What are the new circumstances - and how might we react to them?
That's a question that the best of science fiction tackles - the best in the old genre traditions dating back to the thirties and before. And happily, last week.
Due to a chain of coincidence stretching back years, I've come into temporary possession of an advance copy of something called Custer's Last Jump and other collaborations by a fellow named Howard Waldrop. This novelist and short story writer has, as is the fashion among some in this business, done projects with others in addition to alone, and the stories here originate from very recently to up to 25 years ago. For background, he thoughtfully gives space to the collaborators for an afterword as well as to himself for a forward, thus building an explanatory package for each piece. I've never met Howard Waldrop but two of his collaborators (via certain obscure fan groups) I do know: Joe Pumilia (unanthologised here but mentioned repeatedly) I know from his Lovecraft parodies with Bill Wallace from as far back as the 1970's - and a NASA subcontractor named Al Jackson. Waldrop and Pumilia are primarily writers; Jackson is, to paraphrase Waldrop, a wearer of T-shirts that say "Rocket Scientist" who can actually back it up. The existence of the book in question, its assembly by a roundup of quite unusual suspects (some Hugo and Nebula nominees and winners) and the events surrounding its construction form an example of what's kept me interested in SF: that there's a cross-pollination between fictional situation construction (writing) and the Real Deal data (science) that, when it occurs, creates milestone stories. Put those high-point tales together with their imitators and you have a genre.
It's happened again. And again. Take the alternate history angle, an example of which would be Mackinley Kantor's If The South Had Won The Civil War. Add a few flip-flops in the order of scientific discovery and you get Waldrop and Steve Utley's Custer's Last Jump, in which the same personalities of the relevant period have a different technological background against which to act out their parts on the world stage. Utley/Waldrop shuffles the deck of innovations arriving over, say, a 40-year period and such results emerge as
-the existence of rudimentary airplanes and dirigibles at the outbreak of the civil war
-the continuation of Indian nation pacification efforts regardless of whatever else happened
- the possible residual effect of an Indian alliance with the Confederacy against the Union forces
and you get a story of well-known historical struggles being played out in an environment of balloon-based paratroops and Crazy Horse having the chance to get hold of electrically-fired Sharpes repeaters stuck on the wingtips of something like an Avro...
Take the predictive history angle, an example of which would be the D. F. Jones novel Colossus, regarding a single computer entrusted with all national defense functions - which upon activation discovers a cold-war-era analogous machine on the "other side". Recall that the grand SF idea (at least as understood by me above) is that you take a known capability or group of them and try to see the outcome of the potential uses of said capability. If we can do X, what will it mean in the end? The Jackson collaboration, fueled by Al's life of empirical discovery, produced the problem of a robotic probe's realization of its own death (due to an unforeseen nova to which it got too close). Given the capacity for independent goal-directed action on the part of the probe, what solutions might it try to come up with on its OWN? And what if the solution involved the cannibalization of its own resources?
I use the Kantor and the Jones precedents not because of actual similarities but because I'm grasping at anything with which to draw comparisons. I can't actually say the stories in Waldrop's collaboration are "like" anything. They're "unlike" to the point of provoking things in me I'm not sure I've felt in a long time. Not all these provocations are pleasant; they sometimes resemble unwelcome surprises courtesy of the evening news. But we need surprises to be truly alive. Here they are.
By the evidence of Custer's Last Jump, science fiction is back. And never left, if only I'd known where to look. See, I'd wondered if SF had run its course, considering these recent years of fantasy emphasis, let alone Hollywood sequelization. I'd wondered if the people who could make the science connect with the fiction, with one foot in the real and another in the possible were no longer with us. But the difficulty of finding good literature may simply be another example of what radio people might call the "golden hits" effect - that it's easier to see the hits that have stood the test of time than it is to see a hit amongst all the dreck not yet weeded out. The good will rise to the top, but until it does we have our work cut out for us in finding the good stuff unassisted by history.
If this last is true, SF has a future; it's simply up to the reader to get back into the race and Waldrop's one of the runners that just handed us the baton.