I’ve been reading a lot less fiction these days. Books about reality have gotten more interesting. Or maybe my tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older. Or maybe the world has gotten scary enough that we don’t need horror novels to give us a thrill any more. In fact, the sorts of fiction that always fascinated me in the past have, today, come true.
Today’s Internet, with its MMORPGs and virtual economies and cyber-warfare, is more strange and fascinating than anything William Gibson predicted in the 1980s. If you disagree, you know nothing about piloting predator drones from halfway around the world.
Likewise, the heroes and villains of cyberspace show complexities and transformations that a novelist would be hard-pressed to invent. It’s strange to find yourself rooting for an identity fraudster even as he’s draining your accounts.
Let’s think about the other side of the speculative-fiction spectrum: Fantasy. You’ve got knights, you’ve got pirates, you’ve got wizards. All right, fine. But how many of those pooftas could actually found a colony in a nation of “savages?” And how many novels could convey the desperate tragedy involved in such a triumph?
The Wordy Shipmates does a nice job, too, of treating with the complex and gloomy world-view of Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Puritans. And for such gloomy subjects, they’re treated with a great deal of humor.
Here’s something that gets at the darker side of one of our newly beloved (or loathed—pick your side) folk-heroes:
Julian Assange—who knew he could be a real dick to his friends? Well, his friends know, apparently. But that hair, that style, that reckless abandon…I’m still inclined to like him, even if I wouldn’t invite him to my house.
All right, let’s finish this survey off with an optimist who thinks the future is going to be indistinguishable from magic.
No, not Arthur Clarke, who actually coined that term, but a real live physicist who starts his book by saying we can find hints about the future by talking to real scientists instead of science fiction writers, and then cites Vernor Vinge regarding artificial intelligence and Isaac Asimov on robots, and winds it all up with potential doorways into parallel universes.
All of this has me wondering. Do we really need to escape into fantasy and the supernatural to tell meaningful stories and to entertain? Is there not enough wonder in the real world to enchant the reader? Or is it, perhaps, that the real world is so overwhelmingly wondrous (not to mention monstrous) that "nonfiction" fulfills the role even better? Wired and Scientific American seem to contain more miracles than the average mind can comprehend, and the newsstand prints more drama and conflict than you can get out of a season of high-octane TV.