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Cycles of Exhaustion

May 10, 2013

In a recent blog post over at Locus Online, Karen Burnham draws an interesting comparison between the complaints made by Damon Knight about the state of 1950s science fiction and the complaints made by Paul Kincaid and me about the state of 2010s science fiction.  Here’s the money quote, from an essay published in 1955:

I have the feeling that in spite of itself, science fiction is pulling in its horns. In these stories, we are visited three times by beings from else-where, but our own far traveling is limited to wistful glimpses of distant worlds […] The flow of technological marvels has dried up. Of the eleven stories which make some use of the familiar “world of tomorrow” background, only one–Asimov’s–explores the consequences of a new invention; the rest merely postulate the usual equipment, spaceships, robots or what have you, and go on from there.

Clearly, it would be churlish to deny the similarities between my complaints and those of Damon Knight. So… rather than doing that, I’ll up the ante a little further and suggest that these types of arguments have always been made by people writing about science fiction. Consider the following by Bruce Sterling in the 1980s:

SF must stop recycling the same half-baked traditions about the nature of the human future.  And its most formally gifted authors must escape their servant’s mentality and learn to stop aping their former masters in the literary mainstream.  Until that happens, SF will continue sliding through obsolescence toward outright necrophilia.

Similarly, while Joanna Russ’s collected criticism The Country You Have Never Seen (2007) may contain no obvious hand wringing about the state of SF it does allude to a similar column written about the state of 1970s fantasy and concludes with an essay attempting to chart the lifecycle of a literary idiom:

Practically speaking and in the short run, motifs do wear out. Bela Lugosi, once the horrifier of thousands, now excites something much closer to laughter. It is not only the quaintness of the old Dracula, but its predictability, that amuses people. As a film genre the vampire novel has been done to death, perhaps even prematurely.

One obvious explanation for the omnipresence of the ‘exhaustion’ motif is that critics are a bunch of lazy hacks who would rather use and re-use the same critical tropes than break new ground and try to find something new or original to say. Whenever these types of comparisons are made I always feel as though they contain a hidden rejoinder suggesting that, because some good stuff happened after the first complaint, some good stuff might well happen after the second complaint thereby suggesting that these complaints are really nothing more than geeky Chicken Littlism. Indeed, Karen comes very close to making this particular leap in the conclusion to her piece:

Still, if 10 years after Knight had his despair we landed on the Moon and started the New Wave (the period on which Kincaid and McCalmont look back nostalgically, as Knight looks nostalgically on the thirties), then I expect great things from NASA and SFWA no later than 2025.

These hidden rejoinders make me uncomfortable as it’s rather too easy to move from ‘People have been wrong about SF being exhausted in the past’ to ‘People are wrong about SF being exhausted now’ and once you’ve rejected the idea that contemporary SF might be in a state of exhaustion you can easily reach the conclusion that ‘People are always wrong about SF being exhausted’ or even ‘SF is doing great’. Much like Sturgeon’s Law about 90% of everything being crap, referring to past instances of critics fretting about the health of SF is all too often used as a means of derailing criticism and silencing negative voices. Move along… nothing to see here… everything’s great… we’re living in a golden age.

Rather than rejecting the comparison outright, I would rather propose two alternative explanations for why genre critics have always spoken of the exhaustion of genre:


Firstly, a lot of these complaints are about cultural politics meaning that when someone says that contemporary SF is in trouble, what they really mean is that contemporary SF is not providing the type of stuff that they personally enjoy. Even though Paul Kincaid and I agree that written SF is in a state of complete exhaustion, I don’t think that we agree on what a non-exhausted form of SF might actually look like. For starters I think that he has more faith in the curative powers of stylistic experimentation than I do.

Everyone has different tastes and if you can’t find the types of work that you want to read then it is only natural that a particular cultural milieu should start to feel less vibrant and interesting than you think it should be. What was Lester Del Rey’s infamous demand that academics stay out of the ghetto if not an (apparently successful) attempt to shift the mainstream away from aggressive technical and conceptual innovation and back towards more traditional two-fisted space stories? The reason why so many people complain about the state of SF is that SF can never be all things to all people and you will always have groups whose tastes are currently out of favour. While suggesting that these encyclicals be read as political rhetoric rather than dispassionate analyses may drain them of urgency, it does not in any way drain them of their utility. What is the point of a literary culture if not to have precisely these types of discussions?


Secondly, even if we accept that all of these complaints are identical, it is possible that a creative sub-culture such as written science fiction could be subject to certain cyclical forces and that each of these sets of complaints identified similar problems that went away before eventually returning. As Karen mentions, Knight’s complaints were made before the arrival of the New Wave and the sense of weariness he detects could easily coincide with the sort of low cultural ebb that often precedes a period of re-invention and revitalisation.

In the essay I cited above, Joanna Russ argues that all genre materials have their own individual lifecycles. At first, tropes are so fresh that they can easily serve as the pay-off or focus for multiple stories by multiple writers. The more a particular trope is used, the more likely it is that the trope will start to feel over-familiar, forcing authors to place the trope in the background of their stories where it serves to frame or inform stories about other things. Eventually, when a trope has been so thoroughly unpacked that it can’t even appear in a science fiction story without soliciting snorts of derision and disgust, the trope moves into its decadent and metaphoric stage where it is reduced to the status of component in a story working on a completely different level. Given that each individual trope has a lifecycle and that different forms of SF use different sets of tropes, it seems perfectly sensible to suggest that there is always at least one set of tropes that is poised on the brink of exhaustion. The interesting thing about Knight’s complaint is that he claims that SF is exhausted because “the flow of technological marvels has dried up”, this is certainly different to the lack of innovation bemoaned by Kincaid and Sterling and it is definitely different to the lack of political engagement I complained about in my piece about exhaustion! Frankly, I can’t imagine anything more boring than a story that rests solely upon the unveiling of some fresh ‘technological marvel’… that’s what tech blogs are for.

Russ is rather dismissive of the idea that exhausted tropes can somehow be rejuvenated and stresses the importance of coming up with new ideas even though they may be “crude and/or silly”. In truth, I do not think that this is an either/or situation as ‘crude’ and ‘silly’ takes on exhausted tropes often seem very much like new ideas… absence not only makes the heart grow fonder but allows authors and publishers to repackage old ideas as ‘young adult’ and market them at people too young to be bored. One source of rejuvenation is cultural diversity as writers with different cultures, backgrounds and experiences can often unpack familiar ideas in entirely new and fascinating ways. Aside from being individually rejuvenated, ideas can also be packaged together and treated as a whole as demonstrated by the various attempts at re-inventing entire sub-genres such as space opera, sword and sorcery or cyberpunk. One particularly interesting indicator of the state of contemporary SF is Adam Roberts’ BSFA Award-winning Jack Glass, which does not just deconstruct traditional genre tropes but uses that process of deconstruction as a means of interrogating our attitudes towards the past and personal re-invention. In other words, Jack Glass is not just decadent SF; it is a sign that the creation of decadent SF has itself entered a phase of glorious decadence.


Cultures change and the ceaseless churn builds empires just as easily as it razes kingdoms. There is always some part of a culture that is dead, dying or lying dormant in wait for the right person to come along with the right set of ideas and the right type of audience. Complaints about the exhaustion of the field have always been with us and will hopefully always be with us as they are a sign that the world of written SF is still complex and vibrant enough to contain multiple factions with different ideas about what SF aught to be doing. The only time people should really start to worry about the exhaustion of SF is when people stop complaining about it as that means that people have stopped disagreeing and when people stop disagreeing it’s generally a sign that people have also stopped caring.

  1. May 10, 2013 9:37 am

    “…what they really mean is that contemporary SF is not providing the type of stuff that they personally enjoy”. I think this point, along with the notion of marketing to people too young to be bored is interesting. People identify their own individual reading history with the existence of some supposed lifetime of a genre, so they map their early reading onto the genre’s juvenile period, and upwards and so on until they basically hit what is their own mid-life crisis… This is where their analogy breaks down, and the button labelled “DECADENCE” is hit in a panic.
    Early in your reading life, you can read and be interested in almost anything, since by definition almost everything you read is new, is signal. As we get older, we come across more of what we perceive to be the same thing (and so noise), and our likes and dislikes can sometimes atrophy into the form of thought that says “X is a Good Thing”, “Y is a Bad Thing”, “Z is a Talented Author”. Maybe the more we read, we have to become more adept at realising our pleasures may have to become somewhat more rarified, enjoying what might be regarded by others as truly austere pleasures.


  2. May 10, 2013 10:24 am

    Absolutely! Every generation has not only its own golden age but it’s own creation myth. A fantastic example of this phenomenon is the series of books and films that attempt to trace contemporary Hollywood mores back to the rough-and-tumble exploitation cinema of the 1950s and 60s.

    Once widely (and rightly) considered an unprincipled hack, Roger Corman is now being reinvented as a sort of cinematic Chronos who gave birth to a pantheon of Hollywood divinities before conveniently exiting the limelight. By tracing their roots back to the cinema of the grindhouse flea pit and the midwestern drive-in, contemporary Hollywood can think of itself in terms of experimentation and care-free risk taking rather than the triumph of neoliberalism and the rise of multinational media conglomerates.

    One of the reasons why I tend to prickle when people talk about the influence of writers like Heinlein ( ) is because he was a touchstone for an entirely different generation to the one I belong to, let alone for people who are currently in their 20s or teens. Every generation remakes cultural history in its own image partly because of short memories but also because rewriting one’s own history is a pretty good way of articulating what you want and what you value.

    You’re also correct that people tend to not re-examine their tastes as they get older meaning that a lot of people’s cultural demands really boil down to ‘I want a book that will make me feel the way I felt when I was 15 and first discovered Heinlein/Le Guin/Gibson/Mieville’


  3. May 10, 2013 10:27 am

    Andrew: the problem with that argument is that it is all too easy to say the problem is with the critic, not the genre. That’s an easy get-out that has been used by far too many people responding to the exhaustion debate. “We don’t have to look at a problem within the genre, because we can identify the problem as lying in the critic’s personal taste”.

    In my original piece, I was very careful to point to instances of, for example, writers recycling old and familiar tropes without making any effort to take them further or do anything fresh with them. What we are left with, as a basis for the sense of exhaustion, is sameness, the idea that science fiction is not about exploring new ideas but about playing with the old and familiar and comfortable.

    The argument that the problem lies with the critic basically comes down to: the critic does not see the sf he grew up with, the sf that comforts him. This argument does not work when the critic is simply saying that the genre does not discomfort him.


  4. May 10, 2013 11:24 am

    Paul — I don’t think that recognising that our tastes are formed by our times and experiences necessarily surrenders all basis for criticising the field as a whole.


  5. May 10, 2013 12:36 pm

    Jonathan, everyone’s tastes are formed by their times, but not everyone’s taste is locked to that time. If I say that my tastes in sf were formed in the 70s, which they were, it does become easy for those who don’t agree with me to say that all I’m doing is looking for more of what I found then.

    In fact, tastes may be formed at a particular period; but taste is a remarkably fluid thing, it changes throughout our lives. Yes, my tastes were formed in the 70s, but my taste now is totally different to what it was then. So we have to be very very careful that we don’t imply any sort of stasis. What interested me when my tastes were being formed plays a very small part in determining what I look for in work today.


  6. May 10, 2013 1:37 pm

    ” referring to past instances of critics fretting about the health of SF is all too often used as a means of derailing criticism and silencing negative voices. Move along… nothing to see here… everything’s great… we’re living in a golden age.”

    I want to apologize for using a silencing tactic on you, Jonathan. That was not my intent, and I will make every attempt to avoid doing so in the future. But I don’t think that I have ever, anywhere, claimed that sf is currently in a Golden Age?

    Actually, I meant to push the notion that you mention above, of sf and literature being cyclical. Knight was writing in an ebb towards the end of the Golden Age, after the collapse of the magazine market and before the revitalization of the New Wave. I am very sympathetic to the argument that we are in such an ebb now. I was hoping to use the historical parallel to (admittedly snarkily) point out that sf may not be doomed forever even if it isn’t at its most vibrant at this moment.


  7. karenburnham permalink
    May 10, 2013 1:58 pm

    Paul- I definitely agree that tastes change considerably over the years. Several years ago I wouldn’t have given what’s now called New Weird any chance at all, it seemed so far out of my comfort zone. Now it’s some of my favorite fiction and I think it’s one of the most vibrant parts of the field.


  8. May 10, 2013 2:08 pm

    Karen — Don’t apologise as your message came across loud and clear… that’s precisely how I read your post. If anyone should apologise here it’s me as I didn’t mean to accuse you of anything… I’m just very aware that ‘people have been saying this type of thing for AAAAGES’ is quite a common reaction to anyone saying anything even remotely negative.

    So I apologise for writing a post that painted you in more uncharitable a light than you deserved, I think we are of one mind when it comes to ebbs and flows.


  9. karenburnham permalink
    May 10, 2013 2:29 pm

    Cool, thanks Jonathan!


  10. May 10, 2013 4:02 pm

    Karen, one of the points of John Barth’s original exhaustion essay was to encourage innovation, to challenge writers to take things on anew. And that was behind what I was trying to say in my essay also. As Jonathan has pointed out, we would probably differ as to what that innovation should be, but I certainly want to see the genre become as challenging and engaging and fresh as it could be. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to see it in cyclical terms, the image that tends to come to my mind is more of a rollercoaster ride, sudden ups and downs. And it’s not flat across the field, there are bits of the genre that I find more exciting than ever. I just get the sense that too much of what we tend to think of as the core of sf is currently wallowing at the bottom of the ride.


  11. May 10, 2013 4:23 pm

    Jonathan–it seems to me that to suggest that sf always relies on “tropes,” whatever their position in the cycle of exhaustion, is to suggest that sf is always exhausted to precisely the same extent. It might just be a difference in terminology, but it always strikes me as odd to discuss sf as a genre in the marketing sense (as opposed to the sense in which the novel, poetry, etc. are genres) when discussing it as literature.

    I’m getting all tangled up in my syntax here–what I mean to say is, it makes sense to talk about sf as a genre when you’re talking about it as a commodity–how it’s marketed, distributed, paid for, etc.–which is not a trivial discussion. But when talking about it as a set of written works, I would argue that to discuss it as a genre–as a set of tropes, as you have it–is to accept its too-frequent limitations in fact as limitations on its potential. Defining sf as that literature that includes spaceships, say, feels to me similar to defining poetry as that literature that includes nightingales, or the novel as that literature that includes the dissolution of marriages. And I’m not saying that you’re saying that, specifically, but to discuss sf as writing that moves around tropes feels uncomfortably close to it…

    I hope that made any sense…?


  12. May 10, 2013 4:36 pm

    I struggle sometimes with your writing on these things, Jonathan, as I’m not sure I have a strong idea of what you think science fiction is. You talk somewhat vaguely about ‘different forms of SF’ and it becomes a bit of meaningless term. Using this logic, it can never be exhausted – it’s so protean it just continues in another form. But one day it’s changed so much that it’s not it anymore, and that I think is where we are.

    It’s my own feeling that the type of story SF evolved to tell is no longer that vital for our culture. The particular anxieties around technology and social change are no longer new and inexplicable. They’ve become either completely mundane (eg, highly connective communications, ‘computers) or proved to be so impractical or even impossible that they’ve retreated from the cultural threat zone (artifical intelligence, interstellar travel, alien contact). Similarly the changes in our perceptions of ourselves that came with the realisation of the vastness of space and time have become part and parcel of our everyday view of the world (a variation on the ‘Cosmic horror, so what?’ theme – we’re all existentialists now).

    Genres change and fall out of cultural usefulness. Men and women and love still exist, and yet no one’s interested in tales of courtly love any more. In its place we have rom coms and chick lit that express our hopes and fears about these things in ways that aren’t possible in the language of the old genre. There’s perhaps an interesting line to follow from Troilus and Cressida to Bridget Jones’ Diary, but it would be silly to try and call the latter a courtly love ballad and the many ways it isn’t aren’t just part of the ebb and flow and genre: they represent profound changes in the way we think about men, women and love.

    I think that this is the source of the problems identified by Mr Kincaid in his review. Fantasy and stories that use the imagery of SF in a metaphorical or deconstructive way thrive. Re-interpretations of the old ideas (and I’d include the current vogue for ‘maginalised voices’ in this) fill the space that’s left, but there’s simply nothing more to say. Technology still exists, technologiocal change still exists, but the story type we dubbed ‘science fiction’ is no longer the proper vehicle to address them because our relationship to them has changed so much, in large part because of science fiction.

    If you take the highly non-specific view of ‘science fiction’, then it’s doing fine. SF imagery is all over TV and the movies, it’s pretty healthily represented in the literary mainstream and fandom is bigger than ever. It’s a Golden Age of a sort – it’s an exciting time to be a super-heroes fan, for example, or a lover of fantasy – just not the sort that some critics are looking for. I don’t think that Golden Age will never come again, and yet the institutions that evolved around SF – ‘fandom’, inparticular, but also the academic and lit crit communities – keep the treatment going even though the patient is dead. (As for me, I’m currently engaged in a post-mortem.)

    Phew, I only intended to ask what you think science fiction actually is… fortunately it’s a slow day at work and annual reviews have been delivered for the year. I’d still be interested to know what you think is the underlying element that binds all these ‘different forms of science fiction’ into something that we can identify as a single genre. At the moment, lack of clarity on that is making it difficult for me to judge these posts, so I went off on one instead.



  13. May 10, 2013 4:38 pm

    Actually, I think Ethan Robinson – who posted while I was worrying at the above – might be asking the same quesiton.


  14. May 10, 2013 5:23 pm

    Ethan and Patrick —

    You’re absolutely right when you say that, under my view, SF is not only a protean entity but a protean entity whose component parts are perpetually shifting in and out of relevance and popularity. If you want to know what I think contemporary science fiction is then I would say that it’s a cultural space hemmed in by market forces and a more or less shared set of cultural references and literary techniques.

    Does it make sense to talk about it as though it’s one entity? Not entirely. In fact, I suspect one of the reason why Paul’s article and my article took off last year is that people responded to the idea that ‘SF is exhausted’ and projected into it their own conception of what SF should be. Everyone’s always going to be pissed off about something…

    SF is a literary tradition that provides both a sensibility and a toolkit for applying that sensibility to the world around us. There are times when that toolkit meshes perfectly with the broad cultural zeitgeist (the sense of cultural elan discovered by Europe in the Colonial Era and America in the first half of the 20th Century) and there are times when that toolkit meshes really well with much smaller cultural concerns (Feminist SF tapped into second wave feminism, cyberpunk dealt with feelings of class alienation under Thatcherism, New Weird dealt with the mass internalisation of postmodern irony).

    These past successes are dead and never coming back and attempts to resurrect them are the products of either pid-headedness or nostalgia. However, while the world may have moved on from the new hotness of 20th Century American Imperialism, the tools and techniques of SF are still there waiting to be used.

    I look at contemporary teenagers living their entire lives online. I look at the fact that people are being slowly coerced into a sort of rootless existence where all employment is precarious, everyone lives in rented accommodation and nobody owns anything except a non-permanent license to view certain books, games and TV shows. These social changes are REAL and they are well within the grasp of the tools and ideas developed by generation after generation of western science fiction writers.

    I love SF but I don’t want yesterday’s SF… I want today’s SF. I want SF designed to respond to the world as it is right now. I don’t want someone to re-write Neuromancer or Excession… I want works that take SF as a literary tradition, break it down into its component parts and rebuild it from the ground up in order to make it relevant.

    I accept that SF is a protean beast and that it can assume many forms… my complaint is that THIS particular form of SF — the SF that does to today what The Forever War did to Vietnam — is far too thin on the ground.


  15. karenburnham permalink
    May 10, 2013 6:50 pm

    Paul – ” I’m not sure I’d go so far as to see it in cyclical terms, the image that tends to come to my mind is more of a rollercoaster ride, sudden ups and downs.”

    Cyclical = sine wave = ups and downs = roller coaster = I think we’re talking about the same thing, just using slightly different terms.


  16. May 10, 2013 7:24 pm

    Jonathan, Patrick, Ethan: Really interesting points here. So let me make a very broad response. Science fiction as a form or literature (it’s probably the same for film, television, etc, but let me stick with what I’m most competent to write about) does essentially the same job as any other form of literature, that is, it responds to the world.

    One of the problems I have included under the term ‘exhaustion’ is that too much contemporary sf is trying not to respond to the world but simply to respond to itself by feeding upon and regurgitating familiar forms of sf. Self referential literature like this elevates the tropes of the genre (sorry, Ethan, but I want to keep using that term) to the state where they are all that the literature is about. In other words, the key issue for much contemporary sf is: how well do you juggle the tropes, not: what do you use the tropes to do.

    Now, of course, even when sf eats itself, it is still a form of literature, it is still responding to the world. But in these cases it is not saying anything interesting because it is simply reusing responses to the world that are 10, 20, 50 years old. Now it may be, as Patrick suggests, that this suggests that sf has lost its relevance. I hope that is not the case. There are individual works of science fiction that are relevant, that do engage with the moment, that force us to look at things in a way that is challenging and engaging and interesting. But a few such examples cannot stand for the entire genre, and whether that engagement with the world can again become a common expression of the genre has to be open to question.

    As Jonathan says, sf is a protean form. There will always be some authors that have something relevant to say about the moment just as there will always be some authors who have no interest in doing anything but play with the tropes. The books I was reviewing in ‘The Widening Gyre’ suggested to me that the latter party are in the ascendant, but even so whenever we make a generalised statement about sf we have to accept that there are also plenty of examples that will go directly against what we say. I hope that we can again reach a point where it seems that the former party is in the ascendant, simply because I still feel that at its best science fiction is an excellent way of addressing the present moment, and I would hate to see that going to waste.

    Karen: yes, of course.


  17. May 11, 2013 6:58 am

    Tired tropes have nothing to say to their contemporary culture. Rocket ships are tired because, up until a few years ago, western society wasn’t interested in space travel. They were interested in self-expression and the internet. Rocket ship stories were regurgitating the imagery of the past.

    During the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction, aliens and space ships were socially relevant because man was going to the moon. Golden Age authors presumably assumed we’d be on Mars in twenty years and visiting the stars within fifty years. They also assumed that space communists were a serious threat and alien communists were a bigger one…

    Today we have start-up companies interested in asteroid mining and serious discussion of getting to Mars. If we go to Mars, science fiction authors will start writing rocket ships again. It would be ridiculous to engage in stylistic experimentation or gritty urban cyberpunk when there’s a bunch of people on a one-trip to another world. Cybernetics in San Francisco will start looking tired and old hat.

    Crucially, though, this new rocket ship science fiction won’t be a rehash of 1950s fiction. It’ll be a fresh commentary on the inequalities/fears/concerns of the day. The ‘aliens’ won’t be communists, for starters.


  18. May 11, 2013 10:10 am

    Paul — You’re very right to say that even when SF eats itself, it is still responding to the world as I really don’t think that the recursion loop SF appears to be stuck in is an SF problem as much as it is a western culture problem. I mean… walk down any high street and you’ll see that fashions in clothing appear to be shuffling through half-decades every year or so and a lot of people are responding to that by dressing in an ironic manner. SF is eating itself but so is everything else! In that respect, SF is very much in tune with the zeitgeist even if that zeitgeist is the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and going ‘la la la’ in the hope that it’ll make the real world go away.

    As you say, it seems to me that SF is in a unique position to actually try and help us make sense of the world and while this decadent form of SF is undoubtedly producing great works, you can’t deconstruct forever!

    Vivienne — Back in the 1950s, rocketships spoke directly to what it meant to be a member of the American middle classes… their economy was booming, their standards of living were going through the roof and everything and anything seemed possible. What better to voice that sense of boundless possibility than by telling stories about square-jawed American men building technological marvels and heading out to the final frontier?

    I don’t share your faith that space exploration is any more important or culturally significant now than it was 10 or 20 years ago (I may read SF but I really couldn’t give a shit about sending more remote control cars to barren lifeless rocks) but I do think that rocket ships can remain a powerful symbol if they are hitched to the right cultural mood.

    Lem’s Tales of Pirx the Pilot used spaceships as a means of commenting on what it was like to work in a Soviet-style bureaucracy where all of your superiors were either drunk or incompetent. We’re living through an age where an entire generation is being groomed for a life where they will never have a permanent job but will instead move from temporary placement to temporary placement as they pay off the massive debts they ran up at university. I struggle to understand why nobody has taken that phenomenon and applied it to the crew of a starship:

    “Oh the guy who knew how to work the sensor array had his contract terminated and he transferred to another ship while the person who replaced them is an unpaid intern who is being supported by their wealthy parents”


  19. May 11, 2013 10:51 am

    I struggle to understand why nobody has taken that phenomenon and applied it to the crew of a starship

    I have!


  20. May 11, 2013 11:36 am

    In that case, we need 20 of you :-)


  21. May 12, 2013 3:27 pm

    Hi Jonathan,

    ‘I would say that it’s a cultural space hemmed in by market forces and a more or less shared set of cultural references and literary techniques.’

    That describes in general terms what a genre is. I’m interested to know what cultural references and literary techniques you think are specific to SF. I think I understand the market forces at work!


  22. May 13, 2013 8:59 am

    Patrick — That’s another big question… one that I don’t think anyone has ever come close to answering (not least because it kinda requires you to define SF and you can’t define something that has no fixed essence to pin down). Having said that…

    I would consider the extended info-dump to be a literary technique that is very closely associated with SF. People often point to KSR as a master of the form but I think the opening section of Lem’s His Master’s Voice is about as good as it gets. YMMV obv.

    I would also consider the boundaries imposed upon the construction of the fiction’s secondary world to be distinctly SFnal. Fantasy and horror produce all kinds of secondary worlds partitioned either by story-logic or emotional tone but only SF bothers to put any thought into the question of whether that world is even remotely possible given what we currently know about the universe and human nature.

    When I moan about the decline of SF and its collapse into a variety of fantasy, what motivates my complaint is the dilution and abandonment of these techniques and values. For example, the world of Hannu Rajaniemi’s books strike me as purely fantastical in origin but with just enough post-hoc technobabble to make it look as though the world is in some way plausible.

    While I definitely complain about SF’s decline into fantasy, I also think that nostalgia is deeply problematic as a world in which humanity colonises the star system is far less plausible than it was 50 years ago and I think that SF needs to recognise this fact.


  23. May 13, 2013 9:15 am


    Why do you think humanity colonising a star system is less plausible than 50 years ago? I’m curious…

    Yeah, I’m optimistic… The reason is I’m convinced by Strauss and Howe’s theories about generational changes in culture. They predicted Generation X before Douglas Coupland’s book, they predicted the economic crisis in the west, and they predicted some of the ‘Millennial’ social changes (knitting, women returning to the home… etc.)

    If we ‘win’ the current crisis, Strauss and Howe predict a civic society that will ‘do stuff’ like go to Mars or build millions of solar panels. The upside of such a society is the middle-class optimism that you mention during the Golden Age of science fiction. The downside of such a society is a stronger division between genders and an increase in oppression/authoritarianism, etc.

    As you correctly point out, rocket ships are a symbol of cultural ‘power’ and ‘achievement’. You could argue that the race to the moon was two cultures fighting to prove their supremacy by getting there first. I don’t see why, even if the west doesn’t go to Mars, that China won’t. Once you’ve gone to Mars, the next obvious destination is a nearby solar system, especially because we’re rapidly finding Earth-like planets (at least 11 in the last year). It’s not difficult to imagine a cultural p****g contest between the US and China leading to a manned mission to the first habitable planet we find.

    Bear in mind, to fully solve climate change and peak oil, someone will need to create better forms of energy production. The main barrier to sensible interstellar travel is power.

    I think you’re buying the Generation X nihilism thang. Cultures change very quickly. In 1970s UK, it was socially acceptable to grope up women in the office and smoke. Today, forty years later, the government wants to force pregnant women to take smoking tests and we’re on a witch hunt against dirty old men. Times change. Think the unthinkable.


  24. May 13, 2013 10:26 am

    Vivienne —

    In a nutshell, I don’t think that the political will exists anymore and I can’t imagine that will coming back any time soon. It’s not just a problem of economics but a problem in what people consider to be the role of the state. 50 years ago, people still expected the state to pull off these types of grand undertakings but now the role of the state appears increasingly limited to building prisons and bailing out banks.

    You may be right about the US and China getting into a pissing contest at some future date but I think the language of political culture has changed to the point where there are far more potent and attractive symbols than landing people on other planets. Symbols like ‘saying no to big government’ and ‘tightening our belts’ and ‘putting money in voters’ pockets’.

    I am not an optimist. I think that many of the problems facing humanity today are problems born of fundamental facts about human nature and I don’t think that there is anything that can be done to fix human nature and so I think most of humanity’s problems are effectively insoluble. I would say that the future was a boot stamping on a human face forever but I’m not sure that people in the future will be able to afford boots :-)


  25. May 13, 2013 1:17 pm

    Jonathan–given your (admittedly brief) description of contemporary life, I’m wondering what in it you think demands a change in the form of sf rather than just its content–a subject-matter demand that people like Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross (neither of whom am I a big fan of) strike me as more than equal to. I mean, I think we agree that sf needs new forms, but I’m not sure why we agree!

    (I also think we’d disagree over what the new forms need to do. For one thing, I’m not entirely sure what you–or Karen Burnham–are referring to when you mention “The New Wave,” which is an incredibly broad label that means different things to different people, but what I usually think of with it–the Dangerous Visions anthologies, Ballard, Aldiss–I find deeply distasteful. There are exceptions of course, I mean, “When It Changed” was in ADV after all, but as a general rule. For another thing, I do think it’s useful to go to the past for revitalization–we’re talking on a much shorter time-scale, of course, but much the same thing as, say, T.S. Eliot going to Donne and Dante to learn how to go forward, Virginia Woolf rediscovering the erased heritage of women writers, etc.)

    Paul–just want to say, I think that though you’re using terms I find distasteful (as, hah, you say yourself), we’re saying broadly similar things…I don’t have nearly the authority to speak about the state of contemporary sf in general (haven’t been reading it thoroughly until extremely recently), but as far as the nature of sf itself I think we’re in fairly close agreement. One place I’d differ, though, or possibly quibble (or even just ask a question): is there room in your analysis for sf to build on itself? Or does it need to reinvent the wheel (or the ansible) every time?


  26. May 13, 2013 1:18 pm

    (Blah, didn’t mean to naively suggest that there’s a strict divide between form and content, but though the terms are misleading at best it still seems they’re sometimes necessary…)


  27. May 13, 2013 3:01 pm

    Ethan —

    I think you’ve got me back to front… I don’t think that the problem with contemporary SF is a lack of formal innovation or technical experimentation. I think if SF has a problem it’s not a problem that exists at the level of how well people write but at the level of what people choose to write about.

    Karen pegged me as nostalgic for the New Wave but I think that’s probably more true of Paul as I don’t actually like any of the books that came out of the New Wave. I admire the sense of creative freedom and the desire to write more interesting science fiction but I like end-stage Ballard a lot more than I like New Wave Ballard and I have never really got on with the likes of Delany, Spinrad or Ellison.

    I respond very strongly to formal innovation in visual media but I tend to find experimental novels a real chore. In fact, if another New Wave happened tomorrow, I suspect I’d probably just roll my eyes and go back to reading comics :-)


  28. May 13, 2013 3:23 pm

    Ah–no doubt got you confused with someone else. Sorry! At least I got to work out some stuff I’ve been thinking about, haha, so thanks for that. (And on the “what does New Wave mean” front, I don’t think I’d ever put Ellison and Delany in the same category!)


  29. May 13, 2013 8:51 pm

    The idea of reading SF for “comfort” amuses me, as I have always been drawn to SF precisely in order to be upset, disturbed and challenged. The moment the genre ceases to mess with my mind, I get bored. Nostalgia is fun *as such*, but it’s not really what I seek in SF.

    Is it possible for a reader to grow old in this genre without getting mired in nostalgia, to keep one’s mind flexible and hungry for the new and challenging?
    I certainly hope so, but it is only a hope…


  30. May 13, 2013 10:18 pm

    Hi Jonathan,

    I think there are a few decent and useful definitions of SF out there. I found Darko Suvin’s definition based around the idea of the plausible novum and exploration based around ‘cognition’ useful when I was doing my MA, for example.

    I’d also disagree that the ‘literary devices’ that characterise SF are the kind of structural quirks that you bring up: it’s bigger than stuff like ‘info dumps’. Indeed, you find info dumps in all sorts of fiction and genres where setting or technical details are important – historical novels, thrillers, fantasy of course and even literary novels with particular aims or settings (think of the stuff about missile trajectories in Gravity’s Rainbow).

    I see this ‘literary devices’ aspect of SF as a matter of the type of story that the plausible novum implies. It’s the answer to the question: what if? A lot of SF doesn’t bother giving a convincing answer to that question, content to repeat stories of adventure, colonialism or war, or to use the novum as an essentially metaphorical device to address literary issues (as in The Road, for example) or make satirical points of varying degrees of ripeness (does anyone really think The Hunger Games or The Wind Up Girl represent plausible futures?)

    Anyway, I don’t expect you to agree with me on all that (and I’m not how clear that summary is: there’s a more detailed exposition in my review of Super Sad Love Story on The Zone), but I’d urge you to think a little more carefully about what SF actually is. Without a clear idea of what you’re looking for your argument at the moment does seem to be that there’s nothing ‘good’ being published, and that’s very close to ‘nothing I like’.

    I think Paul K’s article is pointing out the lack of new or original stories that explore the the speculative, scientific aspects of SF. His statements here (apologies not to address you directly, Paul) imply that he thinks that can return, perhaps in a new way, but I disagree.

    As to why that is, you raise an interesting point when you talk about ‘possible’ and plausible worlds (although I don’t think human nature’s ever been as important as scientific truth). I think this is the key element that is changing. The audience (the market forces you identified) are losing interest in plausibility, because the fact is that the universe is actually somewhat more boring than we anticipated.

    Sorry, folks, no new worlds and new civilizations for you, no wise-cracking robot buddies, no ET, no Rama, no Deja Thoris, no Dr Who or Bene Geserit. People still long for those sorts of thing, though, so those stories keep being told, but story tellers and audience have abandoned the pretence of plausibility entirely.

    What we used to think of as SF has disappeared into post-cyberpunk venture capital futurism, TED talks and digital politics of the type practised Doctorow and Stross or space exploration boosterism of the kind Vivienne’s advocating above (no offense, Vivienne, a worthy but IMO doomed enterprise). It’s nice and all, but society doesn’t really care that much and the ‘cultural references’ on which SF depended have lost their mana.

    And of course, I don’t expect you to agree with me on that either. I suspect you don’t see those elements as essential – but, well, it’s all good fun, isn’t it…


  31. May 14, 2013 11:43 am

    Patrick —

    I think that Suvin’s definition is a) not particularly helpful because there are loads of works of SF that produce no sense of estrangement at all and b) philosophically flawed because in order to define something that term needs to have been used in a systematic manner and I don’t think that there’s any real coherence to the way that the term ‘science fiction’ has been used over the years.

    I can see why people find that definition useful as people writing MAs and PhDs need to be able to say ‘I’m writing about SF and when I say I’m writing about SF I mean that I’m writing about works that are a bit like this’ and the wide acceptance of Suvin’s definition makes it particularly useful for that type of discourse. I can see why people like it, but I think it’s about as theoretically unsound as you can possibly get.

    You also say:

    “Without a clear idea of what you’re looking for your argument at the moment does seem to be that there’s nothing ‘good’ being published, and that’s very close to ‘nothing I like’. ”

    But that’s pretty much my exact position! There is not an ounce of moral or philosophical weight behind any of my preferences: I think SF is capable of doing something that it is not currently doing, I would find works of SF that did that thing more interesting that much of the SF we have at the moment, ergo I would like some more of that type of stuff please!

    I think of SF as small marketplace of ideas and when I complain about the state of contemporary SF, I mean nothing more than the fact that the stock I happen to own is down.


  32. May 14, 2013 9:50 pm

    Okay, well, that’s a much less interesting idea than ‘SF is exhausted’!

    Ultimately, criticism is an observational act. This kind of sentiment is usually backed up by an editorial mandate – maybe you ought to consider that.


  33. May 15, 2013 6:41 am

    All editorial mandates are ultimately expressions of personal taste. There’s no way that one can compel other people to agree that your preferences are in any way objective or universal. You can bat the ideas around and maybe introduce other people to your preferences in the hope that they stick but I don’t think it’s in any way intellectually tenable to try and suggest that people are doing SF wrong because SF is X and not Y.


  34. May 15, 2013 6:42 am

    This is cultural politics… not law-making.


  35. May 15, 2013 7:59 am

    @Patrick… I’m not sure why talking about exploring the solar system or, in fact, interstellar exploration is tired or old-fashioned. You can ask quite credibly ‘what if?’…

    Only last year, we found a planet around Alpha Centauri – the closest star to us. Using present-day technology (in the lab at the moment), we could get there in about 200 years. We’re testing suspended animation technology too. Given the response to Mars One, you can quite credibly wonder what would happen if we discovered an Earth-like planet around Alpha Centauri and evidence of life.

    I agree that it’s a science-fiction staple, but revenge and social injustice is a literary fiction staple. No one thinks literary authors should stop writing about old and new money in America because F. Scott Fitzgerald did it in 1925.

    What’s more, this stuff hasn’t lost its cultural relevance. Last year’s summer blockbusters included Men in Black (aliens) and Prometheus (space travel, aliens)… It’s desperately silly stuff, but most pulp SF from the Golden Age was equally daft.


    That doesn’t mean that science fiction authors shouldn’t be tackling contemporary issues like unmanned drones, privacy, bioengineering of people and animals, swarm robotics, nanotech terrorism, climate change, etc. However, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t dismiss The Windup Girl as implausible and scoring a cheap satirical point, and not want space travel and aliens either. The Windup Girl tackles climate change and genetic engineering in a post-apocalyptic future. The windup technology is daft, but it’s not clear why the idea of catastrophic climate change is implausible.

    You seem to want more stories like Asimov’s and Arthur C. Clarke’s? Am I correct? I suspect the reason there aren’t stories like that anymore is because of the collapse of the pulp short story market. These days, speculative fiction short stories are written by writers, for writers. You need to have a pretty crazy background to be able to write like a literary writer while knowing the science. Asimov was a biochemist and Clarke a rocket scientist before he was a writer and you can see it in his writing. The writing was ‘functional’ and I’m sure would get rejected by many magazines these days. In the past, hack writing full of cool ideas sold better.


    Alpha Centauri planet (Oct 2012)

    Suspended animation story (Sept 2010)

    Mars One (May 2013)

    Blockbuster info


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