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Bookroom Feature

April, 1999

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Styles in fiction change. Ever wondered what people will be reading in fifty years? In a hundred years? Or, while we're in wondering mode, what would Captain Jean-Luc Picard read, listen to, or look at while relaxing in his stateroom on the starship Enterprise, in star date 25095 or whenever?

Whatever it is, or however it is transmitted or displayed, I think it's a safe bet that a large proportion of it will be classifiable as SF, whether you take the acronym to mean "science fiction" or "speculative fiction", or whatever new marketing label is applied to it in that era.

For it's well to remember that science fiction is simply a marketing label, useful to readers and reviewers to locate the type of material they want to read, or view, or absorb, whether from a printed page, a video or a hologram. The genre it describes, exploring the human imagination to evolve hypothetical worlds or situations somehow modified from everyday reality, is ancient beyond the genesis of mythology.

In wide sense, it is independent of the method of transmission, beginning with traditional stories told verbally around the campfires of the Neolithic, following on through inscriptions cut into clay tablets by the Sumerians, the Egyptian inked writing on papyrus, and on through Gutenberg and Merganthaler's linotype to desktop publishing with computers and ink-jet printers.

So, although the label was introduced less than seventy years ago, the genre is part of a tradition of thought-provoking entertainment that spans the whole of recorded history. As styles in fiction and myth have changed, so have their audience, readers and/or viewers. It might be interesting to delve into the cause and effect relationships between changes in fiction and in people's lifestyles over the centuries.

Any attempt to predict the trends of tomorrow has to begin with an overview of the past, to gain, as it were, a three-dimensional view of the directions in which these trends are moving. Even the past few decades have shown small but significant differences in people's ways of thinking, when you contrast those who collect their data from newsprint with those who absorb it from TV.

Throughout history - yes, and through what we can know of pre-history - changing methods of transmitting information from one individual to another have left an identifiable mark on the thought processes of the human race.

It has been claimed recently that the most significant evolutionary step that led to the rise of the human species was not the development of the opposable thumb, vital as that was, but the modification of the mouth and tongue structures that permitted subtlety of speech, leading on to the evolution of language.

Take a look back at the clash between our ancestors, the Cro-Magnon men, and their contemporaries, the Neanderthal men, a conflict that seems to have gone on over many parts of the northern hemisphere. The most striking difference between the two species was not physical strength or brain capacity - the Neanderthaler had at least the same average amount of brain tissue as his rivals - but the vocal equipment that made it possible for the Cro-Magnon people to develop articulate speech, language.

This, evolved over countless centuries, enables each generation to pass on its accumulated wisdom to its successors, explaining how to outwit and ambush enemies, how to make a bow and arrow or a poisoned spear. Once languages were there, they became a vehicle for human imagination.

The development of printing, once it had led to the situation where the majority of the population could read, was perhaps the main factor in what some historians call the "age of enlightenment", and more recently we have seen another major shift in the transmission of information as the electronic age has leapt upon us.

There is an observable difference in the way we absorb information from the printed page, thinking it over as we read, and the way we accept pre-digested data thrown at us from a TV screen. This has to be structured so that it holds a viewer's attention firmly - I've heard a TV director say that if you lose the viewer's attention for five seconds, you've probably lost him to another channel.

The wealth of material available on TV today, with satellite transmission giving us a planet-wide range, and with modems that can put our personal computers into communication with others in California or Tokyo, the availability of data is greater and easier than at any point in history.

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You can predict future technological ramifications. Some day, the TV screen will be replaced by three-dimensional holograms in every household, perhaps with the added transmission of smells and tastes as Aldous Huxley predicted so long ago in his Brave New World. At some still later date, we may have material disseminated by some form of direct thought transfer. I know there's no definite proposal for such a facility today, but I wouldn't write off the possibility of electronically assisted telepathy in the future. Have you ever watched a large flock of flying birds turning suddenly as one individual, with no discernible leader, and no apparent auditory signal? How?

What do changes in methods of data transmission do to the viewer's absorption of material?

Think back over the most impressive stories that have stayed in your mind. Think of the ones you first saw in print, then later on film or TV. Then the ones you first encountered on the screen, and later read in a novelisation. I find a difference in the way I recall stories in the two categories. The visually presented worlds of 2001, Alien, and Total Recall stay with you unforgettably because of their impressive special effects. The characters in them, however, are somewhat less memorable.

On the other hand, the mental images I can recover from The Time Machine, the Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau are not primarily those of the films, but the ones I built up while reading the books for the first time - in the case of a couple of these, while I was still at school. When I later saw the films, a few things didn't seem to me "quite right", because the director's image varied from mine.

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So this brings us to the basic difference: In material absorbed from the printed page, the readers have more input - it is their visualisation of the scenes and characters suggested by the author that remains with them as what we might call a "pseudo memory".

The coming generation of TV will make available not hundreds of channels, but thousands, recoverable by satellite from New York, Oslo, Osake, maybe some base on the Moon or on Mars - you name it.

Only one thing I'm sure of: A big proportion of it will be some kind of SF.

Wynne Whiteford.

Originally published in the Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Fan Resource Book.

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Wynne Whiteford short stories often appear in Australian collections - especially those of Paul Collins. His books include Breathes in Space, Sapphire Road and Thor's Hammer.
Interested in SF? Use our yellow site search at left.
See also:
OZ Odyssey -- A Personal View of Science Fiction Writing from a Fan Down Under by Bruce Gillespie
Robert O'Reilly - The Man Behind Star Trek's Gowron by Ali Kayn
Science Fiction Film -- The Interesting Old Stuff by Terry Frost
Terry Pratchett -- Master of SF Humour by Ali Kayn
Anne McCaffrey -- The Lady from Dragonhold by Ali Kayn
Part of the Legacy -- an interview with Majel Barrett Roddenberry
Many science fiction authors and actors have answered the usual questions

Science Fiction Film, the interesting old stuff, by Terry Frost.
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