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Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future

October 3, 2012

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’.

 

JJ Bell's chart of the Singularity

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!

 

134 Comments
  1. October 3, 2012 2:27 pm

    I think the last paragraph impeaches the rest of the essay. You’re functionally saying, if we didn’t have so many white dudes, genre (and ostensibly the world) would be doing better things. While that may or may not be true, it makes the rest of your argument somewhat moot doesn’t it?

    That aside, I find the comparison of capitalism (and/or economic/social constructs) to science fiction (and/or genres) fascinating. I don’t know that I buy it, but it’s a compelling argument and one I would love to see you write about at length by itself.

    One of the difficulties in Kincaid’s essay is defining his terms. You’ve done that work here, using examples of both individual work and larger genre movements. It makes your points more accessible. Well done.

  2. BookWanderer permalink
    October 3, 2012 3:20 pm

    The publishing industry is very good at making money, not ideas. If it weren’t for GoodReads.com I might never have stumbled upon what is actually new in the scifi world today. You can’t expect many new ways of telling stories and exploring ideas by simply looking at what is popular, you have to delve deeper into the upstarts of our time.

    Look into Wool or Supremacy: Reformation to see where new ideas begin, not only in style of writing, but in delivery.

  3. October 3, 2012 3:36 pm

    Reblogged this on Brin Jackson, Fantasy writer & daydreamer and commented:
    What do you think?

  4. October 3, 2012 4:31 pm

    Justin —

    We get the field we deserve. Are white guys to blame for SF’s detachment from the world? Well… they were the guys in charge when it happened and only white middle-class people enjoying the boom years of the 90s and 00s could ever think that history was at an end.

    What I’m saying is that the world is a complex place and there are multiple ways in which to apprehend it. A fully engaged version of the field would pay attention to the opinions and insights of other peoples and yet the field’s current gatekeepers are overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly western, overwhelmingly straight and almost universally working class. These people (and I count myself among them) are very good at paying attention to the things that lie within their experience but not everything lies within the arena of our expertise. In order to address this shortfall, the field needs to work not only on its choice of books but also on its choice of gatekeepers. I’m not sure why that would automatically undermine everything I argued for except in the sense that I’m kind of saying ‘don’t pay any attention to me’.

    I’m glad you liked the essay though :-)

  5. October 3, 2012 4:37 pm

    BookWanderer —

    I’m not plugged into GoodReads at all but the impression I get is that it is a cultural space that has responded very well to the fact that most established genre gatekeepers have ignored goings on in YA (see the Worldcon reaction to the suggestion that there should be a YA Hugo). I’ve heard horror stories about corruption (people buying good reviews) and authors bullying people who write negative reviews and so it doesn’t strike me as a particularly healthy cultural space BUT I will happily admit that I don’t know very much about it at all. If you have found your bliss there, good for you!

    I hadn’t heard of the book you linked to but it seems to be a traditional space opera with gods thrown into it which is pretty much the exact opposite of what I think science fiction should be doing. Nice plug though.

  6. Scot permalink
    October 3, 2012 5:17 pm

    Wait wait wait. You first slam SF writers for not coming to grips with the impending ecological catastrophe, then indict Bacigulapi’s “Windup Girl” as a racist slur? Buh? “The Windup Girl” is one of the few works to look the unthinkable yet unavoidable straight in the eye; this includes not only ecological collapse but also the ability of Western capitalism to exploit Asia for every drop of sweat, every bit of materiel, even, literally, every strand of DNA.

    As for Mieville’s purported unwillingness to say “The City & The City” is an allegory for Palestine and Israel, what if, perhaps, HE DIDN’T MEAN IT THAT WAY, and you’re taking him to task for not personally blessing your personal interpretation?

    Lots of poo-flinging here. Go learn some sign language before coming back to converse with the other chimps.

  7. October 3, 2012 5:39 pm

    Scot — The Windup Girl is a MASSIVELY racist novel and it is to the field’s eternal shame that it wound up winning half a Hugo without the field a) acknowledging and b) dealing with this racism.

    Having said that, I actually think that Windup Girl is a pretty interesting novel largely because the novel’s racism mirrors the racism that underpins much of the West’s terror at the prospect of China becoming a hegemonic power. In a way, it’s very similar to The Day of the Triffids in that both novels are howls of fear and outrage at the end of empire. We can look at the Day of the Triffids and laugh at how reactionary it is, why not Windup Girl?

    A Twitter friend of mine Aisha Subramanian wrote a lovely piece addressing this very issue:

    http://www.practicallymarzipan.com/2012/04/from-the-reading-while-brown-chronicles.html

    The ability to deal with texts in a non-nuanced fashion is largely a privilege of the top dogs in any cultural space. People who are not straight, white, male, westerners are forced to deal with nuance in their culture from a very young age and so are better suited to these types of internal tensions.

    For my money, Windup Girl is a lot like Lovecraft in that what makes it interesting in the first place is the author’s racist worldview. Lovecraft was raised as a WASPish aristocrat but he wound up as a virtual pauper who externalised his sense of entitlement in a profound hatred of the ethnic minorities who thrived in New York while WASPish aristocrats like Lovecraft failed to secure even menial work. Windup Girl is a book written by a man who visited South East Asia and found it not to his taste… his poor experiences of the place then fed into his American fear of Imperial collapse and externalised itself as one of the most racist mainstream SF novels in recent times.

    As for Mieville, I understand that he didn’t intend to engage with the world and that’s precisely why I think he’s an author who systematically pulls his punches. This is a man who wears his Marxism on his sleave… why isn’t he writing novels about the end of Capitalism? Why isn’t he looking through the cracks in the neoliberal facade? Why isn’t he writing about the ways in which class distorts our vision of the world?

  8. October 3, 2012 5:51 pm

    As for the weirding, I’d say a decent factor in favour of it is that, well, currently literature needs to excite in order to sell. As more and more of past’s sci-fi technology becomes common and mundane, authors need to invent more and more contrived perversions of the real world to make it different enough to be interesting.
    What you say about space operas with gods thrown in them – yes, I definitely see your point. Most of the new scifi (admittedly, pretty standard faire) I’ve read is far more on the fantasy side of science fiction than “classic” works.

    However.
    It sounds, in part, that what you are calling for is the resurgence of “social fiction”. By that, I mean literature that takes the criticism and extrapolation of current societal trends and potential pitfalls as a core focus of ‘message’. 1984, Fahrenheit 451 – those are, I’d say, epitomes of Social Fiction, relegating the “science” – at least the technological science – very far on the backburner, for a paperthin handwave of miniscule backdrop elements. I am not sure if that really should be the direction of Science Fiction. Consider, “science fiction” as a term does not actually invite criticism of cultures, religions, societies.. Well, yes, you might argue that social science is still science, but that’s not the ‘popular’ image of science. Inventions, discoveries, wild theorems, breakthroughs, experiments with the fabric of the world – that’s the usual association with “science”. And fiction is fiction is fiction, really.. You can have the most absurd leaps of imagination and fantasy, it will still fall under fiction. All in all, I’d say that the same “Quantum Thief” is still more of “Science Fiction” than 1984 is.

  9. October 3, 2012 6:21 pm

    X2Eliah —

    What I want from science fiction is commitment. If you want to write a book about the metaphysics behind the laws of nature then don’t piss about, write a book like Egan’s Schild’s Ladder. If you want to write a book about the impossibility of ever making sense of an alien language and the absurd contortions academia might put itself through in the process then write a book like Lem’s His Master’s Voice.

    It really doesn’t bother me what books are about as long as they commit to an idea and are rigorous about exploring that idea in detail. The reason why I dislike the fantastical turn in recent SF is that fantasy allows people to tell broadly SFnal stories with none of the care or rigour. For example, look at Al Reynolds’ Terminal World: He could have unpacked his world using scientific concepts but instead he pissed about with an RPG magic system.

    I would definitely like to see more socially aware SF that commits to certain social ideas and rides the bomb all the way to the ground whilst whooping and swinging around a cowboy hat but in truth, I would be happy if the field started paying attention to works that just stood for something… ANYTHING! What I can’t stand is books that just toss ideas about like confetti because President Taft riding Pinkie Pie into battle against Sauron is really cool and postmodern.

    Postmodernism was once big and clever, now it’s just fucking boring! I would like SF to rediscover its roots and I would like the field to realise that SF and Fantasy are distinct literary traditions with their own histories and values.

  10. October 3, 2012 6:38 pm

    As a rejoinder to this, Cel West (@kosmogrrl on Twitter) pointed out to me that Aliette de Bodard’s recent story Immersion might be the kind of thing I am looking for and she was absolutely right:

    http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/debodard_06_12/

    The story is essentially about what it is like to grow up as a South East Asian person when much of South East Asia’s social norms revolve around imitating Westerners. The story explores this concept using a device known as an ‘Immerser’ that guides one group of people and helps them to better immerse themselves into the dominant culture. Imbued with a profoundly melancholic anger, the story contains a number of lines which, as a white guy, really cut me to the bone. It is, without a doubt, precisely the type of thing that science fiction should be doing and I just hope that the institutions of SF are able to recognise that.

    Cel also wrote a blog post about notable SF novels that is worth a look:

    http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/debodard_06_12/

  11. BookWanderer permalink
    October 3, 2012 7:18 pm

    Jonathan McCalmont —

    GoodReads will always have authors gaming the system, but it is still a great place to just talk about books. The Sword & Laser book club has great discussions all the time, including about the topic of your post. This is also where I found out about the two scifi books that I mentioned: http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/4170-the-sword-and-laser

    Right after I commented, I realized you did just speak against ‘fantasy scifi’, but I stand with my recommendation because of how the story relates to our world. Yes, Supremacy: Reformation has gods, but it also has characters fighting for and against the ideas we hold ourselves. Two of the central characters argue over who is serving the gods the correct way, which I find very relevant to our present world.

    I do understand your frustration with the genre, but just don’t give up hope.

  12. Jeff VanderMeer permalink
    October 4, 2012 12:38 am

    There’s a lot of interesting stuff in here, but you’ll have to forgive me for commenting on some of the ways it’s lacking, because some of it seems to want to hand-pick some facts while other facts right beside them are ignored. For example, if you’d been following what’s going on in Steampunk, there’s a lot of interesting stuff that’s multicultural and a lot of it that’s using the subgenre to engage with colonial and post-colonial issues. I think Steampunk has become a convenient punching bag without most people really examining all of the evidence. It’s increasingly annoying to have to point this out since I’m not even a Steampunk writer in my fiction, except for one contrary story, but I will continue to do so because the opinion that Steampunk is by default non-progressive is simply wrong. To say so is to render invisible all of the great work being done in Singapore, Brazil, and elsewhere. That some of Steampunk is *commodity*…well, some or most of all commercial genre is commodity to some extent. You can find examples everywhere–even in the modes of fiction you personally like.

    I’m also not quite sure about your grouping of certain writers as part of The Weird, nor about The Weird being the bright, shiny thing everyone wants to be. Writers of weird fiction tend to be fairly marginalized, except for the most famous examples, and some of those you mention are by no means even writing weird fiction, or only do so very rarely. So I don’t think you have a good handle on this term. Further, The Weird is in general not overtly political or politicized–the best examples don’t interrogate the world through that kind of an approach to ideology. The best examples are therefore neither regressive nor progressive, but are going after something else entirely. They are just not part of this issue you’re grappling with one way or the other. (Which is another thing worth noting: fiction is generally not an either/or thing where you can put some work on one side and some work on to other. It’s more porous and interesting than that.)

    You’ve also only used part of the New Weird definition, which is embedded in a book that intentionally means to use the space of the book to interrogate “what is the new weird and does it exist?” We’d be very stupid editors indeed to include opinions contrary to the introduction by mistake.

    Another thing that this essay is truly hampered by, though, is its separation from world literature in general. It still is dealing only with issues in terms of one tiny part of the spectrum of fiction, and even there it’s lacking in seeming to have little or no knowledge of fiction by writers not already part of the commercial genre world, whether international or not. I think quite frankly that part of the answer to your frustrations is to stop reading just SF, fantasy, and horror, but to diversify across other kinds of literature, because there’s a wealth of material from all over the world that is provocative and engaging with the future, even if it’s not overtly SF.

    So the essay is a bit of a mish-mash. But it’s still interesting and provocative. You are of course correct that saying something is cross-genre does not automatically make it daring or new, and the pressure on anthologists to include name writers is, I think, beginning to wear more and more on the year’s best anthologies. Although some element of that has always been there. One solution, as I’ve said for years, is to have rotating editors for at least one of the year’s best series, so as to avoid burn-out and getting the same view of the field every year.

  13. October 4, 2012 12:56 am

    Speaking as someone who doesn’t watch many movies, it’s great to see you writing about science fiction literature again and I enjoyed the essay, though I mostly disagree. My central concern is your placing of prediction on a pedestal, but I want to develop that at a length that will require some time to produce, so in the meantime I just want to note that I think your dismissal of Who Fears Death as “Gene Wolfe pastiche” is incredibly inaccurate and does both authors a disservice.

    Yes, “Who Fears Death” and “Book of the New Sun” are both set in a future they describe with the language of fantasy. So what? They are using these (only slightly) similar means to completely different ends. I suppose you must disagree, because throughout this essay you take it for granted that fantasy and SF have different values and aspirations, which implies that somehow the furniture of a story predestines its concerns. Well, that’s nonsense, but it’s a straw man I don’t think even you believe so I’ll leave it be.

    Meanwhile, yes, they both are the first person narratives of a savior figure. But again, so what? Okorafor’s model is the accessible YA protagonist, a clear and emotive narrator who pulls the reader in so that we experience her world, its many miseries, and its rare triumphs through her eyes. I’m not sure Wolfe’s narrator has much of a precedent but whatever it might be, Severian rarely admits his emotions, uses prose calculated to be estranging, and frequently does things that make it nearly impossible for the reader to sympathize with him.

    But most importantly the two books aren’t actually about the same things. “Who Fears Death” is about the weaponization of atrocity, the emotional and political responses of those who suffer it, and the condition of women, all against a backdrop that is clearly drawn from very specific real world events in Darfur. “Book of the New Sun”, by contrast, has nothing at all to say about women, atrocity, or events in Darfur that happened after it was written. It does, however, have a great deal to say about identity, fate, and humanity’s tenuous relationship with the divine in a setting that is quite distant from our world.

    I thought your last paragraph was too harsh and generally you are self-aware to a fault, but shoving a non-traditional author into the nearest traditional box no matter how clumsy the fit is a classic reactionary white male move. But I am a white male myself so apply as much salt as you like.

    It seems I’ve written rather more than I intended about what is certainly a small element of a very long piece of writing, but no matter how forcefully you assert your opinions I won’t be convinced until I see evidence that backs them up, and this isn’t the only instance where this is lacking. To paraphrase Tolkien, America and Iain M. Banks both use the word “drone” but there the similarities end. Banks gets zero credit for predicting drone warfare. None. It’s just not there in his books. His drones are self-aware people, not remote operated machinery, and they fight along side flesh and blood operatives. This one is especially perplexing because the real project of Banks’ Culture books is exactly what you are asking for: a careful working out of the implications of a sort of a post-scarcity communal utopia.

  14. October 4, 2012 1:34 am

    I love everything that this essay is encouraging SF to do, but I have one MASSIVE disagreement with it, which is your total disparagement of postmodernity as uninvolved, detached irony. If that’s your opinion of it, you’re misreading postmodern philosophical works like Heidegger’s version of phenomenology, or David Foster Wallace’s fiction and non-fiction. Postmodernity is actually about complete involvement in the world. Context is the key concept in postmodern philosophy. The fact that the petty bourgeoisie has adapted that to an ironic detachment is no reason to disparage that philosophical approach to the world. The fact that nothing is sacred doesn’t devalue everything, but rather allows one to explore the context within which value is created. So yes to science fiction that engages the world, disputes the hegemony’s patristic worldview, and breaks down capitalism; no to your definition of postmodernism.

    To end with one of those usually useless pithy statements: postmodernity like the Internet is young, at least in terms of being a thing people outside of academia know about, we’ve been using it to suit our old purposes in most circumstances. Just give the young guns a chance to show their mettle. Like the Internet being touted as the new TV, postmodernity as ironic self-detachment is a poor misreading of it’s power. Take another look at it.

  15. October 4, 2012 5:23 am

    Jeff —

    I don’t think that Steampunk is necessarily reactionary as I don’t think that the techniques underpinning Steampunk are necessarily about escapism. As I tried to make clear in my discussion of the “Gernsback Continuum” and “Laika’s Ghost” I think that the process of adopting fictional pasts can serve distinctly progressive ends too.

    In truth, even if Steampunk was entirely reactionary, I would still have some sympathy for the people who used its spaces in precisely the way I describe. Life is hard and not everyone has time for political engagement and it’s a lot easier to escape to a fantasy world where the West’s colonial past doesn’t exist than it is to deal with the questionable emotions that flow from recognising that past and its role in shaping who you are as an individual.

    Having said that, I don’t think that a few radical and outlying stories change the bulk of what gets celebrated as Steampunk or what most people seem to get out of it as a literary form. There’s going to have to be a lot more working class Steampunk out there before one can suggest (as I think you are) that it is unfair to label it as an escapist sub-genre where white people do awesome things in top hats.

    As for the Weird, I’m using it to refer to the fashion for remaining detached from traditional genre expectations. It would be tempting to refer to it simply as ‘postmodernism’ but I think that would be reductive as I’m also bundling it up with one of the consequences of postmodernity, which is that the techniques and tropes of fantasy have proved more popular than those of SF and so they have begun to replace more traditional SFnal techniques resulting in a lot of SF beginning to look like fantasy. I would agree with you that this trend is a-political (I don’t actually claim it is political or necessarily regressive) and I think that is part of my problem with it. If you’re going to critique something, you need a particular vision of the world from which to do the critiquing and a lot of stories seem to be happy to ‘deconstruct’ but don’t actually push any agendas whilst deconstructing.

    As for your suggestion that I am somehow missing something by not referring to the world outside of genre writing. Um… this is an essay not just about science fiction but about the types of work that the institutions of the genre field have tended to celebrate. I’m not sure how the institutions of science fiction could be made to look better by referring to all the books they pointedly ignore. I agree with you entirely as I think it is very telling that both Gibson and Ballard produced some of their finest work about both the present and the future from OUTSIDE the genre.

    I agree with you about rotating editors, I think that would do a lot to improve matters. I also think that SF might be encouraged to be more topical by the creation of magazines with much shorter lead-times. I get the impression that a lot of authors shy away from social analysis because they’re terrified that they’ll write a story only for said story to appear foolish in the light of later events. One solution to that problem is to try to find a way of cutting the time between submission and publication and to encourage less careful and crafted stories that deal with the issues of the day.

  16. October 4, 2012 5:49 am

    Matt —

    It’s not a ‘straw man’… it’s a different opinion.

    The dominant language of genre criticism at the moment is pro-assimilation. We cheer when someone ‘breaks down genre boundaries’ and borrows from a number of different genres and we boo when someone churns out another science fiction novel in which intelligent people solve engineering problems.

    Assimilation, as I’m sure you’re aware, is far from an unproblematic notion as while the breaking-down of boundaries does produce something new and different, the erasure of those boundaries means that it becomes difficult to write the types of story that existed prior to the disappearance of those boundaries.

    My essay is partly a call for multiculturalism and the belief that while SF and Fantasy can live together by merging into one enormous fantastikal hyper-genre, they can also live together by retaining their distinct identities and histories.

    Before genre’s postmodern turn, SF was increasingly stagnant. We’d had a few moments of excitement and manifestos had been produced but in truth people were still writing spaceship stories albeit stories that acknowledged the existence of things like socialism and feminism. One solution to that stagnation was to use the singularity as a sort of trojan horse to import techniques and tropes from fantasy. As I say in the essay, that has produced great stories BUT those great stories came at a cost namely the marginalisation of what SF used to try and do.

    I liked some of what SF used to try and do a whole lot more than I like what it is doing now and so I would like to see some more stories that treat SF as a genre that is distinct from fantasy… I would like to see more of them and one way to encourage their creation is to suggest that SF should celebrate these types of story. What’s the problem?

    If I’m honest, I thought that Who Fears Death was a pretty mediocre novel. I thought it invoked a lot of really interesting issues and then promptly failed to engage with any of them in anything approaching an adult manner. Every time a tricky political issue reared its head, Okorafor would reach for the fantasy bag of tricks and have a dragon fly over the world or a gnomic magical event take place. Then, when she became self-conscious about how detached she was from the issues she was writing about, she would drop a suggestion that the novel takes place in a future Nigeria that is also a sort of metaphorical representation of the present. I didn’t buy then and I don’t buy it now… I think if you’re going to write about war crimes and the impact of said war crimes then you get dirty: you dig into post-traumatic stress, you dig into the hideous social cost of these moments of madness and you dig into the politics of why these tensions build and why they seem to unleash themselves in particular places at particular times. You do NOT have a dragon fly over the Earth. My problem with Who Fears Death is that it is not a novel ABOUT the things you say it is… Instead, it’s a fantasy coming of age story that alludes to the real world and draws on its iconography but it never properly engages.

    Naturally… there’s nothing morally wrong with writing this type of novel. I just think that we need to be clear on what Okorafor actually did, as opposed to what we wish she might have done. I’m not interested in works that draw on real world politics for the purposes of affect… I didn’t like it in Who Fears Death and I didn’t like it in The City & The City. I would like to see science fiction novels that engage with the world rather than allude to it.

  17. October 4, 2012 5:55 am

    Spinfuzz —

    I would agree with you that postmodernism need not be aimless. Indeed, academics routinely use postmodernism to crack texts open and then examine their entrails using huge ideological infrastructures. I agree that postmodernism can do precisely that… but science fictional postmodernism doesn’t. There are loads of works that get the deconstruction part right and regrettably few that both with the second step of using Marxism or Feminism as a basis for critique.

    Having said that, I disagree with you that postmodernism is young. People have been writing postmodern novels since the 1940s. Genre may only have discovered its bastardised version of postmodernity in the last couple of decades, but I think the time has long-since passed for a ‘wait and see’ approach to young upcoming writers like Beckett and Burroughs :-)

  18. patcadigan permalink
    October 4, 2012 1:13 pm

    I’m stuck back in the beginning, where best-of-the-year anthologies are a big payday for short fiction writers. I must have gotten off at the wrong universe.

  19. October 4, 2012 2:29 pm

    I was being optimistic… given that they’re clearly struggling to locate the ‘year’s best’ I was kind of hoping that someone somewhere makes some money out of them. Evidently, it ain’t the writers :-(

  20. patcadigan permalink
    October 4, 2012 2:46 pm

    Okay. Any other areas where you were ‘optimistic’?

  21. October 4, 2012 7:31 pm

    Optimistic or not, I’d say (from a purely reader- point of view) that Jonathan does have a point about there being too many “year’s best xxx” anthologies that are all over the place. Looking at literature coverage on sites like sfsignal, there’s definitely a ton of those – more than 10 per any given year, if not far far more than that. And, imo, that really devalues the entire “year’s best” moniker, much in the same way that “game of the year edition” tag has lost all meaning as far as videogames go (snicker away if you must).

  22. October 4, 2012 8:06 pm

    I wouldn’t be half as frustrated with Year’s Best anthologies if the language surrounding them was somewhat muted. They shift copies and help the visibility of people who appear in them but I would hate to think that they constitute some kind of canonical record of the actual Year,s Best.

  23. October 4, 2012 10:02 pm

    Jonathan, sorry, I guess I spend so much time in what you’re calling the assimilationist camp that I didn’t realize anyone was still defending the alternative.

    But:

    “Assimilation, as I’m sure you’re aware, is far from an unproblematic notion as while the breaking-down of boundaries does produce something new and different, the erasure of those boundaries means that it becomes difficult to write the types of story that existed prior to the disappearance of those boundaries.”

    It seems like you’re drawing an equivalence here between the assimilation of one genre into another and the assimilation of one culture into another, but I don’t think they’re the same thing at all. And I don’t see any evidence that a blurred genre prevents pure SF from being written. Did writing A Fire Upon the Deep, the canonical singularity story, prevent Vernor Vinge from writing A Deepness in the Sky, an FTL-less pure SF story? The genre community celebrated Deepness just as enthusiastically as it did Fire.

    “I liked some of what SF used to try and do a whole lot more than I like what it is doing now and so I would like to see some more stories that treat SF as a genre that is distinct from fantasy… I would like to see more of them and one way to encourage their creation is to suggest that SF should celebrate these types of story. What’s the problem?”

    No problem with this paragraph. Why would we write about SF online if not to celebrate the parts of the genre we approve of? But you’re actually going a lot farther. It’s not just that you want more of a certain sort of SF, you’re saying the presence of other kinds of SF (or not-SF if you prefer) are making your preferred kind unreachable.

    When I was reading the original essay I didn’t follow how you got from the blurring of genre boundaries to the specific complaints you make about Mieville and Okorafor, but I guess you believe that it is the toxic influence of the rhetorics of fantasy that is preventing them from expressing their themes with the conviction you’d like:

    “Every time a tricky political issue reared its head, Okorafor would reach for the fantasy bag of tricks and have a dragon fly over the world or a gnomic magical event take place.”

    I don’t agree with the sentiment here but granting it for the sake of the argument, is this the dragon’s fault or Okorafor’s? I would say it’s the author, but you’re saying no matter how well she writes she can’t write a book with a dragon in it that “properly engages”. Isn’t this exactly what mainstream criticism used to say about spaceships? How far can we go from a meticulously realistic present-day Sudan before we’re unacceptably distant?

    I think there’s a far simpler explanation for, say, why Mieville isn’t writing fevered Marxist polemic: when he started out publishers wouldn’t buy it. Establishment gatekeepers, etc. Of course now they’ll take anything he gives them and meekly ask for another, but he still doesn’t, and again it’s pretty simple: readers wouldn’t like it. If there’s a baleful influence here it’s the almighty dollar, or else that more elusive satisfaction an author gets from having many readers. There’s nothing wrong with you trying to convince other people they should want to read hypothetical Mieville Marxist polemic, but I for one believe Mieville could write effective polemic that also includes a dragon or a spaceship. Maybe even both.

  24. BenladenBenladen permalink
    October 5, 2012 1:15 am

    “As for Mieville, I understand that he didn’t intend to engage with the world and that’s precisely why I think he’s an author who systematically pulls his punches. This is a man who wears his Marxism on his sleave… why isn’t he writing novels about the end of Capitalism? Why isn’t he looking through the cracks in the neoliberal facade? Why isn’t he writing about the ways in which class distorts our vision of the world?”

    I’d be interested, if you feel like it, in knowing what you think about this essay: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/mievilles-anticlimaxes/

    (I wrote it)

    It seems really odd to me that you can praise “The Gernsback Continuum” in this essay, given that your argument (read absolutely reductively) seems basically to be that SF is in a moribund state because of the “postmodernist” hegemony of white males, and the solution seems to be to return to the form that The Gernsback Continuum is explicitly tearing down. Not that I think you’re wrong about these institutions or the broader culture, but I don’t see how looking back into science fiction’s history is going to resolve that.

  25. October 5, 2012 1:20 am

    This is better than Kincaid’s essay. I did a search of both for the word “science” and read what it had to say whenever science was not followed by “fiction” or “fictional”. But I read this entire essay.

    There seems to be something that modern SF has forgotten. Children are born every day. They need to be educated. They need to learn SCIENCE. It is as though most of the writers of science fiction today do not really care about science. William Gibson admitted he did not know anything about computers when he wrote Neuromancer. The Two Faces of Tomorrow by James P. Hogan is far better though it appears to have been turned into a stupid graphics novel.

    But has capitalism turned into science fiction. Go back to The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl. The marketing has taken over. Corporate Consumerism is being marketed to us and called Capitalism. There is nothing about what Adam Smith said to indicate that double-entry accounting should not be mandatory in our schools. But where is that in any science fiction story?

    Check out Deathworld II (The Ethical Engineer) by Harry Harrison to see a culture of information hiding. That is the where our sci-fi society is. von Neumann machines everywhere and nobody tells you they are von Neumann machines.

  26. October 5, 2012 5:47 am

    Matt —

    One of the things that motivated me to write the essay was the desire to react against the current genre narrative that is voiced by… well… pretty much everyone. You look at discussions of science fiction and everyone assumes that doing away with genre boundaries is inherently a good thing and the only people who suggest otherwise are the types of people who moaned when Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell won the Hugo. I wanted to question that narrative because the idea of a melting pot is far from being unproblematic. You suggest that I’m saying genre melting pots are bad because social melting pots are bad and all I can say to that is YES! There’s more to diversity than everyone coming together and writing the same thing.

    The reason I think it’s an either/or thing is that the techniques of fantasy point in the opposite direction to those of SF:

    SF is all about conceptual connective tissue, its power lies in the capacity to present you with a mad idea and then not only explain that idea but also unpack how it effects the world around it. SF’s power is explanation and its power lies in its capacity to present you with an account of the causes and effect acting upon another world.

    Fantasy, on the other hand, is all about majesty and the idea that the world might rise up to meet the demands of the story. The impact of fantasy lies not in internal rigour or in verisimilitude but in finding the right image to stick the landing on your story and deliver that emotional payload.

    Okorafor (more on her later) strikes me as a particularly glaring exemplar of the distinction between these two modes of writing as she is fond of using SFnal techniques to sell the realistic origins of many of her ideas but once the ideas are inserted into the story, she habitually slides over to the fantastical to get herself out of trouble. Thus, she’ll delve into the social forces that push young Nigerian women to willingly have themselves circumcised but then the magic asserts itself and suddenly everything grows back because that sort of suits the wider narrative arc of the character’s disenchantment with society. Similarly, the dragon is not so much a flapping wing as a waving hand, a grab at thematic profundity that comes at the expense of keeping her eye on the details of the world and finding a proper resolution to her story.

    In Wolfe, this movement back and forth between registers works quite nicely as it is a) quite deliberately unsettling and b) it allows Wolfe to raise questions about what is real both within the context of the book and within the context of our lives. In Who Fears Death, the movement between genres is gratingly convenient.

    For the record, I don’t have a problem with these types of books existing. I didn’t like Who Fears Death at all but I’m glad it was successful and I hope it encourages her to write more books some of which I might like… my complaint is that so much of the genre is dominated by this type of story that we have sort of lost sight of the aesthetics you find in a story that doesn’t move outside of its genre. That’s what makes me angry… I don’t want to return to Ben Bova writing about Mars but I would like to more stories written from a contemporary perspective that are attuned to the legacy of SF rather than selling it down the river to fantasy.

    With regards to your point about Mieville… Frankly, I don’t buy it. Mieville has won pretty much every major award the field has to offer and is about as famous as any living writer of science fiction. I don’t believe that if he turned in a Marxist science fiction novel, his publisher would send him packing. I don’t think that would happen. If you’re right that Mieville is unable to publish stories that engage with the world according to his Marxist worldview then Mieville is not timid but the field most definitely is. Seriously… crime fiction publishes novels that use traditional crime tropes and historical settings to deliver Marxist critiques of society, why shouldn’t science fiction? If the field won’t publish a novel by an established author because said novel is deemed too political then the field needs to be burned to the ground and sowed with salt lest it attempt to grow back.

    I don’t agree with you that Mieville could write good polemic with dragons as what is Iron Council if not an attempt to ‘do’ politics with fantastical techniques and no political connective tissue?

    Conversely, I am aware that these types of pressures are very real when it comes to writers who are from traditionally marginalised backgrounds (such as Okorafor). As I suggested in the essay, I think the field likes the idea that it is tolerant and diverse but in reality, I suspect there is a real squeamishness about publishing stories by writers from other cultures lest they appear too ‘ethnic’. If I have one regret about this essay it is that I needed to make the uneven nature of the genre publishing environment more evident and to emphasise that, maybe the reasons people like Okorafor aren’t writing straight SF is because nobody would publish them if they did. In fact, I am currently pulling together some thoughts to post as a rejoinder on this very matter.

  27. October 5, 2012 5:58 am

    Ben —

    I agree with the broad strokes of your description of Mieville’s style. What drew me to him originally is that he wrote fantasy that opened up causal spaces and investigated how things fit together. However, the reason I like that is that I like rigorously explored ideas and Mieville was rigorously exploring ideas in an arena where ideas tend to be pretty and evocative but not particularly materialistic.

    Unfortunately, the flipside of Mieville’s desire to undermine traditional genre narratives and go his own way means that there are times when explanations are required and he goes another way.

    One way of looking at my reaction to Mieville is that I am a terrible hypocrite who is happy to see the stuff he doesn’t enjoy deconstructed whilst rolling his eyes when the deconstruction bus stops outside Science Fiction Town and that assessment would be entirely correct. I like literature that engages with the world and explores materialistic possibility… that’s what drew me to SF in the first place. Hence my desire to see more books that do materialistic causation :-)

  28. October 5, 2012 6:01 am

    Psikeyhackr —

    Science is one area of materialistic causation but there are others. I’m not so much calling for a return to traditional engineering stories and hard SF as I am yearning for more books that assume a materialistic worldview and commit to exploring cause and effect. That cause and effect can be in the field of science but it can also be in the fields of social criticism or even psychological realism.

  29. Ross permalink
    October 5, 2012 8:44 am

    There is definitely a large potential audience for SF works exploring anticapitalist ideas. The late Mack Reynolds was a popular SF writer who used his SF as a vehicle to explore socialistic ideas. (He was a member of the Socialist Labor Party for many years, and eventually an avowed anarchist.) In fact, to his credit, the rather conservative editor of ANALOG, John W. Campbell, Jr., published quite a number of Reynolds’s left-leaning stories in that venerable magazine. Talk about the good ol’ days of SF.

    The late Philip K. Dick is now quite popular , and his works present an anticapitalist perspective.

    A wonderful essay, Jonathan.

  30. Nick Gevers permalink
    October 5, 2012 9:26 am

    I’m a little puzzled at the omission from this discussion of any consideration of the recent novels of Ian McDonald, or of the works of Kim Stanley Robinson–no shortage of anti-capitalist polemic and real-world engagement there (members of the Occupy movement are very fond of *Red Mars*). And what about Ken MacLeod? Gwyneth Jones?

  31. Alan Poulter permalink
    October 5, 2012 2:56 pm

    It seems strange to write a long diatribe about current science fiction not being sufficiently ‘outside’ of its era and then to advocate shackling it more closely to to an ideology ‘du jour’, no matter how noble.

    ‘New Model Army’ is a very poor choice for cutting edge SF. It is essentially ‘Starship Troopers’ for the dis-possessed and as realistic. A better example would be Chris Becket’s ‘Dark Eden’ which extracts a deep set of myths and metaphors from good old-fashioned ‘pulp sci-fi’

  32. October 5, 2012 6:30 pm

    Ross —

    Thanks a lot, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    I must admit, I’ve not actually encountered Mack Reynolds on my travels. Any particular piece worth looking at?

  33. October 5, 2012 6:40 pm

    Nick —

    I don’t think McDonald actually does much social criticism. If anything, I’d say that the trilogy of novels that starts with River of Gods is part of that (quite interesting) trend in post-cyberpunk when white authors attempted to export neoliberalism to non-western futures.

    Ken MacLeod is probably one step up the ladder from China Mieville as while none of his works really explore alternatives to capitalism, they do at least acknowledge the idea that there might be an alternative to that system.

    I didn’t mention either writer as I’ve cooled on them quite considerably. Well… I say ‘cooled’ but I’ve never thought that much of MacLeod’s writing and I’m no longer entirely sure that McDonald’s approach to writing about the future is entirely cool… couldn’t we have celebrated an Indian writing about India? A Brazilian writing about Brazil? A Turk writing about Turkey? I’m sure they’re out there.

    I do have a lot of time for Gwyneth Jones even if I struggled quite a bit with Spirit. Life is an excellent example of what SF should be doing. I also think Bold as Love is also a very switched on novel despite its shortcomings: Britpop meets New Labour!

  34. October 5, 2012 6:47 pm

    Alan —

    I’m not demanding Marxist science fiction :-) I’m saying that I’d like to see more science fiction written from a coherent perspective that actually seeks to make sense of the world and help process it. That can be done from any number of different perspectives. I’m not sure that there is a contradiction between a) claiming SF is out of step with the times and b) wanting to see more SF that is in step with the times.

    I’m not sure what it is you’re trying to say about New Model Army.

  35. October 6, 2012 6:18 pm

    Jonathan McCalmont –

    The technology is changing the sociology. We don’t hear about it much today but how much did the pill change society. There was psychology in the old SF books, The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl, Hell’s Pavement by Damon Knight, The Alien Way by Gordon R. Dickson.

    I have tried 3 books by Ian Banks. I only finished Player of Games and that probably because I was a chess addict in high school. Otherwise the story did not have much interesting. I made it half way thru Reality Dysfunction and finally gave up on what seemed to be a pointless but not bad story. Cryoburn by Bujold may have seemed less exciting then most others of her series but if you think about it the economics of cryo-corpse contracts was like the packaging of mortgage securities that screwed up the American housing market.

    But most reviews of science fiction don’t talk about the science or the social significance of the story. It’s all about characterization and world building. It is like reviewers on care about the intellectual depth of the level that Andre Norton put into her stories. At least she was better than Harry Potter.

  36. Ross permalink
    October 6, 2012 8:05 pm

    Jonathan–

    There are two collections of Mack Reynolds’s short fiction that can serve as fine introductions to his work: THE BEST OF MACK REYNOLDS (Pocket Books, 1976) and COMPOUNDED INTERESTS (NESFA Press, 1983). In his introduction to the former collection, Barry N. Malzberg wrote of the story “Compounded Interest” that it “is, in my opinion, one of the most important and terrible (in the archaic sense) short stories ever published within science fiction.” It is a knockout story.

    Reynolds wrote a lot of novels, some of which are of rather poor quality. There are some that are quite good, though; among my favorites are two dare-to-be-utopian works: LOOKING BACKWARD, FROM THE YEAR 2000 (Ace Books, 1973) and EQUALITY: IN THE YEAR 2000 (Ace Books, 1977). (Note the reworking of the titles of Edward Bellamy’s utopian classics.)

    In 1995, Borgo Press published a book titled WELCOME TO THE REVOLUTION: THE LITERARY LEGACY OF MACK REYNOLDS by Curtis C. Smith and Roger C. Schlobin. It sounds fascinating. I haven’t read it.

    Mack Reynolds (1917-1983) has slipped into obscurity. While making no extravagant claims for its literary quality, I think his science fiction deserves another look.

  37. October 6, 2012 11:42 pm

    “I don’t agree with you that Mieville could write good polemic with dragons as what is Iron Council if not an attempt to ‘do’ politics with fantastical techniques and no political connective tissue?”

    Mieville often mentions in interviews how poorly Iron Council was received by fandom and on a general commercial level, as well as claiming the novel as his personal favourite. Perhaps the reaction frightened him off a bit from wearing his heart too broadly on his sleeve. Not condemnation or apologist musing, just an observation.

  38. Gregory Benford permalink
    October 6, 2012 11:53 pm

    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.
    –great!
    Constraint shapes genre; that’s why I called hard sf playing tennis with the net up.

  39. October 7, 2012 4:22 pm

    This is all very interesting, but it ignores the real cultural point. Which is that the culture at large has itself gone retro, does not really believe anymore in an upward cultural evolution, scientifically, morally, politically or artistically. It’s a bad negative feedback loop–science fiction is losing its cultural mission because the culture has lost its belief in visionary literature. And the culture has gone retro because neither science fiction nor anything else is performing that function.

  40. October 8, 2012 8:07 am

    Tim —

    I think you could be right but I think that, if you are right, then Mieville has taken entirely the wrong message from Iron Council. Iron Council is a really shitty novel because he flinches at the last moment… the novel builds and builds towards this revolution when the workers will rise up and overturn the evil government but when the revolution comes, Mieville goes ‘weeeell… revolutions are messy things’ and the moral energy of the story dissipates. The novel fails because, rather than actually giving us a revolution against an evil overlord, Mieville gives us a bunch of people waving a flag in a somewhat evocative but largely unsatisfactory manner. Iron Council failed because it wasn’t left wing enough! He teased and then didn’t deliver.

  41. October 8, 2012 8:16 am

    Greg —

    That’s a very valid point.

    I think that genre boundaries, when widely understood, present authors with more meaningful options than no boundaries at all. For example, if Hard SF exists as a set of expectations then authors are free to satisfy those expectations, ignore them or challenge them. Conversely, if no expectations exist then authors have nothing to work with other than their expectations as to what will most likely get them published or well-received by the audience.

    Authors engaging with widely-understood boundaries produce more interesting works than authors floundering around in a postmodern quagmire trying to get published.

  42. October 8, 2012 8:21 am

    Norman —

    I think that two decades of economic growth mapped out a pretty solid future that just happened to be pretty boring. If you look at Ian McDonald’s work, you’ll see someone writing on the assumption that the future of America will soon become the future of the developing world and that is very much what you would expect from the end of history.

    Given that the debate about where we were headed seemed to be closed, politics became about management rather than ideology and popular culture became about escapism and quasi-spiritual self-actualisation (which house would the sorting hat put YOU in?). Science fiction fell in with that pattern and stopped talking about the future, which is why postmodernism and weird nostalgia are now the dominant values of the field.

    During the boom years, that attitude was lazy but understandable. Now? I think it’s intellectually reprehensible.

  43. October 8, 2012 2:31 pm

    I will idly observe that “Rampion” is clearly “Rapunzel” from the title alone, since Rapunzel also was named for the rampion she was exchanged for.

    Then, there have always been fairy tales without magic.

  44. October 8, 2012 4:16 pm

    Tim points to a big lapse, one that I think comes from a deep problem on the Left: what does the Revolution do tomorrow? We saw the repeated descent into dictatorship throughout the 20th C.; recall the the National Socialist Workers Party, which sent delegates to the 3rd International, became the Nazis. The Soviet debacle, present day N Korea, Cuba, China…the Left doesn’t know how to reform itself, unless it just becomes Euro soft socialism. No vision there.
    Jonathan: you agree with David Hartwell, as do I: constraint can improve performance. I recently wrote a hard sf story about religion and found the experience bracing, also difficult: new things often are.

  45. Ross permalink
    October 8, 2012 5:49 pm

    Gregory–

    The Left does offer alternatives to authoritarian State socialism other than soft Euro-socialism.. Among others, Marxist humanists and left-anarchists of various stripes offer vigorous alternatives to Soviet-style tyranny. Even some Marxists who uphold the classic Marxist ideas of the “vanguard party” and the “dictatorship of the proletariat” offer reworkings of those fundamentals that draw on a recognition of the mistakes of past Marxist regimes. (For example, check out the recent work of Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA.) The Left hasn’t run out of visions, it’s just that their visions aren’t widely advertised in our society.

  46. October 8, 2012 6:10 pm

    Ross, I meant real world solutions, not more paper visions. Why, for example, do leftist regimes always need a strong man? Why does “dictatorship of the proletariat” just mean a dictator for life?

  47. October 9, 2012 1:15 am

    I find this essay a bit myopic, if only for the reasons already pointed out: it ignores a lot of the very genre it purports to overview. A lot of broad sweeping critical generalizations, but where’s the rest of the writers whose work proves the argument if not wrong then at least more complicated. Women SF writers, gay SF writers, etc. etc. The argument makes sense if you agree with all the examples cited. But there are a whole lot of other examples that could have been cited that don’t support the argument. Hence, myopic. Or at least perhaps such a narrow thesis as to be applicable only to a narrow, selective sampling.

  48. Ross permalink
    October 9, 2012 2:15 am

    Gregory–

    So you’ve decided in advance that these “paper visions” can’t be translated into “real world solutions.” If you are convinced that the Left can’t possibly learn from its mistakes and offer workable visions/solutions, then why are even inquiring about such? The Left must endlessly repeat its past mistakes forever…so let us languish in the arms of Barack Romney.

  49. October 9, 2012 2:25 am

    Ross: To believe something I require a worked out example, not another party platform. Learn from experiment!
    Odd how the Left keeps ignoring the real world in favor of the imaginary.

  50. October 9, 2012 5:14 am

    Gregory and Ross —

    Without wanting to see a liberal, I think you’re both right. I’m aware of economists and political philosophers dreaming up really quite complex models for societies of the future. Those models are out there and they are incredibly detailed as they frequently form the heart of research projects that suck in dozens of academics.

    However, when the time came to advance those ideas in an aggressive manner, the academics of the Left strokes their chins and said nothing while the world economy crashed and governments went into debt to fund another trillion dollar gambling rampage (which you just know is currently inflating a bubble somewhere). Written by academics, for academics, these ideas were never read by real people or actual politicians the people who came up with them lacked the zeal or the vision to try and convince governments to attempt them.

    I think there’s a very real sense in which the academic Left is a victim of capitalism’s inability to see its own end, Leftist theorists are very good at generating papers and books that get them promoted but there’s a real question mark over whether they actually believe in anything they’re saying. When the economy collapsed, sales in Das Kapital spiked all over the world: people were looking to the Left to leadership and the Left were worried about whether or not they’d get tenure.

  51. October 9, 2012 5:42 am

    Jonathan:

    Well put.
    Ideas I’ve liked since a teenager, of anarco-syndic nature, seem neglected in all this. Most assume you cannot regroup economies around worker-owned companies, integrated into a democratic state…so they go for big companies, big government, big unions–the usual King Kong brawl.
    Sad. Kropotkin whirls in his grave.

  52. Ross permalink
    October 9, 2012 8:09 am

    Gregory–

    I agree: let’s experiment. To do that, we have to put some of these “paper visions” into practice. But we can’t dismiss all out of hand them simply because they haven’t yet been put into practice. Vision precedes any actualization of same.

    Hey, I’m all for anarcho-syndicalism. (For the record, I’m an anarchist, not a Marxist.) Left-anarchist ideas have been tested in practice, by the way; check out the works of Murray Bookchin and others on the impressive social and economic accomplishments of the Spanish anarchists during the Spanish Civil War.

  53. Ross permalink
    October 9, 2012 8:11 am

    Um, that should read “but we can’t dismiss all of them out of hand…”.

  54. Grace Dugan permalink
    October 9, 2012 9:08 am

    Thanks for this great essay. You’ve crystallised a lot of things that have subconsciously bothered me about the genre.
    I was waiting to see your comment on Kim Stanley Robinson’s work.

  55. October 9, 2012 10:18 am

    Ross and Gregory — You could also look at places like Upland South East Asia and the Highlands of Pakistan as examples of what kind of societies evolve when unconstrained by the need to maintain the infrastructure of the state. It’s not a great mode of existence by Western standards but it was sustainable.

    Grace — I’m glad you liked the piece. I’ve enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson’s work in the past but I’m not sure why he has decided to return to the Mars trilogy-well after nearly 20 years. I’m also somewhat concerned that Robinson writing ANOTHER book featuring cities on Mercury is deemed to be a hallmark of some renaissance in SF. I’ve not read 2312 but all the reviews I’ve read suggest that he’s repeating himself.

  56. October 9, 2012 1:48 pm

    “let’s experiment. To do that, we have to put some of these “paper visions” into practice.”

    Exactly how many people do “paper visions” have to kill before they outweigh the importance of experiments?

    (Experimenting on human subjects without their consent is, incidentally, a crime against humanity.)

  57. October 9, 2012 3:34 pm

    “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…”

    I’m trying to work out how one can use Adam Roberts as an example of science fiction that need not be ironic when Adam is on record saying that science fiction is necessarily an ironic mode of art.

  58. October 9, 2012 4:06 pm

    Karen —

    One aspect of postmodernity that is worth preserving is the death of the author. Adam may have written his book intending it to be ironic but I think it works beautifully when taken entirely at face value :-) I realise that this works less well with Roberts’ other books (particularly those commenting on SF) but I wouldn’t necessarily champion those as much as I enjoyed them.

  59. October 9, 2012 4:53 pm

    Ross: Yes I know about Spanish anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. Also, Jon, Upland South East Asia and the Highlands of Pakistan. More pertinent, the Mondragon movement–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondragon_Corporation–are Co-operatives owned by their worker-members and power is based on the principle of one person, one vote. That’s a useful experiment that seems to prosper. Making the jump to nation-level is the next hurtle; maybe if Spain splits, Mondragon can expand.
    Mary, this is what I meant by a social experiment, derived from an anarcho-syndicalist model that goes back to Kropotkin.

  60. October 9, 2012 8:27 pm

    Well, I’ve been accused, along with Francis Spufford, of writing Marxist Christian SF. It went down well enough in the US to win the PKD, though I’ve not had the love from some reviewers when they realise exactly what it is I’m writing about. And I’m with one of the majors.

    But here’s the thing. I don’t want to write didactic fiction. I deliberately avoided the trap of ‘Christian fiction’ publishers, because, urgh. My thoughts on that genre are widely available and less than complimentary. Aren’t you mixing the call for *more* didactic fiction with a call for *more* playfulness and invention? I’m all for the second, but less for the first.

  61. Ross permalink
    October 9, 2012 11:52 pm

    Simon–

    “Marxist Christian SF”? Maybe a first. (I’m searching my memory….) Is that really what you saw yourself as writing? Congratulations on the award.

  62. October 10, 2012 5:01 am

    Simon —

    “Marxist Christian”? Are you secretly Tony Blair?

    I don’t recognise myself as calling for either playfulness or didacticism but that’s probably because I’m reacting to the words you selected to use rather than the thoughts that informed your selection.

    Didacticism implies the idea that SF teaches its readers about the world and that’s a little patriarchal for my tastes. It conjures images of old engineering stories or Bob Heinlein demanding the right to fuck as many women as he wants… I don’t particularly want to be taught anything but what I would like to see is more authors expressing actual opinions and making arguments.

    Playfulness implies taking a bunch of ideas and throwing them together in a consequence-free environment. I don’t think I’m advocating that as I think treating ideas like toys lies at the heart of SF’s disengagement from the world.

    Given a choice I’d rather see more of the former than the latter, simply because there is *so* much of the latter floating about but the term ‘didacticism’ makes me uncomfortable.

    Your experiences with Christian fiction are really interesting. I found this particular essay of yours really enlightening:

    http://www.simonmorden.com/about/essays/where-are-we-now-sex-death-and-christian-fiction-revisited/

    While the doctrinal demands of Christian publishing are kind of grotesque, I like the fact that Christian publishers, critics and readers evidently has very serious discussions about whether or not certain things should be allowed in Christian fiction. In some ways, that intellectual atmosphere seems far more constructive than the insubstantial networking and PR-prodding that all too often passes for debate in SFnal circles.

    This is also one of the reasons why I am really happy to see so much Social Justice blogging and reviewing going on in genre at the moment as attempts to determine whether certain types of story are acceptable in genre does at least suggest that certain values and ideas are being taken seriously by some people.

    I can see the downside of ideological battle-lines and I think your post does a good point of presenting the downsides but, it’s kinda better than what we have. I’d rather people decided to write because they had an argument they wanted to convince the world about… there’s far too much airless fucking about and people trying to get on award shortlists without offending anyone going on.

    Genre culture is way too polite.

  63. October 10, 2012 8:14 am

    Ross – no, not really… I mean, it’s inevitable that my worldview does inform my writing, both consciously and unconsciously, as it does with every other writer. Writing about an egalitarian and communitarian society emerging from within a hyper-capitalist economy was a fun and interesting thought experiment – one I’m able to continue (thanks to the awards committee) and expand on.

    However – and this is where we’re slightly at odds, Jonathan – I’d argue strongly for the author’s right to make shit up. This will include having characters taking positions that are contrary to their own beliefs, *and* the possibility of those positions being validated by events in the plot. And as a corollary, what an author puts in their books is not necessarily what they personally espouse. My books are not a window into my soul.

    I’m steeped in SF, which I still have a tendency to read uncritically, which was a habit gained in childhood – so yes, I picked up eventually that Clarke was an atheist, Heinlein was just a little bit weird when it came to both women and politics, Niven was slightly less right wing than Pournelle, but not much… but if you compare say, Childhood’s End with Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Clarke’s work comes over as a masterpiece of subtlety. Pullmann’s work suffers from exactly the defects I try to point out in Christian fiction, and it’s not bigger or cleverer just because an atheist is doing it.

    My central thesis is that didactic fiction tends towards promoting bad art with an orthodox message over good art, with or without a heterodox message, whatever the orthodox message is supposed to be. And I appreciate that the term ‘didacticism’ makes you uncomfortable – as it should all of us – but your article above certainly reads like a call for more didactic fiction, one you seem to go on to explicitly state in your reply to my comment.

    One thing that makes *me* uncomfortable is this: “…attempts to determine whether certain types of story are acceptable in genre…” You only have to look at Christian fiction to see this as a mature sytem, where there’s a very strong feedback loop between a CBA publisher and a consumer of Christian fiction that’s almost Maoist in its ideological fervour. I’ve no wish to see anything like that if the SFF world. If that means embracing Sturgeon’s Law like a long-lost lover, so be it.

  64. October 10, 2012 11:04 am

    Simon — I disagree with you because you’re looking at a field that defines itself purely in ideological terms and inferring from that field that any attempt to engage with ideology on any level will result in doctrinal policing.

    I’m not saying that I want all of SF to be Marxist, I’d just like people to actually express opinions occasionally. Those opinions could be Marxist, they could be feminist, they could be gay-separatist, pan-Africanist or adhere to the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. The only thing I am definitely fed up with is works that push ideas around without ever engaging with the world or offering an opinion.

    I understand why you, as an author, would be wary of sticking your neck out but let me ask you this: Why do you actually want to be an author? I don’t write fiction and I’ve never felt the urge to do so but I can’t imagine wanting to write unless there was some argument I wanted to make. I get the impression that a lot of the people pushing ideas around and hoping to get published want to be writers not out of any burning desire to express themselves but because it looks good on Facebook and they kind of like the idea of writing for a living more than they like the idea of working in a bank.

    I only have a finite amount of time on Earth and I have literally no idea why I would want to read a book that was written for the sole purpose of helping the writer’s childish professional aspirations.

    Have an opinion, Make an argument, Stick your neck out… or don’t try to become a writer.

  65. October 10, 2012 12:08 pm

    @Gregory @Ross – you may be interested in David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthroplogy. Whilst Graeber is a professional academic (and therefore may fall into the trap Jonathan describes) in this pamphlet he explores actual cultures where organisational structures in which anarchist ideas around social organisation arose organically.

    http://www.eleuthera.it/files/materiali/David_Graeber_Fragments_%20Anarchist_Anthropology.pdf

    As for successful modern leftist leadership and governance, well, regardless of one’s personal opinions on it, it is difficult to argue that Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution don’t represent a unique real-world implementation of socialist ideas on a national scale that hasn’t been seen elsewhere in generations. That’s not to say Venezuela is a socialist country – far from it – but it is continuing to prove a unique historical development that has seen a significant democratising effect running counter to Venezuela’s recent history.

    @Jonathan – congrats on this post. Really enjoying the discussion around it that’s popping up everywhere. Refreshing stuff and makes me wish I hadn’t drifted from SF and litcrit. :)

  66. friendlygun permalink
    October 10, 2012 12:10 pm

    Bleurk, that second sentence. It did not arise organically.

  67. October 10, 2012 12:33 pm

    No, I’m happy to respond.

    The easy reply is “I’m an author because I want to tell stories.” I discovered, over a long period of time from my mid-teens to my mid-twenties, that despite all the books I’d read, there were some stories – from my own imagination – that I hadn’t heard before. I tried, very tentatively at first, to see what it would be like. I was inspired to do so by all the authors of all the books I admired. I wanted – and you can take this as shallow narcissism – to create the vicarious feelings in others that my favourite writers created for me.

    All writers have to have a certain amount of hubris, I think, in the same way any artist does, believing that they’re bringing (at least at the start of their careers!) something unique to their chosen field. You could reasonably turn your question on actors and musicians – unless they also create the words and notes they speak or play, surely there’s even less point to them than writers?

    I write SF because I love SF. The sort of SF I fell in love with is a whole mishmash of left-wing, right-wing, hard, soft, operatic, clinical, drug-addled, fantastic fiction. Because SF is about the what-ifs, no matter how barking they are. It is fundamentally about playing with ideas, in a hopefully thought-provoking and entertaining way.

    And it is, whether we like it or not, part of the entertainment world. I have lots of opinions, and I often like to have arguments about them – not all of them (possibly very few of them) would make for a good story.

    There are technical aspects of writing I enjoy, but most of all, it’s the exploration of the what-ifs, the consequences of words and deeds, experienced by people who are not me yet live only in my head.

    Which is why I think you’re in danger of making a category error here. SF has always done what you want it to do – but only in part, and never as its defining characteristic. I’d argue that writers should write, not because they have some important social or political or religious message they want to impart, but because they want to tell stories. Those stories will necessarily be influenced by who they are and what they think, but I genuinely don’t bank on being able to tell what an author thinks about x, y or z because those topics appear in one of their books. Most readers will toss a book away if it gets preachy on them. It’s simply not good writing.

    Maybe that does mean that commercial SF is in terminal decline, doing no more than feeding luke-warm pabulum to the masses. I think it always has done, like 90% of every artistic endeavour. We’ll be complaining that we get no respect from our kids next, like the ancient Babylonians and Greeks and Romans did…

    And sometimes, She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah being just a well-written pop song is actually enough.

    (this has come out slightly more strongly than I anticipated. I hope that’s okay.)

  68. Ross permalink
    October 10, 2012 10:29 pm

    “…Bob Heinlein demanding the right to fuck as many women as he wants…”. Personally, I prefer masturbation. Of course, as an SF purist, I only think about Jules Verne when I do it.

  69. Ross permalink
    October 10, 2012 10:49 pm

    Shaun–

    Thanks for the link to the Graeber pamphlet. I skimmed it briefly; some fascinating stuff. I’ll study it further when I have more time.

    A lot of Marxist hard-liners hate Chavez.

    If the U. S. (where I live) continues on its present fascist police-state course, it may be the job of Latin Americans to liberate us in the future.

  70. October 12, 2012 10:48 am

    Hi John,

    A great essay/polemic! Someone called John H. Stevens on the SF Signal blog has written a sort of half-hearted response-cum-riposte to your argumentation:

    http://tinyurl.com/9askrf8

    See what you think.

    DANNY

  71. October 12, 2012 8:17 pm

    Jonathan, in your comments to X2Eliah you wrote:

    “What I want from science fiction is commitment.” And then you proceed to give examples of works that in your opinion demonstrate such commitment, rigor etc.

    But when has SF EVER, on the whole, demonstrated such commitment? When have a majority or even half or even a quarter of all published stories/novels (not looking for absolutes) consistently shown such commitment and “engagement”? I don’t believe you’ll find a period where that has ever been true. Minority of works, pockets of this type of quality, sure. But these are handfuls.

    So what you’re looking for if you want commitment from SF as an aggregate genre is no less than a paradigm shift, an unprecedented transformation of the genre into something that it has never achieved before. Seems … well, unrealistic. That is not a criticism of your desire, by the way, just a subjective evaluation of its likelihood to materialize.

    And if you’re just looking for the continued existence of limited examples of committed, engaged works that represent a minority of SF’s vast output, then you’ve already got your wish, since these exist today.

    Finally, I’m going to indulge my curiosity and nosiness — why do you particularly care if SF is committed or not? What difference does it make to you personally? Or in general? In the past I’ve seen you act as a polemical but somewhat detached (i.e. not very emotionally invested) observer of trends, foibles, etc. By the way, this characterization could be completely wrong, based on my selective data and my own biases. Regardless, now it seems like you actually WANT things from SF. Oh my! :-)

  72. October 12, 2012 10:06 pm

    Alvaro —

    Those are some big questions…

    Firstly, I would never call for the majority of SF to change its ways and no desire to bring about that change even if I knew how to go about causing it. I may not like most of the stuff that SF celebrates but I’m not a tyrant and I would not see it disappear. I am merely pointing out what I dislike about the genre and what it would take to make me a happier reader of genre novels. However, it is worth noting that, under your rules of engagement, nobody should ever say anything about SF as no single person is ever likely to change anything.

    Secondly, I see a lot of myself in your comments. I spent a number of years reading and writing about science fiction but it is now clear to me that my aesthetic values and those of the field as a whole are pretty much irreconcilable: I have zero interest in shallow postmodernist play and the field has no interest in making a political statement or helping its readers to understand the field. Furthermore, I do not write fiction and I have absolutely no interest in the brown-nosing and influence-peddling that generally accompanies becoming an influential figure in the field… the field has nothing to offer me and I have nothing to offer it but scorn.

    The subtext of your comment is ‘why should anyone care what you think?’ and I agree with the spirit of this sub-text. There’s no reason why anyone should give a shit about what I think and to think that I do care is to entirely misunderstand my motivations for writing the essay. I wrote this essay because I have long felt annoyed by the types of novel celebrated by the field and I wanted to work through some of those feelings and try to find the intellectual core of my disagreement with the culture of written SF.

    This is the only reason why I write anything: I enjoy thinking about things and I process things better when I write them down. Sometimes those ideas resonate with people, most of the time they don’t… I maintain no ambitions of being an influential critic and I have little interest in changing minds. I’ve written something about SF and some people have enjoyed it… that’s enough for me. In fact, I’m not even sure what more there could be…

    Who are these emotionally invested people of whom you speak?

    How could I change to become more emotionally invested in the field?

    I’m not even sure why the stuff you bring up matters.

  73. zinosamaro permalink
    October 13, 2012 4:11 am

    Jonathan — Thanks for taking the time to humor my questions and provide a thoughtful response.

    JM: “Those are some big questions…”

    Yes, sir. Again, appreciate you willing to entertain them. Also, I realize I really zoned in on comments you made after the essay and didn’t respond to the actual piece, which is a little myopic and unfair on my part. And yet — I felt that your comment about commitment summarized certain things nicely.

    JM: “Firstly, I would never call for the majority of SF to change its ways and no desire to bring about that change even if I knew how to go about causing it. I may not like most of the stuff that SF celebrates but I’m not a tyrant and I would not see it disappear.”

    OK. So you accept that much of SF, as it has been throughout its history, will continue to be, if not exactly repugnant, then perhaps displeasing, vacuous, or simply unsatisfactory for you as a reader. Makes sense.

    JM: “I am merely pointing out what I dislike about the genre and what it would take to make me a happier reader of genre novels.”

    Got it. As in, you have identified the deficiencies in the genre, and are saying that, if they were addressed, you’d be a happier reader — but without the actual expectation that they WILL be addressed, nor the hope that the situation will improve. This was my misunderstanding based on the commitment comment, which I interpreted too literally. Mea culpa.

    JM: “However, it is worth noting that, under your rules of engagement, nobody should ever say anything about SF as no single person is ever likely to change anything.”

    Well, no. Anybody can say anything about the genre :-) But I do think, generally speaking, that prescriptive sentiments of the type “SF should have more of X or less of Y or take on Z function” tend to set one up for failure, perhaps disappointment and eventually bitterness (it has happened!). As Niall Harrison pointed out on a panel in Chicago, manifestos can be interesting because of the work generated through them — and through their failures. Now, I completely understand your comments are far from a manifesto or proclamation that SF should behave thusly and thusly but rather, as you’ve clarified for me, what would make you a happier genre reader.

    JM: “Secondly, I see a lot of myself in your comments. I spent a number of years reading and writing about science fiction but it is now clear to me that my aesthetic values and those of the field as a whole are pretty much irreconcilable: I have zero interest in shallow postmodernist play and the field has no interest in making a political statement or helping its readers to understand the field.”

    Does this mean that you don’t read genre stuff? (I mean, I think you do based on the essay and your knowledge of the field, but maybe I’m wrong). Or do you read it and are constantly displeased because of the pretty much irreconcilable differences? Or maybe the “pretty much” allows just enough room for you to very rarely find something you enjoy. Hope it’s the latter. Given the breadth of the field, and its wealth in terms of number of practitioners, I find it hard to believe that no-one is making political statements in their fiction of the type that you seek. But you know what you’re looking for, at a deep level, and I can only guess, so I’ll refrain from throwing out lists of authors whom I’m sure you have encountered and don’t satisfy your need.

    JM: “Furthermore, I do not write fiction and I have absolutely no interest in the brown-nosing and influence-peddling that generally accompanies becoming an influential figure in the field… the field has nothing to offer me and I have nothing to offer it but scorn.”

    Whole critical careers have been built on disappointment and perhaps even scorn. Didn’t I review a book of essays by Malzberg for you once? :-)

    JM: “The subtext of your comment is ‘why should anyone care what you think?’ and I agree with the spirit of this sub-text.”

    Really, not the intent of my comments. I was trying to ascertain if your desire for committed SF was the kind of desire that leaves one disappointed and bitter when not realized, or something else. Because if it were, I would simply counsel against it to prevent dashed hopes and help to preserve your sanity. There’s enough misery and suffering to go around, and as someone who has keenly followed and appreciated many of your astute online disquisitions and observations, I genuinely dislike the idea of you suffering needlessly.

    JM: “There’s no reason why anyone should give a shit about what I think…”

    Disagree — I think your perceptiveness, intelligence, willingness to engage seriously with your subject matter, and your wide-ranging academic/theoretic AND pop culture knowledge, would be more than credible grounds for people caring about what you think.

    JM: “…and to think that I do care is to entirely misunderstand my motivations for writing the essay. I wrote this essay because I have long felt annoyed by the types of novel celebrated by the field and I wanted to work through some of those feelings and try to find the intellectual core of my disagreement with the culture of written SF.”

    That resolves my question — what the underlying psychological mechanism was that drove you to type up the essay. Now it’s clear; a form of self-dialogue to help clarify your own ideas, not something constructed to engineer change.

    JM: “This is the only reason why I write anything: I enjoy thinking about things and I process things better when I write them down. Sometimes those ideas resonate with people, most of the time they don’t… I maintain no ambitions of being an influential critic and I have little interest in changing minds. I’ve written something about SF and some people have enjoyed it… that’s enough for me. In fact, I’m not even sure what more there could be…”

    Different aims and measures of satisfaction for different writers, I think, but yes, I take your meaning, and certainly can’t argue with it.

    JM: “Who are these emotionally invested people of whom you speak?”

    Clearly, not you :-) Or maybe you, after all, because you offer SF scorn, and I suppose that’s emotional, but I’m trying not to be over-literal like before.

    JM: “How could I change to become more emotionally invested in the field?”

    Why would you want to? I mean, it’s certainly not for me to say how emotionally invested in SF anyone _ought_ to be, but as I mentioned, I’ve typically taken you as pretty detached and wasn’t sure if that was even close to the mark. Your essay got me to re-evaluate that. So that question was more about my selfishly wanting to understand if I’d misinterpreted you, rather than suggesting you should change your level of emotional investment.

    JM: “I’m not even sure why the stuff you bring up matters.”

    Well, my questions mattered to ME personally, and that’s all I can claim. I was curious and now my curiosity has been satisfied (mostly!). I probably could have sent you an e-mail and the world would have thanked me :-) But I really was struggling to reconcile why you would want SF to be more committed on the one hand when, on the other hand, you had reconciled yourself to your disenchantment with SF a while ago — and now I get it. It was probably obvious to others from the start. Anyway, thanks again for the reply.

  74. October 13, 2012 6:02 am

    ” I have absolutely no interest in the brown-nosing and influence-peddling that generally accompanies becoming an influential figure in the field…”
    Some, yes. I don’t think I’ve done much of that, nor have others I know.
    If you want thinking about the future you may like an anthology of fiction and non I’m assembling now — STARSHIP CENTURY, with major sf writers & the likes of Dyson, Davies, Hawking. It’s about how to build an interplanetary economy that becomes so rich it can build an interstellar, probably unmanned, craft.

  75. October 13, 2012 6:06 am

    Alvaro —

    I think in order to issue a manifesto and maintain some hope that it might someday come to pass one has to be a good deal more influential and socially skilled than I am. Established authors, editors and pillars of the field can entertain such fantasies of influence but I am just a guy with a blog… it would be foolish for me to do anything more than hope for some stuff I like :-)

    With regards to my levels of emotional investment in the field, I got a little defensive as you’re very close to trapping me in a case of outright hypocrisy on two levels…

    Firstly, I was moaning on twitter about Leathem’s essay about why SF should be more like mainstream literature and my response to that was one of puzzlement because I’m not sure why X should become more like Y when Y already exists. Leathem moaned about SF’s lack of literary ambition, demanded that SF be dismantled and promptly went off and became a mainstream writer. At the back of my mind, while writing this essay, was the fact that both films and crime novels often manage to comment on both society and psychology in really rigorous ways without compromising the focus or integrity of their stories. I look at SF and I don’t see very much of that at all and so I’m aware that what I’m saying is very close to ‘why isn’t SF more like Luther Blissett’s Q or Massimo Carlotto’s Goodbye Kiss?’ when both of those novels exist.

    Secondly, I’m very aware of my unconventional relationship to the field. I sit on twitter and I see people using that medium to promote themselves and attempt to become visible using that weird shatterzone between ‘I’m your friend!’ and ‘this tweet is brought to you by Colgate!’ and I love nothing more than chucking hand-grenades into the middle of that. One of the reasons why I can write essays like this is that while I am an observer of the field, I can say whatever I like about it without fear of burning through my social capital as, at the end of the day, I don’t care if the field doesn’t like me.

    Having said that, there is an issue of why I should take an interest in a field that I have no desire to immerse myself in. Fandom is full of shoots and ladders and a lot of people get involved because they want to make friends and climb the greasy poll towards becoming columnists, editors, panelists or celebrated authors. Seeing as I don’t particularly want any of those things, why am I bothering? why am I saying horrible things about China Mieville and Nnedi Okorafor when I could simply walk away and spend time in a field where I felt more at home? Your questions flicked a defensive switch because these are questions that I’ve been asking myself for a while now. I do still read in the genre but I no longer review as I once did and, to be honest, I’ve struggled to finish anything I’ve started for about a year or so and I’m aware that my levels of disenchantment place me on a long slow outbound trajectory from the field. If I’m honest, I don’t have an answer to the question ‘why do you care?’ and writing this essay was part of a wider process of self-examination in which I hopes that my feelings about the field would come significantly clearer to me.

  76. October 13, 2012 11:06 am

    this just about says it all about exhaustion, etc

    http://tinyurl.com/8k3m6qx

  77. October 13, 2012 8:14 pm

    Hi Danny :-)

    Thanks for the link, really interesting stuff! I once saw him speak at a thing organised by Sight & Sound and he blew everyone off the stage.

  78. October 14, 2012 8:43 am

    Yes, great speaker – because he is totally engaged and genuinely committed to social/political transformation (ie, revolution). And, as far I’m concerned, he is more or less spot on! He is giving a talk for us (CPGB/Weekly Worker) on ‘Capitalist Realism and Education’ on October 22 in London,

    http://tinyurl.com/8s4cxo9

    by the way, this is also a fascinating talk – ‘Virtual Realities and no time':

    http://tinyurl.com/8dkews2

  79. October 14, 2012 4:39 pm

    Hello, Mr. McCalmont,

    Excellent article, sir !
    I’m Cristian Tamas from the Romanian Science Fiction&Fantasy Society (www.srsff.ro/), a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of the two genres.
    I’m kindly asking for your persmission to translate into romanian and to post your essay “Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future” on our site.
    You’ll be credited as author, we’ll mention your permission and we’ll insert a link towards the original.
    Thank you.

    Paul Kincaid was very kind to allow me the translation and the posting of his review „The Widening Gyre: 2012 Best of the Year Anthologies” on Nautilus online (the main romanian SF magazine):

    http://revistanautilus.ro/articole/paul-kincaid-marea-britanie-extinderea-virtejului-cele-mai-bune-antologii-sf-ale-anului-2012/

    Your sincerely,
    Cristian Tamas

  80. October 14, 2012 6:29 pm

    Danny — That sounds like a fascinating event!

    You’re a proper Party man then? that’s pretty cool… I remember reading that the CPGB owned this vast tumbledown mansion that had been left to them by a left-wing ariso. Does the party still own that? Thanks for the links though, they are awesome.

  81. October 14, 2012 6:30 pm

    Cristian — I would be honored! Translate away!

  82. October 14, 2012 9:58 pm

    Jonathan – Thanks for the additional clarification. I hadn’t even seen the Lethem exchange so just stumbled into that. Can see how my comments, in that context, made you defensive. I think we’re past that now, and I appreciate your honesty in continuing to try and understand your own feelings towards genre. Time will tell where you land!

  83. October 20, 2012 2:25 am

    Like so much that calls itself science fiction these days, I find your analysis rather mundane, Marxist and dull. Capitalism and science fiction? Who fucking cares? What makes science fiction so powerful to me is simply this: Cosmic awe. It instills in me a quasi-religious sense of man’s possibilities in the vast cosmos. Science fiction is the mythology of the cosmic future.

    Most of what you are talking about here is not science fiction by my definition, but more myopic postmodern literature, usually driven by mundane political agendas. Yawn. None of this will have any staying power, any more than Soviet culture did, if it doesn’t tap into deeper, cosmic, mythological themes. I’m talking about that feeling you get from the sci-fi visionaries, that this world is bigger, stranger, more magical and mind-boggling than we dared imagine. I’m talking about a literature of ideas that opens up vast future vistas rather than reminding you of the all-too-mundane present.

    This is the main problem with most modern culture: it lacks spirituality, cosmic religion, ambition and the sense of awe and reverence that drove people to build monuments beneath the stars for thousands of years. *This* is what modern man must reclaim if we are revitalize our civilization, and this is what the best science fiction can offer. But this is precisely what the spiritually shallow, leftist, atheist sensibility that has taken over so much of our culture desperately lacks. The West is being spiritually starved to death, and one only has to read your essay to see why. Go take a long look at the stars tonight and contemplate them in relation to most of what you are writing about, then let’s discuss *real* science fiction!

  84. October 20, 2012 9:01 am

    “Capitalism and science fiction? Who fucking cares? What makes science fiction so powerful to me is simply this: Cosmic awe. It instills in me a quasi-religious sense of man’s possibilities in the vast cosmos. ”

    In other words, you want SF to turns its brain off and refuse to critically engage with the world – or anything. Instead, SF writers – like warrior priests – are just meant to bombard us into submission with soporific ray guns loaded with ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’. We read or space operas and then go to sleep, satiated. Armed with the ‘literature of ideas’ we can our eyes to reality.

  85. October 20, 2012 7:40 pm

    Critical engagement is only one of myriad possible means of engaging with the world. Was Michelangelo engaging critically with the world when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Were the Great Pyramids build in a spirit of critical engagement? Was Mohammed critically engaged when he had divine visions in a cave for 40 days and proceeded to revolutionize his society?

    Do such things not have a vast and lasting impact on human culture, far greater than anything on offer by your “critically engaged” SF writers? Don’t you see that human history makes no sense according to any critical, intellectual analysis? This is the fallacy of the Marxist, who can’t possibly account for the things I have described, which move history so powerfully yet have no plausible explanation in terms of class struggle, sexism, racism, or whatever -ism is currently in fashion among you. Critical engagement robs you of your spirituality, your sense of the poetic, the prophetic and eternal, and hence robs you of your greatest source of cultural power. If you want to write powerful science fiction, you need to express this spirituality in a non-mundane setting, as Lovecraft, Clarke, Herbert and George Lucas did, but which this new breed of Marxist SF writers has no clue about. Why do you think Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are so popular, while Charlie Stross’s work languishes in obscurity? Because it lacks ambition, magic, mythology and spirituality! I would further speculate that this ideology is largely the product of the collapsed civilization formerly known as the British Empire. You seem to be a spiritually broken people who are trying to export failed Marxist fantasies while the rest of the world moves on. This politicized SF you’re calling for is of no more interest than Soviet cultural product, and will be as quickly deposited in the dustbin of history.

    Let me say again in case I haven’t made myself clear: *Spirituality* is the key to powerful, lasting cultural expression! You must develop inner depth, mysticism and gravitas to produce great art, but these are precisely the things which a spirit of cerebral, critical engagement destroys. What is needed is a revival of archeo-futurism, mysticism and paleo-conservative science fiction, and a wholesale jettisoning of this wretched, ephemeral leftist garbage which has taken its place.

    I speak from a deeper place within my mind than my critical neocortex, so I doubt I will be understood by many of you. I speak from the subconscious source of psychic power, which you all need to discover before you fall further into ruin.

  86. October 21, 2012 6:29 am

    Darth —

    First off, I have actually written about the role of spirituality in popular culture:

    http://ruthlessculture.com/2012/06/21/prometheus-2012-calvinball-mythology-and-the-void-of-meaning/

    Secondly, your decision to name yourself after a Star Wars villain is wise as your second post makes you come across as a simple-minded tyrant.

    The sensawunda you ascribe to science fiction comes from an entirely different place to the spectacle of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Fantasy’s sense of wonder flows from the feeling of the world rising up to meet the thematic beats of the story… fantasy makes sense as the dark lord ALWAYS lives in a blasted wasteland and the hero’s moment of supreme self-actualisation in which she realises that she *needs* to do this always manifests itself an an unheralded and unexpected release of game-changing power. Fantasy is all about the world fitting with stories and stories make a good deal more sense to us than either physics or the details of human group psychology. We can’t understand the world but we can understand stories.

    Science fiction, on the other hand, draws its emotive power from a rigid adherence to reality. Most great SF stories introduce us to a world governed by natural law only for the characters to tumble down a rabbit hole and discover what is really possible when you truly understand the laws that govern our world. Clarke’s law that any sufficiently advanced form of science is indistinguishable from magic is not a statement of equivalence between the fantasy and SF genres, it is a statement that about how a sense of awe can emerge from the laws that govern our daily lives.

    Most of the writers I critique in this essay have lost interest in the operating assumptions of SF. Focused purely on tropes and story, they reason that if Clarke can have gods in his stories and have them be SF then you can have talking bears and talking horses and have that be SF too. NO! SF has always been about engaging with the world and looking to what it is possible to achieve if one does engage with the world. These genre-blending stories deliver no sense of wonder as the rules of their universes are the rules governing the fantasy genre… rules that allow any mad shit to happen as long as it suits the needs of the story.

    Science is one form of engagement with the world, sociology, politics and psychology are others. I enjoy hard SF but I think that SF can be more than just amazing engineering stories.

    That you evidently aim to approach life without any critical thought marks you out as simple-minded. That you think that other people should be denied books that do adopt a critical and/or engaged attitude towards the world marks you out as a tyrant.

  87. Ross permalink
    October 24, 2012 12:18 am

    I would add that spirituality and critical thinking aren’t mutually exclusive; you don’t have to turn off your critical faculties to be spiritual, or negate your spirituality in order to be critically engaged with the world.

  88. Alder permalink
    October 25, 2012 1:13 am

    I cannot recommend enough a perusal of female SF authors…..Ursula K LeGuin in particular, but also Starhawk and even Sheri Tepper. They seem quite willing to use SF to tackle tough issues of race, class, and gender, and to present positive and proactive visions of the future…..

  89. October 27, 2012 6:54 pm

    I’ve been on more than a few panels at the aforementioned conventions that deal with this particular topic. I’m not going to argue the literary merits here, mostly because I think much of that exposition is just a form of navel gazing, but I will touch on a couple of the difficulties that a science fiction writer faces today.

    First, the future is much closer. When Azimov, Heinlein and Clarke were writing in the 1940s and 50s, much of what they wrote about – from computers to space travel to genetics – were still very much in their infancy, and what was known was small compared to what was speculated – and consequently you could speculate about the future knowing that anything you wrote about was still within the realm of fantasy.

    In the last year alone, we have identified more than 1000 exoplanets, of which several (such as those in Gliese) may be hospitable to life, and have proved conclusively that our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri B, has at least one and possibly several planets. A robotic dune buggy on Mars is searching for life by driving around the planet. Korean researchers drew global ire for doing transgenic manipulation on humans, and there are human beings walking (or at least toddling) around today who have more than two biological parents. The modern computer is about an eighth of an inch thin and consists primarily of a screen, yet is capable of communicating with similar screens worldwide, including streaming live video and audio. Germany is causing problems in East Europe because it’s windmills are generating too much energy for the German power grid to consume. The Arctic Ocean is now navigable. War is being waged using robotic flying drones. We are sequencing the genomes of Neanderthals, and discovering that a significant proportion of the global population has some Neanderthal blood. Scientists have shown that warp drives, tractor beams and teleportation are all with the realm of the possible, not just simply useful literary plot devices.

    This is just in the last year. Think about what that implies for the science fiction writer today. Science Fiction is seldom about the science itself, but rather about how society adapts to and is affected by that science (or the associated technology, which is not always the same thing). It is possible to extrapolate ten years in the future fairly easily – look at what’s in research labs today and explore the possibilities as these become available to different populations. Leaven this with some of the larger factors (positive and negative) affecting society now – resource scarcity (oil, water, rare earths and noble gases, soil), climate change issues (superstorms, droughts, altered migratory and growing patterns), information technologies (cyber-warfare, the disintegration of privacy, the shift from command and control corporations to decentralized virtual companies), and population dynamics (the twin-humped Millennials and Virtual demographic entering into college, Boomers retiring and dying off, the coming baby drought).

    Twenty years gets more complicated, largely because after twenty years clear trends from today have gone non-linear. A significant portion (2-3%) of the population will have gone cyborg, as prosthetics go from being replacing to enhancing body functions. Additive 3d printing will have caused the crash of modern manufacturing except as a niche industry. Body sculpting – adding or reshaping limbs or facial features – will be fashionable, for a while. The US may have split into several smaller countries. Programmable viruses and antiviruses will be normal. Artificial Intelligence will still be “a decade away”, but the first sentient computer will be pondering its own existence. Certain portions of the current US will become Peak Oil wastelands, too energy poor to sustain an economy, while others will be uninhabitable because they will be too hot, will be too frequently hit by super storms, or will be irradiated hot spots from reactors melting down. Chances are that this will serve to brake the rapid rate of change going on now, and that we may actually see societal regression and a significant loss of population.

    Thirty years out becomes fantasy, simply because there are simply too many variables, and the solutions become highly non-linear. We may have begun true genetic speciation. We may have mastered controlled fusion and hence have amped our future dramatically. There may be a resurgence for buggy whips and steam-powered trains as segments of society collapse, resources are no longer available and critical scientific information is lost. We could be in the early stages of terraforming Mars and exploring Europa, and will likely have a robotic probe winging its way to four or five star systems within fifty light years. Artificial Intelligence will still be ten years in the future, but it might be AIs that are looking for it. Religious post-Luddites may very well shoot clones and scientists on sight, and wave after wave of humanity will become migratory as weather extremes make living in any one place impossible for long. We just don’t have enough knowledge to separate fact from fantasy at this stage.

    Given that, I’m not really sure that calling science fiction writers accountable here is either fair or accurate. I do not believe that Kurtzweil’s transhumanist singularity will happen. Rather, I believe it more the case that there is little in thirty years that we can predict today that wouldn’t border on the fantastic, and once in that realm, there is not enough commonality of narrative for it to make any sense to those of us looking through the glass darkly.

  90. Ross permalink
    October 28, 2012 2:45 am

    As examples of science-fiction works that magnificently combine awe-inspiring vision and critical engagement with human moral and sociopolitical questions, I would recommend Olaf Stapledon’s monumental classics, STAR MAKER and LAST AND FIRST MEN.

  91. October 28, 2012 12:30 pm

    “I remember reading that the CPGB owned this vast tumbledown mansion that had been left to them by a left-wing ariso. Does the party still own that?”

    Sadly, you must be thinking of some other organisation (Morning Star/Communist Party of Britain?)

  92. February 27, 2013 12:35 pm

    Wow. This post spends too long blasting science fiction. In other words, a perfect example why English majors don’t get certain things. A perfect example of lit-fic pseudo-intellectualism in its dying throes.The cries of agony are truly harrowing.

    What needs to be added here, is that most English majors aren’t smart enough to get science fiction. This mainstream misconception that science fiction was somehow about predicting or imagining the future has been outdated for at least a decade. There are so many misconceptions here that they are too long to list. However, kudos to the writer for outlining exactly what is wrong with lit-fic pseudo-intellectualism.

  93. February 28, 2013 11:11 pm

    Thanks for that Joykrit… but I’m not an English major. In fact… the last time I studied English in an academic capacity I was 15 years-old.

  94. Rich Eide permalink
    August 13, 2013 2:31 am

    Jonathan McCalmont’s writing hurts my head. He wanders hither and yon to illustrate his point. He uses quotes of praise for genre blurring work, and then states that such work diminishes the genres themselves. He derided the mixing of real world elements, claiming that such mixing denudes the elements of their context. In my mind, such thinking is defendable. However, mixing of historical, social or economical elements in science fiction is nothing new. Stellar Empires based upon the Roman Empire are many. Does this lessen the element? In my mind it lazy, but it has been used over and over again. Some say that using known elements the author can establish their setting and then move on with their story. Fine. It has been done. It is well established. There is nothing new about cherry picking elements.

    Then there is McCalmont’s denouncement of the ubiquitous capitalist futures. Yet he pokes at Melville stating: “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.” So which is it Mr. McCalmont’? Have science fiction writers fallen into a mire of capitalism, or are they Marxists?

    In another poke at Melville: “Writers like Mieville are in the business of pushing buttons.” Are not all writers in the business of pushing buttons? If art does not effect the audience is it still art? I have no problem with fluff and mind candy. Yet: “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.” How would firmly writing about Palestine be science fiction, or fantasy? Into which genre would such a story fall?

    McCamont states that in some stories “scientific ideas are little more than set dressing …” Again, this is hardly a new trend that may be laid at the feet of current authors.

    “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.” Since when are elder civilizations firmly in the fantastical tradition? Science fiction is literally littered with ancient civilizations. Look as far back as E. E. Doc Smith. Civilizations predating humanity are not some new fangled crutch.

    “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.” What an egotistical load of tripe! Such an accusation may be leveled against hundreds of writers across the decades. Legion are the stories hinged upon buzzwords and fad memes. To accuse contemporary writers as if they are the only guilty party is absurd.

    These are my comments through section 2.0. I shudder to conjecture how long he will belabor his view. I am undecided as to whether I will continue reading. I should realize that my time spent is a sunk cost and cannot be recovered no matter how much I continue to read.

  95. August 13, 2013 6:59 am

    Rich —

    As for wandering hither and yon, Yes… that is the way I write. More often than not, I write in order to order my own thoughts and I generally find the best way of ordering my thoughts is to forge connections between things that appear separate. Hence the swinging from topic to topic as a means towards what I want to talk about. If you don’t like that style of writing, there are plenty of blogs that trade in the succinct.

    As for my criticisms of Mieville, while he may play the role of the Marxist intellectual and even by a Marxist intellectual, I have always been frustrated by the lack of real leftist content in any of his novels. Sure there’ll be the odd theoretical fragment, the odd reference to revolution and occasional jabs at capitalism but when asked in interview whether any of his books are about real-world issues, Mieville invariably backs off. I would love if if China Mieville wrote a Marxist science fiction novel, I just don’t think that he has done so thus far.

    Your rejection of my article (which, BTW would have had more force had you not pointed out that you couldn’t be arsed to read it) is amusing to me as you seem suspended between a desire to reject my work as obvious tripe and the desire to dismiss me for stating the bleeding obvious. Well… which is it?

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