#2. All Sci-Fi Authors Are Reluctant Prophets
I've said it twice already in this article, because it's a common perception: Science fiction authors often double as futurists, keenly predicting the twists and turns of humanity's progress via their faultless vision and masterful storytelling. But if they do so, I promise you, they do it reluctantly. William Gibson wasn't trying to predict the Internet. I'm sure he extrapolated the idea based on some real stuff, but go reread Neuromancer. His "Cyberspace" was a dazzling array of lights that one hacked by firing fractal dragons of intelligent light. As opposed to, say, the shitty flash websites and vast, unscalable mountains of pornography that we ended up with. Yes, he hit on the general concept, and deserves an immense amount of credit for having the foresight to see the potential in that concept, but the point of Neuromancer wasn't "Hey guys, watch out for the Internet -- oh shit, here it comes! Duck!"
He did it because he saw the potential for a good story in this neat thing that he made up. Aldous Huxley didn't write Brave New World because he saw the impending disaster of consumer pharmaceuticals; he was using it all as metaphor for a dangerous kind of human mindset that values pleasure above freedom. The fact that it matches up to the present day is roughly 90 percent coincidence to, at most, maybe 10 percent TeknoWitch-craft.
Pictured: Aldous Huxley(?)
But this retroactive prescience has happened enough times now that we kind of expect any book set in the near(ish) future to be, in some way, trying to predict that future. Everything a sci-fi author invents will get read as a symbol of something -- was the Fangpriest of Black Mars intended as a commentary on the increasingly public perversions of the Catholic church? Nope, the author probably just thought a space monk who prays by biting virgins with his nano-teeth was a cool villain. Like I said, while writing my own book, I started out carefully and exhaustively researching developments in fringe technology (in part because I was stumbling into the pitfall of futurism). I think the end product retains some of that predictive attitude, yes, but I sure as hell didn't have Abraham Lincoln fight a triceratops with a sword because I foresee the changeable nature of the Internet eventually making all history malleable. I did it because nobody else was showing me that, goddamnit, so it looked like if I wanted to read about the best thing possible, I was going to have to write it myself.
Although some efforts have been closer than others.
Once you realize this simple truth, that even the most eerily accurate futurists in science fiction are more concerned with telling the best story than gazing into their crystal ball, some of the sheen might come off of your favorite properties. You may have to grudgingly admit that Snow Crash wasn't trying to foretell the rise of food-based violence in our increasingly consumerist society; Stephenson probably just thought "What if the mafia delivered pizzas?" was a funny concept.
#1. Science Fiction Loves the Emancipator
When I talked about Lincoln fighting a dinosaur in my book, that was (shockingly) not just another case of me being a juvenile idiot man-child. (I know, I know -- I'm just as surprised as you are.) But I'm actually not alone in this particular, seemingly random obsession. For example, this is my laptop wallpaper right now:
I did not draw or even commission that piece. It was pre-existing. I Google searched "badass Abraham Lincoln" and it popped right up, because science fiction just loves the hell out of the Emancipator. You can see it in everything from modern, intentionally schlocky stuff like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to older, more respectable works like Philip K. Dick's We Can Build You. I once took a survey course in modern sci-fi at Portland State University. The teacher? A Lincoln biographer. A good chunk of the genre is just obsessed with the 16th president, and there's no official explanation as to why.
I have a theory, though. At his most basic metaphorical level, Lincoln is the epitome of an old-school sci-fi hero. He's almost alien in appearance: a gangly, freakishly tall, absurdly strong man in a bizarre, anachronistic uniform. He came from humble beginnings to play a vital role in a tragic war between factions of a torn superpower. Even the "bad guys" he fought were in favor of something as basely, immediately evil as slavery. That's a huge fallback in science fiction. If you want instant shorthand for your villains, have somebody toss off that they're "slavers" and not another word needs to be said before your heroes can start gleefully mowing them down. If you grabbed a biography of Lincoln and replaced all instances of "the South" with "Kloggian Nebula," and "ratified" with "laser-blasted," you'd have a pretty epic space opera. Hell, it's all right there in his nickname:
The Great Emancipator.
That's an epithet that belongs on a giant, holo-chainsaw swingin' battlemech if I've ever heard one.
Source"Fourscore and seven Kloggian slave raids ago, our cyber-fathers brought forth on this moon a new nation, conceived in blood ...
Once you realize this particular trope, you'll either start to see presidential history as a thrilling historical predecessor to Star Wars, or else you'll start falling asleep to Firefly like it's a Ken Burns documentary.
But you know what you won't fall asleep to? My fucking book!
Oof, Jesus. Just buy it already so I can start respecting myself again.
You can buy Robert's other book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Or you can just buy his book. He will give you safe passage in the Wasteland. Just buy his book and there will be an end to the horror.
For more sci-fi from Brockway, check out Choose Your Own Drug-Fueled Misadventure: Flight of Terror and 5 Real Ways to Get High Straight Out of Science Fiction.