MIND MELD: The Future of Written Science Fiction
Over the past several years, books like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Road have brought science fictional ideas to mainstream readers. Additionally, science and technology are advancing at such great rates that ideas that once were thought to be science fiction now seem possible, if not probable.
The true innovators in SF will continue to be those writers who can assimilate the world entire without worrying about genre boundaries because they will continue to reach the most readers. Your choice of examples is telling–more people have read Handmaid’s Tale or The Road despite their not being easy books than any number of purely genre SF novels. And a more diverse audience.
Further though the real challenge is writing near future SF. Stross I believe said near future sf is impossible. I respectfully say that is bullshit. To be relevant that is exactly what SF needs and how SF is falling down on the job right now. SF can do escapism just fine right now. But dealing with things head on? Not so well. SF has to get down in the nitty gritty of the horrible position we are in right now or it runs the risk of being just as irrelevant as the next medieval based fantasy trilogy. Yes it is hard to do. Who ever said writing was supposed to be easy? Show some guts.
I have no idea where written SF is heading, unfortunately. The book as a paper product is probably doomed (in the West, at least), as more people revert to technological alternatives. I suspect there will always be a percentage of people who will read SF across the world. The trouble is that as non-genre readers become more comfortable with SFnal ideas, those ideas stop becoming SFnal. I think it’s a perception of how cool SF is seen, or isn’t.
Among hard-core science fiction fans, there’s often a belief — either stated or implied — that once an idea that saw the first light of day in this genre has entered the larger mass-culture of bestseller “mainstream” fiction, somehow it has become a subject that genre writers can’t touch again. That this particular idea has lost its originality, and therefore no self-respecting writer can do anything more with it, and new ideas must therefore be generated and explored instead. In other words, there goes the neighborhood: the slum has been gentrified, so we need to move to another tenement house.
But that just isn’t so.
Take for example The Road. Post-apocalypse survival stories have been with us for a very long time now, going back to earliest years of the genre with Armageddeon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan, serialized in “Amazing” in 1928 and 1929, and continuing through the dozens of post-nuclear holocaust novels and stories published in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of those works appeared in SF magazines or were published by genre book publishers, yet long before Cormac McCarthy did his version of this well-established theme, other writers not normally associated with SF also took a stab at it. Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959) is probably the most famous example, but there’s also Vandenberg by Oliver Lange (1971), which bears a certain resemblance to The Road, and Good News by Edward Abbey (1980). None of those earlier novels prohibited SF writers from working the same ground; a short list would include Farnham’s Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein (1964), Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny (1969), War Day by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka (1984), Tom O’Bedlam by Robert Silverberg (1985), The Postman by David Brin (1985) and, most recently, Plague Year by Jeff Carlson (2007).
Another example are novels and stories about first missions to Mars. This is a theme that predates the genre itself, with Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss (1897) — an unauthorized sequel to H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds — possibly being the first such story. Countless novels about first flights to Mars appeared after that; don’t even think about asking me for a list. In 1971, Allen Drury, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of political novels, published The Throne of Saturn. It was a major bestseller at the time, very possibly because it wasn’t labeled science fiction — a marketing approach very familiar to anyone who follows the SF genre — but its success hasn’t stopped dozens of SF writers (myself included) from tackling the same idea since then. Indeed, I don’t think we’ll see the last novel about the first mission to Mars until someone actually sets foot on the red planet.
Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil wasn’t the last word on human cloning, nor did Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America put the cap on alternative history novels. And since The Handmaid’s Tale has been mentioned, I’ll add that other writers have tackled the subject of theocratic dystopias both before and after Margaret Atwood met her first talking squid in space.
The point is this: although science fiction has often been called “the literature of ideas”, the fact of the matter is that — as is the case with any kind of fiction, regardless of genre — it’s not the idea itself that matters so much as what you do with it. A good writer can take a concept that, at first glance, is as old as the hills, and — with a little ingenuity and a lot of imagination — put an entirely new spin on it that makes it seem fresh. Nor is any idea entirely original. If someone published a novel tomorrow about telepathic zebras on a planet in orbit about Alpha Centauri who are at war with mutant lobster-men who worship intercepted TV transmissions from Earth of Happy Days reruns, if you searched long and hard enough, you’d probably find that much the same story has already been done … probably in an old issue of “Thrilling Wonder Stories” from 1951.
I’m always interested when a non-genre writer tackles on a traditional SF theme. Sometimes you get a fresh new look at an old concept. But that doesn’t mean the idea has become off-limits to those of us who’ll probably never been short-listed for the Pulitzer.
Michael Chabon, in a review, spoke about the “biohazardous wastes of post-genre literature”. And I think that’s a fair observation. From authors such as Lethem and Chabon who are so blatantly mixing genres up, to authors shelved in the mainstream that dabble with genre (Ishiguro, Winterson), there is so obviously no clear boundary any more.
But I want to speak in crude, discrete bookselling terms. We can talk about themes and concepts in the written form, but these days that doesn’t necessarily matter – ultimately the industry is shaped by sales, sales, sales. Publishing (sadly) is very much dictated by dollars and units shifted as opposed to merit – it is a business after all. It is increasingly dominated about how best to exploit a book to make money; more so than it’s ever been.
I think it’s fair to say that there are books that seek to give entertainment, and books that seek to explore the more inherently literary themes. (I know some do both, but bear with me…)
Both types are stocked in the SF/F section, and from here, we can either go two ways. There may be more of an acceptance of literary SF novels (those still shelved in genre, such as M John Harrison’s Nova Swing) – that is, readers won’t be put off, and will step across the physical bookstore to seek those out. They will realise that they have been snobbish for too long. We’ll welcome them in!
However, SF and F sections of bookstores may very well become solely for the books that give entertainment, and those that are the big sellers. The more experimental genre novels will be sent out into the mainstream or destined for the smaller presses only. So what I’m saying is that the high-art side of the genre will be lost from the section of the bookstore. In the UK, Chabon and Lethem can’t often be found in the genre sections – and I fear that more genre novels will go the way of the mainstream. The snobbery is kept in place by those who work in the industry, and genre is exploited, as if for minerals, in order to fuel sales of, say, “post-modern” fiction.
So, I really think the written form of SF will be the same as it’s always been, from amazing galactic romps to intensely deep and inspirational stories. But in the future you just won’t find as much variety in the genre section of the bookstore; it will be distilled. However, the mainstream sections will have more “post-genre” variety than ever…
I think that science fiction has long since lost all the battles but won the war. Years past, frankly. Our tropes and concepts have been subsumed across mainstream literature and within other genres — everything from the contrafactual fantasies of magic realism to the bestsellers you’ve cited by Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy and many other figures of the literary establishment, all the way to the thriving sub-genres within romance which focus on time travel and other SFnal elements.
Likewise movies, where fantasy and SF themed movies overwhelmingly dominate the box office gross records, and non-sports computer and online gaming, again dominated by fantasy and SF. Genre has become overwhelmingly accepted almost everywhere except in the groves of academe, and, oddly, on the bookstore shelves.
I think this may be one reason you see science fiction readership (and I specifically mean this as distinct from its Siamese twin of fantasy) becoming so invested in established reading protocols and conventions of the form. A long running complaint about our field is the lack of entry-level work — in effect, you have to take a historical journey to arrive at an understanding of the present state of SF. Given that our field has always defined itself, and even prided itself, on outsider status, the mainstreaming of our concerns has pushed us toward specialization as a way of defending our specialness.
Is this a good thing? Probably not, but I’m not convinced it’s bad either. Literature is like rock and roll…new movements come along, but the old ones never die. Reader tastes change, writers and publishers adapt, or they don’t. I for one hope to keep writing what I love, and keep adapting at the same time.
I think the blurring of science fiction and mainstream media will continue. It seems to me that science fiction pretty much permeates everything, these days–genre science fiction maintains its boundaries through the office of very stringent reading protocols that genre readers have to train themselves to follow. If you were to hand, say, Amy Thomson’s The Color Of Distance to somebody who is not at home with the conventions of SF, for example, and the way we handle certain kinds of worldbuilding, I suspect they would find it impenetrable.
But it becomes a more permeable membrane, the more willing one is to step away from enforcing those protocols. I don’t think the alleged line between mainstream and genre is all that firm. Certainly SFnal tropes are successfully exploited by authors who are respected in the
mainstream, but that’s been true for a hundred years.
Basically, the divide has a lot to do with how hard you make people work to get past your cant. So I think we have options. Science fiction is never going away. It’s transforming, of course, and will continue to transform. For one thing, there’s a greater diversity of voices in the field than ever before–more women, more writers of color, more queer writers, more writers of nontraditional backgrounds. And I think that brings a richness and breadth we haven’t had before. I also think we’re having some continued success in merging literary excellence with really cool stories and nifty ideas, a process that traces its roots all the way back to Bradbury.
I think this question really breaks down into two separate ones:
1) Is scientific literacy and awareness, which is such a vitally important matter in today’s world, still something that SF can promote, as it once did in the prior era of dawning atomic weapons and space travel?
2) If so, then what form of SF is best suited to this mission?
I do not think that the other, lesser implicit question is what you are really intending to ask here. That question would be: is the general “mundane” non-fannish public open to hardcore SF? I think that debate was settled about thirty years ago, with the success of Star Wars. The average viewer and reader is utterly conversant with all but the most esoteric SF tropes–Boltzmann Brains might stump them–and is prepared to embrace the literature and cinema of the fantastic without hesitation.
But on the other hand, evolution-denying, climate-change-naysaying, astrology-believing and cosmology-ignoring citizens are as rampant as ever, if not more so. Reaching the most ignorant and stubborn masses of these types is probably not a job for ANY written literature, as the habits of reading are not in place. General education will have to go to work with them. But if we’re talking about increasing the scientific literacy of a well-disposed and well-educated person, then the only really suitable format is Near-Future SF, the day-after-tomorrow stuff which is so hard to write well and accurately. (And in a recent blog post, Charles Stross of all people has declared it’s impossible to write it under current conditions.) We have to depict rousing adventures occurring within the lifetimes of the reader or his/her children to drive home to relevancy of our themes and topics. Insofar as mimesis and naturalism pertain, then the virtues and toolkit of literary fiction will influence the SF writer as well, and shape the tale.
Space opera is essential good fun, as are all the other flavor of SF. But it’s not going to drive home the message that awareness of science issues is essential for informed citizenship.
My first thought on reading the question was that I have no real opinion on the subject. No informed opinion, anyway. But then I got to thinking about it, and wondering if it’s a question about the future of the genre, or the future of genre publishing. It seems to me that readers and writers have always been interested in speculative stories, and only industry labelling, plus academic and reviewing biases, have led to the situation today, wherein we regard it as remarkable that books like The Time Traveller’s Wife and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle can be regarded as mainstream hits. So maybe we’re facing less an intersection of realism and speculative genres and more an awareness that these kinds of stories have always existed, alongside the desire to read them. I hope that this awareness is creeping up through a new generation of editors and critics, who see the distinction as meaningless. Maybe.
Regarding the interplay between science and science fiction, I have always regarded with some puzzlement the idea that SF will cease to exist once everything we’ve invented in SF becomes real. What’s that about? People didn’t stop coming up with ideas in the 50s, or the 70s, or the 90s, and they aren’t stopping any time soon. SF has survived the arrival of the mobile phone and the PC, and will survive genetic engineering and the Large Hadron Collider too. There’ll always be space opera, which pushes our imagination right out to the limits, and there’ll always be new science to explore. Until someone changes human nature, we’ll always find ways to tell stories, and to dream, and there will always be people who find ways to do both.
As to detailed predictions of what the future of either the mainstream or the SF field will look like, I refer you to David Brin, who once said: “Anyone who tries to predict the future is inevitably a fool. Present company included.”
Science fiction is doing just fine, thank you. It wins Pulitzer prizes. It hits the best seller list (Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Anathem both recently made #1 on the New York Times’s list). It sells like crazy when it’s labeled as Teen or YA fiction.
Category science fiction – as in the section of the bookstore where 90% of science fiction gets shelved – is wrestling with a problem of public perception. Maybe it needs to figure out how to solve it, or the category will shrink. They’ll still be plenty of SF on the bestseller list – written by people with names like Anderson, Chabon, Gibson, Stephenson, Weber – they’ll still be plenty of it on shelves, and plenty of it on TV. It’s thriving right now, both the really literary stuff and the really commercial stuff, and my favorite – the stuff that blends literary and commercial sensibilities. And as to awards, with Roth, Chabon, Díaz, Lessing, Bradbury – I’m wondering if the Pulitzer isn’t replacing the Hugo as SF’s highest award. But maybe category science fiction needs to explore more ways of getting people over outdated and frankly ridiculous stereotypes. Or not. Everyone’s a geek now in some way – seen that commercial where the dad buys his son a horned viking helmet so they can watch football together? – what a couple of dorks in their costumes! Picking on people for their choice of entertainment seems a particularly idiotic thing to do in the 21st century, the Age of Unlimited Entertainment Choices. Science fiction – and everything else – will do just fine, even if it changes where it is shelved or how it is labeled.
The future is here. Reality has become more and more science-fictional. It’s time for science fiction to get a little more unreal.
I’d love to see more people playing what Rudy Rucker calls the “power chords” of science fiction. He describes these as “those classic SF topes that have the visceral punch of heavy musical riffs.” The list includes: Blaster guns, spaceships, time machines, aliens, telepathy, flying saucers, warped space, faster-than-light travel, immersive virtual realities, clones, robots, teleportation, alien-controlled pod people, endless shrinking, the shattering of planet Earth, intelligent goo, antigravity, generation starships, ecodisaster, pleasure-center zappers, alternate universes, nanomachines, mind viruses, higher dimensions, a cosmic computation that generates our reality and, of course, the attack of the giant ants.
I want more of that stuff. The good stuff, the fun stuff. The mind-expanding thought-experiments and heady adventure stories.
As the present more and more becomes yesterday’s science fiction, I think the genre does itself a disservice to retreat to safer, more “mundane” near-future extrapolation. There’s a place for it, certainly, and I wouldn’t dream of gainsaying any writer who wants to till those fields, but for me I think that we need to be looking farther ahead, widening our vision instead of narrowing it.
Ian McDonald recently opined that “the aquifer of hopes and fears that SF has been drawing from so long is running dry.” He needs new dreams, as his old ones don’t enchant him any more. He’s looking for the next Big Idea. McDonald is talking specifically about making SF relevant to modern readers, in a way that “Spaaaaaaceship! Fiction” of the 20th Century doesn’t really anymore. He runs up the flag for the Multiverse, and casts a glance at the Singularity, Nanotech, the environment, and others. It didn’t escape my notice how many of those are on Rucker’s list of SF power chords.
We need more books like McDonald’s Brasyl, or Rucker’s Postsingular, or Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time.
We need more Big Ideas, more Power Chords.
We need, in short, more crazy sh*t.
They say truth is stranger than fiction, but it seems science is stranger than fiction these days. The “future” in SF novels always used to seem a lot further away- colonies on other planets, robots in the population, etc. – but now it seems just around the corner.
I think maybe we’ll start to see more SF novels melding more of the so-called “reality” and current events- to the point where sometimes you’re not sure which is which anymore. You don’t have to stray far from Earth to find science fiction.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is one of the most haunting “SF novels” I’ve read. But what scared me the most was that I never felt like it was fictional.
The future of the literature of the future is a paradox. . . . To start with, the future is unfolding too fast for fiction to anticipate it. The thoughtful, orderly process of creating fiction may be no match for the thoughtless and chaotic way science and technology are changing the world out from under us. And when everyday life is overwhelmed by technological change and invention, there’s no escapism in reading about fictional variations on that theme. No wonder the readership of science fiction, particularly hard science fiction, is by some accounts trending down.
Yet I can imagine a potential increase in SF readership. Maybe even an exponential increase. Thanks less to books than to TV and movies, the SF tropes of starships, aliens, virtual realities, and so forth don’t faze anybody any more. There are writers who haven’t come up through SF conventions writing recognizable SF. It may not be hard science fiction; it may be SF in TV mode, presenting a fantastic parody of science. On the other hand, my novel Hurricane Moon is hard science fiction, with astronomy, molecular biology, astronautical engineering, and botany. I explained the science and contexted the SFnal tropes, and I made sure the human, emotional factors were as clear and compelling as the science. Since the book came out I’ve heard from mainstream readers, librarians, and book-lovers who’d never read a science fiction book in their lives, but enjoyed Hurricane Moon.
As things stand now, there’s no unavoidable reason why SF can’t meet general readers where they live. As literature, SF may have a wide and wonderful future. It just has to be something more than hollow tropes and unexplained science plus or minus literary merit. The something more might be elements of mystery, high adventure, or romance; believable, three-dimensional characters; moral meaning; or even relevance to how any of us can live well in a universe that blends old moral evils with new sciences and ever-accelerating technological change. If it’s science fiction and more, I think it has an unbounded future.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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