Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future
0. Awesomely Exhausted
One of the most striking things about the worlds of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature is their marked propensity for boosterism. Shattered into dozens of incommensurate tribes and forced together by award ceremonies held in mid-size hotels and conference centres around the globe, genre culture overflows with books purporting to be the very best of what science fiction has to offer.
This self-congratulatory urge is most evident in the steady flow of Year’s Best anthologies that collect and reprint some of the year’s most notable pieces of short fiction. Frequently little more than a pay-day for short fiction writers and publishers, these bloated and idiosyncratic collections present themselves in such a hysterically self-important manner that it has become traditional to take their vainglorious boasting entirely at face value and treat them as literal purveyors of the Year’s Best Short Fiction.
Hoping to uncover some deeper meaning in the editorial selection process, critic Paul Kincaid has produced a brilliant overview of what (we are told) is the year’s best genre short fiction. Surveying Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection, Richard Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy: 2012 Edition and The Nebula Awards Showcase 2012, Kincaid concludes that:
The very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer is exhaustion.
Kincaid’s analysis is wide-ranging and tightly controlled. Rather than speculate as to the causes for the scene’s apparent exhaustion, Kincaid merely levels a series of accusations flowing from one central problem:
The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be apprehended.
Usually, whenever someone attempts to start this type of debate, the field’s gatekeepers act swiftly to shut things down. Desperate to defend both their friends and themselves from accusations of complacency, they dissemble and dismiss rather than allow dissenting opinions the space to develop into something more concrete. While the Internet may have created the illusion of transparency and wider cultural discourse, the only conversation that really interests the field is how awesome everyone’s next book is going to be.
To put it bluntly, I agree with Paul Kincaid… I think that science fiction has lost interest in the world and fallen out of step with the times resulting in the emergence of a narcissistic and inward-looking literature devoid of both relevance and vitality.
In an effort to keep the flame of Kincaid’s observations alive, I have written an essay that expands upon some of his observations and attempts to unpack ‘what it is we mean when we talk about science fiction being exhausted’.
1. Conceptual Blockage
The most common account of why science fiction no longer attempts to engage with the future is that the future is now deemed to be out of bounds. The world, we are told, changes so quickly that any attempt to predict the future would necessarily be out of date by the time the book was released. In an effort to acknowledge this particular difficulty without necessarily confronting it, science fiction manifests the intellectual inaccessibility of the future as a cultural event known as the singularity. Popularised both by the SF author Vernor Vinge and the futurist Ray Kurtzweil, the singularity is (broadly speaking) the point at which machine and human intelligences begin to sharply increase in both size and speed resulting in a rate of cultural change that tends towards the infinite. As Kincaid puts it:
Somewhere amidst the ruins of cyberpunk in the 1980s, we began to feel that the present was changing too rapidly for us to keep up with. And if we didn’t understand the present, what hope did we have for the future? The accelerating rate of change has inevitably affected the futures that appear in our fictions. Things happen as if by magic […] or else things are so different that there is no connection with the experiences and perceptions of our present.
Rather than question this assumption in the context of a review, Kincaid simply accepts it and uses it as the basis for a broad narrative of engagement, exhaustion and retreat in which genre writers attempted to gain purchase on the future only for this future to somehow evade them. Having failed to generate much insight into humanity’s future, science fiction responded by internalising and celebrating a set of aesthetic principles that marginalised engagement with the world in favour of the other avenues of creative endeavour celebrated in awards shortlists and Year’s Best anthologies.
The problem with Kincaid’s narrative is that it is overly charitable in that it accepts the inaccessibility of the future entirely at face value. In my view, SF turned its back on the world because genre writers decided it would be more fun and less risky to write about other things instead. Indeed, the critic Nader Elhefnawy was quick to point out that the singularity is really little more than a professional dodge:
To throw up one’s hands in confusion is a convenient way of avoiding the serious social and ethical and political questions raised by our problems (as with our ecological crisis). This can seem an understandable response to their genuinely intimidating largeness, but the feeling of being overwhelmed hardly seems to account for the whole tendency. There is, too, the fact that so many of the obvious responses to such problems – substantive critique of the prevailing orthodoxies, efforts to envision really meaningful alternatives, despair in the absence of such – are regarded as naive, disreputable or simply risky for the career-minded, encouraging the ever-present temptation to self-censor. Postmodernity has always concealed a significant amount of evasion behind its smugly enunciated epistemological doubts, and postmodern science fiction has not been an exception to the pattern. Indeed, the lack of conviction Kincaid finds in the writing is best understood as a parallel to that lack of conviction pervading our cultural and political life.
Elhefnawy is quite correct when he says that science fiction’s failure to engage with the future mirrors that of our culture as a whole. Marxist thinkers such as Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek have both pointed out that our culture is now so utterly wedded to the principles of neoliberal democracy that it has become literally impossible for us to imagine what it might be like not to live under a capitalist system. According to Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism (2009), there is a
Widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.
This conceptual blockage was most evident in the immediate aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis when the housing bubble burst and banks across the world began to collapse. Exposed as nothing more than a vast pyramid scheme, global capitalism lurched and stumbled but never quite fell. One explanation for the failure to dethrone neoliberalism is that, when the chips were down, nobody seemed to have a viable alternative. Lacking the imagination to develop their own plan B, political elites around the world responded to the crisis by pumping billions into the global economy and hoping that the system would somehow right itself.
Having failed to identify this culture-wide conceptual blockage as any kind of failure or flaw, science fiction never bothered to rout around it. Instead, genre writing turned inwards and began to produce stories that treated the world with a sense of ironic detachment. Sealing itself off from the world and a wider cultural context, science fiction sailed blithely on while the stories that did attempt to engage with the world were shunted further and further to the margins of the field. Is it really a surprise that both William Gibson and J.G. Ballard wound up having to leave the field in order to write meaningfully about the future?
Kincaid’s essay touches upon a number of different types of story that have risen to prominence in recent years. However, rather than treating these various approaches to science fiction as separate sub-genres or categories, I have attempted to expand upon Kincaid’s observations by discovering the single set of values that inform the celebration of these types of story. I refer to these shared values as ‘The Weird’ approach to genre writing though I could just as easily have termed it ‘The Ironic’ or ‘The Postmodern’ or ‘The Exhausted’.
2. The Weirding of Science Fiction
The most obvious manifestation of science fiction’s exhaustion with the future has been an intentional blurring of the line between that which was traditionally thought of as science fiction and that which was traditionally thought of as fantasy. As Kincaid puts it, this
is a notion that has clearly taken root with today’s writers since they consistently appropriate the attire of fantasy for what is ostensibly far-future sf, even to the extent of referring unironically to wizards and spells and the like.
Aside from the short stories mentioned in Kincaid’s article, this blurring of the line also features prominently in such recent and well-received novels as Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief (2010), Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City (2010) and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (2010) but the technique itself is old enough to have featured prominently in the works of both Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe.
Once rare and purposefully transgressive, the intentional blurring of genre boundaries is now a central feature of the genre landscape. In fact, one of the most commonly deployed pieces of critical hyperbole in recent times has been the claim that a particular story or novel ‘challenges traditional genre boundaries’. The desire to celebrate this aesthetic and recognise its central importance to genre writing has even inspired the publication of a set of essays by the veteran genre critic and academic Gary K. Wolfe. Nailing his colours to the interstitial mast, Wolfe claims in one of the essays contained in Evaporating Genres (2011) that
The writers who contribute to the evaporation of genre, who destabilize it by undermining our expectations and appropriating materials at will, with fiction shaped by individual will rather than traditions or formulas, are the same writers who continually revitalize genre: a healthy genre, a healthy literature, is one at risk, one whose boundaries grow uncertain and whose foundations get wobbly.
Equally celebratory of the status quo is the critic and encyclopaedist John Clute’s attempt to provide a single shared creation myth for the field of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature. Rather than looking upon these genres as separate literary traditions huddling together for economic warmth, Clute encourages us think of them as different iterations of the same literary form that he refers to as “fantastika”. According to Clute, the different genres were driven apart by the enlightenment and the events that formed part of what he refers to as the “world storm”:
Up until about 1700, in other words, we did not categorize works of art according to their use of (or failure to use) material that might be deemed unreal. After that point, in English literature […] a fault line was drawn between mimetic work, which accorded with the rational Enlightenment values then beginning to dominate, and the great cauldron of irrational myth and story, which we now claimed to have outgrown, and which was now primarily suitable for children.
Under this vision of genre history, the blurring of the lines between SF and fantasy is not so much a sign of cultural convergence as it is a heroic homecoming and a return to source.
It is easy to see why this particular vision of genre has become so popular: While highly visible critics such as Wolfe and Clute talk of homecoming, boundary transgression and assimilation into the great genre melting pot, nobody with any kind of platform defends the multicultural ideal that, while different genres can co-exist and learn from each other, they are ultimately creatures with their own identities and sense of history. Now widely associated with an ageing cadre of pedants and puritans who appear to spend their time dismissing interesting books for the terrible crime of not featuring enough spaceships, genre multiculturalism has allowed itself to be painted as the elderly reactionary in a world of rebellious young Turks.
It is important not to underestimate the impact of peer pressure, social aspiration, and personal narratives in determining genre fashions. The Weird presents itself as being nothing short of revolutionary and who wants to follow the rules at a time of revolution? Who wants to do things the way they used to be done? Who wants to turn the handle and churn out the same old stories when you can break free from your shackles and borrow tropes from as many different genres as you want? While a number of different writers including both Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link deserve consideration as exemplars of what I am referring to simply as the Weird, British Academic and author China Mieville is undeniably this approach’s figurehead and critical darling.
Mieville’s first novel King Rat (1998) is an entirely readable attempt to infuse the contemporary London with elements of myth and magic. Unfortunately, the book sank largely without trace despite pre-empting Neil Gaiman’s hugely successful novel American Gods (2001). It was not until Mieville began writing secondary world fantasy novels that his star began to ascend. Rather than simply follow fashions and churn out another Tolkienian secondary-world fantasy doorstop, Mieville infused his fantasy world of Bas-Lag with elements borrowed from other genres. By presenting the fantastical as horrific and weaving his story around what is effectively the old science fictional saw of a scientist seeking understanding, Mieville not only won many of the field’s most important awards but also parlayed genre success into mainstream literary celebrity. Courted by journalists, universities and literary festivals around the world, Mieville is cool, sexy and a professional role model far more attractive than old school Hard SF authors like Ben Bova or Greg Egan. Mieville is also closely associated with one of the most influential movements in recent genre history: The New Weird.
The New Weird began life when a group of diverse but artistically ambitious genre writers attempted to find some sort of common ground. Much like Cyberpunk before it, the socially defined New Weird movement has since acquired its own aesthetic. As Jeff and Ann VanderMeer put it in the introduction to their 2007 New Weird anthology, the New Weird is
a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.
Though certainly evocative, this definition is almost completely meaningless. The New Weird, the VanderMeers appear to be suggesting, is fantasy that shares none of the defining characteristics of fantasy literature… but then is what sense is it fantasy? Paradoxically imbued with both gritty realism and the flamboyantly fantastical, the New Weird’s true defining characteristic is a refusal to be hemmed in by anything as conventional as vulgar genre-based expectations. This spirit of taxonomical anarchy is also touched on in an essay by the author Michael Cisco:
The “New Weird,” as I’ve said, is a topic for critics and not so much for writers. Nothing could be more unenlightening or useless than a New Weird manifesto. What strikes the observer is precisely the spontenaiety with which so many different writers, pursuing such obviously disparate literary styles, should vaguely intersect in this way. Instead of a set of general aims, we have a great proliferation of correspondences on a more intimate level, like a sprawling coincidence of idiosyncratic choices.
According to Cisco, the New Weird is not about ideology and purpose but relationships and decisions: Who influences whom? Who read what before they started writing? Who did that really cool thing I might want to try in my next story? This emphasis on the immediate and social aspects of literary culture at the expense of the historical and ideological has lead to the creation of an intellectual climate in which authors are encouraged to appropriate a wide array of tropes without ever worrying about the cultural context in which those tropes were originally developed.
The history of genre is now little more than a toy box filled to the brim with sterile notions and techniques stripped of context. This desire to purge culture of both history and politics, Mark Fisher suggests, is as much a product of end-stage capitalism as our inability to see the future:
The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence; which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.
By wrenching all genre tropes and techniques from their original contexts and placing them on an equal footing, the rise of the Weird has allowed writers to move freely between different genres and produce works that either deliberately straddle several genres at once or sit ambiguously between them. This sense of ambiguity is now so common in genre circles that whenever a genre writer produces a work containing no genre elements at all, someone somewhere will inevitably attempt to claim the work as genre. However, because genres have now been stripped of all defining characteristics, people are forced to rest their genre-related claims on the somewhat disingenuous notion that while genre boundaries no longer exist, all genre stories have a particular ‘feel’ that distinguishes them from all other types of story. As Kincaid puts it in his essay:
While considering the titles of these volumes, we might also wonder about the terms “science fiction” and “fantasy” that appear there. There are, for instance, some stories included here that don’t seem, or don’t need, to appear in either camp. “Rampion” by Alexandra Duncan (in Horton) is a good and in places quite beautiful story set in Moslem Spain, but there is nothing about it that identifies it as fantastic other than its place of original publication (it appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction). When the son of the caliph falls in love with the Christian girl trapped in a high tower, there is perhaps a suggestion of the Rapunzel story, but not enough to make this a fairy tale. The girl’s evil mother studies herbs for their use as poisons and has a reputation as a witch, but no witchcraft is really involved. What this is, in other words, is a fairly straightforward historical romance; I can only assume that any aura of the fantastic is wished upon it by the reader.
The positive repercussions of this development are undeniable: Once limited to a small circle of publications, contemporary genre writers are now free to roam from genre to genre, adding their unique voices to what were previously insular genre conversations. Science fiction has learned from fantasy just as fantasy has learned from horror and the increasingly porous nature of genre boundaries has even resulted in a number of mainstream writers trying their hands at works of genre. Once upon a time, works such as Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007) and Marcel Theroux’s Far North (2009) would have been arrogantly dismissed as incompetent literary tourism but now they find themselves being celebrated as great works of science fiction.
Unfortunately, while there is no denying that the Weird approach to genre writing has resulted in many positive changes, it would be foolish to deny that these changes came at a high price. The most notable cost of softening the genre boundaries has been an increasing reluctance to treat anything with any degree of seriousness. For example, in order to write a science fiction story containing a talking horse, one must first deal with the fact that people do not expect talking horses to turn up in science fiction stories. Thus, in order to produce such a story, a writer must reach the conclusion that genre boundaries and expectations are things unworthy of being taken seriously. The problem is that, once writers began treating genre boundaries with a degree of ironic detachment, they found it rather difficult to be serious about anything at all. Fisher again:
When it actually arrives, capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture. It is a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis. The limits of capitalism are not fixed by fiat, but defined (and re-defined) pragmatically and improvisationally. This makes capitalism very much like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.
The first lesson of postmodernity is that nothing is sacred. Once one accepts that nothing is sacred then all of human knowledge and culture opens itself to us as a vast toy box from which ideas can be plucked, played with and cast aside without fear of either misunderstanding or causing offence. Desperate not to appear hemmed in by old rules and boundaries, postmodern genre writers now crawl through the detritus of human civilisation like Mesozoic predators in search of a some new combination of ideas that might somehow hit a chord and garner some attention. Pulp bin Laden? James Bond Vs. Cthulhu? Steampunk Macchiavelli? Post 9/11 Flying Cities? All are equally welcome in the world of postmodern science fiction.
In a famous essay about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe angrily accused Conrad of reducing the entire African continent to the status of a prop in the break-up of a single European mind. At the time, Achebe’s words were deemed to carry so much moral force that many academics were shocked that anyone could think such a thing about Conrad’s novella. These days, Achebe’s analysis of Conrad’s cultural appropriation reads like an instruction manual for how to write successful genre fiction. Once marginalised by the mainstream, contemporary genre writers now behave like colonial viceroys; strip-mining foreign cultures and using their spoils to erect sinister temples to their own ironic mediocrity.
When the American writer Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) suggested that a future dominated by South East Asia might well be hell on Earth, few people considered his demonization of entire South East Asian cultures to be in anyway racist or exploitative.
When the American writer Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear airbrushed social class out of 1940s Britain, the field responded by handing her some of its most prestigious awards.
This failure to take ideas seriously or to recognise the ways in which they intersect with the world applies not just to other cultures but to entire areas of intellectual discourse. For example, China Mieville’s The City & The City (2009) builds upon the idea that social and political forces have such an impact upon our perceptions of the world that two cities might co-exist physically without either set of inhabitants acknowledging each other’s existence. Over hundreds of pages, Mieville draws on different forms of thought about class and race and uses them to construct a sprawling allegorical representation of the social construction of reality. However, once this allegory is constructed, Mieville pointedly refuses to apply it to the real world. In an interview with Geoff Manaugh at The Bldg Blog, Mieville makes his reluctance to speak about the world abundantly clear:
My intent with The City and The City was, as you say, to derive something hyperbolic and fictional through an exaggeration of the logic of borders, rather than to invent my own magical logic of how borders could be. It was an extrapolation of really quite everyday, quite quotidian, juridical and social aspects of nation-state borders: I combined that with a politicized social filtering, and extrapolated out and exaggerated further on a sociologically plausible basis, eventually taking it to a ridiculous extreme.
But I’m always slightly nervous when people make analogies to things like Palestine because I think there can be a danger of a kind of sympathetic magic: you see two things that are about divided cities and so you think that they must therefore be similar in some way.
Faced with the possibility that an abstract idea might intersect with the world in a way that might provoke some sort of social change, the Marxist intellectual turns tail and runs.
In a brilliant essay on the supposed political content of recent superhero films, the film critic David Bordwell suggests that Hollywood’s use of political ideas and imagery may well be intentionally ambiguous:
A Hollywood film tends to pose sharp moral polarities and then fuzz or fudge or rush past settling them. For instance, take The Bourne Ultimatum: Yes, the espionage system is corrupt, but there is one honorable agent who will leak the information, and the press will expose it all, and the malefactors will be jailed. This tactic hasn’t had a great track record in real life.
The constitutive ambiguity of Hollywood movies helpfully disarms criticisms from interest groups (“Look at the positive points we put in”). It also gives the film an air of moral seriousness (“See, things aren’t simple; there are gray areas”). […] It’s in filmmakers’ interests to push a lot of our buttons without worrying whether what comes out is a coherent intellectual position.
Writers like Mieville are in the business of pushing buttons. Rather than write about Palestine or about the British class system, Mieville wrote a book that alludes to the world whilst remaining firmly detached from it. However, because his sterile fantasia is seeded with symbols and ideas that are drawn from the world by less squeamish thinkers, people are lured into believing Mieville’s work to be politically engaged.
This fondness for ironic posturing has even spread to science fiction’s attitude to science itself. Hyped as the next big thing in science fiction, Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel The Quantum Thief is filled with scientific ideas and jargon that are never fully explored. Strewn across the page like the spoor of a modernist poet, Rajaniemi’s scientific ideas are really little more than set dressing for a baroque farce where gentlemen thieves battle boy detectives against a backdrop of ancien regime, post-singular affluence. Similarly, while the plot of Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World (2010) hinges upon the discovery of a scientific answer for the inconsistencies in the world’s physics, the answer the book provides has no basis whatsoever in actual scientific thought. Thus, while the structure and vocabulary of the novel resemble those of a traditional science fiction novel, Reynolds replaced the boring ‘science bit’ with the sort of hand-wavy metaphysical claptrap usually associated with disgraced New Age gurus and roleplaying game magic systems.
The increasing popularity of using fantasy tropes in science fictional settings can also be accounted for in terms of detachment from the rules of coherent storytelling. Indeed, one of the great advantages of ‘magical’ solutions to problems is that their narrative power requires little or no unpacking. For example, after three thousand pages of densely plotted space operatic grandstanding in which entire civilisations fall apart, Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn series ends with the discovery of a literal deus ex machina (a long-abandoned machine called ‘the sleeping god’) that instantly dissolves all outstanding plot points and transports human civilisation to the far side of the galaxy. Though presented as an alien artefact similar to something like the monolith in 2001, the decision to name the artefact ‘the sleeping god’ and to attribute its construction to a long-disappeared elder civilisation locates the object more firmly in the fantastical tradition than the science fictional. As Kincaid puts it in an interview conducted for the blog Nerds of a Feather:
The other crossover element that I criticized, and it is a different aspect of the same issue, is the number of stories that use the affect of fantasy in what is ostensibly a science fiction story. If you look back at science fiction criticism over the years you will find authors and stories consistently being criticized for hand-waving. That is, for setting up a rigorous situation and then resolving it in some less than rigorous way. Fantasy, now, is another and even more blatant way of doing that. True fantasy is as rigorous as science fiction: you play fair with the readers. If anything can happen, then nothing matters. Using the tropes of fantasy to resolve a science fiction story is just a way of waving your hand and saying ‘it doesn’t matter, because anything can happen, all it takes is the whim of the author’. I cannot read a story that takes that form without my confidence in both the writer and their creation instantly plummeting.
Contemporary science fiction is not interested in science, culture, history, ideas or real human psychology. Not really. To be interested in such things requires engagement not only with the world but also entire bodies of knowledge generated by hundreds of fevered human minds. Incapable of taking anything seriously and unwilling to risk disapproval by writing anything that might be deemed in any way political, genre writers spend their days like performing dolphins; pushing a load of battered toys around the pool while undemanding audiences roar their approval. Occasionally, a particularly well-trained dolphin receives a celebratory bucket of fish heads in the ballroom of a beige mid-Western hotel.
While this aesthetic of ironic detachment pervades most of mainstream science fiction, genre’s postmodern turn is most evident in two particular approaches to science fiction that have become increasingly popular in recent times.
2.1 The Nostalgic
One of the most striking examples of science fiction’s loss of interest in the future is the field’s growing fascination with counter-factual histories. Once associated with works like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), the alternate or counter-factual history relied upon the conceit that changes to the historical record might radically alter the world as we know it. For example, in The Man in the High Castle, America’s failure to recover after the Great Depression resulted in Germany defeating the USSR and effectively winning the Second World War. Though still very much a part of the genre, this type of alternate history has now largely been superseded by stories set in versions of familiar historical periods that have been augmented by the addition of genre tropes such as a version of Queen Victoria’s British Empire where steam power is highly advanced or a 15th Century Aztec Empire where the Aztec gods are real and people can cast magic spells.
While Steampunk novels such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) remain the poster children for this particular branch of speculative fiction, Kincaid points out that you do not need goggles and top hats to write about fictional histories. Speaking of Karl Schroeder’s “Laika’s Ghost”, Kincaid says:
It is one of the best stories in these three collections, but it is almost anti-SF in its affect: the future has run its course and come to an end; what was one of the most exciting aspirations of science fiction—the promise of life on another world—is here made available only to those looking backward to a former time. It is a story that makes manifest the exhaustion that is immanent throughout these three collections.
In a move I find overly reductive, Kincaid includes Schroeder’s self-conscious engagement with expired futures in the same category as works set in the same future elaborated by Heinlein and Asimov. In reality, this move does both sets of stories a grave disservice as while old school space opera may be lazy and formulaic, it is neither as unsettling nor as innovative as the stuff going on in a lot of Steampunk and retro-futurist writings.
In his brilliant overview of the prehistoric fiction genre The Fire in the Stone (2009), Nicholas Ruddick argues that, far from being fixed, our concept of Humanity has changed over the course of time. For example, in the early 20th Century, when authors such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells wrote about cavemen, their refusal to recognise humanity’s capacity for violence lead them to look at the imposing size and ape-like features of the Neanderthal and declare them to be inhuman monsters. However, as cultural attitudes shifted and our vision of human nature began to change, prehistoric fiction writers came to acknowledge human savagery and so concluded that, though undeniably different, Neanderthals were most definitely human.
The humanisation of the Neanderthals reached its artistic pinnacle when William Golding suggested, in his novel The Inheritors (1955), that liberal post-War humanity might find more in common with the gentle Neanderthal than with the cunning and brutal Homo Sapiens who wiped out the Neanderthals and then set their sights on Jews, Romani, Socialists and well… pretty much everyone.
Much like Steampunk, The Inheritors is an attempt to clear the historical slate and equip contemporary humanity with a set of cultural antecedents more in keeping with contemporary values. By encouraging us to ‘adopt’ his pacifist Neanderthals, Golding built a synthetic creation myth that expunged the guilt that many Western liberals felt in the aftermath of the Holocaust. By choosing to empathise with long-dead Neanderthals rather than murderous Humans, Golding’s readers were distancing themselves from the elements of human nature that allowed the Holocaust to happen in the first place.
The allure of Steampunk lies in the fact that it offers middle-class white people the chance to adopt a fictional past that is devoid of white liberal guilt. The Steampunk Victorian Empire is unaffected by sexism, racism, homophobia or class-division. Instead, it is a vast historical playground where modern attitudes prevail and immaculately dressed Mary Sues drink port with William Gladstone before firing-up their steam-powered iPads in order to hack the difference engines controlling Herr Bismarck’s sinister land leviathans.
Steampunk’s lack of historical foundation is precisely what makes it compelling. By adopting this set of fictional antecedents in place of the West’s real colonial past, readers are distancing themselves from the racism, sexism, homophobia and social snobbery of their forebears. To be a fan of Steampunk is carefully cut all of the ugly pictures out of one’s family album and replace them with pictures of Amanda Palmer wearing a top hat and a corset.
While the idea of an escapist fantasy that allows middle-class white people to escape their historical responsibility is about as politically dubious as contemporary science fiction gets, the fundamental mechanics of the Nostalgic approach to science fiction are largely value free as they are principally about building a fictional past that fits with how people feel about the present.
Schroeder’s short story is an interesting counterpoint to Steampunk as it is dealing in feelings a little bit more substantial than politically dubious power fantasies. “Laika’s Ghost” exiles to space flight to the ruins of the Soviet era in an attempt to express the feeling that humanity’s dreams of space flight have been left to rot like an old Soviet tractor factory. Science fiction built itself up by asserting again and again that, to paraphrase Alfred Bester, the stars were our destination. What Schroeder does is accept that humanity’s future no longer lies in space and so repositions this future as an offshoot of the past similar to that embodied by Soviet futurism. The global revolution never came… and neither did the Terran Star Empire.
Another noteworthy example of a non-reactionary deployment of the Nostalgic is William Gibson’s short story “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981) in which a photographer recoils in horror when he imagines what it might have been like to live in the world prophesised by 1950s science fiction. Unlike Steampunk that uses fictional realities to edit out the world’s more unpleasant elements, Gibson uses his fictional reality to express both his disgust with traditional forms of SF and his desire for a science fiction that engages with the world as it actually is: ugly, messy, complex and real.
Written thirty years apart, both of these stories use possible futures as means of expressing personal regret and disgust. The futures depicted in both “Laika’s Ghost” and “The Gernsback Continuum” are fictional even in the context of a story… these are not futures that reflect the realities of the world, these are futures built in the emotional aftermath of a particularly memorable dream. These futures deal not in facts but in feelings.
This willingness to re-write the past and replace unpleasant truths with kick-ass empowerment myths requires postmodern detachment both from the historical record and from political realities of the day. People feel able to write about heroic Victorian gentlemen because they do not really care what actual Victorian gentlemen were like and they certainly do not care that people with different backgrounds might find it hugely offensive that white middle-class people appear to be reclaiming their colonial heritage and reinventing it as a source of carefree escapist fun. Nobody cares because all of these symbols have been wrenched from their correct historical contexts.
2.2 The Humanistic
The second demonstration of science fiction’s exhaustion with the future is also the most politically charged. Choosing his words carefully, Kincaid praises both Aliette de Bodard’s “The Jaguar House, in Shadow” and Lavie Tidhar’s “The Smell of Orange Groves” and observes that:
It is, perhaps, not entirely coincidental that Lee and Tidhar, along with Aliette de Bodard, are among an emerging generation of writers of the fantastic (their work tends more towards fantasy than science fiction) who mostly are or have been resident in America or brought up in Britain, but whose background is not straightforwardly Anglo-American.
Both Aliette de Bodard and Lavie Tidhar are rising stars in the world of speculative fiction. Though undeniably talented in their own right, both writers are beneficiaries of the growing realisation that speculative fiction is too white, too male, too straight and too Anglo-American for its own good.
One of the more surprising things about the increasing status of writers from traditionally marginalised groups is that while these writers frequently possess insider knowledge of other countries and cultures, their most celebrated works seldom engage with the realities of these places. Thus, a woman of French/Vietnamese descent who grew up in Paris has risen to prominence by writing about Aztec detectives and pre-Communist China while a man who grew up in an Israeli Kibbutz before living both in Laos and South Africa achieved notoriety as a writer of Steampunk novels. With stories anchored in their experiences of the non-Western world either unwritten or uncelebrated, writers from traditionally marginalised groups find themselves being gently herded into a comfortably ironic and Humanistic approach to genre writing.
The reason I refer to this repercussion as ‘Humanistic’ is because this type of story relies upon the assumption that, while the human experience may differ from culture to culture, it retains an unchanging emotional core that allows people from different times and places to understand each other provided they have a shared vocabulary. One on-going attempt to create a shared artistic language is the movement known as World Cinema.
The best way of describing World Cinema’s terms of engagement is to use an example. Set in contemporary Iran, Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter (2010) borrows heavily from the iconography of 1970s American paranoid thrillers such as Taxi Driver (1976) and The Parallax View (1974) to tell the story of an Iranian man who is pushed to the edge by a brutal and incompetent government. Though packed with familiar tropes and techniques, the aim of the film is not to produce a work of genre but to use the language of genre to communicate a deeper truth about contemporary Iranian culture.
The film assumes that, while the emotional subtleties of contemporary Iranian life may not be immediately obvious to people from other cultures, the language of cinema is universal enough to allow some degree of cross-cultural communication. For example, though few people in the West will understand what it is like to live under a corrupt and incompetent government that does not hesitate to kill in order to cover up its own mistakes, they will recognise the similarities between The Hunter and The Parallax View and infer the existence of some shared cultural ground.
Films like The Hunter use genre tropes as a kind of Rosetta stone allowing people from one (usually Western) culture to experience a distant echo of what it feels like to live in another (usually non-Western) culture. In principle, the more these Western tropes are reclaimed and used to communicate non-Western truths, the more universal these tropes become.
The problem with this approach to inter-cultural communication is that the ‘universal’ elements of an artistic vocabulary tend to be determined by social means and thus are subject to the same inequalities as the societies that produced them. In a moving essay written in the immediate aftermath of a hugely traumatic confrontation of the field’s attitude to marginalised groups (an event now referred to as Racefail ’09), blogger Deepa D points out a number of the political problems inherent in humanistic approaches to intercultural dialogue. By keeping traditional Western tropes in place and inviting non-Western people to make use of them, Western culture is not only assuming a level playing field in terms of access to publication, it is also assuming that all tropes speak equally to all people despite the fact that some people have very different cultural heritages:
Dragons are not universal. If I am defensive, it is because I have had to learn how to love Tolkein while trying to find myself in the unmapped lands in the East where the Green and Blue wizards disappeared to.
In other words, while World Cinema may aspire to humanistic universality the reality is that non-Western people are forced to approach the World Cinema scene as supplicants compelled to abandon their own cultural vocabularies in favour of a bastardised version of the Hollywood lingua franca. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the same problem is also present in genre writing.
Traditionally marginalised groups are forced to strike a balance between authenticity and Western accessibility: Rely too much on your own native tropes and Westerners will ignore you but embrace too much of the Western cultural vocabulary and you will not only lose your own voice, you will also wind up having to compete with Western creators on unfavourable terms. It is here that we find the tension between the scene’s affected postmodern irony and its desire to become both more inclusive and more respectful of other people’s cultures. The idea that non-Western people might have privileged access to non-Western beliefs and cultures does not sit well with a literary culture that struggles to acknowledge the fact that all cultural artefacts are born of a material world in which people struggle, suffer and die.
In an effort to resolve this tension, the field has begun celebrating works by authors from traditionally excluded groups on the understanding that, while these writers have unique perspectives we should all be listening to, their stories must never actually deal with the realities of what it is like to be excluded or oppressed. Instead of embracing reality, experience and understanding as means of expanding both science fiction’s relevance and its accessibility to other cultures, emerging authors have been quietly herded into a Humanistic arena where new voices affect an ironic tone and wrap themselves around the same old toothless idioms of exhausted postmodernity. What is Okorafor’s Who Fears Death if not a Gene Wolf pastiche with African set dressing? What is Beukes’ Zoo City if not a generic crime/fantasy hybrid with a few postmodern inserts and a bit of local colour? In contemporary science fiction, the traditionally disenfranchised are encouraged to write as long as their stories do not remind us of the historical inequalities that marginalised these writers in the first place.
The problematic nature of the balancing act facing non-Anglo science fiction writers is recognised in an interview that SF Signal’s John Ottinger conducted with Lavie Tidhar:
World SF has always been defined by the American model of science fiction. Either trying to write just like it – even setting stories in America, and using American names for characters and so on – or, and more recently, trying to define against it, by writing stories that are set in local milieus with local characters, stories that react against the American model, while still being influenced by it.
The apolitical and detached nature of the Humanistic approach to genre writing becomes even more evident once you realise that the idea of using genre tropes to communicate personal experience is not limited to intercultural dialogue. For example, Connie Willis’ Hugo-winning Blackout/All Clear (2011) can be read as an attempt by an author in her sixties to communicate to younger readers the need to both remember and honour the sacrifices of her parents’ generation. Similarly, Jo Walton’s Among Others (2011) uses fantastical elements to communicate a youth littered with trauma and mental illness while Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree (2009) and The Drowning Girl (2012) use horror and fantasy techniques to represent a mental state that struggles to distinguish between the real, the mythical, the fictional and the delusional.
3. Historical Recovery Position
While many of these books are excellent examples of their styles of writing, I cannot help but yearn for books that plunge us into the world rather than aid our flight from it. The thing that unites humanity is not the trappings of popular culture, but the realities of a world that needs to be both confronted and understood if it is ever to change.
It is now almost a cliché to say that we are living in a science fictional world but it is genuinely astonishing to think about how much science fiction writers have got right over the years:
Every morning, I sit at my desk and fire up a Twitter client that allows me to communicate with people around the globe in real time. Both a sounding board and a source of information, Twitter has me bouncing my ideas off Australian graduate students and Indian journalists while other people retweet links to their latest blog posts for the people living in different time zones. Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe (2004) predicted much of what it meant to have one’s community exist in entirely different places and yet hardly any contemporary science fiction novels acknowledge the existence of social media let alone engage with the social and psychological changes heralded by such a radically different types of community.
Having grown afraid of the political repercussions of putting soldiers in harm’s way, American political elites have increasingly come to rely on the use of remote controlled planes as a means of imposing American political hegemony on remote parts of the globe. Increasingly sophisticated at the level of both software and hardware, these drones are beginning to resemble the drones that appeared in Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels but while Banks’ predictions of a hard robotic hand inside a velvety human glove come to pass, Banks himself seems more interested in reimagining the Culture as a fantastical backdrop similar to that of Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought series.
I used the examples of Doctorow and Banks as both are writers whose careers have played out against a background of ironic detachment. Indeed, between Doctorow’s fondness for Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Banks’ increasing fondness for epic quest narratives, both Doctorow and Banks demonstrate how even the most detached of writers can sometimes connect directly to the world around them. Indeed, the point of this essay was never to make monolithic statements about the true nature of science fiction but rather to draw attention to a broad narrative of detachment that has transformed the mainstream of science fiction into an airless postmodern vacuum. Science fiction never completely stopped commenting on the world… it’s just that the works that do comment on the world do not get as much attention as those that pointedly ignore it. Similarly, few writers have completely abandoned writing about either the future or science, it is just that these ideas now lurk on the periphery rather than in the foreground of the text. I am not calling for a complete re-think of the science fictional enterprise, rather I would like to see the genre seize this historic opportunity and rediscover its heritage of engagement and prediction.
Part of what makes this moment so special is the fact that we have seen cracks appear in the façade of neoliberalism. Francis Fukuyama once wrote of the end of history having been achieved but the economic, social and political turbulence engulfing the world make it clear that history is very much alive and kicking.
The challenge facing contemporary science fiction is to widen the cracks and to peer through the fractured veneer of neoliberalism in an effort to see what could one day come to pass. These futures, though speculative, must always remain anchored in the present moment as the real challenge facing science fiction is not merely to create a possible future, but to create the type of possible future that is currently deemed unthinkable. As Mark fisher puts it:
The long dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.
My greatest source of optimism for the future of science fiction lays in the fact that science fiction has handled precisely this type of situation before. Back in the 1950s, the British science fiction author John Wyndham wrote a series of novels attempting to make sense of the end of the British Empire. Snarkily dubbed ‘Cosy Catastrophes’ by Brian Aldiss, these works painted a memorable image of middle-class folk struggling to cling to their old lifestyles as the world fell apart around them.
In The Day of the Triffids (1951) Wyndham describes middle-class people being shackled to the sick and blind in a misguided effort to create a more equal society. Confronted by this nightmare of post-Imperial socialist egalitarianism, Wyndham’s characters retreat to the Isle of Wight where they begin to draw up plans to re-impose their middle-class values on the world. A similar terror of unchecked social change pervades Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) as a group of villagers realise that their brilliantly gifted children are in fact a group of inhuman monsters that must be destroyed lest their difference taint the entire planet.
Looking back on Wyndham’s work, it is easy to laugh at the astonishing narrow-mindedness of his concerns. Less than a decade after the publication of The Midwich Cuckoos, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would take the idea of a generation of radically Other children and turned it into a franchise that sold millions of comics and inspired the creation of a series of vastly successful blockbuster movies. We laugh at Wyndham’s social conservatism and cheer the X-men’s celebration of difference in part because Wyndham did his job as a science fiction writer. By using genre techniques to isolate social trends and force them out into the open where they can be discussed and analysed in a fictional context, Wyndham was helping an entire generation process and come to terms with a period of intense social unrest, a period very similar to our own.
We are living through a period of instability. As government and businesses teeter on the brink of collapse and individuals acquire fortunes so vast that they beggar belief, our cosy Western reality is beginning to fall apart. For the first time in decades, the next generation of Westerners will be less well off than their parents as jobs, housing and opportunity decline across the board. Devoid of ideas and clearly terrified by the responsibility of having to keep a decaying system together, Western leaders tear up a century of political reform and strip the state back to its feudal origins: Armies to fight foreigners and a police force to fight everyone else. Faced with such terrifying instability and the shadow of a hideous future being born, Western culture has responded by dutifully ignoring the warning signs and encouraging us to buy more stuff. Don’t worry about your job… picture yourself as a Victorian airship captain! Don’t think too much about what the government is doing with your taxes… read a series of novels about bloggers fighting zombies! Don’t pay attention to real world inequalities… moan about how oppressed and mistreated you are for wanting to watch a cartoon about magical ponies and friendship! Never has the term ‘cosy catastrophe’ seemed more fitting than it does today.
Just as Joe Haldeman once used science fictional tropes to process the experience of returning from Vietnam to find America completely changed in The Forever War (1976) and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) addressed the changing nature of female identity, contemporary science fiction must find a way to confront, process and make sense of the world as it is today. We are living in a science fictional world and this means that science fiction is in a unique position to help us to make sense of a dangerously unstable world. By rediscovering its ties to reality and using old tropes to explore new problems, science fiction can provide humanity with its first draft of future history.
Mercifully, some works of science fiction are still interested in processing the present as a means of unravelling the future. Adam Roberts’ New Model Army (2010) is a brilliant exploration of what it feels like to lose oneself in an online crowd. Set in a near-future Europe, the book tells of a group of people who set up a mercenary company using real-time social media technologies such as instant messaging and wikis. As this new form of community proves itself far more efficient than traditional military hierarchies, the members of the community are drawn further and further together to the point where their identities become lost in a sort of institutional hive mind. The final scenes of the novel where the online ‘giants’ become self-aware and rampage across Europe can be seen as a foreshadowing of both the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring where new forms of political institution clashed violently with elements of the traditional nation state.
Similarly vital is the short fiction of Tim Maughan. Tim Maughan is a particularly interesting case as while his stories have received nominations for genre awards, his rise to prominence has owed more to social networking and word of mouth than to the more traditional approach of working one’s way up through the field’s various institutions and publishing platforms. Maughan’s self-published short fiction collection Paintwork (2011) strips cyberpunk of the air of bourgeois smugness it acquired in books such as Gibson’s Spook Country (2007) or Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008) and uses those tropes to confront issues of authenticity and personal morality in an age of cut-throat social capitalism. In Maughan’s vision of the future, online communities are nothing more than the latest in a long line of institutions designed to strip us of our money, our time, our freedom, and our individuality. Maughan’s most recent story “Limited Edition” pushes this engagement with the world even further by directly confronting the legacy of the 2011 London riots in which stores were smashed open and looted in a fit of what can only be described as consumerist rage. Set in a near-future Bristol, “Limited Edition” suggests how social media and gamification might transform civil unrest into little more than a PR stunt designed to sell trainers. Anyone who has jumped on a Twitter bandwagon only to see people benefit both professionally and financially from other people’s anger will recognise the emotions distilled in Maughan’s story.
These are the types of story that science fiction should be producing. These are the types of things that science fiction should be attempting to deal with. Science fiction need not be exhausted and ironic… it can be strong, it can be relevant and it can be vital. All it needs to do is remember how to write about the world and remember that the world is a complex place that can be apprehended from many different directions.
However, while I warmly recommend the writings of both Roberts and Maughan, I am very much aware that these are stories being told by the same types of white middle-class men who have always been allowed to tell stories in science fiction. My inability to recommend similarly engaged stories by non-male, non-western and non-middle class writers may reflect poorly upon the field but it definitely reflects poorly upon me as a reader, a critic and someone who purports to give a shit about the direction of the field. It is traditional for white men who write about these types of issues to turn these discussions into extended odes to their awesome capacity to see further and wider than other white men. Frankly, I ain’t that type of boy and the only way to move past this type of problem is to stop paying attention to people like me. Diversity is not solely a problem for publishers, anthologists and jurors on awards panels, it is a problem for everyone who takes an interest in these types of state-of-the-nation debates. So… if you are as sick as I am of the narrow and politically naive range of viewpoints celebrated by the field, vote with your feet and seek out critics and reviewers who will take the system to task and direct your attention to non-white, non-male and non-Western writers who can draw on their personal experiences and look through the cracks of a cultural system built by straight white men. The system may have us, but the world is out there!