The Future is Not a Land of Enchantment: On SF’s “Exhaustion”

“I do not think I could write SF if I were not disenchanted with large areas of the field. Those areas of disenchantment are precisely the interesting interfaces where I can begin to feel my imagination doing useful work. So in that sense if I would be a bit worried if everything was all right with SF. I don’t think it is – but then, I don’t think it ever has been. Rather than perceiving a particular crisis affecting SF now, I see the field as being in a constant state of stagnation and renewal, constantly exhausting itself, constantly hitting new seams.” – Alastair Reynolds

“The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.” – Paul Kincaid

I was all set to write more about possible worlds in light of clearly impossible ones (such as those of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wind Drinkard) and ones that play with the idea of possibility themselves (such as Ekaterina Sedia’s The House of Discarded Dreams), but the internet is afire with discussions about Paul Kincaid’s recent essay in the LA Times Review of Books on SF’s “exhaustion.” Having read his piece, an interview with him, and some of the responses, I wanted to examine the core of his argument, and that of Jonathan McCalmont, a responder who agreed with and expanded on Kincaid’s critique. Each characterizes “the genre” with broad insinuations about its ideals and characteristics, and agree that “the genre” is not living up to its potential. My question is: does this approach get to the problem they see, and if not, how does that change the nature of the problem?

I think that Kincaid and McCalmont are correct that some stories are not perspicacious or innovative, and the field, however you define it, is filled with struggles between the familiar and the innovative. This conclusion is not surprising, however; most storytelling is about reproduction, reformatting, and comfort and is created out of tensions between the expected and the unexpected. But the idea that some new depth of ennui has been attained that has taken SF off-course and impurified it, is excessive. Sturgeon’s Law has been in full effect for the history of SF, and for much of storytelling in general. Yet both essays hearken back to, if not a golden age, at least one with more luster to it. There is a conservative nostalgia in their critiques about the genre as it used to be, what the future was in the tales of yore, as if to say “remember when we dreamt the future positively?”

Kincaid clarified in his interview that “I see no need for a ‘new positivism’ or ‘new progressivism’” but just before that states that a sort of positive outlook is what grasping the future is all about. Both critiques spring from the idea that a genre is not just comprised of tropes or trends, but of a spirit or meta-ideology. There are things that this genre should do, objectives that it should fulfill. It should not just be about the future, but should speculate about it in a narrowly-conceived constructive manner, a projection forward that grasps and manufactures the future for us. SF is about creating understandable futures, ones that have some sort of lesson for the reader to digest.

What has weakened SF is its admixture with other genres. Both essayists bemoan the appearance of the genre’s dissolution and blending with other genres, which for them has watered down the capabilities and effects of the genre, if not become an excuse to be blithe or sloppy with science. Other genres need to be harnessed to the genre’s core mission, not serve as distractions from its purpose. And here is where I feel the arguments falter, as they focus on “the genre” as an agent with a specific purpose, as a sort of hive mind animated by writers. Both discuss individual authors and stories, but they are examples of wider trends or exceptions to the conclusion that SF “itself” is broken, that what those stories called the best show us is how insular and degraded the genre has become.

In his Nerds of a Feather interview Kincaid knocks the seeming conservatism of many stories, yet his idea of vitality seems drawn from a classical view of SF, with its “fetish of novelty.” Novelty, surprise, novum, sense of wonder. . . all of these are invoked as central to SF and all seem to be lacking, or misused, in what is considered the best short fiction in the field. The conservatism is an existential one; as Kincaid notes “No longer sure of the future, therefore, an SF writer’s options seem to be to present a future that is magical or incomprehensible (like Valente or Grant), or to revert to older, more familiar futures (as Bear did).” It is not that Kincaid wants rocket ships and robots to make a big comeback; he is searching for something more philosophical. And yet, the fact that he seems more heartened by stories that reproduce that familiarity, that are more like the SF he is arguing for, valorizes that option over the first one he describes. But what if this ideal is not an eternal property of the genre but a transitive one? What if SF is about more than stories that try to comprehend the future to comment on the present?

McCalmont takes the argument further than Kincaid, assigning motivations and failings to the authors themselves, while Kincaid remains, as he reiterated in his interview, “descriptive” of what stories are, or are not, doing. McCalmont also develops a critique of the “postmodern” effacement of SF and both ties its malaise to and finds its salvation in engagement with neoliberalism. McCalmont looks to cultural and political-economic forces as feeding into SF’s weakening. No one is spared in his assessment, not even those he praises. In an odd digression he notes that non-straight white male authors seem subsumed by the forces within and outside of the genre to produce the same pap as the rest, when they should be using their own experiences and positions to critique the system. He then indicts straight white men who innovate as attempting to commandeer the critiquing of the genre. In the end, everyone seems to be a part of the problem, because everyone is somehow subservient to the genre even as they misuse it.

McCalmont claims that “the point of this essay was never to make monolithic statements about the true nature of science fiction but rather to draw attention to a broad narrative of detachment that has transformed the mainstream of science fiction into an airless postmodern vacuum.” He “would like to see the genre seize this historic opportunity and rediscover its heritage of engagement and prediction” rather than continue to engage in what seem to be fawning, unchallenging literary efforts. He too would like a return to the grand ideals and revolutionary potential of SF, to stop reveling in irony and make bold statements about where the world is going.

But the future is not what it used to be, and this is not just an effect of post-modern lensing. The problem is not some seductive literary approach/ideology that thumbs its nose at risk and conviction. It is not that authors en masse are dissolute, lazy, hesitant, or drained of ideas, or that “the genre” is exhausted. The problem is that time has moved on, the world has changed, and that “SF” and “genre” are not agents, but conventions and discursive tools that everyone involved in the field reproduce and refashion.. The field of cultural production is both static and dynamic, and that is reinforced or challenged by individuals: readers, writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, fans. If science fiction seems tired, it is not because we have lost sight of the past; it is that the present is a different place and the future is simultaneously nascent and enigmatic.

One can certainly point to the problems that capitalist conditions cause the field, and there is no doubt that commercial considerations are a factor in each writer’s work. Literary theories and critical discussions can also influence what writers produce. But in the end the field is still vital, even though that vitality may seem spotty. If the field were not vital, if it was drained and irrelevant, this discussion would not be taking place. It is precisely because the field is in flux, is multivalent and contentious, that this conversation is taking place. Some writers are complicating the models while other merely update tropes and re-present them. But this is neither exhaustion or cowardice; this is the way that the field has always worked, just with different proportions and assumptions about how to tell stories and be a part of the circulatory system of literature.

Alastair Reynolds put his finger on a significant element when he noted that “If I was truly happy with the state of SF. . . I suspect I’d feel very little incentive to write it.” If readers were happy with it they would not discuss the stories and social aspects with the vigor and emotion that they do. As a writer I try to create stories that are distinctive from others, writing from passion and joy, but also from conviction and a need to add something different, odd, perplexing to the literary conversation. And as a reader that is what I look for too. And many writers are also doing this, even if they don’t get much attention for it. What we are seeing is a new dynamic of flux and reflection, in some cases involving struggles with the ideas we have of the genre and the stories connected to it, in other cases following the tenets of the field and the expectations of readers. What is different than in previous era is how this is happening, what external influences are trying to shape it, and how writers of SF (and fantastika more broadly) write to reify or deconstruct both “the genre” and the idea of genre along a spectrum of ideas and tropes from their individual standpoints, which are rarely monolithic. Some want to create something new, some to twist what we have, and others to produce familiar tales. It seems paradoxical to assert fatigue or laziness when so much is being produced, and while we can discuss issues of quality and effect and relevance, I think we need to step back from blanket indictments and seriously engage specific texts and critiques, which Kincaid does in his essay, although in the context of a broad assertion.

That assertion is based on the idea that writers of SF are no longer trying to comprehend the future. But, if SF is about novelty and surprise, should we not do more than try to grasp the future? Shouldn’t we question the future, debate its presence, its effects, and the nature of it? Shouldn’t we interpret it from many angles and not just try to build projections? The future is not just what lies ahead; it is what we are making with every thought and action of our living each day. It is the stories we are telling now because every story tries to say something about the world now, and thus hints at where we might be going. There is more to telling the future than speculation or positive constructions of what may be. The future has become not just nebulous or scary, but an integral part of our humanity. Classic SF made projections, and those ideas influenced our interaction with reality. But as we come to grasp reality as something different, we also look at past, present, and future differently. The best SF (which I think is rarely in the anthologies) grapples not with what may come, but what we might be making now, how imagination, memory (which we’ve learned may be more about the future than the past), and action make many futures possible. Perhaps SF is now becoming a way to think in new ways, some unsettling, about just what the future is and where its roots lie in stories of the past and present.

15 thoughts on “The Future is Not a Land of Enchantment: On SF’s “Exhaustion””

  1. (quote)SF is about creating understandable futures, ones that have some sort of lesson for the reader to digest.(/quote)

    And here is where I disagree with the axiom on which these arguments are based. When I look at the great works of science fiction that I grew up with, I don’t see studied projections of a plausible future. Herbert’s Dune, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Robinson’s Callahan’s stories, Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Bester’s Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, and Haldeman’s Forever War. Which one of these are we saying get their power by being set in a plausible future? In what way is psychoactive space fuel that grows on a planet full of sandworms or learning how to spontaneously teleport an engagement with the future?

    Science Fiction is and, I think, has always been more about the time in which it is being written than about the future it imagines, and the exhaustion I see in the field springs more from an increasingly narrow and inaccurate definition of what the genre is. Speculation and prediction have a place at science fiction’s table, but there’s an awful lot of other projects there too.

    1. I don’t think that those two things are mutually exclusive: Science Fiction is certainly about the present, but the futures that it imagine generally have to be somewhat relatable in order to present a story that’s understandable by the audience reading it. The really astute authors figure out what’s coming up, and what themes will be relatable for multiple audiences.

    2. Daniel:

      Absolutely. For me, novels such as Disch’s ON WINGS OF SONG, Delany’s NOVA and TROUBLE ON TRITON, Russ’ THE FEMALE MAN, and LeGuin’s “The Word for World is Forest” were not designed to be mimetic projections, but they spoke volumes about the present by using the future as a theatre for their speculative dramas. Kincaid is not as focused on the utilitarian as McCalmont seems to be, but his idea of a graspable future seems to be one that is about recognition in a positivist mode. That is one way to approach SF, but it is neither the only one nor is it necessarily the best one.

      The problems that I see stem more from a combination of longing for a return to a mode of genre that is outdated and has less resonance in the present, and an unreflective reproduction of assumptions (that are eagerly consumed by part of the readership) about what SF stories can and should do. Is there some postmodern excess here and there? Sure, but it is not some contagion that has infected SF’s precious bodily fluids. The field has more resilience than that because there are also writers who are producing powerful stories that, as Athena noted, tend to be on the margins and unseen or unengaged by the core readership.

  2. I think Daniel has a point. SF can be a lens with which to see our own world, and to tell truths about it. Fantasy is even more so. Consider the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded today to Mo Yan–he writes surrealism as a way to avoid Chinese censors and authorities wrath that he would draw if he wrote realistic fiction.

    My thought is that we’re in the early 80’s again, in genre, and the field is looking for the next strain to add to the Fugue of Genre. At the moment, the current voices (in the musical sense of the term) seem to be heading toward a low point almost as if in anticipation of the next voice…

    1. That’s an interesting point, Paul. That could be part of the hesitation that Kincaid talks about, that in times of change and acceleration some writers might produce stories that are more in line with common ideas of what constitutes “genre fiction,” while others keep pushing the assumed boundaries. But I think we need to see it as a continuum, rather than two opposing positions. There are writers and stories all along the spectrum, and they may recreate it even as they change it.

  3. 1. There have been many discussions of the topics raised by Kincaid, McCalmont and Stevens, but apparently these didn’t register in the SF collective memory because they were said by “non-default” people.
    2. McCalmont’s critique used almost exclusively whiteanglomen as examples, except for a couple of tokens du jour. “I don’t know it exists” does not equal “It doesn’t exist”.
    3. The future, except in a subdomain of electronics, is unfolding as slowly as ever. Anyone see a cure for dementia? New propulsion systems? Me neither.
    4. SF mirrors the present, not the future. If there is heterogeneity, uncertainty and debate within SF, it’s partly because it is trying to become real literature and more encompassing, rather than boys’ toys (emphasis on both words).
    5. Novelty, especially of the gimmicky variety, doth not originality make.
    6. The borders are where interesting stuff always happens. So sobbing over “genre purity” (even if there were consensus on it) is counterproductive at best.

    1. Athena:

      Agreed on all counts. #3 is hard to keep in mind sometimes, with the waves of rhetoric and propaganda out there about the future being “now.” I think #4 is what we need to focus on when we look at what is being produced.

  4. I always thinks that essays that try to push against complacency are good, even if I don’t agree with all of their particulars. But I also think at this point that there is a real impoverishment in discussing sf, fantasy, and horror in a vacuum. It is in fact distressing to me. It suggests a kind of inbred provincialism that does not acknowledge the other ways that fictions are similar or different beyond whether “does this story have a dragon in it?” This speaks to non-Anglo fiction as well–there are so many rich traditions that are rendered invisible by this rough interrogation of “does this story have a dragon in it?” “does this story have a rocketship in it?” Honestly, this is the crudest form of analysis. *And it does not even accurately reflect how influence accrues around writers.* So, is SF dead or impoverished? My answer is: who cares?

  5. John — As with most of your essays, I see an admirable desire to cover important ground faltering due to too much smoke and wheel-spin.

    I think that Paul is far fonder of traditional SF than I am. I don’t actually think that Heinlein, Wells, Clarke or Asimov are worth reading other than as part of some historical research project. So if you think I’m harkening back to some golden age of great science fiction then you are *very much* mistaken.

    The only reason I suggest looking backwards at all is because I think that — terrible as most of them were — those old SF stories embraced the idea that SF was its own little garden that was quite distinct both from mainstream literature and from the rest of what Clute calls Fantastika. Though insular and stunted, that scene allowed the creation of a form of literature that is pretty much unique in all of human history.

    Since its inception, that scene has been pulled out of shape first by an infusion of values from the literary mainstream in the form of the New Weird and then, more recently, in the form of a postmodern rapprochement with fantasy.

    By importing values from other scenes and allowing the free movement of writers from one tradition to another, science fiction has become more diverse but this diversity has come at the expense of what made science fiction so unique in the first place. What once was a tiny garden is now an enormous field.

    What I would like to see is a return to the science fictional garden and the creation of a literary culture similar to the one that created science fiction in the first place… a culture with clear boundaries and a clear ideological purpose of using fiction as a means of making sense of the world. This isn’t even remotely the same thing as requesting a return to golden age SF as neither the world nor the future we see from here in any way resembles that which confronted the writers of golden age SF. For example, I don’t think that space flight has any place in the science fiction I’m looking for… we’re no more going to colonise the stars than we are going to battle an army of orcs. That future seemed plausible in the 1950s but now it’s little more than an empty fantasy and a vapid nostalgia trip.

    As for the idea that genres don’t have agency, I direct your attention to the term ‘Supervenience’. What is a genre if not a collection of lower-order entities such as authors, critics, consumers, publishers and editors? each of these possess causal agency and by looking at their collective actions at a higher level of abstraction, one can see genre as a system that acts and reacts in response to various events and stimuli. When you say:

    ““SF” and “genre” are not agents, but conventions and discursive tools that everyone involved in the field reproduce and refashion”

    I see a distinction without a difference.

    1. Thanks for the response, Jonathan. I am always working to improve my writing and thinking and this reply is very useful.

      I think the garden metaphor you use here is compelling, and I did not get that sort of image from your piece. But I am unsure if “a culture with clear boundaries and a clear ideological purpose” is possible at this point. Fields of literary production are much more open and porous while “relevance” as a timid invocation shows up far more than serious attempts to examine the contemporary moment. I am not sure that planting seeds in a cordoned-off area will create a high yield, but I do agree that the potential of the literature is vastly underutilized. There are lessons we can learn in looking back, but I am not sure that trying to reconstitute SF in a very different social context will work. The question I have is, what IS possible now, and how can we create literature that speaks more to the present through speculative and fantastical lenses?

      Regarding genres and agency, my view is that genres are categories, ideas, and discursive tools that participants in a field of production use. Genres are not active, but are activated by individuals and shared within groups. “Genre” is used far too often in a monolithic way, so I try to situate it in a field of production which is partly an arena of struggles over meaning and various forms of capital (drawing on Bourdieu). Genres do not act and rarely have firm boundaries. Participants in a field use ideas such as genre to identify and codify literary productions and their social uses, which for example is what Paul Kincaid and the rest of us have been doing in this discussion. Sometimes these uses of genre are illuminating, but it’s easy to lose sight of those lower-order entities who rarely all use the idea in agreement and thus lose the contentious nature of such terms.

  6. Wait a second…

    Jonathan McCalmont said:

    “For example, I don’t think that space flight has any place in the science fiction I’m looking for… we’re no more going to colonise the stars than we are going to battle an army of orcs. That future seemed plausible in the 1950s but now it’s little more than an empty fantasy and a vapid nostalgia trip.”

    Geoff Ryman and the rest of the mundane SF people want to have a word with you! Why didn’t you support them way back when — for example — Interzone published the special mundane SF issue?

    So maybe, possibly, they weren’t so dreadfully wrong, after all?

    1. I’d agree, at least on counts of Asimov and Wells. Their stories are neat and ‘classically great’ (meaning, accepted as good works), but they don’t have a lot to say about the current world. Partly due to aging, partly due to the stories being designed as action movies first and arthouse dramas second (if at all). If Jonathan’s primary concern is for sci-fi to reflect the real world and discuss its issues (social, cultural and moral), then Wells and Asimov, in their most famous SF works, have very little to bring.

      * Can’t speak for Heinlein and Clarke due to not having read all that much of their stuff.

      1. Sorry, this is tangential, and well after the fact, but my mind is boggling at the thought that Wells and Asimov “designed [their stories] as action movies first and arthouse dramas second.” Aside from the mismatched anachronistic metaphor, this description couldn’t be further from the truth about either writer.

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