A valuable role for speculative fiction?

I heard a definition of “speculative fiction” as fiction, usually set in the near future, as being based on background that “might happen”. Why do that? Most certainly it is not to predict the future, because anyone who tries to do that is going to get egg on face. The first book I wrote in the future history series I am writing had a lot of back story, and one part had a protagonist walk into a museum in Kazakhstan and look at historical photos regarding the upheaval following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 2018. I had just made my first submission when that date became ridiculous. No, what I think is an important function of such speculative fiction is to alert people of the consequences of things going wrong, in the hope the problems can be averted.

Puppeteer is technically about corruption and terrorism, but it also has some important points to make about the economies in general. One such point is the price of petrol. In Puppeteer, at one point one of the protagonists fills his car with petrol, and admittedly it will be a large tank, but pays a thousand dollars. One of the other protagonists at one point cannot pay the electricity bill, despite being self-employed and having plenty of work. The reason: she works in Los Angeles installing security systems, and needs to get to jobs in a van. Until she sorted her routes out more efficiently, the cost of fuel took virtually all her cash. These are very minor parts of the story, in total less than ¼% of it, but hopefully it might get people thinking about the effects of excessively priced oil. And it will become excessively priced because there is a limit to how much is there.

Think about what the changes would involve if we do nothing. First, food prices would rise in a very spectacular way, partly because food distribution has become highly centralized. Thus a few major centers handle most of a given product, thus involving heavy transport costs.  Also, food production currently involves a lot of oil consumption, if only for driving vehicles and providing fertilizer. One way to reduce oil consumption would require people to eat locally produced food, but the quality and variation would drop significantly.

So, this is a major problem and the future is dreadful? No, that is not the way to look at it at all. I believe most of these things can be averted, but only if we get on to them now. What most citizens do not realize is how long it takes to change manufacturing to a new process. It can take up to ten years to properly develop a new chemical process, and to acquire sufficient engineering knowledge to build a reasonably large-scale plant. It then takes decades to build enough to replace the current oil infrastructure, which was built over a century. These things do not get done by themselves; we have to decide what we want our future to look like, and then make it happen, but why are we going to do that if we do not even recognize it as a problem? This is where I think literature has a role to play. Not by preaching, but by showing, it can wake up people. What do you think?

Don’t know? Then don’t explain.

In a previous blog, I asked when should one try to explain what underpins the scientific or magic devices in the story? My first attempt at an answer covered, at least part of “never”. That might seem to be something of a cop-out, and one could argue that leaving out explanations cannot help develop the plot. Nevertheless, there are times when “never” is a good idea for the author, even if not for the story. An obvious example is when there is a real explanation, but the author is not on top of it.

The purpose behind an explanation is to engage the reader. If the reader accepts what is put to them, then the explanation helps the reader to understand why the plot works, it might add colour to the story for those interested (in murder stories, quite a few people know the characteristics of arsenic now and so might recognize the symptoms before the murder becomes obvious) and in addition, it might give the reader some interesting additional information. It is even possible to convey a message, although whether it gets through is another matter. In my ebook Puppeteer, I put in an argument against hydrogen as a motor fuel by having two pieces of terrorism caused by having hydrogen pipes shot. Hydrogen is the most readily leaky fuel known, and when mixed with air in a very wide range of proportions, it is explosive. So, I used the resultant explosions as the starting point for certain thefts. I also mentioned in passing that filling a car with petrol cost a thousand dollars, which I hope conveys what everyone is looking at if society does not do something about finding replacement fuels for oil.

However, there is a very good reason for an author not to explain if he or she is not on top of whatever it is. I recall once reading a thriller by, if I recall correctly, Tom Clancy and the hero creeps up and immobilizes a guard by spraying him with, . . .  wait for it . . . dimethyl sulphoxide (DMSO). Oh dear! Anyone who knows anything about DMSO will know at once that this would annoy the guard because, amongst other things, the usual DMSO has a bit of a smell to go with it, and in any case, who wants to be sprayed with some unknown liquid? That might well encourage the guard to raise the alarm, shoot the sprayer, beat the living daylights out of the sprayer, or some combination. But whatever else it does, it will not immobilize anyone. Clancy did get one thing right: DMSO passes rapidly through the skin. Once upon a time it was used for rubbing down athletes, for muscle relaxation, but after a while that was banned because there is potential trouble with eyes with prolonged such use. Accordingly, in this world where no warning is too strong (at least to avoid the downside of litigation when someone inevitably does the most stupid thing imaginable) every now and again you see serious warnings about “don’t let this touch the skin”. So, as I said, anyone who knew anything about DMSO would get an immediate release of tension and lean back either laughing, or shaking the head. Not the desired outcome.