

  3. Even, the not-as-great-as-I-used-to-think, Orson Scott Card’s “Ender” series of books have a lot in common with Heinlein’s classic, “Starship Troopers.” It seems that he just juxtaposed a few characters, their ages, and the setting, but he even kept the “bugs.”

    I now wish that I had read “Troopers” first, but then my love of Card (and his other works) may have been greatly diminished. Luckily, I can (and I think most other readers can as well) place authors’ works in their own unique times and settings (unless, of course, they are part of a greater series like the “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” universes) without seeing blatant infringements upon other authors’ works. They are all works of fiction after all. Anyway, the writers most of us remember the best were/are those with the rare talent that allowed/allows them to spin the best of yarns. Even when those yarns take on very familiar themes. For example, I think Nolan’s new take on “the Batman” is the best one in that long-lived series while Singer’s take with “Superman Returns” nearly ruined that series.

  4. John,

    Yeah, Ender’s Game is also a far less interesting response to Starship Troopers than Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. And I think John Kessel’s essay on the novel is pretty much bang-on — in making Ender morally unimpeachable, Card is doing something disturbing and arguing for a kind of moral idiocy to which I don’t take kindly.

    In any case, I am struggling to understand what you mean here:

    I can (and I think most other readers can as well) place authors’ works in their own unique times and settings (unless, of course, they are part of a greater series like the “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” universes) without seeing blatant infringements upon other authors’ works. They are all works of fiction after all.

    It sounds like you’re saying, “I (and many readers) tend not to mind how derivative a work is, as long as it’s entertaining, because after all, it’s fiction!” But that doesn’t quite sound right to me: when I see a film I feel is overly derivative (ie. not an adaptation) I may sometimes feel excited at apparent homage, but usually I have quite the opposite reaction.

    I do agree that it’s the telling of the tale that matters more, of course. I just wish I could get my yarns out the door before they seemingly manifest out there on the street!

    (But don’t worry, I already have a fix for the story about the people who attack Wall Street.)

  5. Entertaining the masses by any means that sells (even when ripping off others) is pretty much the point I was trying to get across as the majority of the general population aren’t as well-read as you (and I to a much lesser extent) are. While we will probably be scratching our heads wondering why another subpar work, based on something done right the first time, is being printed or filmed again, the masses will still herd themselves over to the cinema once again or to to download the tripe onto their media players. Sometimes it works (the re-visioning of “Battlestar Galactica”). Sometimes it doesn’t (the recent “Charlie’s Angels” and “Bionic Woman” TV failures).

  6. I suppose that works for some people. Personally, I would rather write the sorts of things I want to write, and worry about audience later. (Certainly I prefer this to writing whatever people seem to want, because I don’t think I could make myself do it even if I set my mind to it.)

    Battlestar Galactica is a weird case in point: it’s very rip-offy, and many parts of it annoy the crap out of me. The stuff that makes it work is more character- and plot-related, and are things that could have been done without bothering to retread a sloppy TV show from decades ago… except that the people making decisions about what gets onto TV seem to prefer the ripoffy approach, or something…

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