MIND MELD: Is SF Still The “Big Idea” Genre?
[This week's question was submitted by an SF Signal reader. Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Recently Neal Stephenson wrote an article for the World Policy Journal titled “Innovation Starvation“. In the article he discussed the serious lack of innovation in science today. Later in the article, he discusses a presentation that he made at the Future Tense conference where he said that good science fiction supplied “a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place.” One scientist that he talked to complained that SF writers are slacking off, saying that SF writers need “to start supplying big visions that make sense.” With Planetary Resources announcing their plan to mine the asteroids, it seems that reality may be encroaching on science fiction’s “big idea” territory.
We asked this week’s panelists:
Here’s what they said…
Possibly neither. The arc of big, epochal, scientific ideas may have run its course in science fiction – having flowed on into nonfiction and reality. In addition to asteroid mining, think about Google as an example. Bruce Sterling remarked at a convention that despite a unitary artificial superintelligence being a big idea in SF, there hasn’t been one invented, but there’s such an amazing, unanticipated thing as the distributed intelligence of Google searching and all.
I don’t think SF writers are slacking – although many on the advice of editors and agents have been writing fantasy because it sells better. Some are creating alloys of SF and fantasy. In the century we’re in now, for a big idea to catch fire with the upcoming scientists and engineers it may have to be not just an an overweening head trip, but a profound heart trip as well.
I don’t think SF is suffering from a shortage of big ideas, or authors who are willing to play with them. If the genre seems to currently lack vision, I believe it’s because of constraints imposed by editors and publishers.
Over the last decade, the publishing industry — particularly in the U.S. — has become increasingly obsessed with bestsellers. For the major publishers, it’s no longer enough for an author to write novels that sell enough copies to produce a modest yet meaningful profit over a period of time. What the publishers want instead are big, breakout books that will sell thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of copies in the first few weeks of publication.. These kinds of novels make money fast and therefore please shareholders, so the pressure comes down on editors to produce bestsellers, and they in turn press writers to deliver novels which will have a chance at landing on the bestseller lists.
The easiest and most reliable way to produce a bestseller is to imitate that which is already successful. So if paranormal romance is selling well, then the impetus is to produce lots and lots of paranormal romances. If military space opera is the all the rage, then publish tons of that stuff. If the trend in dystopian young-adult SF has put novels like The Hunger Games series on the bestseller lists, then you can expect to see many more novels very much like The Hunger Games. Last year it was vampires, this year it’s steampunk, and next year it’ll be something else. Run it into the ground, and then move on.
The problem with chasing the bestseller lists is that it pushes aside anything that isn’t in line with current fashion. So that which is original, or at least isn’t repetitive, tends to get shunted into a neglected, unpromoted midlist that’s getting smaller all the time … and science fiction is a genre which has always depended on originality. So the author who writes a novel that doesn’t fit in a bestselling category runs the risk of not having it published, or ignored even if it is. That means authors are being discouraged from doing anything new, but instead produce the same damn thing over and over again.
Fortunately, not all is lost. There are small, independent publishers who aren’t afflicted with Bestseller Fever, and they’re the ones putting out novels that aren’t about gun-toting vampires in love with werewolf detectives who ride zeppelins. The magazines, both print and online, continue to be the place where writers are free to work with new ideas. And the digital publishing revolution is allowing both new and established writers the means by which to publish ebooks that don’t belong to fad du jour. Just the other day I received from one of my colleagues a hard-SF novel that his publisher turned down because it wasn’t “marketable.” I expect it will do well … if it’s noticed by enough readers.
The big-idea SF novel or story isn’t dead. It’s just gone underground.
This question relies on so many implicit underlying assumptions that I feel some dissection is in order before I can try to answer it.
The first unquestioned assumption is the post-18th century Enlightenment concept of progress. This, if anything, is the ideological bedrock underlying “ideas” SF — that Things Can Get Better. Historically, almost all civilisations prior to the Enlightenment ran on the mythology of a distant golden age in the past, which bequeathed us a bunch of moral precepts and firm knowledge about how the world works which we poor degenerates living in the debased relics of a higher civilisation should turn to for guidance. The very concept that we are actually discovering how the universe works, and improving our lives, was a revolutionary rupture with the past — and one that took a long time to sprout any kind of literary or artistic shoots.
The second assumption is that science fiction has ever primarily been a genre of big ideas. I’m not at all sure that this is the case. Certainly fiction with big ideas has found a home within SF, but that’s not the same thing at all! For almost all of its history, most SF has been pulp adventure fiction, conceived and written as escapism — lest we forget, Damon Knight’s original characterisation of space opera as horse opera (the Western) with blasters instead of six-guns and space ships instead of horses still holds water. The big ideas are, if anything, secondary, not to mention exhibiting a tendency to date badly and carry sinister ideological overtones (as William Gibson so brilliantly skewered in his short story “The Gernsback Continuum”).
Calls for more big ideas in SF are generally a political cri de coeur. We might equally imagine a similar essay in the context of mid-sixties Soviet fiction, calling for more fiction about tractors and breakthroughs in agricultural genomics. Whether earnest depictions of young people in space suits wrangling asteroids and bringing home the carbonaceous chondrites actually make *sense* is another matter entirely; I’m inclined to think that it’s a rather implausible future, unless the earnest young people are robots. Tinned apes don’t survive exposure to vacuum and cosmic radiation very well, after all.
But. I have my nagging doubts. Because, despite my cynical pose, I am more than a little sympathetic to Stephenson’s project, because I share his axiomatic belief in the loose constellation of post-Enlightenment values that brought us this idea of progress and constant improvement. If only because when you stop moving you’re dead, and reverting to a late palaeolithic lifestyle looks like it would be a drag, and that’s the most likely alternative long-term future for our species if we burn all the coal and oil, wreck the climate, and turn our back on the Enlightenment’s ideological values.
In recent decades SF has been spinning its wheels. In fact, in the past 30 years the only truly challenging new concepts to come along were cyberpunk and the singularity. Both of which amount to different attempts within the genre to accommodate the first-order implications of computers and networking as the defining technology of the near future (as opposed to rockets! for! everyone! a la “Space Family Stone”) — cyberpunk was the sociological/post new wave SF modelling of a future derived from the 1970s and 1980s weltanschauung, and the singularity was the chew-toy of those members of the hard SF brigade who actually understood computers. There were other movements, true, and possibly more visible to onlookers; urban fantasy and its hybrid offspring (by way of genre romance) the paranormal romance: steampunk (both first, second, and the current third wave varieties): and a huge bloom in alternate history/counterfactuals as much of the rigorous world-building effort that had formerly gone into the near-future space SF field turned sideways and looked for other outlets. But none of these seem to engage with the future in the way hard SF supposedly did in the 1940s to 1960s. What we call “hard SF” today mostly isn’t hard, and isn’t SF: it’s fantasy with nanotech replicators instead of pixie dust and spaceships instead of dragons. Explorations of Singularity teeter dangerously on the precipice of a tumble into Christian apocalyptic eschatology, and in any event beg far too many questions about the nature of intelligence to make a convincing stab at artificial intelligence.
In fact, those people who are doing the “big visionary ideas about the future” SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation. Greg Egan’s wonderful clockwork constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe, fall on the deaf ears of critics who are looking for depth of characterisation, and don’t realize that in his SF the structure of the universe is the character. On Hannu Rajaniemi’s brilliant The Quantum Thief — I have yet to see a single review that even notices the fact that this is the first hard SF novel to examine the impact of quantum cryptography on human society. (That’s a huge idea, but none of the reviewers even noticed it!) And there, over in a corner, is Bruce Sterling, blazing a lonely pioneering trail into the future. Chairman Bruce played out cyberpunk before most of us ever heard of it, invented the New Space Opera in Schismatrix (which nobody appreciated for a couple of decades, until Al Reynolds built a pyrotechnic career atop a more accessible parallel vision of its Mechanist/Shaper future), co-wrote the most interesting hard-SF steampunk novel of all, and got into global climate change in the early 90s. He’s currently about ten years ahead of the curve. If SF was about big innovative visions, he’d need to build an extension to house all his Hugo awards.
So what’s at the root of this problem? Why are the innovative and rigorously extrapolated visions of the future so thin on the ground and so comprehensively ignored?
I’d put it down to us mistaking Sense of Wonder for Innovation. We used to read SF to get the heady high of a big vision, the “eyeball kick” as Rudy Rucker describes it, of seeing something brain-warpingly different and new for the first time. But today you don’t need to read SF to get a sense of wonder high: you can just browse “New Scientist”. We’re living in the frickin’ 21st century. Killer robot drones are assassinating people in the hills of Afghanistan. Our civilisation has been invaded and conquered by the hive intelligences of multinational corporations, directed by the new aristocracy of the 0.1%. There are space probes in orbit around Saturn and en route to Pluto. Surgeons are carrying out face transplants. I have more computing power and data storage in my office than probably the entire world had in 1980. (Definitely than in 1970.) We’re carrying out this Mind Meld via the internet, and if that isn’t a 1980s cyberpunk vision that’s imploded into the present, warts and all, I don’t know what is. Seriously: to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF.
We people of the SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future, and our dirty little secret is that we don’t much like it. And so we retreat into the comfort zones of brass goggles and zeppelins (hey, weren’t airships big in the 1910s-1930s? Why, then, are they such a powerful signifier for Victorian-era alternate fictions?), of sexy vampire-run nightclubs and starship-riding knights-errant. Opening the pages of a modern near-future SF novel now invites a neck-chillingly cold draft of wind from the world we’re trying to escape from.
And so I conclude: we will not inspire anyone with grand visions of a viable future through the medium of escapism. If we want to write inspirational literature with grand visions we need to dive into to the literary mainstream (which is finally rediscovering fabulism) and, adding a light admixture of Enlightenment ideology along the way, start writing the equivalent of those earnest and plausible hyper-realistic tales of Progress through cotton-planting on the shores of the Aral sea.
Do you really want us to do that? I didn’t think so. So let me pose for you a different question, which has been exercising me for some time: If SF’s core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?
Any answers gratefully received.
Well, let me start by disagreeing with the premise. While there are some points in Stephenson’s article that I think are well taken, “a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an a alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place” isn’t a definition that matches my experience as a reader. Are we saying that Dune, Left Hand of Darkness, Dhalgren, The Stars My Destination, Stranger in a Strange Land, or the Foundation Trilogy are plausible futures driven by technological innovation? That they’re not science fiction? That they’re not good? For that matter, what’s the compelling innovation that informs the (plausible?) alternate realities of Snow Crash?
If anything, looking over the history of science fiction shows that when it comes to accurately predicting technological and scientific innovation and its implications, we’re pretty bad. There is certainly a strain of science fiction that engage more with big intellectual and scientific ideas, but the proposition that the measure of success in science fiction is how well it informs space exploration seems suspect.
That said, I think that tradition of stories that considers big ideas and gets readers excited about the scientific process is absolutely still out there. Ted Chiang is doing stories with a kind of rigor and accessibility that makes them pretty much universally brilliant (and also some non-fiction like his essay “Reasoning About the Body” that I think would be very good food for thought for any up-and-coming scientists or science fiction writers). Scott Westerfeld’s YA vampire novel Peeps is also the best introduction to the logic of parasitology I’ve ever read. Rebecca Stead’s Newberry winning When You Reach Me is a lovely human story and also a great introduction for young readers to the thought problems around time travel. Kim Stanley Robinson is working with extrapolation and hard science in the way that Stephenson seems to be advocating. Going back a few years, Wil McCarthy was not only writing big idea science fiction like To Crush the Moon, but also engaging in the actual big idea science of programmable matter. Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain books are still in print almost two decades after the first one came out. Robert Charles Wilson and Greg Egan are working out alternate realities based on wild cosmological and scientific speculations.
So to recap, on the one hand, that’s a terribly narrow and exclusionary definition of science fiction. And on the other, the relatively small subset of the field that does fit it is alive, robust, putting out good new work and keeping older titles available.
So yeah. Not seeing it.
Today is more and more difficult being able to enter the Hall of Fame of the “big ideas” without falling in a feeling of discomfort. There are several degrees of big ideas, some of them unpractical, some others alluring, unreal…ideas that people has been able to imagine and still waiting to happen, or ideas we didn’t imagine at all and indeed happened… Consider the Internet, for an example! Out of the blue the Internet was among us… and it seems yesterday when Schiaparelli discovered the Mars Channels and Burroughs wrote the John Carter cycle. Now awesome pictures from the Red Planet and the outer space keep constantly arriving on our tablets. It’s quite a challenge to compete with a Universe changing day after day in front of our eyes. It’s a matter of time before we’ll be taking shots in the jungles of a Twin Earth without leaving our planet!
What about science fiction authors? Will they be able now and then to outclass reality? Have they already invented everything? Without forgetting that some great authors are themselves scientists, the reply is… maybe yes, maybe not… Their work and their skillfulness in putting on paper the sense-of-wonder isn’t something everybody is trained to do. Science Fiction will always be the genre of “big ideas” because inspirational to future classes of creative artists and scientists. If we’ll survive our instinct for self-destruction there will be much more ideas in the thousands of years to come, ideas probably alien to a citizen of the 21st century…
In 1955 Fredric Brown published a terrific short story titled “Imagine”. After listing a series of common places in the fantastic literature, from unicorns to spaceships, he writes: “Is there then anything that’s really hard to imagine? Of course there is…Imagine a universe…with a billion, billion, billion suns in it. Imagine a blob of mud whirling madly around one of those suns. Imagine yourself standing on that blob of mud, whirling with it, whirling through time and space to an unknown destination”
Among the current authors giving lymph to my artistic production can be ranked Peter Hamilton, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, Iain Banks. You can dive in their novels and find tons of inspirational ideas each time you turn a page!
Alastair Reynolds – Blue Remembered Earth
Stephen Baxter – Ark
Peter Hamilton – The Naked God
Science fiction’s a pretty big tent; if you’re interested in Inspiration for Engineers, there’s plenty of fresh fodder from both the giants (Benford and Niven’s Bowl of Heaven posits an STL spaceship built out of a star with a demi-Dyson sphere tethered to it like a catcher’s mitt) and the upstarts (can you get more big-idea-y than Karl Schroeder’s Virga books?). I think perhaps the difference may be that engineering was mainly what SF was about, back in those slide-rule days before synaptic rewiring and molecular biology. Rivets and megaprojects dominate the field less now because we’re diving down as well as up, in as well as out. We’ve been mining the wonders of space and the riches of the asteroids and the no-limits indomitability of the Human spirit forever; it’s only been the past couple of decades in which we’ve started to understand the neurological limits of that spirit, the ways it can be hacked, the ways it might interface with harder-edged tools. It’s not that there’s nothing left to say about Big Dumb Objects. It’s just that small smart ones are a vein that hasn’t been mined as extensively, and they’re finally coming into their own. We’re looking inward now not because we’ve grown small and timid, but because at long last we have the tools to look inward; and we see multitudes there.
Like I say, though: big tent. The nuts-and-bolts stuff is still a healthy part of the mix, even if neurogunk and synthebio happen to be getting more press at the moment. This time next year, something else will probably be front and center.
Vampires, maybe. I don’t think anyone’s really done anything with those.
SF is a vast, protean thing, of which the part likely to appeal to scientists and engineers looking for the next “big idea” has only ever been a relatively small component. To that end, I don’t really see a problem. For a start, there is still more than enough of that type of “big idea” SF being written – more than I can reasonably keep up with, anyway. SF writers are still engaging with the future, are still excited (and alarmed) by the possibilities – which is exactly the way it has always been. There is always more of this broadly speculative core SF than any one person can reasonably assimilate. The writers who shaped the direction of hard SF twenty or thirty years ago are all still active, and in some cases returning to “big idea” SF after some time away from it. Take a look at the average SF section in a bookstore. While no one would deny that epic fantasy is now dominant, that doesn’t mean that there’s *less* in the way of core SF than there used to be. The slice has not shrunk, it’s just that the cake has got considerably bigger. I’d even argue that the slice is healthier than it’s been for a while. A case in point would be the recent uptick in realistic, forward-thinking novels about the solar system, such as Paul McAuley’s Quiet War sequence, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s eagerly awaited 2312 (eagerly awaited by me, anyway).
That said, I think Stephenson’s venture is a good one – I’m all for it. But I don’t think there’s any particular crisis in SF that needs fixing. SF is doing what it’s always done, which is far more complex and nuanced a thing than can be summed up in a few go-get-‘em buzzwords about big visions. As to reality encroaching on SF’s territory – well, isn’t that what it’s always done? Reality encroached on Air Wonder Stories pretty damn comprehensively, from what I remember.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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