The idea that old is bad and new is good is one that permeates some quarters of our culture and sees its expression in the New Labour verses the ‘forces of conservatism’ in the political world. The former seems intent on destroying anything old even when having nothing better to replace it, the latter wants to hang onto the outmoded even when something better is available. But before anyone switches off, I’m not going to get into a rant about all that – this magazine isn’t big enough – I’m going to look at it as applied to science fiction.
For many, SF has to be primarily new and innovative. Now, while I agree that SF should open our eyes to possibilities never seen before (though that is by no means all it should do), I also feel it should never close our eyes to the eminently likely.
Some while back I produced a story in which I named an android manufacturing company ‘Cybercorp’, and was told the name was nothing new. But being much used in fiction, is that name less or more likely to be used in fact? Already we are coming out the other side of rebranding for the sake of it. Consignia is now once again the Post Office and most people know that Corus really means British Steel. Of course I could have named my company Epsilion Floogle Bugler Ltd or Rumbatious Pumpwhistle, but I came up with the Cybercorp in the same way as many company names are formed (when advertising executives are not becoming ‘creative’ and disappearing up their own fundaments): Microsoft, Vodaphone, Telecom, Railtrack – simple basic and descriptive. But my real contention here is that though something may be old hat, that doesn’t make it bad, wrong or unlikely. I know it’s a distasteful prospect for some, but it is quite possible that sometime a company will be formed and it’ll be called Robotics Inc. Though, going off at tangent here, the most likely name, for a future manufacturer of androids, is Honda.
Zap guns and rocket ships (or squids in space) are what SF is all about, apparently. I can take issue with that straight away. 1984 certainly isn’t and, despite what Jo Brandt might think, it’s classic SF. Other books in the genre that don’t fall under that supposedly derogatory description: The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Frankenstein, Half-Past Human (T J Bass), Hawksbill Station (Silverberg) … I’m probably preaching to the converted here. However, what’s wrong with zap guns and rocket ships? Certainly the terms themselves are cliches, but what about the ideas and the reality behind them? Must they be abandoned because they are no longer new? Many years ago the American military asked Congress if they could test a ground-based laser for knocking out satellites (refused). Microwave beam weapons were employed during the Gulf War to screw Iraqi communications. The taser has been in use for a ages and now, in the process of being developed, is a taser that uses no wires – the utterly cliched SF stun gun. Even my nieghbour, working years ago for Marconi, was developing specialist transformers for powering military lasers. All zap guns, all real. As for the rocket ships … well erm, there’s this thing called the space shuttle, a couple of years ago the first ion drive was tested in space, there are plenty of contenders for the $10 million prize for putting a privately-funded craft up into space (twice in a limited period to prove it’s viable proposition), there’s the prospect of many more missions into the solar system, rocket ships have put two robots on Mars. I won’t go on.
Only writers of utterly dystopian futures of technological collapse think zap guns and rocket ships won’t figure in them. To ignore these supposed old cliches of SF makes about as much sense as ignoring trees because they have too often been used in fiction. It is plain wrong to discount something because it is old and well-used. Things, in general, become that way because they work, because they are right, and because no one has thought of a plausible alternative. New doesn’t mean good or right and old doesn’t mean bad or wrong, they just are what they are.