SPECIAL ROUNDTABLE: Bear, Beaulieu, Stross and Ziegler Discuss the Role of Modern Literary Speculative Fiction
Climate change, rampant late-stage capitalism and wealth inequality, political polarization, corporate corruption, impending resource depletion—these are the forces shaping our world today. They’re also the issues driving a new breed of literary sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction—genres typically considered literature’s ghetto, but which lately have begun to tackle the problems facing our world with a clarity found nowhere else, not even journalism.
Jeremy Lassen: The scope of this discussion is pretty broad, so I want to start out by asking a question that hopefully will frame it nicely, and then we can move to more specifics from there.
I have no idea about the American political issue in question, much less the cultural significance of a network-TV show in the 1960s, so I’m going to ignore that aspect and instead tackle the first part of the question.
To which my reply is, it depends what the author is trying to do — and who they are.
Normally, when someone asks this question, we point to a handful of clear examples of authors who set out to use the tools of SF to sound a warning, and who succeeded in making themselves heard: the three classics are 1984 by Eric Blair/George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. And I think it’s no coincidence that these are all dystopian works written by authors who had made a name for themselves as non-genre literary paragons.
It’s much rarer to see authors from within the genre sound an alarm that is heard outside it. Where, for example, is the popular awareness of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (pretty much the definitive novel on the subject of the future shock that has become a ubiquitous feature of our politics and culture; also the novel in which the concept of networked computer worms was first pitched at the public) or The Sheep Look Up, his magisterial look at the consequences of pollution? For that matter, what of Neuromancer and its depiction of a deracinated alienated near-future dominated by large corporations, and the realization that “the rich are not like us” — embracing and extending the message of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in a more alarming dimension?
We’re novelists, working in a genre that accounts for 6-7% of fiction sales. We’re balkanized and stuffed into silos and largely ignored — a bestselling SF novel is one that ships 50,000 copies in various bindings. We lack the clout of the mass media, TV or film or [these days] computer games. I think it’s a delusion to believe that people listen to us. On the other hand, with obscurity comes a certain freedom. We are allowed and sometimes encouraged to think outside the box, and our very obscurity protects us from the push-back and notoriety and flames of anger that can be directed towards more visible sources of political dissent. (Just think back to the Dixie Chicks if you want to know what I’m talking about.)
So we can explore political concerns with a degree of freedom that would scare the pants off a Hollywood studio executive (“but you can’t say that on film! It might offend someone!”). And who knows? Sometimes we might strike it lucky, write a break-out novel, and get ourselves noticed by a wider audience.
I’m drawn to fiction because it calls on its audience’s best qualities: imagination and empathy. Fiction is, by its nature, an invitation, and holds up a lens for the reader to view the world from a remove.
I especially like science fiction because, more so than with contemporary fiction, you can take the world and reshape it, distend it to bring specific pieces of reality into focus. To run with Charlie’s example of Neuromancer, Gibson indeed takes the infant spirit of The Great Gatsby under his wing. He unswaddles it and sets it loose in a landscape warped by Reaganomics—a peculiarity of Neuromancer’s own time that Gibson inflates into something fantastical, a grotesque parade balloon of an idea he paints with neon letters and marches past us: this is the new face of bondage.
That science fiction is supposed to be in some way predictive is, I think, a misconception of its purpose. Nobody gets the future right (well, except for David Brin). A fictional future is mostly important for its ability to pose questions about today. In Neuromancer, it’s obvious from the get go that Gibson’s choices are aesthetic rather than predictive. His thrust is the question: in what direction does the logic of broad spectrum deregulation take us? Of course the world today looks nothing like the slick neon trash of Gibson’s vision, and there’s no cyberspace for us to play in (unless by “cyberspace” you mean “free porn everywhere”). And although it’s true that in some ways the book did turn out to be frighteningly prescient, even conservative in its view of our immediate future (corporations granted personhood and free speech by the Supreme Court?…a Super PAC wonderland?…nobody would buy that shit, it would be ludicrous), I’m betting this was an unhappy accident. Like lots of good sci fi, Neuromancer extrapolated from and revealed its own moment.
Unfortunately—and you’re exactly right here, Charlie—most people aren’t paying attention. If the modern novel is entertainment’s ghetto, then science fiction is probably broadly considered sewer beneath its streets. Ours is a labor of love, clearly. But what if…What if, for example, David Brin’s and Kim Stanley Robinson’s stories on climate change were considered something more than fringe entertainment? Imagine those stories as part of the narrative architecture of our mainstream worldview. That would say something about us—that collectively we’re engaged with reality, willing to acknowledge the problems we face, and willing to incorporate those problems into how we think. It would say we’re imagining solutions, looking to make the world a better place.
Alas, no. It’s true, Charlie, the sci fi audience is a relatively small one. But at least in obscurity there’s the freedom to rant and rail. So I rail: people don’t read sci fi, but they fucking well should.
It seems to me that a lot of the power in science fiction comes from the fact that it is a club scene–it’s a tightly knit community involved in a long-running, deeply founded conversation that stretches back over a hundred years now. This is also one of its weaknesses, because it makes it exceptionally difficult for new readers to come into the genre unless they somehow magically fall into the right place at the right time.
There is an awful lot of existing information that has to be assimilated–it takes a very wise reader, in other words, to come to most of Charlie’s novels, or Amy Thomson’s work, for example, and have any clue what’s going on.
I very much agree with Rob that science fiction has no mandate to predict the future. That’s not our job. Our job is to point out the extreme consequences of what’s going on today. We’re writing to a modern audience, not a future one, and I think it’s pretentious to kid ourselves otherwise.
I like to think that science fiction is the literature of testing ideas to destruction. So yes, we have a mandate to push the boundaries of ideas, to think hard and see what happens when we bend something to destruction. But our influence is oblique, at best—
—on the other hand, an awful lot of of engineers, DARPA folks, and computer geeks read and write science fiction. Literature has never been the direct source of change in the world–but it’s always been very good at disseminating ideas in a filter-feeding sort of fashion. Influence is hard to codify.
To play off of (take umbrage with?) something Charlie said: are we deluded if we think that we can shape public discourse? If we limit ourselves to any one novel, I think the answer is probably yes (barring the massive breakout novel). But there is a larger role for speculative fiction to consider, one which Bear alluded to. There is a certain discourse within spec-fic that occurs, a trend or a conversation among authors that in some ways follows public opinion but in other ways reinforces it and/or brings some new, unexplored facet to the consciousness of our readership. And that can’t help but spread beyond the boundaries of our small part of the world, whether that’s through these works of fiction themselves or the media spin-offs they inspire.
I’m not pretending that speculative fiction changes the world often, or to any great degree, but I think it can help to forge, or perhaps temper, opinion. I like the term Bear used: testing ideas to destruction. I like it because of the implication that we can take our modern day fears and hopes and set them into a cyclotron and see what comes of it. The term has a negative connotation (my interpretation, not necessarily Bear’s intent), but I’d like to make note that this technique we apply so often (abstracting and extrapolating) can be used beyond the destruction point. It often is, in fact, as in many post-apocalyptic tales, and the conclusion doesn’t necessarily need to be pessimistic. Destruction is also a useful tool in that it can strip away some of our modern complexities and bring an idea into sharper focus.
To take the discussion full circle, Jeremy asked about the “Racial Other” with reference to Star Trek. In my mind—whether it’s done consciously on the part of the viewer/reader or not—abstracting contemporary issues in this way allows the writer to pose questions without weighing them down with the baggage of preconceptions. And this applies as equally to science fiction as it does fantasy. It’s one of the great strengths of our genre, to be able to remove the story from our world to such a degree that people can consider an issue with emotional distance.
This isn’t to say that a writer can’t become didactic; they can, which (for this reader anyway) is a big turnoff. And on the flip side, it’s interesting to me that the polarization of politics seems to be leaking more and more into the acceptance (or rejection) of literature. (This seems to be true here in the US, anyway; I’m not sure how it looks abroad.) Those novels that years ago readers might have been able to remain removed from the political left or right seem to be increasingly pigeon-holed by the fringes of our politics and so written off as propaganda. So while there might have been a time when literature was seen as a place for contemplation, I now wonder whether those days are numbered.
I think you nail it, Elizabeth. Taking the logic of a given value set or cultural behavior and stretching it until it breaks open and we get to see its core components, its relative strengths and absurdities, so that we can measure them for their true worth. Testing ideas to the point of destruction. Exactly.
An excellent and classic example of this, one that’s been on my mind recently (and in part to answer your question, Jeremy), is Fahrenheit 451. Written when McCarthyism was at its height and as television became a mainstream product, Fahrenheit 451 is so theme-heavy that it interacts not with any of the many long conversations within genre, but directly with the real world, where its themes are (still) very relevant. I mean, characters so immersed in media and cherry picked information that they have no coherent idea of what’s happening in the world? Ahem. Brad, I think even now a book like this transcends our weirdly polarized modern political spectrum. At least I hope it does.
But speaking of the long conversation, it’s true the sci fi/fantasy clubhouse is packed with a particularly ardent following, one with a greater penchant for academic discussion than, say, westerns or mystery. It’s a wonderful and stimulating fringe benefit for those of us engaged with the genre. I don’t think, though, that you need be a part of the club to really get a given novel. When I was a kid, reading Hamilton’s Starwolf, I didn’t think to myself, “Damn, I would’ve gotten so much more out of that if I’d just read Citizen of the Galaxy first.” No, I think every novel ends up being its own entry point, if not to the genre then at least to its own world and story. At any rate, it should. If a novel is so ensconced in genre tropes that it fails to meet an uninitiated reader at some easy middle ground, then I’d say that novel probably fails.
Getting to your question, dear Moderator, Haldeman’s The Forever War was an important book for me. I read it when I was young, and it was my first taste of a fiction that not only didn’t actively fetishize war, but meditated on war’s inherent tragedy. It cracked open my world view, just a bit—enough to cast the bomb-first-ask-questions-later messaging of my childhood in a slightly dubious light. It’s so clearly a book of its day, so steeped in the raw confusion of the post-Vietnam moment. Soldiers facing long tours of duty in utterly alien lands, then returning home to find that it, too, is profoundly alien. That’s sci fi speaking to real life. To my mind, it’s one of the best contemporary anti-war books, of any genre.
The Forever War is a hell of a lot more than an anti-war story, which I think is exactly why it functions as the head-grenade that Rob describes. Didactic books, I find, rarely blow one’s skull open; it’s instead always the ones where you have to come to your own conclusions that work that way.
This is a hard question for me to answer, because I came to SF so very early in life. I’m a third generation SF reader, and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading science fiction. It’s kind of a running joke around my house that I am what happens when you give Suzy McKee Charnas and Joanna Russ to an 8 year old… well, okay, nobody actually gave them to me. They were on the shelves, and I read them.
I think I learned very early to read books that were over my head because of that, and the skills that–it turns out–are essential to parsing science fiction in general. If you don’t understand something, figure it out by implication, from context. It’s been a tough road for me as a writer learning that not everybody reads this way.
However, I would like to point to C. J. Cherryh’s Pride of Chanur and to Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis books. I guess the latter have been rebranded now as “Lillith’s Brood,” for reasons that escape me–but the thing that both of those works did for me was give me a real
crash-course in alienation, in the idea that human ethnocentrism was, in fact, ethnocentrism–and that the foundational concepts of a lot of previous SF could and should be questioned. They were startling in that they were the first books I read that alienated and othered humans, and did not take as unquestioned our “rightness.”
Later on I’d read James Tiptree Jr’s, The Women Men Don’t See and Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and find them keystones in the same arch… but though they got there first, I read them later. So they reinforced, for me, rather than breaking ground.
I suspect that it’s not coincidence that all four of the authors I’ve just named were women. Barry B. Longyear’s Enemy Mine does a lot of the same work… but it doesn’t alienate the human viewpoint in quite the same way. And I suspect, although I do not know, that up until that point, the unquestioned narrative of Western science fiction had been very masculine. So for a woman, already feeling othered, perhaps it was a logical leap to take the alien’s perspective.
One book that opened my eyes a bit was the first contact novel, The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In this story, the interstellar human race comes across another alien civilization, the Moties. The Moties, we soon learn, are extremely smart, extremely adaptable, but have so far been unable to colonize beyond their solar system. Why? Well, partially because they’re too warlike, a trait the Moties desperately try to hide from the humans that come across the first Motie probe ship to make it beyond their home in the star system around Murcheson’s Eye.
What struck me most about this premise was the notion that the Moties were constantly building up, using all the available resources on the planet, and then devolving through war and resource depletion, to the point that they would “seed” the next generations by creating vast caches of technology to start over more quickly the next time around. As I read, I thought: that’s ridiculous. Why would a species constantly allow their own collapse by using up all the vital resources on their own planet. But the more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed. And look at where we are today. No end in sight to the threat of war. Resource depletion practically upon us. And we, as a species, seem largely blind to it. Sure, there are people blowing the horns of alarm, but too few are listening. How soon before we collapse? That’s the thing that’s been with me ever since.
One other that I’ll mention is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I didn’t know about Gibson’s line from his story Burning Chrome, that the street finds its own use for things, but it certainly came through in this story. Before this all the science fiction I’d read had been of the “clean and far futuristic” variety. It was fascinating to see Gibson’s take on technology and the underworld subculture of lawlessness we see in the story. In fact, I see a lot of that in Rob’s book, Seed.
And the last, before I slip away, is Passage, by Connie Willis. I remember attending a panel at WorldCon (I believe it was ConJose back in 2003) and near the end of the panel people were talking about their favorite novels they’d recently read. Someone (it might have been David Coe) mentioned he’d recently read Connie’s Passage, and that it had changed the way he thought about death. That was more than good enough for me. It was the first book I’d read from Connie, and damned if it didn’t change the way I thought about death, too. It taught me that the subject itself isn’t tabboo. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. Why do we so often avoid the subject? We should talk about it, especially with loved ones, because it can demystify and allow us to speak about those things that would be impossible to broach otherwise.
Bradley Beaulieu mentions The Mote in Gods Eye. I’d like to politely dissent with his estimate of it. While it was a rollicking good space opera of its kind, it purported to be hard SF; which falls apart when you look critically at the Moties’ biology, which just doesn’t make sense. No, really. Yes, there’s a Malthusian metaphor — but it was overshadowed by conservative political arguments that biology is destiny …
And yes, politics is important. SF is an intensely ideologically indoctrinated genre. It’s in our literary genome, the whole Enlightenment era idea of progress and improvement, of better living through technology. Even when we’re skeptical about it, as was the case in John Brunner’s seminal tetralogy about the theme of pollution — The Jagged Orbit, Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider — it warps the framework of our discussions. In the American discourse, there’s the idea of re-opening the closed frontier, of expansion into outer space; the British version of the discourse deals with other concerns (notably the 1945-1979 obsessions with retreat from empire, class warfare against The Other, and the cosy catastrophe) but is still recognizably of a kind.
Politics: 1984 is the obvious touchstone, as is Brave New World. Gender issues crow-barred their way into my youthful head via SF: Bear already mentioned Suzy Mckee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World and, of course, le Guin and Joanna Russ and Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr. Ethnic diversity is a rather different issue on my side of the Atlantic; I’m not sure I should bring up Chris Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island without calling first for a pair of long-handled tongs and an asbestos apron, so perhaps I should point instead to Michael Moorcock’s work, such as the Oswald Bastable books, for some hints that the school-inculcated version of history as being about Kings, battles, and dates might be just slightly lacking in some important respects.
And then there’s culture. Each generation synthesizes its own zeitgeist. In the 1980s, it was the cyberpunks: Neuromancer hit me between the eyeballs when I first read it, and my brain didn’t stop spinning for about four years. This was a future dominated by the fetishization of commodities and the commodification of life and the life of commodity-producing corporations, and in Thatcher’s Britain it looked awfully close to home. It’s still with us today. In fact, cyberpunk has imploded into the past, as Gibson’s Bigend trilogy makes clear — it would have been hailed as a masterpiece of near-future genre fiction had someone sent it back to the young Bill in 1982 via time machine, although each novel is set in the year prior to its own publication. I guess the take-home message is that we’re living in the 21st century, and our life is science fiction, if viewed through our younger selves’ glasses. I’m not a cyberpunk; I just happen to wear black and live in a world with killer drones and global computer networks that connect to a box in my pocket. The political aspect of SF is that it may make us aware of how we may live by holding up a funhouse mirror to our present day concerns — and if we squint at the futures it portrays we may see the shadowy reflection of today’s problems.
When it comes to writing toward issues… I’m generally not a big fan of didactic work, actually, and as for myself, I try to err on the side of thematic arguments rather than thematic statements.
I suspect most emotional revelations are more effective when the reader arrives at them herself.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that my politics don’t affect my work. There’s a famous anecdote that if I recall correctly is about John W. Campbell and Theodore Sturgeon, in which (if memory serves me) Sturgeon is supposed to have written a story about McCarthyism that Campbell rejected with the note that Sturgeon would be better served writing a story in which a man and a woman meet in a train station, as the argument about McCarthyism would inevitably illuminate the narrative anyway.
As for previous generations… narrative is narrative. We keep integrating new tricks… but in terms of social and scientific awareness what I do isn’t significantly different from what Mary Shelley did…
…I mean, of course we’re inventing a whole radical new thing here! We’re visionaries! We’re like Devo in 1976 and no one else has ever come close to what we’re doing!
My name is Charlie Stross, and I wear clean underwear every day because I live in the 21st century and have a magic box in my kitchen, called a washer-dryer. I put dirty clothes in it every night and while I sleep, the Soap Trolls climb inside and tread everything into a lather then rinse it out …
Actually, no. But if I was a golden age SF author in the 1920s I might get hung up on the minutiae of my magic box and how it works. What I probably wouldn’t get hung up on would be its social effects: the expectation that people should be clean the whole time, rather than doing a weekly wash, or that a device that might be expected to liberate housewives would actually end up generating ever-higher expectations of cleanliness and housekeeping.
Traditionally SF has been strung out on a line between two poles — raw escapist entertainment at one pole, and the shock of modernity at the other. Marinetti’s futurist manifesto still speaks to the collective subconscious of SF, however conventional the literary techniques employed by its earlier practitioners might have been, and however much we later practitioners might seek to divorce ourselves from his more deplorable obsessions: early SF was all about speed, and violence, and “beautiful ideas worth dying for”. (Marinetti’s later dalliance with Fascism also found dark echoes in golden age SF, with its persistent racist and xenophobic subtexts.) For much of the 20th century, the world around the SF reader (and writer) was one in which speed was increasing, exponentially: while the American frontier had closed at the end of the 19th century, the idea that we might soon see the opening of a new and infinitely high frontier seemed both attractive and plausible.
But we didn’t reach the singularity of speed. Instead, we ran into limits imposed by the laws of thermodynamics in the 1960s and 1970s. Today’s engineering geeks aspire to learn programming languages, not rocket engines. There is still progress in space — in fact, a lot of the 20th century dreams of private space corporations building orbital launchers and going asteroid mining seem on the verge of coming true — but it’s not the true habitat of SF any more.
When something happens in the real world, it ceases to be the territory of fabulation and becomes the realm of mimetic, realist fiction: and so it’s possible to write a literary realist novel about the first manned lunar expedition, but it’s not possible to write a didactic science fictional confabulation about an alternative first lunar expedition with any pretense at plausibility, unless it’s framed as counterfactual (alternate history) or metafiction or suchlike.
(Similarly, there’s a distinct shortage of SF novels about human cloning these days, much less test tube babies: the impact of Dolly the Sheep has begun to sink in.)
My pet theory is that since roughly 1975 (1979), mimetic English-language SF has been in a state of shock, trying to accommodate itself to the mining out of a reach seam of the stuff of dreams. It’s still possible to write far-fetched space operas, or get heavily allegorical, but if we want the aspergers-spectrum nuts-and-bolts engineers-go-to-the-high-frontier predictive stuff that has been the meat and drink of our genre for decades, we have to recognize that it has been critically undermined by the tapering off of the rate of increase in speed. Today’s fastest airliners are slower than those of the 1970s. And I’m not just talking about Concorde: they’re tuned for fuel economy, not absolute speed.
Some of us are plugging away at the job. Since 1974 we’ve also seen a huge exponential explosion in computing power, with implications still playing themselves out; I think it’s another sigmoid curve that will gently plateau in decades to come, but some still predict an infinite up-slope singularity. Meanwhile, those of us who recognize that we’re writing for sysadmins rather than aerospace engineers are working on new stories for the new futurist meme: Cory Doctorow, Vernor Vinge, Neal Stephenson, to name a few.
The task is complicated, of course, by the fact that we’re living in the fricking 21st century. This is the future our parents warned us about! It’s hot, dense, infinitely recomplicating as seven billion future-shocked shaved apes find new uses for baroque technologies. Nobody in the 1970s predicted that we’d still be stuck in low-earth-orbit, making nostalgia flicks about forty-year-old moon landings, while teen-age street thugs would be using networked computers as powerful as the NSA’s biggest number-crunchers to film themselves beating up random strangers for shits and giggles. (Well, maybe John Brunner got it, with a bit of help from Jim Ballard and Phil Dick.) But it’s getting awfully hard to stay ahead of the curve if you write near future SF, because however thoroughly you investigate the second-order consequences of some sexy new technologies that haven’t made it out of the lab yet, you’ll be reading about some company productizing your idea in New Scientist a year down the line.
So most of the time I just stick to escapist fantasies of agency, like everyone else: the didactic near-future thrillers illustrating some aspect of the next decade are just an occasional twitching of the corpse’s leg.
But it seems to me that this is not a qualitative difference, if you understand what I mean by that. The reason I picked Mary Shelley as my type example is because, in Frankenstein, she was doing a version of what we all do–extrapolating the galvanic response to the breaking point, and speculating upon its human effects.
It is harder to stay on the bleeding edge of technology these days, but that’s not a problem solely for science fiction writers. It’s a problem more specifically for scientists: synthesis and generalism are valuable, and getting harder and harder.
It’s also a problem for mainstream literary authors. As Lev Grossman (I think) observed, if you try to write a mainstream novel today that doesn’t have smartphones and the internet, with a space station lurking in the background, then you’re either writing an historical novel or a fantasy.
And this is where we get round to William Gibson’s Bigend trilogy. Each book is set the year before the date of publication, and they’re overtly mainstream novels, but they have a strong science-fictional (dare I say it, post-cyberpunk) vibe to them; they’re the future, imploded into the present.
I feel like the red-headed stepchild. I lean toward the fantasy end of the spectrum. I do like exploring science fiction, but mostly in short form. The reason I don’t gravitate as much toward science fiction is related to one of Charlie’s observations. He mentioned the shift from rocket engines to code jockeys. I am an example of that shift. I grew up in the 80s, when computers were just becoming accessible to the home. I fell in love with them in Junior High, when I created my first program with a classmate. It was a simulation of craps. (You’d think from this I would have been the guy who came up with the schemes to try to break Vegas. Don’t think I didn’t have a few ideas. But my momma raised me right.) Ahem. In any case, the game simulated the roll of the dice and then would display the result in massive, blocky, red-and-white graphics, and tell you whether or not you “won” the roll based on the rules of craps. I went on to study computer science and computer engineering, and my career since has been in software, mostly enterprise-wide software packages that take months to install and configure.
So I’m living that life. It’s true. Our life is science fiction, and for me, it’s what makes the genre less appealing. That isn’t to say that wonderful things aren’t being done in science fiction. There are, and the other fine panelists on this talk are excellent examples of it. But, I think some of the novelty that was present in the golden age of science fiction has worn off. The stuff of science fiction feels mundane, and those that really push borders—those trying to bring science fiction to places it hasn’t been before—can feel too esoteric for the average reader.
Charlie had another excellent observation, that early science fiction tended to focus more on the imagined mechanics of the sfnal elements than it did the social aspects. The latter is certainly what draws me to the genre. Some of my favorite writers of today, Robert Charles Wilson, Robert J. Sawyer, Ted Chiang, and a relative newcomer, Ken Liu, do well at exploring such things, the humanist aspects of science fictional changes.
As for my own fiction, I’ll give one small nod to Strata, a novella I wrote with Stephen Gaskell. It’s a dystopic sci-fi thriller set on a solar mining platform, and in it, we extrapolate from the trend line of modern day corporate power. We wondered what might happen if the self-perpetuating meme of the corporation were fast-forwarded a few hundred years and were largely divorced from our political and legal system. What might such a society look like? And what might happen as a result?
One of the most interesting things for me to write about, whether its science fiction or fantasy, is the juxtaposition of the effects on the individual and the society in which they live. But not only this (to dip down to the nuts and bolts of writing); I love exploring how one effects the other and vice versa. There is a certain agency in the characters, a confluence of time and place and ability, that allows them to affect the larger, fantastic environment in which they find themselves. They are a catalyst for larger events, and to me it’s both fascinating and vastly rewarding to see those things play out.
While Charlie’s in the other room putting on his clean underwear, I’ve queued up Devo on Groove Shark. Through Google I’ve learned that Devo considered its fashion in the early eighties to be a stab at “Utopian Boy Scout Uniforms.” The Google also gave me Devo John Wayne, which really kind of expresses my entire outlook on life. This, while in one corner of my computer screen I watch an episode of “Justified” (subtitled so as not to interfere with “Freedom of Choice”), keep tabs on email, Facebook, Twitter—where my friends inform me and make me laugh—and scan my news feeds (China censors news about blind activist in US custody; US set to triple ‘dirty oil’ imports; John Elway maintains he couldn’t be happier with the Broncos’ draft; Die Antwoord will be touring Europe in June). In short, I am the quivering, solipsistic pleasure center at the core of an eidetic and free associating hive mind. My sphere of awareness is nearly limitless.
My road to writing science fiction began in contemporary fiction. That’s what I wrote in college and throughout my twenties. As everyone just noted, it’s next to impossible to write contemporary fiction in our age without using science fictional tropes. So (and this is the conclusion I came to about five years ago), why not just write sci fi? Not only is it, in my opinion, a better tool than contemporary fiction for dealing with our modern world, it’s also a lot of fun.
Where in the historical spectrum of sci fi my stories would fall, I really don’t know. I try not to think about it. I picture my audience as my sixteen-year-old self and my friends from back in that day—all of us devouring Neuromancer and The Black Company with the hunger of nascent adult awareness, yet with youth’s utter lack of capacity for critical assessment. We were able to be completely spellbound. That’s the experience I want to recreate, walking a tightrope between what Charlie describes as the opposing poles of SF’s two modalities: lurid escapism and future shock commentary.
Thematically, I have an affinity for things that weird me out. Moral dissonances, like the juxtaposition between the near-utopian experience of first-world living—a sense of ease and convenience for which we’ll give up just about anything, including our privacy, our rights, our ecosystem, our self-determination, our children’s future—and the medieval squalor in which two thirds of the world’s population currently lives. Conceptual dissonances, like this delusion we bear, cocooned within our info/media bubbles, that we are the center of things, when in fact a focal piece of today’s truth (and of the emerging future) resides in the exponentially expanding mega slums of cities like Lagos, Dhaka, Kinshasa, Mexico City. Dissonances, like the fact that we can simultaneously be so closely in touch with those of like mind and experience, and so far out of touch with the rest of the humanity—to the point where even our next door neighbor, who exists in an ideologically opposing info/media bubble, is virtually invisible to us. Since William Gibson seems to be our North Star through these posts, here’s another ubiquitous saying of his: the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
Like you, Brad, it’s the social aspects of sci fi that draw me. At the risk of looping back to one of my previous posts, I’ll say that SF is a place to run the experiment, where I can tell stories of characters who ring my bell, and where (as Elizabeth pointed out in her anecdote about Sturgeon and Campbell) what fascinates me about our world will inevitably, fetishistically insinuate itself.
Elizabeth, I like your phrase, “writing towards issues,” because it implies the pursuit of ideas rather than ownership of them. It implies reflection. For me, writing is part of how I learn—that, along with research and a tendency to fixate on a given idea. It’s a way for me to scratch at those things in the world that needle my intuition, until I understand them well enough to let them settle. It’s a way for me to reconcile with reality.
I have a strong impression these days that SF, as a field, actually contains a flock of radically different sub-genres flying in loose formation. And they’re mostly using the same tropes and widgets and paint schemes so they look as if they belong to the same air force … but they don’t.
I am one of those boring, plodding literalists who, while willing to mess around with metaphorical and thematic elements, believes that world-building is the whole point of SF: if we’re not building internally consistent worlds, then we might as well give up and work through our personal explorations of humanity in mainstream realist mode. I’ll grant an escape clause for interior landscapes and overt fantasy. But SF? I like my SF to be chewy. Back in the 1950s or 1960s I’d have been a hard-SF nuts-and-bolts writer.
But if you go and read what were considered the canonical works of hard SF back in the 1960s, you might find them a bit lacking today. That’s because our understanding of the cosmos we inhabit has expanded enormously since that time, along with our appreciation of a whole raft of scientific fields that were simply inaccessible or ignored in the recent past. It’s even more chastening to look at back issues of “New Scientist” or “Scientific American” from the 1950s and 1960s. Not only was the future they anticipated back then ultimately still-born, it was simplistic and wrong in some very fundamental levels. (Better health through widespread spraying with DDT! Antibiotics cure all diseases! Smoking: what’s the best brand of cigarette to switch to when you’re expecting a baby? Seat belts in cars: will they save lives?)
In the early 60s we saw a couple of parallel movements rip through the Anglophone written SF field. On the one hand, we saw the hard SF wave. On the other hand we saw the new wave, in distinctively different forms on opposite sides of the Atlantic. One distinctive characteristic of the new wave was that the folks writing the work had read outside the genre, and were seeking to extend the reach of the field in terms of introspective power: rather than writing two-fisted engineering tales, they were trying to use SF as a vehicle for exploring the human condition. Of this, I approve heartily. But there’s a slider scale between focus on the human condition, and focus on the shape of the world to come, and I have a permanent uneasy feeling that I have a natural tendency to focus more on the world-building than on the character side of the dial.
M. John Harrison may condemn the plodding nerdish hand of world-building all he likes: I part company with him at the point where the backdrop behind the characters is exposed for a badly-drawn cartoon. In SF, a huge chunk of what we do as readers is to decode the world the characters exist in, and understand how it affects them, and how it’s different from our own world: world-building in SF should be like the victim in a murder-mystery, passive, perhaps even invisible, but nevertheless they’re a significant character (and the armature around which the complex machinery of the story revolves). It doesn’t matter how brilliant your characterisation is: if you’re setting your story aboard a space station that’s spinning to provide centrifugal acceleration to keep your characters’ feet on the deck, I will be ejected abruptly from the narrative if the “gravity” is highest at the hub and drops to zero at the rim.
Which brings me to one of my favourite recent hobby-horses: Mundane SF.
Mundane SF isn’t a genre or marketing category. It arguably isn’t a movement. It’s a term coined by a Clarion workshop class taught by Geoff Ryman a few years ago to describe something that’s wrong with much modern SF. We have a wardrobe department and a toy chest and we rely on them far too much. The toy chest is full of brightly coloured plastic props: laser pistols, starships with hyperdrives, ringworlds. The wardrobe is full of regalia for the galactic emperor, uniforms for stormtroopers, gowns for princesses. But when you get down to it, lasers make really rotten death rays, we have no theoretical (much less practical) reason for believing a hyperdrive is possible, and a ringworld needs to be made from six different kinds of unobtanium, in Jupiter-mass quantities. (As for the fancy dress, don’t get me started on the dodgy politics and crazed macroeconomics: Michael Moorcock had some trenchant comments in his Starship Stormtroopers essay and they haven’t passed their sell-by date yet.)
If you rely too heavily on the props department you might as well be writing high fantasy: substitute starships for tractably rideable dragons, laser pistols for magic fireball-spewing wands, aliens instead of orcs, pause for a quick costume change, and you’re about there. And while high fantasy is fun, and may tell us something about human emotional drives and interactions, it’s a dead loss at giving us models for how we might live in the 21st century.
So Geoff’s Clarion class came up with this idea they called Mundane SF, which is this: padlock the props department door shut, and star writing SF from scratch. No aliens, ray guns, time machines, hyperdrives, or big dumb objects need apply — or you can pick one such item, one impossible idea before breakfast, and explore the hell out of it: but you should in any case keep the baggage under control. The challenge is to write SF using the stuff of real life — and we’re living in the goddamn 21st century! We’ve got killer drones and virtual reality and genomics and interplanetary probes and climate change and nanotechnology. Rewind to 1980 and from their point of view we’re living in a kind of sucky cyberpunk setting. Self-driving cars. Out of control multinationals going on phone-tapping sprees. Russian billionaire oligarchs. (Okay, enough with the Sheckley-style social satire. Nobody’s going to buy that one.) If we can’t write SF using genuine power tools instead of brightly coloured props, what are we doing wrong?
Well, the whole Mundane SF thing is a red herring on one level. It speaks most loudly to the plodding, nerdish world-building game design mind-set. It won’t help you write believable characters.
But it does help me come up with more plausible settings, settings less likely to trigger the instant collapse of the suspension of disbelief that is necessary in order to decode a work of SF. So I’ve written a few Mundane SF novels. Halting State and Rule 34 used it as an anchor for their explorations of virtual reality and criminology in the near future. Saturn’s Children used it — yes, SC is a work of Mundane SF: there’s only one “impossible” gizmo in that novel — as the linch-pin for a classic planetary romance. I don’t always use it. In fact, most of the time I don’t. (The toy chest is just too damn much fun.) But I think it’s a useful discipline to assume from time to time, if only because it brings the world-building into tight focus and provides some depth to the background behind my characters.
I don’t have a lot of patience for labels. Back when I was studying to be an anthropologist, one of the big divides was between “lumpers” and “splitters”–that is to say, people who saw the evolutionary history of the human species as more of a continuum, with a few major species… and those who wanted to speciate every minor morphological or geographic difference.
In all speculative fiction, we choose the rules we’re playing by, and then–and here’s the important part–we stick with them. Those rules may be a very rigid interpretation of the rules of physics as we know them, possibly with “one impossible thing,” as Charlie says. (Time travel, for example, generally gets grandfathered in as science fiction even though, on a macro scale, it currently looks like fantasy. Larry Niven famously has a bit to say about this in The Flight of the Horse.)
But we choose those rules–and here’s the important bit–in order to say something to today’s readers, and to build on the existing genre conversation. (Whether that genre conversation will continue to exist in its current form as SFF becomes more and more mainstream is a related question–though I suspect there will long be a club scene.) I also am not much for futurism: I’ve seen too many laughable attempts at it. So what I write, while it talks about the future–and I have a real predilection for the “If This Goes On” story–it definitely addresses the present.
I’m not writing for somebody fifty years on, though I will be dead pleased if that person still finds value in my work. I’m writing for us, now.
One thing I do find relentlessly irritating is linguistic exclusivity–I’ll bloody well call it scifi if I want to, and the world in general will know what I mean. The attempt of a small (and probably correct) minority to lay claim to proper terminology never works: bad meanings, as they say, drive out good. Witness, if you will, the dual meanings of “hacker” in the lexicons of (1) elite computer users and (2) the general public.
And we do ourselves no favors by making casual consumers of science fiction feel excluded by picking on the terminology they use.
The topic of labels came up at a recent convention panel at Epic ConFusion this past January, a conversation that continued on Twitter and then also on Justin Landon’s Staffer’s Book Review. The general thrust of the conversation was whether genre labels harm the reader, the premise being that by putting on genre blinders, one limits herself, or rather, prevents herself from finding brilliant literature she might otherwise have found. In short: if things weren’t so almighty “categorized,” people could find some really cool books.
Trouble is, that’s not how the mind works. We do categorize. We do place things into buckets, and we do it whether a bookseller does it for us or not. If I like Tim Powers, well then I’m going to buy Tim’s stuff and people that write like him. And if I hate Splatterpunk, I’m not going to buy a book marketed as such, brilliant writing be damned.
I don’t think it’s terribly different when we write our books, though it’s probably closer to a self-fulfilling prophecy than self-categorization. No writer sets out to write a book just like Stephen King, but we all have our influences, yes? We all have those we’re emulating, whether it’s because they were the first writer we truly loved or because we admire their ability to portray touching moments or they make us laugh out loud or what have you. So the simple fact that I love and admire C.S. Friedman’s writing and want to recreate the experience I had when reading her Coldfire Trilogy is naturally (unless I consciously move in another direction) going to put my writing into a similar category. I’ll be widening or deepening that genre, in other words, not because I meant to, but because in some ways it can’t be avoided.
As much as some people say they hate genre labels, they do serve a purpose, and I mean beyond the mere attraction of potential customers. These genre discussions that we’ve been talking about; they happen over the course of years, even decades, and they happen in part because of the genres in which the books are written. And for those who adore a particular flavor of writing, genres create boundaries in which they can explore and discuss and learn. Like an examination of geological patterns, the change in landscape over time can be noted. It’s interesting. It’s fun. And yet it probably doesn’t mean much to the average writer. It doesn’t to me, in any case. I know the genres exist. I know my book will fall into one. But I find it rather counterproductive to think about such things in the writing of it. Sure, I recognize that I’ll be shelved in epic fantasy, but what good does that do me while I’m writing? None.
As for the genres that have had some effect on me, I’d say cyberpunk and steampunk certainly have. More recently, I really like the rise of the ecopunk novel, including Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl and Toby Buckell’s Arctic Rising and our very own Rob’s Seed. I find it so interesting because it has deep meaning to me with respect to our current political climate and the general level of inaction that we’re seeing today over anthropogenic global warming. I’ll have to admit, there’s a bit of self-congratulation going on as I read those stories. See? I told you it was coming! But beyond that, it’s compelling to see the sorts of unexpected cultural changes that might crop up from severe resource depletion and other global effects and how individuals deal with that change.
Can we not call it ecopunk? I’m so tired of -punk when there’s nothing punk about it.
(A bunch of us have been using the term eco-Gothic. Which seems to fit better, frankly.)
Seems like it would make for a cool rebuttal, Bear, but I think I’ll leave my post as it stands.
Oh, I had no intention that you should change your post.
LOL. Rebuttal made!
Nah, it was mostly just pointless bitching about how tired I am of punk-everything and everything-punk.
It’s become an affix meaning “subgenre,” as near as I can tell.
Much as “cyber-” has become a prefix denoting total incomprehension of anything relating to computers and information technology in the field of public policy. (“cyber-war”, etc.)
Let’s leave punk to the folks with the guitars and mohicans, and cyber to the systems theorists. Okay?
I thought punks were those kids who keep riding their bikes across my lawn. Little demon spawn…
Yes, everything nowadays is a punk of some sort or another. Ecopunk, splatterpunk, postapocalyptipunk, watering-the-garden-punk, get-off-my-lawn-punk. I was talking with a friend just yesterday about how, back in the early eighties, the term Cyberpunk was genuinely descriptive. Punks were actually still doing their thing then, banging shit out on their guitars, even if they didn’t know how to play. Cyberpunk had that going on, too: fuck the man, and fuck sci fi tradition. It was something like an honest to god artistic movement.
These days, punk is a spiked belt made in China that my fifteen-year-old cheerleader niece buys at Hot Topic. The term has been completely co-opted, and exists now as spackle, applied liberally and generically to any number of marketing constructs.
Nonetheless, I embrace the idea of punk in its original spirit, at least when I’m deep in the daily grind of cranking out words. Like you, Brad, I try not to think about anything besides the story while I’m writing—certainly not labels that might be applied to what I’m doing. The truth is, other folks will do this for me, so I don’t need to worry about it.
There’s no denying, though, that categories exist. The umbrella of speculative fiction is broad, and as we’ve already discussed, it encompasses all sorts of fascinations and self-referencing internal dialogues. My interest in and knowledge of these dialogues are haphazard, but the categories themselves are at least useful when it comes to describing and contextualizing work. A couple of decades ago, I did an internship writing about the local music scene for a weekly paper up in the northwest. The easiest–and laziest–way to describe a new band was something like this: “They’re what would happen if Jane’s Addiction and Rage Against the Machine had a love child and abandoned it; and their creepy stepfather, Leonard Cohen, was forced to raise it. They rock, soulfully and poetically.” Of course a description like this does the band little justice, but it at least places the potential listener somewhere conceptually on the right continent.
Same thing with spec fic. Brad, if GRRM and Tolstoy were stuck on a sailboat together in the Barents Sea, and they had a love child—a love child who liked vodka and steampunk, then that love child would look something like your Winds trilogy. (He would probably also look something like this.) That doesn’t describe anything at all, yet it draws on enough conceptual territory that in the overlaps we catch a glimpse of what the series might be.
Charlie, you mention the importance of world building. Getting down to brass tacks, world building is why I write sci fi. It’s in the world an author creates that we get to interact with our own values. To decode the world in A Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, is to decode a cruel and absurd piece of our own, contemporary value set. Atwood tests the idea to the point of destruction (to borrow that wonderful phrase one more time), specifically by building a laboratory of a world where that ethos can run its logical course, until it implodes. To attempt to build a world that reflects our own, but in some specific and more accurate way than our daily experience…that’s exciting.
So to answer the original question, about labels I connect with in the genre, and labels under which my work falls: I don’t really know. Of course I have influences, like Gibson and McCarthy and Swanwick and lots of others, whom I will always enjoy reading and from whom I will always take cues. But what I pursue is what I see in the world, day to day. Like Elizabeth, I write about the present moment, for the present moment. And the moment, it’s always shifting.
Charles Stross, 47, is a full-time science fiction writer and resident of Edinburgh, Scotland. The winner of two Locus Reader Awards and winner of the 2005 and 2010 Hugo awards for best novella, Stross’s works have been translated into over twelve languages. Like many writers, Stross has had a variety of careers, occupations, and job-shaped-catastrophes in the past, from pharmacist (he quit after the second police stake-out) to first code monkey on the team of a successful dot-com startup (with brilliant timing he tried to change employer just as the bubble burst). He has been writing full time for more than a decade now, which makes him happy — a good thing, because he’s probably unemployable at anything else!
Rob Ziegler lives with his wife in western Colorado. He has been writing fiction since he was a kid. Seed is his debut novel, and a finalist for the 2012 John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His second novel, Angel City, will be on its way…soonish.
Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. The author of over a dozen novels and a hundred short stories, she has been honored for some of them with the John W. Campbell, two Hugos, and a Sturgeon Award. Her hobbies include rock climbing and cooking. She lives in Massachusetts with a giant ridiculous dog and regularly commutes to Wisconsin in order to spend time with her step-cat—and his human, author Scott Lynch.
Bradley P. Beaulieu is the author of The Winds of Khalakovo, the first of three planned books in The Lays of Anuskaya series. In addition to being an L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Award winner, Brad’s stories have appeared in various other publications, including Realms of Fantasy Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Writers of the Future 20, and several anthologies from DAW Books. His story, “In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat,” was voted a Notable Story of 2006 in the Million Writers Award.
Jeremy Lassen is the Editor in Chief of the Night Shade Books, an independent publisher of Science fiction, fantasy and horror. He is also the best dressed editor in Science Fiction. Pictures that prove this, along with rants on science fiction, politics, and other sundry items can be found on his blog at jlassen.livejournal.com
Filed under: Interviews
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