Charles Stross is once again lamenting the state of American science fiction again, in his post Genre Neuroses 101. This is reminiscent of thoughts he expressed last year in which he speculated that the collective American consciousness simply can't see much of a positive way forward from current political events and that the loss of Empire, etc... was forcing a retreat into fantasy and alternate history.
This time out, Charlie writes, "Science fiction is almost always a projection of todays hopes and fears onto the silver screen of tomorrow, and so you get such excesses as the cosy catastrophe genre in British SF, 1947-79 (in which all those annoying Other People get put away in their box — six feet under — while the protagonists have post-fall-of-civilization adventures, all with a bone china tea-set: John Wyndham was of course the master) or the sixties counterculture and lysergide fueled paranoia trips of Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs — and the deafening silence about the future that is radiating from the United States today."
Particularly, I find it interesting that Charlie laments the state of horror before turning his gaze to the state of SF. Especially in light of that recent USA Today article, "Science Fiction Gets Real," in which Hollywood types like Russell Schwartz, president of domestic marketing for New Line Cinema, says things like "The big boon we had in the '40s and '50s came from war and Cold War tensions. When times are tense, it causes us to look forward and imagine what it's all going to mean." Schwartz says this in the context of predicting a resurgence of serious, socially-relevant SF film in direct response to (not retreat from) current political unrest. That the article also suggests quite a few in Hollywood are looking to serious SF as a replacement for the now-flagging boom in recent horror is also interesting. Moreover, I think it's telling that Hollywood, who chases the almightly dollar in all things, sees SF as a way to address our contemporary problems, not run from them into the "mad collective ostrich-head-burying exercise" that Charlie sees contemporary American publishing engaged in "rather than engaging with the world as it is."(My own athology, FutureShocks, was more sci-horror in original concept than it proved to be in execution, but still, I think, does a good job at coming to grips with these aforementioned tense times. See stories by American authors Caitlin R. Kiernan, Alex Irvine, and Louise Marley in particular.)
I suspect that, as has been pointed out, now that Bush's approval rating is falling even among his own camp, we'll see more American writers willing (or able) to engage the times in ways Charlie would like to see. As the ever-thoughtful John Scalzi opinions on Whatever, "I don't think Americans largely care if other people don't like our political leaders, so I don't think building a theory on that notion is useful. We knew the rest of the world despised Ronald Reagan, for example; we didn't give a crap what anyone else thought (well, some did; they were just ignored). Right now, we're aware the rest of the world despises Dubya, but it's rather more important to us that we don't like him; everyone else not liking him really is an afterthought in the American psyche." Certainly, to take another example from Hollywood, the Wackoski's V for Vendetta was able to present discussions of terrorism and rebellion against a corrupt government in a way that the latter Matrix films were unable to do so in the immediately-post 911 enviroment in which they were released because the number of Americans who would be shocked and outraged at such a film dropped as opposition to the war grew (or was perceived by Hollywood to have dropped). So if we were stunned into (ahem) futureshocked silence for a few years immediately following 911, we're certainly coming out of it now in our most conservative media (big budget Hollywood filmmaking), and Charlie's statement that "This turning away from the near future is going to be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the post-9/11 decade in American science fiction, as the chill wind of change blows through the hitherto cosy drawing room of the American century" seems overly melodramatic and a bit premature.
Also interesting is a comment from writer Walter Jon Williams, who says, "Please don't blame the US'ian authors for the dearth of exciting, cutting-edge skiffy. Blame the editors who won't buy it-- who in fact run screaming from it. They know how to sell military SF, they know how to sell space opera, they know how to sell alternate history (at least if it's got a Confederate or Nazi flag on it), they know how to sell Furry Fantasy S&M, but try going to a sales conference with a book that screams 'near-future social critique!,' and see them all hit the deck like someone's told them Osama is in the room with a vest packed with Semtex. That's why the Brits get to have an Invasion right now-- their editors are braver. Or better. Or something."
Which raises a question about the degree to which editors must cater to tastes vs. the degree in which we can lead by example, helping to define tastes. I'm always amused by statements (sometimes reflected in panel topics at conventions) that make editors sound like little more than couriers passing material between writer and reader, with no understanding of the very real gatekeeping that determines exactly what gets read in which editor's engage. (Or of the very large amount of drek one must wade through to find each gem.) But Williams' statement needs to recognize that an editor's primary responsibility is not to a writer's unsigned manuscript - no matter how brilliant said writer thinks it is - but is a split between reader and publisher, one of whom votes with his dollars and the other of whom expects to see said dollar. William's won't have us blame the USian authors, pointing instead to the editors, but this buck can continue right on to the readers (and isn't passing the buck the real legacy of our post-911 times?) Still, I hope readers of this blog and followers of my work know that it's been a personal mission to present SF&F "dialed to eleven," with a real effort - hopefully realized more often than not - to publish books and short stories of better than average quality. Critically, this goal seems born out. Recently, I tallied all the reviews of Pyr books I have archived, and while I am sure that I missed one or two, of the 309 reviews I've logged, only 12 were negative.
Now, certainly, one look at the Pyr catalog and you know I've got a strong predilection for British and Australian speculative fiction, though at least in the case of UK fiction, this is a life-long anglophilia more to do with a certain quality of prose than trends in contemporary narratives. And while Charlie does single out Vernor Vinge for boldly looking at the near-future, I'm grateful to Jetse de Vries for pointing out our own David Louis Edelman's Infoquake, called incidentally, "the love child of Donald Trump and Vernor Vinge" by Paul Goat Allen of B&N. While Infoquake does take place a millenia or so from now, David's future history works out all the points from now to then in impressive detail, enough I think to qualify for what Charlie is talking about. And though the book in question isn't spoken for yet, Chris Roberson's just completed space opera - excerpts are online at his blog - also includes a quite detailed near-future history that connects the dots from here to there. Then there's the aforementioned John Scalzi and Paolo Bacigalupi, both of whom write very well in futures right around the corner from today.
Mind you, I'm not in complete disagreement with Charlie's points, but I see this retreat from mundane futures as a temporary phenomenon, one which will recede in the wake of the general rise in science fiction I predicted in my initial "State of Science Fiction" post. Finally, I find the aforementioned David Louis Edelman's comment quite interesting: "One could very well argue that near-future SF has been co-opted by the literary novelists. Witness: John Updike, T.C. Boyle, Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Walter Mosley, Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Lethem, all authors of near-future SF in the past decade, all members of the Respectable School." With Hollywood on one side and contemporary mainstream "literature"on the other, how can the future really be over? All I've got say is, stay tuned.