“The future is there,” Cayce hears herself say, “looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become. And from where they are, the past behind us will look nothing at all like the past we imagine behind us now.”
–William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
“This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”
–Bruce Sterling, “Slipstream”, SF Eye #5, July 1989
I first read William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition almost a year ago, after a long hiatus from his work. I’ve long loved his books, but went through the kind of distance that time and life just sometimes put between a reader and an author. Pattern Recognition was the return, and I went into it cold, knowing nothing about it except for the author–an experience that I always find somewhat refreshingly like exploring a dark, richly appointed room with a small flashlight.
And then something rather interesting happened. The book contains a description of the memories that the protagonist retains of the events of September 11, 2001, and as I read, I experienced a curious kind of vertigo–something that I have since come to understand as the mirror-hallway perception of reading a fictionalized account of a real event in my own memory, remembered as past in a near-future context. In that moment, what I experienced as vertigo was the collapsing of a number of categories–past, present, and future, fiction and non-fiction, myself and other. It should be noted that Pattern Recognition is not actually set in the future; nevertheless, I processed it that way at the time because of how I’m used to reading Gibson. But that’s not the only reason for the vertigo. It was an intense case, but in fact this implosion of metaphysical categories is one of the things that speculative fiction (SF) essentially does.
A word about Gibson–After his quintessential cyberpunk Sprawl trilogy and the more subtle near-future of his Bridge trilogy, he has moved into the fuzzy present-day world of Pattern Recognition and the subsequent books Spook Country and Zero History; this is generally recognized to be because the technology-soaked world of the previous books has, in fact, arrived. But I think, even more, it’s because writing about the future can no longer happen in the same way that it could in the earlier days of SF–because we now perceive time differently and more fluidly. As critic John Clute says, “the old SF…is no longer possible in a world lacking coherent “nows” to continue from.”
The divided categories of time have no intrinsic meaning aside from that which we give them through our perceptions of them–through our stories about them. We understand the past, the present, and the future each in reference to each other. How we remember the past changes based on our perception of the present and our imagining of the future. How we imagine the future changes based on our perception of the present and our memory of the past . How we perceive the present is colored by our memory of what’s gone before and our imagination of what might be still to come. All three are then functions of each other, changing in response to each other. All three are constantly imploding into each other, moving as time itself seems to move, shifting as our situated perceptions shift, meanings changing as our processes of meaning-making change. And the divisions between the three are not hard or clear. Indeed, they may essentially be illusory.
One could argue that the blurring of the lines between these categories has been going on for as long as there have been categories and lines to blur. What is new, I argue, is the speed and the intensity of the effect, which are products of pervasiveness. Nathan Jurgenson has presented one aspect of this kind of blurring in his discussion on this blog of the faux-vintage photograph. Social media and the myriad forms of documentation that come with it–as well as the ease of dissemination of these documents–”increasingly force us to view our present as always a potential documented past.” We see the present from a fractured, kaleidoscopic viewpoint: present as future-remembered past. Once we remembered the past, inhabited the present, and imagined the future. Now, increasingly, we inhabit all three simultaneously. In his discussion of the effects of network culture on our perception of time, Bruce Sterling refers to this phenomenon “atemporality”–the loss of a single authoritative source for the narratives with which we identify and define the passage of time, and the desituation of our narratives in what we perceive of as linear time.
The question at which we now arrive is the question with which Gibson himself seems to have been faced: If traditional science fiction tells stories through an imagined future, how does one tell those stories in a vital and sensible way when the boundaries between past, present, and future are constantly eroding?
The answer that Gibson seems to have hit upon–and the answer to which other authors seem to be looking as well–is to do away with the tradition, and with it, the constraints of temporal setting. Gibson’s current work maintains the sensibilities and the flavor of science fiction, but his stories are set in the present, and are about the present–in a present so nebulous that it could pass for recent past or near future, or some parallel universe. His fiction reflects atemporality. It embraces the blurring of the lines.
This is in fact something that Gibson–and many other authors–have known and have worked with for a while: the idea that science fiction doesn’t necessarily have to be about the future. But I think it’s worth emphasizing at this point: we have an opportunity to embrace, as temporal boundaries continue to erode, a way of telling stories in and with and through time in a manner that matches what we’re experiencing every day. SF at its best was only ever a kind of modern mythology, a way of telling stories about ourselves, explaining ourselves, to ourselves–a way of exploring the mundane through the fantastic. But now the fantastic is here, and it is itself mundane. We live it. In essence, as everything becomes more fluid and less certain, we live in a constant state of speculation.
I don’t say that there’s no longer any place for spaceships or aliens or tales of the distant future. We don’t have to stop what we were doing before. But I think we have have expanded the bounds of what we can do, of the kinds of stories that we can tell and the ways in which we understand those stories–and I see that trend continuing in the future. “Slipstream” fiction, which is arguably a fairly old literary phenomenon, continues to make a place for itself as an interstitial blend of the scientific and the fantastic, a repository for what we discover as strange and weird in the everyday–which, as a list, is probably growing. It’s increasingly what I find myself writing, and what I find speaking to me. I’m almost certainly not alone.
But who cares what kinds of stories we tell? Well, I proceed–in almost everything I do–from the basic assumption that stories matter. If we want to understand ourselves, we need to understand our own stories. But more than that, SF is fundamentally a sociological genre in a way that most other narratives are not; it is the genre of the thought experiment, and really more of an ongoing conversation than a genre in the strictest sense. Because of the ways in which it allows writers to play with the parameters of both world physics and social organization, it can serve as a kind of sociological idea-lab, a way for us to do theoretical work that would otherwise be impossible.
And in this, we come to the final boundary, and one whose erosion excites me a great deal: the boundary between the fictional and the real. Many writers on this blog have described “the implosion of atoms and bits”, and I think it shouldn’t escape notice that for people who buy into digital dualism, the digital, in being held separate from the “real”, presents itself as a kind of fiction. But many of us say that this is incorrect, that the digital and the physical are increasingly intermeshed, that reality itself must be understood as “augmented”. What I see, what I experienced in reading the passage in Pattern Recognition that I described at the beginning of this post, was and is another kind of augmented reality, in which my own experience and someone else’s story became as intermeshed as I am with technology.
When we document our lives for and with social media, this is a kind of narrative; we’re telling a story. The ways in which we tell our stories affect the kinds of stories we tell, and this in turn affects how we view ourselves, our own intersection of biography and history–two other stories, one small and one considerably larger. We are entering a period wherein the stories we tell and are told are becoming atemporal. This has dramatic implications for the ways in which we both write fiction and do sociological work–both of which I do. And I am finding less and less meaningful distinction between the two.
I could talk (much) more about why stories and narratives matter and why we, as social theorists, need to be paying attention to them. But I want to close instead with a quote from author Dennis Danvers, in his own discussion of Pattern Recognition, because I think he wraps things up more neatly than I could at this point:
Science fiction, in effect, has become a narrative strategy, a way of approaching story, in which not only characters must be invented, but the world and its ways as well…A science fiction writer must invent the world where the story takes place, often from the ground up, a process usually called world-building. In other words, in a science fiction novel, the world itself is a distinctive and crucial character in the plot, without whom the story could not take place, whether it’s the world of Dune or Neuromancer or 1984. The world is the story as much as the story is in the world. Part of Gibson’s point…is that we live in a time of such accelerated change and layered realities, that we’re all in that boat, like it or not. A novel set in the “real world” now has to answer the question, “Which one?”
Sunny Moraine is a graduate student and writer who has published short stories in Strange Horizons, Icarus, and M-Brane SF, among many other places. Her work of erotic cyberpunk, “Wetwire”, will be featured in the anthology Agony/Ecstasy, coming in December from Berkley Books. She has co-written one novel for which she is looking for a publisher, and is working on a second. Her life is a trick of light.