Science Fiction and Reality

Yesterday in class, one of the first questions we focused on was when is Neuromancer set? I thought this was a particularly interesting question given the scope of our course. From the point of view of William Gibson in 1985, it seems reasonable to assume that Neuromancer is some sort of imagined future. From our perspective almost 30 years later, however, the idea of the world of Neuromancer as our future is a little more of a stretch. There is, in my opinion at least, something inescapably eighties about the setting. Unlike the sleek, white plastic and chrome aesthetic of 60s sci-fi (see: everything from The Jetsons to Star Trek TOS), Neuromancer mixes punk, noir and grunge features to create the sci-fi aesthetic that became the calling card of 80s sci-fi. This aesthetic may not have started with Gibson (we have discussed how he was influenced by Bladerunner, for instance), but the style, look, and focus of Neuromancer, in many people’s estimation, changed the face of sci-fi.

But it was not only fiction that Neuromancer influenced. In constructing an imagined future, William Gibson ended up deeply influencing the future of the technologies he wrote about. In Jack Womack’s essay on Neuromancer (appended to the text in the 2000 paperback re-release), he notes that Gibson did not only create the word “cyberspace,” but in effect created the place. That by writing down his imagined “cyberspace,” he may have played a real role in its creation by virtue of capturing the imaginations of not just the general public, but the very people who had the tools and wherewithal to make it true.

Science fiction and scientific reality have long had an interesting and interwoven relationship. Fans of science fiction, I think, get a particular thrill out of science fiction’s “failures”—in 2015 the internet will ask “where’s my hover board?” knowing full well that a vision of the future as seen from 1989 become silly and obsolete long before that future time is becomes the present. Writers of science fiction, no matter how much research they dig into, can never really know what the future will look like. The stories will never exactly match the reality, because discoveries and innovation cannot be predicted with real accuracy (who, after Microsoft cornered the computers market in the late ‘90s could predict Apple’s hegemony only a few years later?) But the stories that science-fiction writers want to tell do not exist in a vacuum. And sometimes, by telling them, they help make them true. They may be wild and fanciful visions of the future, but occasionally such fancy will capture imagination, and what was once a product of the brain of a Gibson or a Stephenson or a Dick can becomes products of the real world. To some extent that is science fiction’s function—making complex ideas and technologies accessible and interesting, exploring the implications of certain discoveries and innovations, and, in some small way, bringing about the future.

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One Response to Science Fiction and Reality

  1. h0p3d1am0nd says:

    I think you delve into some really interesting points. How much of what an author writes is a self-fulfilling prophecy? If Gibson has not “invented” cyberspace, would it have come into creation? Would someone else have brought it about instead? How interrelated is the writing and the technologies?

    On this subject, I always think about Orwell’s 1984; though it is not strictly sci-fi, it definitely has elements of that genre. People often use the phrase “Big Brother” or point out how close we are all getting to Orwellian technology (and our reliances on it). Following your argument, how much of this would have happened if Orwell had stayed quiet?

    An additional question I have to add to this conversation is how much do the readers react to the new technologies based on the books? Yes, the technological readers may go out and create the technologies; but what about the rest of us, the ones who simply read the books? How much do these books shape our vision about the world around us and the way we receive new “futuristic” devices?

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