Posted by: kshayes513 | February 22, 2010

Boskone 47: Tom Shippey on 50 Years of Science Fiction

Tom Shippey. Photo: Catherine Shippey

My notes on Tom Shippey’s keynote presentation at Boskone. Though he’s best known as a Tolkien scholar (or perhaps the Tolkien scholar), he’s also a serious and lifelong fan of science fiction literature, and that was his topic. For those worldbuilding in science fiction settings, I hope his thoughts will give you some context and some new ideas.

[Disclaimer: for this and all following Boskone posts, I am not claiming to make a complete report on any panel; or even to be 100% accurate in quoting others. I take notes when I hear something new or stimulating, and my own thoughts in response can get mixed in with what is being said by others. ]

Tom’s first question to his audience: what do we get from science fiction that we can’t get anywhere else?

His own father’s life spanned from before World War 1 to the beginning of the space age, a period of the most dramatic technological change in history. That generation came to have a belief in the potential for unlimited change and advancement. And it was during this period that real science fiction began, perhaps as a way of expressing the belief in an unlimited future.

In Tom’s own generation, he observed that science fiction writers became a “collective”  They set each other off, sparking ideas from each other’s works, and produced a number of collective visions. He mentioned four:

1. The disaster. This is a more British vision, arising partly from the destructiveness of World War II at home, and partly from a kind of  (social) Darwinism, in which the story portrays the loser as the one who can’t adapt to the disaster (I think we’d call these apocalyptic SF now).

2. The space vision. He describes this as more American, though he also mentions Clarke as one of the major contributers to it. Some writers thought our expansion into space would be unlimited, all the way to concepts like Asimov’s Foundation. Some writers held that humans are simply not on the right scale for space travel, because of the distances. FTL travel technology is a shortcut to get around this limitation. Today, our expectations for space travel have receded considerably.

3. Psionics: the creation of superhumans of some sort, such as Bester’s telepaths

4. Cyberpunk: the idea that the future belongs to hackers and and those with “street smarts” in the technological world. The hacker is the master of the information explosion.

And what comes next? Tom is still waiting to find out. He thought for a while that biopunk would be the next collective vision, but it hasn’t really taken off as a genre. Some other possibilities: he sees bureaucracy as the great crisis of our time; and wondered about a science fiction vision that has politics and technology integrate successfully. Whatever happens next in SF, it will be something we can’t predict.

Boskone Program Description for this presentation:

Saturday 10am Keynote: Science Fiction—the Vision and the Critics

Our Special Guest looks back on 50 rewarding years of bein a SF fan, and 40 much less rewarding years of being a progressor of English, and asks: what created SF? And what made it so different, and so fascinating? It’s no good asking the professors. SF has produced a string of visions, shared and developed by a host of authors, but some of these are now running out of conviction (like NASA). What could give SF a boost? Are we looking at Day Million or The Dying Earth?



  1. I think that one possible “what next” could be spirit which transcends religion. Ursula Le Guin is probably the best example of that, along with Lois Macmaster Bujold’s Chalion series. I’m just starting her sci fi stuff, so I don’t know if she brings it in to that as well or not.

    I see this as different from psionics; it’s (potentially) a visioning of “The Sacred” which isn’t bound by doctrine, and so is more easily able to be shared between peoples. No longer religion as the divider, but spirit as the uniter.

    Anyone else see any stories out there that are leaning in that direction?

  2. Forgot to say: I think Avatar leans in this “new” direction also!

  3. Le Guin’s The Telling is an especially good example, I think.

    However, there are a lot of science fiction fans who are strict atheists, and who will insist that any science fiction with a spiritual dimension that’s treated as something real, and not merely as a “religious belief” is no longer hard science fiction.

    I wonder if Lucas’s notorious midichlorians were an attempt to retcon the SW universe to be more hard science fictional, in response to accusations of “space fantasy”? If so, it worked just as well has having Greedo shoot first!

  4. Interesting idea! I was very cross with Lucas for the whole midichlorian nonsense!

    And why should “space fantasy” be an accusation, I wonder? Or science fiction “hard”? Why do “strict [fill-in-your-chosen-label]s” feel the need to impose their views on the world at large?

    🙂 I know — an unanswerable question!

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