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.