Friday, August 14, 2009

Hard Blink

I don't remember what triggered the topic of conversation, but somehow my brother and I ended up discussing a bit of Sci-Fi on the way home. At the top of the list, I think, was the matter of what literary elements made Science Fiction, Science Fiction... and the question of why some people would argue that some of these elements were preferable over others.

There are plenty of Sci-Fi subgenres, I would imagine. On the one hand, you have your space-opera clones involving bald starship captains and lightsaber-wielding farmboys. On another hand, you have your post-apocalyptic scenarios, usually involving ratty postal workers and people who bear an uncanny resemblance to Mel Gibson. On yet another hand, you have your slick martial-arts-and-slow-motion affairs, often involving machine code and bullet time. There's no shortage of literary elements out there, much less for Science Fiction in general.

We started out with the concept of "traditional" Science Fiction and the recent Hugo Awards argument that it caused, but we didn't get into too much discussion there. After five minutes, I think, we just agreed that we didn't have a clue as to any real distinction between "traditional" and "modern" Sci-Fi — if only because any contemporary take on the genre was likely to become dated after a few decades. "The writers can reinvent the genre all they want," I remember saying, "but that sort of creativity does little against the possibility that someone might grant the 'old-fashioned' label to their work in the future."

Fortunately, we pushed forward into more interesting territory: What would it take, for example, for a contemporary Science Fiction story to be considered "cutting-edge"? I mean, over the last thirty years, we've covered such things as (*deep breath*) aliens, robots, space exploration, extra-terrestrial locations, weapons, war, love, transportation, games, cyberspace, virtual reality, cybernetics, apocalypsis, morals, genetics, humanity, cloning, replication, temporal manipulation, religion, the human psyche, divination, oppression, guardianship, life and death... to say little of any other theme or scrap of a technological future that was written down by some fevered mind somewhere.

The best we could offer was that "cutting-edge" Science Fiction involved using a new element in there somewhere, perhaps something that hasn't seen much of the light of readership yet. In a sense, the genre has to resemble a lot of other genres in their race to constantly reinvent themselves. At the very least, it's certainly hard to define — if I knew what it was that gave the "newness" to any short story, then I'd have the Hugo Awards committee licking my boots right now.

I did point out, however, that for a genre that offers tangible benefits to technological progress, the Science Fiction genre doesn't seem to be concentrating on this aspect. Sci-Fi, after all, was a contributing factor towards such fields as Internet Technology, Artificial Intelligence, and Cybernetics... but the modern efforts seem to be lighter on 'practical use' and heavier on 'cool concept'. After all, what did the concept of bullet time ever do for the real world?

I remember holding onto one concept that I've never been able to work into a successful story, and that's the idea of the neural implant. In case you don't grasp its implications just yet, that's the idea of having a computer grafted onto your living brain; maybe it's a chip that's attached to the front of your temporal lobe, and maybe it's a mechanism hooked up to the base of your skull. It's made the rounds before — most notably in Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell writings — but I can't seem to let go of it as a strangely practical idea, one that we might see within our lifetimes.

My brother was surprised at how far I had considered the idea. For starters, I felt that a convenient interface was possible. Imagine seeing your normal field of vision as a 'screen' of sorts, possibly through some transparent film implanted on the insides of your corneas. From there, you would be able to view information, communicate to people, and possibly issue commands to external implements. You could get a nice weather report the moment you woke up each morning... or perhaps turn on the coffeemaker from across the room.

"The problem with that," my sibling pointed out, "is that you'd get information overload."

"Not when you have a way to turn the interface on and off as needed," I countered. The best I came up with was the concept of a 'hard blink' — a very fast double-blink not unlike double-clicking a computer mouse; it was a little awkward but certainly possible.

It's a strange dream, of course, but I'm aware of at least a couple of developments in that direction. There are some research laboratories, for example, that will implant little identification chips under the skin of your arm so that the security facilities at your building can automatically identify you as you walk in. It's not too far a cry from those security cards and fingerprint scanners that seem to close off a lot of our offices nowadays.

And then there's the macabre practice of implanting similar identification chips into our pets (as well as inanimate personal belongings), so that they we can hypothetically find them if they ever get lost. Those are stories, I think, that people really can't make up... but in hindsight, perhaps we should have.

I have to admit that I'm not too well-versed in the debate between "traditional" Science Fiction and "contemporary" Science Fiction, but as opposed to searching for the concepts that would satisfy one or the other, there's also the possibility of looking for "practical" Science Fiction. It would be like having the same interesting concepts, I imagine, only with the implication that we might actually be wearing them one day.

But then again, I'm obviously not the best authority on this subject — I have yet to write something practical when it comes to Sci-Fi, for instance.

I would be interested to see if anyone somehow takes the idea and runs with it, though. That, and I'd probably buy the book, too.

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