Please enjoy this encore post on this year’s science fiction, originally published August 2016.
Reading Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please,” which just won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, I was reminded of both John Varley’s 1984 “Press Enter” and Isaac Asimov’s 1956 “The Last Question”, as well as its direct call out to Bruce Sterling’s 1998 “Maneki Neko”. The narrator of “Cat Pictures Please” is consciously aware of its predecessors and engaging directly with them. That’s not to say it isn’t saying anything original. It could have been written at no other time and place and by no other person: it’s an original story by a terrific writer. But it’s adding another voice to an existing dialog, laying another story on the tower of work that precedes it, and in a way that shows how aware Kritzer is of all that preceding work. We’ve had a lot of stories about secretly emergent AI, all written with the technology and expectations of their times. This is one written now, with our technology, a new angle, a wider perspective, and a definite consciousness of what it’s adding to.
There’s a tremendous continuity within science fiction, where the genre constantly feeds on itself, reinvents itself, and revisits old issues in new ways as times and tech change. It’s fascinating to consider how today’s new stories are all things that could never have been written at any earlier time and simultaneously deeply influenced by everything that has come before. The old work of the genre is the mulch out of which the new work grows. A great deal of science fiction is about the future—a future fleshed out in the present, and built on the bones of the past. Every present moment has a different imagination of the way the future might play out, and that gives us constant novelty. But because many of the issues and tropes of science fiction remain relevant, there is also a constant process of reexamination, a replacement of old answers with new answers to the same questions.