Jamie Todd Rubin: “All Major Changes…”

Jamie Todd Rubin name drops some great writers, and (@jamietr on twitter) tackles the stories we love, and the formats we read in. Jamie loves the classics, which gives his thoughts on the igniting ebook market special weight.

“All major changes are like death. You can’t see to the other side until you’re there.”
Dr. Ian Malcom, Michael Chricton’s Jurassic Park.

I like this quote … because it applies to science fiction as a literature as much as anything else. There is a myth that has clung to science fiction since the Golden Age that science fiction stories attempt to predict the future.

Look around and you’ll see people asking, “If science fiction is such a good predictor, how could it have missed the Internet?” Or: “Why didn’t science fiction predict that we’d go to the moon, and then give up on human spaceflight?” The fact is that science fiction does not try to predict the future.

The reason is embedded in the quote above: “you can’t see to the other side until you’re there.” Science fiction writers are not prognosticators. We are explorers, constantly asking, “what if?” We explore possible futures and possible outcomes, but we’re never able to see the other side until we are there.

On occasion, we make good guesses. Isaac Asimov’s first story in Astounding, “Trends” (July 1939) “predicted” popular opposition to the space program, something we saw during Apollo and the Vietnam War, and something that occasionally arises today. Will Jenkins’ (Murray Leinster’s) “A Logic Named Joe” (Astounding, March 1946) posits something like the Internet.

But these were guesses, not predictions. These were explorations, what ifs, thought experiments dressed up in good story-telling. Stories today attempt similar ends: what will happen to people caught up in a severe climate event? What will a post-singularity world look like? We can guess, but we can’t know until we are there.

I like this quote for a second reason: it well describes the situation we now face with the rise of e-books and e-readers. Some people are predicting an end to books. We’ve already seen a major bookstore chain collapse. And the publishing industry is frantically looking for how to deal with the sudden and sweeping changes brought on by technology. I find it amusing the degree of certainty with which some people predict an outcome to all of this.

“All major changes are like death. You can’t see the other side until you’re there.”

It holds true for the changes publishing is experiencing today. We can make predictions, but we are guessing. Some people will guess correctly and look like true thought leaders within electronic publishing. I make my own guesses as well: the form changes but the words stay the same. Shakespeare is still Shakespeare when read on a Kindle. Robert J. Saywer reads just as well on an iPad as he does in hardcover.

There will always be people who have a fondness for paper books, just as those of us old enough to remember still sometimes yearn for vinyl. There is nothing wrong with that. We have the weight of centuries of paper pressing down upon our cultural awareness like some external genetic force.

In the end, stories will still be told. Maybe we’ll read them, maybe we’ll listen to them, maybe we’ll experience them transmitted directly into our brains, a la, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick. We won’t know for sure until we’re on the other side.

Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Apex Magazine & Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show. He writes the Wayward Time Traveler column for SF Signal. If By Reason of Strength has been released as an e-book through 40K Books. Jamie vacations frequently in the Golden Age of science fiction.

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