Thursday, July 26, 2007

SF is Dead! Long Live SF!

Bruno Maddox has an interesting piece in Discover magazine, called "Blinded by Science: Fictional Reality," with the subtitle "Sci-fi helped make the present; now it's obsolete." The article uses the occasion of the recent Nebula Awards weekend to ask the question why, if SF helped usher in so much of the science fictional present in which we currently live, it has degenerated into "a fairly drab and subdued sort of bunch. The demographic is middle-aged to old," and a weekend that is "palpably low on excitement."

Maddox suggests that "the genre that lit the way for a nervous mankind as it crept through the shadows of the 20th century, has suddenly and entirely ceased to matter." Then he goes about establishing his bona fides with a pretty good description of the difference between hard and soft science fiction - using Wells and Verne as examples - and he gets points for taking it as rote that there is both a back and forth between science fiction and actual science as well as an important social roll that SF has to play. "Space precludes a full listing here of every real-world marvel lifted straight from a work of futuristic fiction," Maddox writes, and he says, "Would we even be bothered by the proliferation of surveillance cameras if we didn’t recognize the phenomenon as 'Orwellian' and know, therefore, that it is bad?"

So his depression is palpable and sincere when he asks, "Why are the heirs to such a grand tradition dipping their tortilla chips into bean dip that has not even been decanted from its original plastic container into a proper bowl? ....Why are they not holding their annual meetings in some sort of gilded purpose-built pyramid while humanity waits breathlessly outside to receive their inklings into our future?"

His explanation is two-fold. First, that science fiction has ceased to matter because the larger category of fiction in general has also ceased to matter. " was around that time, the mid-1990s, that fiction—all fiction—finally became obsolete as a delivery system for big ideas. Whatever the cause—dwindling attention spans, underfunded schools, something to do with the Internet—the fact is these days that if a Top Thinker wakes up one morning aghast at man’s inhumanity to man, he’s probably going to dash off a 300-word op-ed and e-mail it to The New York Times, or better still, just stick it up on his blog, typos and all, not cancel his appointments for the next seven years so he can bang out War and Peace in a shed."

Then Maddox proposes that an even bigger threat to SF is that the technological world is speeding up, and "Why would I spend my money on a book about amazing-but-fake technology when we’re only a few weeks away from Steve Jobs unveiling a cell phone that doubles as a jetpack and a travel iron?"

His conclusion - that SF has outlived its usefulness, but that it deserves the love and respect of the world, or as he puts it, "If, through their talent and imagination, our species has progressed to the point that it no longer requires their services, then that should be a source of pride, not shame, and the rest of us should be honoring these obsolete souls..."

Now, to be fair, I've lamented myself the shift I saw in media from years previous, when science fiction writers would routinely show up on the Discovery Channel, on the news, on technology panels, etc... But I've said before that we're returning to that period, that this was only a lull or a dip in the pendulum (or even a failure of my own perception), and that we're on an upswing. We can site Greg Bear's recent Daily Show appearance, or his Sigma think-thank of SF writers trip to a Homeland Security conference, as proof that the larger world really is listening to SF writers and their opinions. For that matter, wasn't Cory Doctorow just labeled on of the 25 Most Influential People on the Web by Forbes magazine? (Cory ranked number fifteen.) And don't I see Charles Stross pontificating about the future of surveillance and recording technology over on the BBC News site? And here's Warren Ellis talking to William Gibson over on Wired magazine's website. For that matter, Amazon's bookstore blog has a three part interview with Gibson up now. (For those who prefer, here's the full transcript.) And as I write this, Spook Country has an Amazon sales rank of 58. To say nothing about McCarthy and Bradbury's recent Pulitzer prizes, the former for a work of post-apocalyptic fiction and the latter for his "distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy." So let's see, that's a phenomenally successful television show, the government, a major business magazine, a major world news site, a major tech/culture magazine, a major Internet commerce site and a major literary organization. Gee, looks to me like the world has never been more focused on SF than at the present moment.

No offense meant, but Maddox's disappointment with the Nebula weekend may have more to do with the SFWA organization itself and some of it's problems than with science fiction literature and the wider world. And one wonders what he would have thought had he attended the Hugo awards at the 64th World Science Fiction Convention last summer in Anaheim instead? The building wasn't pyramid shaped - it was an enormous shiny glass rectangle - and the audience was packed, the guests were in tuxedos, the food at the private reception was top-notch, and a very distinguished delegation came from Japan. (No, there were no Klingons in attendance, but there was "robot maid." Someone explain that to me.)

True, in his Amazon interview, William Gibson does elaborate on the difficulty of imagining the future in a sped up world. "I don't know if I'll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way. In the '80s and '90s, as strange as it may seem to say this, we had such luxury of stability. Things weren't changing quite so quickly in the '80s and '90s. And when things are changing too quickly, as one of the characters in Pattern Recognition says, you don't have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future."

But Gibson's not exactly abandoning ship. "
But science fiction is definitely where I'm from. Science fiction is my native literary culture," he says. And the fact that he can't see the way forward may have more to do with his own perspective and generation and "place to stand." The man's already done his part to get us to the here and now. He created the word "cyberspace" for God's sake! It's okay (and very relevant!) if he wants to write about the science fiction present he ushered in and let Stross, Doctorow, McDonald, MacLeod, Morgan, and others envision the next few decades past that for a while. (Note: I'm not counting him out. Pattern Recognition was my favorite book the year it came out, and I can't wait to read Spook Country. As Amazon's Tom Nissley writes, Gibson's present day science fiction makes you "feel like I had put on special headphones tuned into the frequency of our lives with a sensitivity that my own biological antenna could never match." Or as Gibson says, "I thought that writing about the world today as I perceive it would probably be more challenging, in the real sense of science fiction, than continuing just to make things up." Emphasis on "in the real sense of science fiction.")

In fact, Gibson himself hints at the answer when he says, "...over the last five to six years it's started to seem to me that there's something else going on as well, that maybe we're in what the characters in my novel Idoru call a 'nodal point,' or a series of them. We're in a place where things could just go anywhere. A couple of weeks ago I happened to read Charlie Stross's argument as to why he believes that there will never, ever be any manned space travel. It's not going to happen. We're not going to colonize Mars. All of that is just a big fantasy. And it's so convincing. I read that and I'm like, 'My god, there goes so much of the fiction I read as a child.'"

So yes, a lot of the SF of the past may be collapsing in on itself. Nothing dates faster than hard SF, but that's also a direct function of its relevance to the time in which it is written. And it's something that is true of all narrative. I remember watching Rebel Without a Cause in college and being utterly mystified by the motivations of every single character in the film. Cinema had taken a jump in psychological realism a few years later, and I just couldn't get my genie back in their bottle.

Look at this recent article from Freeman Dyson, "Our Biotech Future," from the New York Review of Books. (Speaking about the back and forth between science and science fiction!) Dyson writes, "I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years." And then goes on to blow our minds with what that prediction portends. So maybe manned space travel and silicon chips as classically presented to us in fiction have an expiration date (and maybe not), but read Dyson's article and tell me that's not several decades work of work for our science fiction writers. His description of Green vs Grey technologies reminds me of nothing so much as Walter John Williams' "Green Leopard Plague." And then go check out some of the works of those aforementioned writers, Stross, Doctorow, McDonald, MacLeod, Morgan, etc....

As William Gibson himself says, right now "We're in a place where things could just go anywhere." ANYWHERE. Now how can that not be good news for writers - and readers - of science fiction everywhere?

Update: First, I want to make sure that no one thinks I'm slagging off Gibson by suggesting he's changed his focus from the future to the present. To begin with, he hasn't changed his focus. He's always been concerned with this period right here in time and now that it's arrived - largely inspired by his writing - he's as relevant as he's ever been if not more so. And, for that matter, I don't read Gibson to see people jacking in. I read Gibson for his singular ability to describe our techno-culture in ways that make me gasp in recognition while marveling at his oh-so-articulate perspective. I read him for all the moments I have to set his books down in my lap and shout, "Yes! Yes! That's exactly right!" Second, in suggesting we are in a "nodal point" between 20th and 21st century SF, I wouldn't be too quick to count the concerns or the set pieces of 20th century SF out yet. In a really inspired rebuke to the Mundane SF movement, scientist and science fiction author Rudy Rucker outlines four mind-blowing alternatives to FTL that still get us to that space opera future. More importantly, he reminds us that its predictive and directly-inspirational qualities are only one of the reasons that SF matters. As he writes, "I don’t think SF is necessarily about predicting possible futures. I’ve always felt that SF is more like surrealism. The idea is to shock people into awareness. Show them how odd the world is. Whether or not you draw on realistic tropes is irrelevant... Let it be said that futurism and SF are quite different endeavors. A rude person might say that futurism is about feeding inspirational received truths to businessmen and telling them it will help them make more money. SF is about unruly artistic visions." So anyone really think the age of "unruly artistic visions" is drawing to a close? Get real.

Update: Thanks to Kathryn Cramer for pointing to JR Minkel's article on Scientific, "Science fiction is not obsolete--do you read me Bruno Maddox." Minkel points to the works of Neal Stephenson, the nonfiction writings of Bruce Sterling, and Marc Andreessen's recent list of the top 10 science fiction novels of the 2000s as evidence that "the world has not outpaced science fiction. Rather, science fiction has outpaced Bruno Maddox."


Aaron Hughes said...

"SF has outlived its usefulness."

Absolutely. Because SF deals with scientific advances and we've, like, already had 'em.

Lou Anders said...

And that's it. Science is done and can go home.

Incidentally, looking over this makes me wonder why so many of my favorite writers have surnames that begin with the letter M. We can add Moorcock, Marusek, Mieville, Meaney to the list, and then it just gets strange.

Tim Akers said...

I'd be pretty horrified too, if I judged the health of sf by sfwa.

dave hutchinson said...

Hm. Somebody should be collecting all this stuff and trying to make sense of it. If you want to believe in a zeitgeist or a collective unconscious of science fiction, somewhere in all these blogs and essays that have been popping up there might be an indication of what science fiction's for in the 21st century and what we want to do with it.

On the other hand, this kind of questioning is good; it provokes debate, even if it's unlikely ever to provoke a consensus.

Interesting post, much to think on.

Ian Randal Strock said...

Isn't that clever of him: to find the only professional conference in the science fictional calendar, and then remark on the "amazing" lack of hyped-up fans to use as an analogy that proves his thesis.

The more I see these debates about the relevance of science fiction, or its impending death, or some other such comment, the more I wonder why so many people spend so much time talking and writing about it, rather than actually writing it.

sean williams said...

Hear, hear. As long as we keep asking the question "what if" about the world we live in, the ever-changing landscape of science, and human nature, there will be science fiction. Each of those categories is so rich, I simply can't imagine that we'll ever entirely unpack them. Look at how much we still have to learn about consciousness, for one.

I am puzzled every time someone says we've run out of scientific advances (which is the flipside of saying that we already live in the future--like there's no future left to be had). There are TONS of surprises ahead. That's why writing near-future SF is the hardest thing in the world to do, and why Gibson is just so amazingly audacious.

I haven't read his new book, but I'm keen. I wonder what a historical from him would be like...?

DJK said...

Beyond "what if," science fiction gives us an artistic, philosophical and psychological response to the perspectives brought to us through the scientific view of the world. As such we need literature that addresses the ever growing advance of science into the fabric of our daily lives.

Paul Cornell said...

I love that Rucker quote about surrealism. Spot on.

I think information overload, the smalldening of the world, has also contributed to the death of SF: if SF is 'if this goes on', then these days one would have to ask, 'which this do you mean?' Because we have a greater grasp of the non-monolithic nature of our current western culture, because we've been future shocked out of our complacency, by many things, SF
included, it's harder for us to play along with any imagined future.

gary gibson said...

I agree with Sean William's comment: every generation is filled with people proclaiming the end of progress and then being proven bitterly wrong. But I'd also like to add that sf is in my opinion increasingly being co-opted and absorbed by the greater literary and media environment, rather than fading away either in importance or relevance: evolving, if you like, and redefined by each successive generation that gets their hands on it. It's still doing the same job regardless, whether or not it happens to be marketed as part of a particular genre, whether or not we're still attaching a particular name-tag to it ten or twenty or thirty years from now.

Also, articles like Stross's, by presenting reasonable objections to die-hard genre ideas, simply create even more rich soil for writers to plant the seeds of newer, brighter ideas: even the long screed of comments following Charlie's article in themselves provide rich pickings for anyone willing to explore human futures that may be as unpleasant or alien as they are inherently fascinating.

Lou Anders said...

All good comments. Gary, I concur. Beyond mentioning the Pulitzers, I felt like I ran on long enough without bringing up Michael Chabon, Audrey Niffenegger, Philip Roth, Walter Mosley, Elizabeth Kostova, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, and all the other writers of what Maureen McHugh calls the category of "Not Science Fiction."

BillP said...

I'm glad to see you taking in a serious direction the discussion that the Discover article seemingly begins. The article itself is a snarky hack job, picking on what people are eating, not even interviewing the people attending the conference. It's a sad display, and you give it a more serious nod than it deserves.

...Now I have to go back and reread *your* piece!

Bill Preston

Lou Anders said...

Again, had he attended the Hugos...

Kathryn Cramer said...

What if he'd attended the LOCUS Awards? If he was struck by one Hawiian shirt, he would have been quite battered after the LOCUS Award ceremony!

In any case, Scientific American's blog has come to our defense.

My sense is also that the Nebs just weren't his scene. My remarks are HERE.

Lou Anders said...

Such wonderful rebuttals deserve to be called out in an UPDATE in the body of the original post. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Bruno Maddox is a diminutive satirist it seems. This must be one rocking ride for him. We're all aflutter whilst he kicks back and cackles his way through a night of blog reading! what fun.