Last week I had a (very) minor emergency in that my laptop decided to pack it in. This wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been – it was fixable, and I had most of my important files backed up (and I am now working on changing that ‘most’ into ‘all’), and perhaps best of all, I had my old laptop around and was able to keep working on that. So this is the very definition of a First World Problem, but it did still get me to thinking.
First, it got me oversentimentalizing objects again. The old laptop is the one that I wrote my PhD dissertation on, what will probably forever be the crowning achievement of my academic career. I created hours worth of lessons and lectures that helped me teach hundreds of students about the history I love. I wrote most of King in Darkness on it, the first book I ever wrote and the first thing I ever had published. It travelled with me to many places and gave me many hours of work, diversion, and entertainment. For all that, it still works pretty well, which makes me feel more than a little guilty packing it up and putting it away on a shelf, giving up on it in a way that it never gave up on me. I know, of course, that it’s just a thing, a mechanism, and that it doesn’t feel disappointed or sad to be sidelined in favour of a newer, more powerful mechanism. But I can’t help, for some reason, to assign those feelings to it, and to imagine that maybe it enjoyed the past week of being back on the job.
However, that’s really just all my own internally-generated silliness.
I also thought, as I worked with the old laptop, how impossibly heavy it seemed to be to carry around and to have sitting on my legs, how bulky it was, how clunky some of the operations were. (I still like the way the trackpad works better though) The thing is, I also remember, very clearly, when I first got that laptop, thinking how light and compact and slick it was compared to my even-older laptop. But time has passed, and my expectations of what technology is capable of have shifted.
You run into that in SF reasonably frequently, especially if you read the older stuff. Things that seemed like the amazing tech of times yet to come now seem entirely ordinary. Sometimes tech we take for granted is conspicuous by its absence. The ‘future’, suddenly, looks very old.
The Star Wars RPG I’m running ran into an example of this recently; we were in the midst of an adventure and one of the players asked about GPS. Because of course there should be GPS in an interstellar society like the one we see in Star Wars; we can’t imagine, at this point, how you could have a modern society without GPS. The problem I had was basically this: there isn’t really any evidence of anything GPS-like in the setting, and as a result the game (which reproduces the setting) isn’t really designed to cope with the implications of GPS technology. This is one of the many times that the 1970s future of Star Wars sort of clashes with our vision and expectations of what ‘advanced’ should mean and must mean, and we’re left with a presentation of the future that seems obsolete at the same time as it claims to be ahead of us.
Personally, I find these now old-fashioned futures charming, a past time’s dreams of the days ahead, and I enjoy reading about them just as much as I do visions that are still a bit more aligned with our current technological reality and expectations. My very loose theory is that if you have a really good story, with a world and plot and characters that your reader is going to buy into and care about, it doesn’t really matter if the technology isn’t exactly right. (Somewhere, a hard SF writer just got a piercing headache and doesn’t know why) One of my prime examples is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the first stories of which came out before the advent of computers, and certainly before it was at all clear how ubiquitous they would become. So they’re just not there, which is both jarring to a modern reader, but then also kind of cool, and the stories still work, because the strength of them is more Asimov’s ideas about society and politics and people than it is ‘this is what the future will be like’.
I think this is really just an example of something else I’ve talked about before, the point lifted from a William Gibson interview I attended, where he pointed out that his books weren’t really attempts to predict the future at all, they used an imagined future to talk about the present as he perceived it. So, the cellphone and wireless-less future of Neuromancer was a book about the 1980s, not really Gibson’s attempt to predict the years to come, and thus the absence of computer tech that we take for granted doesn’t really matter. (I wonder if he’s off that idea just a touch with The Peripheral, and what he has to say about it, but that’s like a whole ‘nother deal)
As a result, I think Neuromancer (and Gibson’s other stuff, and so many other SF stories with their obsolete futures) still works really well as a novel, because it was never really about the tech or the future at all, it was about human beings and the worlds we make, using an imaginary place and time to talk about them. I guess those are the kind of stories I like best, so I don’t really mind if the future is a place we’ve already been or somewhere we’ll never get to.
On some level, I guess I like to hope that these obsolete futures still enjoy having us come to visit them, even if they’ll never be more than dreams, just as I guess I hope my faithful old laptop took a bit of pleasure in being back in the game, at least for a little while.
This threatens to get very silly again, so I’ll stop here. Thanks for reading.