Saturday, October 21, 2006

Chadbourn Dissents, Two Paul's Unite

Mark Chadbourn weighs into the debate with a post called The Slow Death of Science Fiction, wherein he disagrees with Rebecca Ore's opinion, quoted here again:

"If s.f. now is selling 7 or 8 percent of the market, the answer is to bring back more complex, involuted, experimental stuff like the early 70s had when s.f. was something like a third of the mass market, not drive readers further away in an era where anyone can use fantastic material in novels in or outside of marketing categories."

Rather, says Chadbourn:

"The real problem for SF, in my eyes, is that too much of it is failing in the art of communication. It’s written by scientists, for scientists. Every time this charge is levelled, the Big Machine Writers always talk about not wanting to do ‘dumbed-down fiction’ - SF is the genre of ideas, they say...By becoming more esoteric, SF will only go the way of the Western genre: a tiny backwater for specialists and nostalgia lovers."

But I don't think anyone is advocating throwing out plot, character or entertainment. In fact, the novels I've held up as exemplary of good SF (IMHO) - River of Gods and Paradox - are chocked full of both. My favorite character in Ian McDonald's River of Gods is a neglected housewife who never come into contact with any of the fantastic elements of the plot; my favorite scene in the whole novel being when she is cruelly snubbed by high society women at a cricket match. To those who haven't read the novel, the scene probably sounds more like something they'd expect to find in Bride and Prejudice than a work of hard SF. Whereas John Meaney's Paradox COULD BE Star Wars if Star Wars understood plotting and character. It's the tale of a lower class boy who works his way up through a rigid class system in order to exact revenge on the Lord he blames for his father's death and his mother's fall. It has Lords and Ladies, sword fights, karate, rock climbing, lazer gun battles, vehicle chases and vehicle crashes, and an elite force of mysterious & kick ass FTL pilots who can shoot deathrays from their eyes. It wears its influences - Edgar Rice Burroughs, Frank Herbert, Ann McCaffrey - quite visible on its sleeve, but it's damn smart about updating these tropes for a 21st Century audience.

While I'm at it, let me again point to Joel Shepherd's Crossover as another example of what I consider to be a near-perfect SF work to shoot for when it comes to balancing entertainment with relevance, and point out that his tale of a synthetic human dealing with prejudice and misunderstanding, while engaging in lots of heavy-arms fire and casual sex, is tonally near-identical to the new Battlestar Galactica - called by both Time and Rolling Stone the best drama on television and in my opinion a series which has raised the bar for cinematic SF for ALL TIME.

And while we're on the subject of Battlestar Galactica - the most successful show the Sci Fi Channel has yet produced - this morning I heard a critical piece on same on NPR in which the commentators praised it for engaging with harsh reality in exactly the way that Paul McAuley advocates written SF should be doing, while lamenting that so much of the rest of the Sci Fi Channel's programming failed to raise above the level of episodic space adventure as typified by Star Trek and Star Wars. I know that BSG is the only thing I watch on Sci Fi Channel, as it is for the NPR spokeswoman, and, I suspect, this is true for many other people out there in its fan base. If I were in development at Sci Fi right now, I'd be looking to produce more in the same vein as rapidly as possible in place of all the shlocky sci-horror they pump out. (And, incidentally, in case you're listening, I'd try to poach a few HBO series creators to help me do it, with a few newer SF book writers on as creative consultants to avoid the problems you get when the non-SF initiated try to write for SF.) But the point is, BSG is breaking out into the largest audience that the channel has ever had and getting unprecedented mainstream critical response in addition to its numbers, not by retreating to Star Wars-style adventure, but by presenting real people and real stories within complex narrative arcs which engage head on with uncomfortable truths about the current war on terror. Long term, I suspect that its affect on the mainstream perception/opinion of science ficiton will be a positive one as a result. One or two more shows like it, and the "stigma" attached to SF could wither away rapidly.

Again, no one is talking about throwing out entertainment value (or didn't you see that spaceship burning up on entry in the big battle in last night's episode?). They're just objecting to the notion that limiting science fiction to being "just entertainment" and retreating to outdated tropes is a positive thing for our genre's future.

All of which Paul McAuley reiterates when he returns with a second post, "Don't Look Back in Anger," in which he says:

"Science fiction isn’t going to win a new and wider audience by turning its back on the world and talking to itself. It has to engage. It has to produce novels that are part of the world’s conversation. Paul Cornell is right. If someone somewhere could write a definitely great populist but finely imagined science fiction novel, it would not only be a lovely thing in its own right; it would, like a supernova, make the science fiction galaxy more visible."

McAuley goes on to say that it's going to take more than one such supernova, but he is underscoring my point that BSG is succeeding for a TV audience specifically because it has managed to become part of the world's conversation. And if television viewers aren't put off by smart RELEVANT TV, why should we continue to assume readers will be put off by smart RELEVANT books? This is science fiction, for god's sake. It is supposed to be the genre that grapples with the big questions, engages the big concepts, and makes you think, damn it. That we are debating this at all feels increasingly absurd.


Anonymous said...

I am so getting tired of this "SF is going down the tubes" attitude.

Yes, SF has maybe 7 or 8% of the market share. So what? We're the nerds, the oddballs. You don't get us but we're going to shape your world in ways you can only dream about.

I don't think its us that gets them, I think its they that don't get us. Yeah, we're the nerds. We're the weirdos. So why do they keep smuggling into our camp?

Michael Cunningham, Specimen days. Margret Atwood, Oryx and Crake. P.D. James, Children of Men. Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game. Walter Mosley, The Wave.

All mainstream authors, all of the top of my head.

Private space exploration is happening *right now*. Soon everyone who is able to cough up $200K will be able to go into space; I predict that in ten years that will drop to less. Virgin Galactic is building their private space port in New Mexico *right now*. The dream is alive!

I think that we are in the grips of a new scientific revolution, only this time from the ground up whereas in the past it was from the top down. We're at the extremely early stages of it.

And people think that SF somehow means *less* nowadays?

Get over yourselves!

-Ian Cordingley

Cheryl said...

That was my favorite scene in River of Gods too. (And I note with pleasure from watching coverage of the Champions Trophy that some Indian women do watch cricket and cheer just as loudly as the men.)

But Mark seems to have totally missed the point. As I recall, the "more complex, involuted, experimental stuff" got seriously panned by the Hard SF crowd for not being scientific enough.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Ian:
1. Amen.
2. Have you read Adam Robert's GRADISIL? Because it is set beginning in 2070 and is about the bottom-up colonization of space and the formation of a new nation in new earth orbit. If you haven't read it and are in the US, we're coming out with it in early 07. If you are not in N. America, then by all means go buy the Gollancz edition right now. Either way, I think you'd like it and I'd love to hear your opinion.

Cheryl, this discussion keeps getting mistakenly framed as entertainment/fun vs smarts/relevance, whereas it is more properly an argument over whether SF is "just" entertainment or is actually "entertainment plus."

Finally, apropo of nothing, my word verification for this comment is "ooofkd," and I must say that after carrying my 17 month old around all day, it sounds like a real word to me. I am definitely feeling like I've been well and truly ooofk'd.

Anonymous said...


My favourites by Roberts is 'Salt' and 'Stone'. In Canada its a curious mix of publishers: the Gollancz large paperback thing is out, I'm waiting for it to go mass market before I read it.

-Ian Cordingley

Lou Anders said...

Of his novel work, I have only read Gradisil and On, though I've read a lot of his short fiction. I do have all of his novels though, as what I have read impresses me enough to know I need them all!

Joel Shepherd said...


I too am hugely excited by private space development. I think two things will happen with relation to SF.

a) as happened with cloning, global warming, gene therapy, etc, as soon as private space travel becomes a large scale reality, it will stop being SF. People won't talk to SF writers about it -- they'll talk to aerospace engineers, stockmarket investors and science journalists, all of whom will say 'it's not SF, because it's actually happening'. This is what always happens to SF -- our future never arrives, because as soon as it does, it's appropriated by the mainstream.

b) On the other hand, private space development will happen relatively gradually, and there will always be the next series of big projects around the corner as prices fall and commercial activity spreads outwards from Earth. The solar system being a big place, that will force people to look outwards, and forwards in time, and wonder what the future will look like. Which could make SF a 'relevant', mainstream genre once more.

Anonymous said...


I think the second thing you wrote is the more likely. I think if the first part happened, it would have after the moon landings, Sputnik, etc.

Matt Cheney has written on length about SF and the nature of genres and styles; I keep hoping he'll join this debate.

-Ian Cordingley

Ted said...

Here's a dissenting opinion on the claim that SF used to be a third of the mass market.

Lou Anders said...

Saw that earlier, thanks. An interesting take.