Saturday, February 13, 2021

Science Fiction: Where's Your Suspension of Tech Disbelief Dividing Line?

I've been re-reading some older science fiction, fantasy, and space opera lately, and realizing that at some point since the first time around I've come into a diminished capacity for suspension of disbelief.

I know why it is. I'm reading stuff that was written before the modern microcomputer and modern computer networks entered the public consciousness. And the first time I read most of this stuff was in the early days of home computing (mostly before I ever got to touch a microcomputer myself) and well before the general public got access to the email, the World Wide Web, etc.

Even somewhat later, I was working in factories that weren't that computerized yet, and that to the extent they were computerized there were still lots of switches and lights rather than mouses and monitors. So I could relate, at least a little bit, to (for example) E.E. Doc Smith's Lensman stories. The human/machine interface was familiar, no matter how gussied up as "futuristic" the device's ultimate function might be might be.

These days, all that stuff is ubiquitous and used for everything, so a description of a guy piloting a spaceship (or, in what I'm re-reading right now -- Fritz Leiber's The Big Time -- a time portal) by manipulating levers, flicking switches, and looking at blinking lights and so forth just doesn't work like it did back in the '70s and '80s. At least for some stuff.

If I had to pick a "dividing line" novel for this problem, I'd pick Neuromancer, which was published in 1984 but which I probably didn't read until a couple of years later. William Gibson's "cyberspace" doesn't look that much like ours, but the resemblance is close enough to work (in part because ours was probably shaped to a degree by his). I know there were writers moving in that direction before Gibson, but that's when I remember my own mental paradigm shift taking place with respect to stories.

Basically, re-reading the old stuff, I'm having to re-consider its universes as alternate universes rather than potential future timeline of ours. Or, alternatively, consider the possibility that some future revolution (like the Butlerian Jihad in the Dune universe) takes us back to levers and blinking lights or whatever. Which is fine. It just takes some work in some cases (for whatever reason, 1984 is an exception, perhaps because I had already moved it into "alternate universe" category due to having first read it in 1983 and seeing that things obviously weren't going to map 100% in real life).

I suspect this is going to be an ongoing problem for science fiction. I enjoy the Syfy/Amazon show The Expanse very much, but in it, people are controlling ships with, pretty much, iPads and touch-screen PCs. I suspect that 40 years from now that's going to look laughably primitive to audiences who decide to binge on classic early-21st century sci-fi television.

Do you have any bothersome dividing lines of this sort? Any old stuff that just doesn't work for you like it used to because tech has moved on?

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