Sunday, December 18, 2005

Evangelical Science Fiction

Much has been blogged about Gregory Benford and Darrell Schweitzer's post What Does the Rise of Fantasy Mean? since I read it last week, began a response, and was generally distracted from completing and posting by the minutia of everyday life. Not surprisingly, John Scalzi chimes in with a very considered and articulate opinion, and Hal Duncan's response is well worth the time.

Generalizing horribly, Benford decries the market share fantasy has won over science fiction, and announces he's going on a temporary haitus from writing any more novels while he writes nonfiction articles in support of science and science fiction. Schweitzer counters that a better answer to the problem might be to write better books, producing another Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land that can be the phenomenon that Harry Potter, American Gods or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was. John Scalzi argues in favor of more entry-level science fiction, as well as respect inside genre for those who would write such, and Hal Duncan enumerates a half-dozen different categories of science fiction and suggest individual points of entry for each category.

I don't have an argument with any of their responses - who can argue against more good books actively reaching out to more readers. But it was some of the comments these comments drew that fascinated me, and dovetailed with something I've been considering lately.

Now, first, I was surprised by how much ire Greg Benford drew down by daring to decry fantasy. Benford is definitely a member of the "true believer" core of the genre, for whom the "science" of science fiction is an important aspect, and sees the rise of fantasy as indicative of problems inherent in contemporary American culture. In fairness to Benford, we are not exactly living under a science-sympathetic administration at present. And the concerns Greg outlines for the future of Western civilization are very real, as recounted in Thomas L. Friedman's The World is Flat. (Side note: I'm not a xenophobe - if India and China are poised to take the lead, more power to them! What is bad for America is not necessarily bad for the world or humanity at large. And I will be thrilled if China's space program takes off, since somebody should be going and we sure aren't.) As Gardner Dozois writes in the introduction to Galileo's Children: Tales of Science vs. Superstition, "The battle of science against superstition is still going on, as is the battle to not have to think only what somebody else thinks is okay for you to think. In fact, in a society where more people believe in angels than believe in evolution, that battle may be more critical than ever. One of the major battlefields of that war is science fiction, one of the few forms of literature where rationality, skepticism, the knowledge of the inevitability of change, and the idea that wide-ranging freedom of thought and unfettered imagination and curiosity are good things are the default positions, taken for granted by most of its authors."

But what I see as far more damaging than the rise of fantasy is the rise of media tie-in works. The previously cited American Gods is a brilliant and thought-provoking work, and my personal favorite novel published the year it debuted. But that Forgotten Realms novels consistently outsell the real stuff by a factor of five-to-one is a cause for true concern. Especially given the quality of those books! (And yes, I've dabbled enough to know whereof I speak.)

In my view, it's all about narrative complexity and whether the speculative material you read (whether SF or F) serves to turn your brain on or turn it off. See Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. It's similar to Neal Stephenson's division between "vegging out" and "geeking out." The gist of it is that the complexity of the medium may be more important than the message it conveys.

And I agree with Darrell that the challenge is for science fiction to write that compelling novel, not throw in the towel. The solution is to compete not retreat. For my money, (and - disclaimer time- I publish him over here, but I've been saying this for two years before Pyr was even a possibility so I can still say it with integrity), John Meaney's Nulapeiron Sequence (Paradox, Context, Resolution) is that novel, combining all the swashbuckling adventure of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, and the world-building and scope of Dune, with some marvelous hard SF extrapolations and a real sense-o-wonder. As Paul Goat Allen writes in B&N's Explorations newsletter, "Science fiction fans looking for the next big genre classic need look no further than the Nulapeiron Sequence, a highly cerebral sci-fi trilogy by British author John Meaney that has been (deservedly) compared to Frank Herbert's epic masterwork, Dune... Meaney's Nulapeiron Sequence (Paradox, Context, and the forthcoming Resolution) is a landmark work for multiple reasons: 1) Unparalleled world building: The world of Nulapeiron is one of the most vividly described and utterly unique realms ever imagined in the history of science fiction; 2) Plot density: Like Nulapeiron's multi-leveled society, the story of Tom Corcorigan has innumerable layers, dozens of secondary themes, and subplots; and 3) Readability: Fans of hard science fiction will not be able to put this sweeping and thought-provoking saga down. Although there are no sandworms or spice on Nulapeiron, readers will inevitably compare this unforgettable epic with Frank Herbert's classic."

But leaving shameless plugs aside (and hey, I had to leave off Paul's wonderful quote on the back of our edition of Resolution's jacket earlier today, so please don't fault me for wanting to work it in somewhere), what this whole debate has me really thinking about is whether science fiction should be accessible to a large mainstream audience in the first place. There's a very interesting comment posted in response to Scalzi's take by someone called Kyeikki which says:

I don't think the problem's lack of outreach. If I had to guess - and it's only a guess - I'd say the problem was religion.

Most modern hard SF assumes a philosophy of atheistic materialism, and it's generally unfriendly to Christianity and other theistic religions. (This comes through fairly strongly in the Benford/Schweitzer article.) There are some authors who don't fit this trend, but it's the dominant trend all the same.

Now, last time I checked, the USA was about 80% monotheistic, 10% atheistic, and 10% other. So if you write a novel intended exclusively for atheists, you're excluding around 90% of the population. So it shouldn't really be all that surprising if it doesn't turn into a bestseller.

Soft SF and space opera generally isn't as strongly atheistic, and fantasy isn't atheistic at all. And they're all very popular. I think that's a big part of the reason why. Star Wars would never have been a success without the Force, and no-one would read Robert Jordan's novels if it wasn't for the upcoming battle with the Dark One.

People do pick up on these things. Your average guy in the street might not be able to spell "atheistic materialism" but he can figure out pretty well if the philosophy and beliefs behind a book are basically friendly or basically hostile to his own - and it has a huge effect on what he's going to buy.

Of course if your number one priority is to keep the faith - as I think Benford's is - then it's not really a problem. But if you want people to buy your stuff, then you have to consider your audience, too.

Now, I'm in that 10% "other" category, and earlier this week, I was mulling over how the forefathers of science fiction, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, were aetheists and rationalists, whereas the 20th century's most famous fantasicts, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, were both Christians. Even the most-celebrated science fiction work to approach religion, the aforementioned Dune, does so in a scientific context. In this case (as in the case of the Matrix), a religion has been engineered by a powerful, technical elite as a means of control, and the self-fulfilling prophecy they've orchestrated ends up becoming a tiger by the tail which turns and bites them on their respective asses. But the religion is an emergent property of the pre-orchestrated farce, which may hint at powerful forces in the collective unconscious, but certainly is a far cry from the theophanies prevelant in a lot of popular fantasy.

I think Kyeikki has nailed an important barrier to mainstream acceptance that few others are examining - my only quibble being that I don't see accomodating the mainstream in this area as a positive thing. Which brings me back to Benford and true believers of a different sort. As someone who grew up in a much deeper south than even the region is today, it was exposure to science fiction that had a direct and measurable influence on deprogramming me from the prejudices and ignorance prevalent in a lot of my immediate childhood environment. I grew up around Christians who believed in a seven day creation, preached the reality of Hell and Judgement, and railed against the lie that was evolution. They were also, for the most part, racists and homophobes. They told jokes using the N-word, would never date a minority or someone who had, and generally represented a host of values I find base and inexcusable. And the only difference between them and me was that I had a father who shoved a science fiction paperback into my pre-teen hands and ordered me to read it. After all, it's pretty hard to be prejudice against blacks and gays when you're a-okay with Klingons and the Green Men of Mars.

Gardner Dozois has pointed out elsewhere that science fiction really began with Charles Darwin, with the notion of evolution, geological time, and the concept that there was a future that would continue for long enough to be potentially different from the now. Pre-Darwin, the world hadn't been around for more than a few thousand years, and was probably going to end in the next hundred or so, so how could you have anything like off-world colonies, alien species, or a future radically different from the present? Post-Darwin, there was no one running the show and no guarantee that the engines that ran the world wouldn't shake us off and carry on without us.

Now, I know that there are a lot more interpretations of Christianity than just the Fundamentalist angles, and also that there are some very fine writers of science fiction who happen to hold religious convictions (Louise Marley and Paul Cornell being good examples as well as friends). Furthermore, Charles Stross and others have pointed out how the Singularity, the "rapture of the nerds" may just be an eschatological wish expressing itself inside of supposedly scientific rationalism. And yes, I applaud the efforts of Christians like Jim Wallis, whose God's Politics: Why the Right gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It seeks to wrestle morality back from the religious right.

But, as a wise man once said, "A tree is known by its fruit," and I don't see a lot coming out of a very large segment of Christianity that I can condone or support. And I do see some very serious trends in contemporary America being driven by a certain segment of the population, trends which have very real, and in my mind, very negative consequences. Now I don't feel like pandering to their practicioners one iota. Quite the opposite. And one small but very real way I know to combat their evil is to open people's minds, and one way to do this is down a path of which I have direct personal experience: to expose them to ideas through fiction. And science fiction is the fiction of ideas. It's entertainment, but not just entertainment to me.

So there I've said it. Maybe I'm a true believer too when everything is said and done; and while my definition of science fiction may be broader and my solution somewhat different, ultimately I can't fault Gregory Benford for raising the issue in the way that he has. And I think his nay-sayers should cut him some slack. He's certainly generated quite a bit of food for thought, and that's the best kind of food there is for my money.


A.R.Yngve said...

People are funny about religion.

Many pundits today say that without religion, people will inevitably sink into selfish nihilism and apathy, and society will break down.

But: history is littered with countless dead cultures which were absolutely, dead-serious convinced that mankind would perish unless human blood was offered to Quetzalcoatl, unless blood sacrifice was offered to Thor and Odin, unless astrologers augured the divine whims from the positions of stars and planets.

In other words, religions come and go. But always, some notion about a god or gods is with us. Even the not-so-religious or agnostic cry "Oh my God!" now and then.

A suggestion: Why not create a new subgenre of SF, which deals with speculation about possible gods? "God SF" would surely be interesting to believers and unbelievers alike.

(And not all these stories would have to be as creepy as H.P.Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos...)

Jeremy said...

Great post as usual, Lou.

One thing about the blogosphere that really bugs me is how upset people can get when someone like Benford voices an opinion that they disagree with.

I may not agree with him, but I'm glad he's expressing it--I'm thankful for the discussion he's launched if nothing else.

Jeremy said...

Then again, I am just as prone to the blowhard response as anyone else. The posting button on blogs sometimes should make you wait an hour, just like with swimming.

Lou Anders said...

Thanks, Jeremy!
Your wait-an-hour comment is spot on. I actually have a rule when I feel heated that I sleep on whatever I've written before posting it to the blog. Same for certain emails.

Elizabeth said...

Lou, I'm in agreement with everything you have to say here--but I don't think it justified the rhetorical trick Benford played, which I think you identified neatly.

Science fiction and its outreach was a lifeline for me as a kid, too--I grew up the daughter of a divorced lesbian in Reagan America--and I agree that rationalism is under seige. (I also don't think rationalism and spirituality are mutually exclusive, but I'm an agnostic who was raised Pagan and writes science fiction and fantasy books steeped in Christian mythology, so I'm a weird case.)

My belief is that not only is it helpful to the future of the genre to have a few gateway novels out there, by which I mean books that don't duck the SF but also make themselves accessible to general readers (somebody's got to keep buying SF if we want to keep publishing it, after all, and that means training people to read those books that saved my life), but that the best science fiction (and fantasy) is actually really important. For all the reasons you elaborate here.


wishblog said...

Re your comments on "The World is Flat"

I wonder if the Chinese and Indian kids are reading "Tom Swift Type" books, as being appropriate to their expanding cultures as more introspective fantasy books are appropriate to our decedent culture.

I think that ignoring the tinkerer thread in Golden Age SF is a typical retrospective oversight. I grew up in a community of areospace engineers, and lots of them were hardcore SF readers... Tinker with the Heathkit Stereo, and read the latest Analog after a hard day designing helicoper controls.

Those jobs are gone,as is that mindset. So it is no wonder that SF has bled into Fantasy. Now all our gizmoes and servos anad cars are black boxes, untinkerable and sealed. "The Perfect Machine Shall have No Moving Parts and Not look like a Machine" and "Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology is Indistinguishable from Magic"... We are now in the Land of Magic.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Ebear!
Fist, thanks so much for your own kind comments here and elsewhere. Yes, I agree with you re: fantasy. tangentially, I'm starting to be interested in the division I see between fantasy novels (which seem commercially dominated by the Tolkien immitators) and fantasy short stories, (where a lot of truly innovative work is being done). Essentially, the Jeff Ford's vs the Robert Jordans. I was also surprised to learn that certain fantasy short story collections don't sell as well as science fiction ones. Interesting to me, because I think there is some very innovative and stimulating fantasy being written, and I don't think Benford is necessarily aware of it!

Lou Anders said...

Hi Wishblog,
Historically, science fiction in China was actually encouraged by the government for exactly the reasons you describe. I don't have as good a picture of the current state of the field, but my surmise/impression is that it is more technologically focused. As for India, I am given to understand that it is tonally similar to the cyberpunk of Japan.

I think you are correct that the tinkerers have passed on, however, there is a whole new generation that fills this niche - the programmers being served by the SF of Greg Egan, Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, etc... Certainly, the success of Stross' Accelerando tales points, as he himself has acknowledged, a great deal more Slashdot fans in science fiction than anticipated.

Joel Shepherd said...

Hi Lou

I've never liked labels. I've always believed the genres (or the civilisations, for that matter) that thrive best are those that borrow from, and absorb, foreign ideas instead of running away from them. It seems to me that fantasy has been doing a far better job of this than SF lately.

I think it's somewhat encumbent upon us writers to realise that the genres are what we make of them, literaly. There's no reason SF can't do the same appropriation to fantasy, for example, but the idea of someone like Benford actually writing a fantasy/SF crossover is antithetical. Why? Because he's got a very narrow definition of what good speculative fiction is, and narrow definitions make narrow audiences.

I think the best hope to reverse the fantasy domination is not to try and beat fantasy down (which will only achieve the opposite by alienating lots of readers against SF) but rather by learning some lessons about what fantasy (good fantasy, anyway) does well. Like character, sadly lacking from much SF. And like accessability to new readers not steeped in genre tropes.

It's also good to see SF writers writing fantasy too (I'm doing it myself). Hopefully if they get some of those big fantasy sales, fantasy readers who enjoy those novels might then decide to risk that writer's SF stories too. If they're surprised to find they enjoy those SF stories, they might check out something by other authors. But it's only by broadening horizons, I think, and caring less about the genre labels, that SF can thrive.


Lou Anders said...

I believe it was Norman Spinrod writing in Asimov's a year ago or so who said that science fiction has reached the age/state in which it is able to abandon the conceit that everything it writes about is possible or realistic or actual and deal with the tropes of SF as just that, literary tropes to mix and match and nuance. Conversely, fantasy has recently been reinvigorated by a new breed of writer - China MiƩville, Ian R. MacLeod, & Michael Swanwick being prime examples, who appropriate science fiction's "striving for verisimilitude" to present fantastical worlds erected utilizing the literary methods of science fiction. I was fascinated, and couldn't agree more. But then, Iron Council and Iron Dragon's Daughter are my two favorite all time fantasy novels.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden said...

"I was surprised by how much ire Greg Benford drew down by daring to decry fantasy."

I don't see why. I like Greg personally, but his argument appears to be that the popularity of fantasy is somehow connected to an anti-rationalist strain in the culture. This manages to be both silly and personally offensive to a lot of people who probably feel they're on the pro-rationality barricades and yet also like (or even write) fantasy fiction. What's surprising about them expressing "ire"? I know one thing, it's not because Greg Benford, brave and alone, "dared" to express an unpopular opinion. It's a lot more likely because Greg is pulling the same stunt that resentful SF-vs-fantasy partisans have been pulling for years, which is to set the most rigorous SF against the most trivial fantasy, declare victory, and pound their very rational chests in triumph.

It's also worth noting that of the four fantasy novels that won Hugos over the last five years, only one is a work of "medieval" fantasy, the genre Greg claims people are "running away into". (Evidently people read SF, but they "run away into" fantasy. And their music, with its jungle beat, it's just noise.)

Incidentally, there's a point I recall making in the comments to Cheryl Morgan's post which linked to this one--Cheryl appears to have taken the whole post down--which is that your post can be read as saying that "Forgotten Realms" books outsell Neil Gaiman by five to one. As you can probably see for yourself--I'm assuming you have the same Bookscan access as everyone else in the industry--this is seriously, significantly untrue. It's also not what you literally wrote, but it's an easy misreading to take away.

Chris Roberson said...


I think that you tend to overstate the case against franchise novels. They really do tend to serve as a "gateway" for kids to discover the real stuff (they did for me), and they're not any better or worse than quite a lot of commerical mass-market paperback genre titles. I have an objection to the fact that they're all share-cropped, work-for-hire, but that's more to do with the author-publisher relationship, and nothing to do with the the reader-text relationship, which is the one you're concerned with here. Sure, I'd like for the "real stuff" to sell better, but I don't think that, were all of the Star Wars and Star Trek novels to disappear tomorrow, that would mean an attendant rise in numbers for Sean Williams' and Shane Dix's latest space opera. They might see a slight bump, but if the people who really want to read a Star Wars book and nothing else can't find a Star Wars book, they'll likely opt to read nothing else, not something "real."

The outcries against franchise verge a bit too close to complaints about JK Rowling for my tastes. So what if Rowling's books aren't as sophisticated and nuanced and stylistic as China Mieville? At the end of the day, that's what millions of readers *want* to read. The trick is to write something that's superior by any objective standard, and which appeals to that same readership just as much as the latest Potter. Which isn't going to be easy, obviously, but clearly folks like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet are able to do it, so it *is* possible.

Lou Anders said...

I am warming to franchise novels, and I do agree with you that them what read Star Wars would simply not read. By and large, those aren't readers who have discovered Star Wars novels. Those are Star Wars fans who have discovered another medium through which to experience their obscure object of desire. I don't think their $ represents lost sales to Shane & Sean, no. But I do think the perception they generate does prevent some virginal readers from venturing into our section. Of course, this isn't something one can measure any other way than to just watch and listen to the reaction one gets when one says "I work in science fiction" to a stranger.

As for Rowling - more power to her. I think she's great, and while there are quibbles, I'm not among her detracters. And yes, Gaiman, Pratchett, and a host of others are managing to do real numbers while writing genre. It may just be that only a small percentage of ANYTHING reaches that level, and if we wrote non-genre fic, some of us would be bemoaning the success of The Life of Pi and The Ya Ya Sisterhood.