Monday, August 07, 2006

The State of Science Fiction, Part III

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.


Aaron Hughes said...

I don't understand how he justifies isolating near-future SF. If anything, the trend over the past several years has been for the best-selling American SF writers -- Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Orson Scott Card, Greg Bear -- to switch focus from the distant future to the near future.

Setting this distinction aside, it certainly has been true for a while that a disproportionate share of groundbreaking SF has been coming from the U.K. rather than the U.S. But given that this trend has been widely commented on for over a decade, it seems peculiar to attribute it to post-9/11 angst.

Couldn't it just be that there are ebbs and flows to the business? For several years, there has been a boom in British SF while there was something of a lull here. Now, with some excellent new authors emerging and with SF being treated more seriously by film and mainstream fiction (even if they still resist the SF label), there is good reason to think we are headed into a boom of our own.

Lou Anders said...

Which, as you know, is what I think. And why I was careful to point out that my anglophilia is lifelong, not a recent phenomenon. And that when as conservative an industry as Hollywood (and it IS conservative) thinks that near-future unpleasantries will sell, there's something wrong with your thesis.

Unknown said...

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

I'd even go one step further -- my ONLY responsibility is to my publisher, who pays my salary. My only responsibility is to acquire books that I think will make the most profit for my company. Anything else is the luxury of people who work for themselves. Which is not to say that you can't try to publish the very best material within those parameters, but, like ANY for-profit endeavor, the bottom line wins out. Is that occasionally depressing as hell? Well, yes. It's also reality, and I'm nothing if not a realist.

UK publishers have different standards of success than US ones, just as large publishers have different standards than smaller ones. Which makes sense for the UK, considering they have, you know, A LOT LESS PEOPLE. Heh. So perhaps (she says, not actually knowing hard UK sales figures) they can acquire a brilliant SF novel that will sell 5,000 copies. An editor at a large US American publisher by and large cannot.

Lou Anders said...

And, in light of the above, its interesting that the only horror Charles Stross finds non-consolatory by his definion is that currently published by just such a small press who can indulge in the aforementioned "luxury of people who work for themselves." Yup.

Ted said...

I don't want to get into the discussion of whose SF is really engaging with the future, but as a side note: regarding review statistics, my personal impression is that a sizeable majority of all the SF reviews I see are positive, no matter whose work is being reviewed. It might be interesting to do an across-the-board tally to see which publisher's offerings has the highest percentage of positive reviews, but I wouldn't use the results to guide my own book-buying decisions.

I mean no disrespect to Pyr; I'm just dubious about using positive reviews as a metric of quality.

Anonymous said...


There are many interesting issues in this post and in Mr. Stross original post. Personally I think that SF is a very challenging literature, one in which worldbuilding is a major part of success/failure of a book, the given world being one of the most (if not THE most important) characters of the book, in a way that happens very rarely in other type of literature. True there is the occasional fantasy with interesting worldbuilding, but by and large fantasy stands or dies on characters and storytelling much more than SF does. So, SF will always be outsold by whatever is popular at a given moment, the question to me being not why fantasy outsells sf and what can we do about it (nothing), but how does sf do internally as opposed to 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Put it that way and it's inarguable that today is THE golden age of sf and I do not see this changing soon. The main challenge is not to make people read more sf as opposed to fantasy (it's not going to happen), but to keep people reading and make them read more as opposed to absorbing other forms of entertaintment. I still think that storytelling is the most satisfactory form of tending to your intellectual needs, and reading is the best form of storytelling being participatory enough, but not demanding full participation (only some of us are good storytellers), so I am not particularly worried on this count either.
Touching upon near SF, 9/11, british SF I think that near SF is just very hard to do to be satisfying, gets dated very easily, and by and large it's better expressed in technothrillers of which there are enough; I love british sf but it's defining characteristics is modern space opera and it's "renaissanace" has been going for 10-15 years now; 9/11 (and I was there on the street watching that second plane hitting, since I used to work nearby), is not that big a defining moment in my opinion and I do not think America changed or will change dramatically because of it.


Lou Anders said...

My earliest impressions of SF were formed going to the bookstore as a child in the 70s and seeing all the very modern Richard Powers covers, and the connection between modern art and SF was burned into me - both seemed to be at the vanguard of their respective media (art/literature), both seemed sophisticated, adult, and slightly over my head. And as a kid, I never wanted anything spoonfed. I wanted my entertainment to contain references that went by me, because I wanted to be challenged and stretched. Wrapping my head around the fact that there are people who don't want to be challenged took some time. I've never understood the "I work hard all day so when I come home I don't want to think" attitude, because if the only time you want to engage your brain is in the service of someone else, where are you? (Aside: I had a roommate in college who would come home from class and watch FLETCH every single day. Every day. The whole film. All semester. It made him laugh so he plugged into it for his laugh fix each evening. Come to think of it, it was my VHS tape. I wonder what happened to it?)

But learning that there are those who don't want to engage intellectually with their SF is even more interesting to me. However, SF as escapism is as old as cinema, and I too don't see the literary science fiction landscape as being much altered (in this way, at least) by the events of 911. I do think AMERICA has been altered post 911, but that's another debate. There was consolatory SF, fantasy and horror pre-911, just as now.

(Now, I don't think Charlie could make the same statements about sf, fantasy and horror that he made about novels if he were talking about short form genre fiction, either.)

I agree with you that we are a golden age or Renaissance. Certainly, there is more SF published now than ever before, and more variety of SF - from houses of every size and shape. There are a wealth of magazines, and online venues, and something like 12 "best of" volumes. It's never been a better time to be a reader. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have been a fan back when there were only 12 SF books published that year and everybody read them, but the truth is you can still feel that just by reading the Hugo short-list, and today's world - with all the open access between readers and writers that the Internet affords - is also the best time ever to be a fan.

You are correct that our competition isn't within genre with fantasy, but with other media. It's been said that the crucial age is around 10 to 12, and that if you can hook a person then, he or she will be a reader for life, and I think that efforts to get young people to read are extremely laudable and the most important thing anyone can be doing for the health of the field. (I wonder what the effect would be if every single SF reader bought one book and gave it to a preteen they knew.)

But as to the relative quality of sf in general, it's place as a challenging literature, etc... I'm still of the opinion that the general level of popular entertainment is in an upswing, due to phenomenon discussed in books like THE LONG TAIL and EVERYTHING BAD IS GOOD FOR YOU, the USA TODAY article, etc... Americans seem to be slowly waking up to the need to pay attention to their politics, Newsweek just ran "the Greening of America" piece, Hollywood needs tv to be more sophisticated because the importance of the boxed set sales as a secondary revenue stream is rising, etc... The pendulum feels like its swining back and I suspect an increased respect for sophisticated SF is approachingas a long term trend.

Anonymous said...


I completely agree that the quality of popular entertainment is going up and pretty much for the same reasons you mentioned (slicing of the mass pie so it does not need cater to the largest common denominator).
Nobody argues that America changed post 9/11, I just feel that the change is not that dramatic like say the breakdown of official comformity in the late 50's and 60's. Personally I grew up in one of the nastiest "suburbs" of the evil empire in Europe (and whatever his faults Ronald Reagan was and still is the biggest hero of my childhood for standing up to that evil empire), but I escaped at age 21 and lived the last 16 years here, navigated the bureaucracy to become and be (mostly) very proud of being a US citizen...

This being said, I find sf a congenial place because most of it (as opposed to fantasy which is mostly hierarhical and conservative) celebrates the human spirit, ingenuity and the fight to realize our potential; I rarely see state/church/ideological imposed morality celebrated in sf and even many writers which are considered right wing are very far away from say the National Review crowd.

But the reality is that sf is still a challenging literature and while its canonical tools (spaceships, wormholes, ai's, nano/bio/cyber enhancements, robots and the like) have been incorporated in the popular culture so very few people will go "huh" when you mention a wormhole, sf still requires more concentration to enjoy than the rest of popular literature so it's still going to be a niche literature. The niche may (and I agree with you that in fact will) grow, even considerably, but the days when the distribution of reading on my (former for 8 years and this was the WS suit crowd) morning train commute will be sf 45%, romance/thrillers 5%, newspapers 50%, rather than the opposite are not here I am afraid.


Lou Anders said...

But those days were here. It has only been a matter of a few decades when rock bands wrote ballads with titles like
"Starship Troopers" and "Space Oddity." Change happens slowly and then all at once. Plus, writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson are read in huge numbers today. And, as you say, SFnal concepts are now part of the vocabulary of popular culture. Yes, generalising terribly - SF may require more from the reader than F (though there are very challenging fantasies and some very unchallenging SF), but I have indoctrinated a LOT of new SF readers in my day, and I don't think it's as imposing to the majority of people as the common wisdom seems to hold. As I believe I said elsewhere, I think this is more a matter of marketing than content.

Jose said...

I think a large part of Charlie's comments simply point out the underlying difference between America and Britain's SF roots as well as the difference in political mindsets between the two countries. I've published a Brain Parade on the subject today and all the respondents (americans) were of the opinion that tackling contemporary issues isn't SF's "job". You can view it here if you're curious:

Aaron Hughes said...

That's right. Americans don't like SF that tackles contemporary issues, and so it is left to British authors to write relevant SF books, which then ... sell like hotcakes in the U.S.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Jose, already checked out the Meme Therapy post - great job. I love Scalzi's comments brining up the reality of timing in publishing. The short form - which I say elsewhere might be more daring than the long - does have this advantage.

Hi Aaron, yeah.

Anonymous said...

Personaly I can't see how timing is really much of a problem. Most of the big political and ethical questions we grapple with linger for 1-3 decades. Reproductive rights, dealing with massive influxes of immigrants, yuk factor at biotechnology, assymetrical warfare, terrorism, religious dogma v scientific literacy, etc. etc. These were all issues 10 years ago and they will still will be with us 10 years from now. Seems like long enough to write a novel and get it published.

However I think Scalzi may have been referring to much more topical news (ie Schaivo) that often gets turned into made for TV movies and I would have to agree that I wouldn't be much interested in SF being produced along those lines.

Lou Anders said...

Yes, although when you see Adam Roberts' GRADISIL (which we have coming out in March, 07), really does a good job of both portraying the near future and engaging the present with its (some subtle, some overt) metaphors of the current war. Too bad he's not American, because he faces the future exactly as Stross is on about, and has a really good handle on it.

A.R.Yngve said...

Lou Anders wrote:
"It has only been a matter of a few decades when rock bands wrote ballads with titles like
"Starship Troopers" and "Space Oddity."
Pop music and SF go together naturally. I wish there were more sci-fi-themed bands/artists now!
(By the way, I've recorded an attempt to cross sci-fi with rap music, here )

Lou Anders said...

Can anyone say The Flaming Lips?

Liviu said...


Gradisil is a "typical" Adam Roberts (original) novel, namely VERY HIGH quality literary SF. While it has the political overtones mentioned, to me the best description was given by Emerald City as Sophocles in space, though I would have called it Aeschylus in space since Oresteia is the most appropriate classical reference. The politics is incidental by and large, I would say mostly a plot/setting necessity than essential to the book. This is a book to be enjoyed like a meal prepared by a very good chef, slowly and stopping to appreciate the texture.


Lou Anders said...

And Aeschylus in Space is, I believe, how Adam describes it himself. I also think the book would be well received by the aforementioned Roth, Lethem, Auster crowd if one could get it in front of them.