Originally appearing in issue #81 of Aurealis Magazine (way back in the winter of 2015), the following article argues an age-old case: Details matter, in any form of fiction, but especially in science fiction.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO FOCUS ON THE SMALL STUFF
Science fiction is a genre that unfortunately easily becomes out-of-date. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise—it is explicitly concerned with conjuring up the future and, as history has shown, reality often pales in comparison with the boundless reach of our imaginations. As well, what someone from the past might have pictured as the future is quite possibly our present. For example, the fictional 21st-centuries that existed in the collective imaginations of writers from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s (and so on) have been superseded by the passage of time – the 21st-century is now both our reality and our present, and it is more-than-likely that our contemporary world bears little resemblance to the fictional 21st-century worlds dreamed up throughout the 20th-century.
I still remember an anthology that I once owned, entitled Astounding Tales of the Fantastic or some such sensationalistic ridiculousness (a title which is really just a product of its time, my rather derisive and somewhat unfair description a product of historical hindsight). This particular anthology was first published in the late 1940s and featured tales of the great domed cities of the early 21st-century, and the one-world government that emerged in the 1990s, and the mighty jungles that devoured the world as the 20th-century drew to a close. Not every science-fiction writer can be as piercingly prescient as Arthur C. Clarke, George Orwell or William Gibson (the first people to think-up such everyday parts of contemporary life as satellites, mass technological surveillance, and the internet), and nor should we expect them to be.
But we would hope for some consistency of vision in the way that they imagine the future.
Now, some people might dismiss focussing on this “consistency of vision,” considering it just another form of nit-picking or evidence that I have too much time on my hands. But this is to glance over what I consider a fundamental truth regarding science fiction: no matter how inspired any particular author’s “big idea,” their narratives will always be let down if the minutiae of everyday life in the world they’ve created isn’t thought-out carefully to reflect its futuristic setting. It’s all well and good to create a story in which, for example, an extra-terrestrial delegation spontaneously appears at the U.N. in the year 2050, or in which a rebellion occurs on a mining-station on one of Jupiter’s moons circa 2091, or in which social-media mutates into a dangerous pseudo-A.I. sometime in the near future. The hard part is making the world in which these events take place consistent: the above scenarios and those like them will inevitably prove unsatisfying if the language, entertainment, architecture, social customs, political systems, presence of government, ubiquity and availability of technology, modes of public and private transport, and wealth and class divides underpinning them aren’t brought up to “future speed.”
Likewise, if the characters in any particular story tend to speak like techno-nerds from the 1990s or private investigators from the 1950s or self-discovery fanatics from the 1970s, then the particular narratives that they inhabit really should feature 1990s-style techno-nerds or private investigators from the 1950s or 1970s-style self-discovery fanatics. Otherwise, the author is simply betraying the influence of some of the dominant cultural and literary voices of the particular time in which she/he is writing. Unless, of course, this is the actual purpose of his/her narrative: narratives based upon postmodern game-playing, attempts at creating hybridised genres, self-reflexive satires and send-ups.
Some examples might be in order. However, when it comes to “bad” examples—whereby some science-fiction authors focus on the “big idea” to the detriment of the everyday—I won’t be naming and shaming. Most of us have read some bad science fiction; just about all of us have seen bad science fiction on the big screen; and this isn’t the place to jeer and sneer.
Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is still the definitive example of the way that changing or reinventing the language that characters speak can dramatically increase the authenticity of a future world. Burgess’ creation of “Nadsat” and his decision to have the narrative told from a first-person point-of-view means that we are almost immediately confronted by this unique slang-language, and consequently “thrown” into its futuristic setting. Alex—the narrator—is so at ease with Nadsat and uses it so readily that his voice feels almost completely authentic. It evokes a particular world, in much the same way that the Millennial Generation’s use of words such as “totes” and “like” and “awesome” evokes our contemporary world, and exclamations such as “radical” and “excellent” and “gnarly” evoke the world of the 1990s, and so on. This sense of authenticity is only increased thanks to the amount of attention both Burgess (in the written version) and director Stanley Kubrick (in his filmic adaptation) devoted to other aspects of the world of A Clockwork Orange. The way that its political and social systems operate, the way that its characters entertain themselves, the presence of the media, the architecture of the buildings that make up its cities, the food and drink that its characters consume, the music that they listen to, the way that they live, the way that they dress—Burgess and Kubrick don’t miss a detail in keeping their respective visions of a future world consistent. This gives the text an almost concrete sense of time and place; but instead of existing as part of a historical continuum, the sense of time and place that permeates A Clockwork Orange exists in a future that we never want to see.
Two slightly more recent science-fiction films will perhaps better illustrate the point, especially in regards to some of the more minor details that many authors and creators tend to overlook. Bladerunner (1982) and Back to the Future 2 (1989) might seem to have little in common: the former is sombre and serious, while the latter is shiny and “fun”, aside from its few dark moments. However, the attention to detail and dedication to a consistency of vision shown by directors Ridley Scott (Bladerunner) and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future 2) is something that unites both films.
From the melting pot of languages that combine to form its street-slang to the neon pyramids that dominate its skyline, from the “high” technology that permeates its characters’ lives to the design of their homes and workplaces, from the ever-present flying cars to the immense billboards held aloft by blimps, from its depiction of the class and wealth divide to its focus on life at “street-level”, from the postmodern and scattergun-style of the clothes that its characters wear to the hairstyles that they sport and the affectations that they exhibit, the future world of Bladerunner seems wholly realised and almost concrete enough to touch. It might have been created in the 1980s, but there isn’t a single “dude” to be seen and there aren’t really any cultural references to date it. This makes Bladerunner somehow feel both timeless and real: it is obviously intended to be a futuristic extension of our own world, and yet it has undoubtedly moved on in terms of its visual look, social-customs, use of language and technological dependence.
Isn’t this true of our own world? Look around you—some of the things there that you can see and touch and hear might share a link to the past, and we may be able to trace these things back into history. But that history is basically static, existing outside time. It only affects the present in an abstract and tenuous way, operating as an influence rather than as an actual aspect of reality. The only concrete pieces of it that do continue on into the present are those monuments and architectural marvels big enough to withstand Mother Nature. And all the while, these links to the past also exist alongside a host of contemporary items, attitudes, customs, visual cues, and words and phrases that both threaten the past with obsolescence, and are effectively “brand new” and yet to possess a history of their own. In this line of thinking, the “real” present is made up of the contemporary world cramming on top of the historical world and slowly turning it into something that it isn’t.
As well, those things that share a link with the past also tend to serve as reminders of the gap that exists between them and the “brand new” and begin to move into the realm of symbolism. Think of out-dated clothes and objets d’art that become hip when labelled retro, or the appropriation of 1980s fashion by the Millennial Generation, or the Hipster tendency to look like an old-fashioned university professor or a librarian from the 1950s. Artefacts of the past such as these seem to almost solely be viewed from the perspective of the present, rather than as objects of their time. They become a reference to a culture rather than part of that culture itself, an acknowledgment and appreciation of it that is selective and affectionate and often ironic. As I look around my own desk, I see a Rubik’s Cube-shaped pencil holder alongside a laptop, an iPod perched on top of a paperback from the 1960s, a “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster that was produced on a laser-printer, an eco-bulb in an antique lamp, a Panama Hat that was made by a machine in China, a rotary telephone and a wireless modem…
Funnily enough, the fact that Bladerunner takes a subtle approach in its depiction of this postmodern-ish aspect of contemporary life is perhaps the only thing that dates it. It is a product of the early 1980s, after all, and it barely needs mentioning that the hyper-aware, technologically dependent, a-historical and culturally diverse world that we now live in began to properly evolve during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then exploded in the early 21st-century to become a defining “sign of the times”. In contrast to Bladerunner, Back to the Future 2 successfully integrates its imagined future world with the zeitgeist that was building up steam during its production (the late 1980s). Think of the 3D advertisement for yet another Jaws sequel, or the numerous inexplicable gadgets that clutter the McFly’s home, or the traffic jams of flying cars, or the inescapable communications technology that connects everyone, or the obviously-fake 1950s-style diner that Biff and his gang use as a meeting place, or the mish-mash of architecture in which old buildings still remain but are crowded and overshadowed by modern monstrosities. Most telling is the fact that while a lot of surface appearances have changed, what lies beneath is still identifiable with our own world. Young people still ride skateboards, only now they’re “hoverboards”; jeans, t-shirts, bomber jackets and sneakers are still de rigueur American casual wear, only now the sneakers lace themselves up and the jackets dry themselves and the jeans are worn inside-out; men still wear business suits to work, only now the suits are weird and a little boxy and undeniably not-of-this-time; families still bicker around the dinner table, only now they eat bizarre pre-packaged and dehydrated meals.
While in these details we see a mocking affirmation of the old adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” we also can’t overlook the amount of attention paid to them in-and-of-themselves. While they undoubtedly work as both comment and satire, they also ensure Zemeckis’ consistency of vision in the presentation of his future world—there is very little that betrays the film’s status as a work of the 1980s, aside from surface appearances. In much the same way that the detailed component parts underlying the world of Bladerunner combine to give it a concrete sense of authenticity, the attention paid to the component parts of the future world of Back to the Future 2 helps make it feel like a true extension of our present. There is also something more serious contained within these details: an acknowledgment that the culture that inhabits whatever future lies ahead will almost certainly draw deeply from the past in the way that it both presents and considers itself. This helps make its world a recognisable extension of our own, in contrast to the world of Bladerunner, which seems less and less likely to come to pass.