Gareth L. Powell is a novelist based in Bristol, UK. He has written four novels and a collection of short stories. His short stories have featured in Interzone magazine as well as numerous anthologies , and his novels have been favourably reviewed in the Guardian. He has written about science fiction for The Irish Times and SFX, and recently penned a comic strip for 2000AD. You can find him on Twitter (@garethlpowell)
His upcoming book Hive Monkey, sequel to Ack-Ack Macaque, will be released by Solaris Books in January 2014.
by Gareth L. Powell
As science fiction writers and fans, we are rightly proud of our genre’s origins and heritage. Yet sometimes, those same origins can be a millstone around our necks, dragging us down.
I noticed this recently, when I spent an enjoyable evening being quizzed by members of a local book group about one of my novels, which they had been reading. They were a nice group of people but, when they spoke of the science fiction books they had tried previously, not one of them mentioned anything less than fifty years old! In their youths, they’d tried reading Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, but had been put off by, as they saw it, a concentration on ideas at the expense of characterization or literary merit.
As a consequence, not one of them had read anything by any of the modern authors I tend to use as touchstones; authors such as Jon Courtenay Grimwood, William Gibson, M. John Harrison, Richard Morgan, Vernor Vinge, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Aliette de Bodard, Charles Stross, Lauren Beukes, Bruce Sterling…
They hadn’t even heard of China Miéville.
To use a musical analogy, it’s as if they’d listened to an early 1960s Merseybeat album and disliked it, and from that experience decided that they wouldn’t like anything else in the whole 50-year history of rock music.
But, can we really blame them? Those early classics (and the million derivative works they inspired) helped establish and reinforce the popular perception of science fiction as a pulpy and poorly written backwater of literature. For modern non-SF audiences, they have little appeal. Readers are more sophisticated now. The only way we’ll escape the legacy of our pulp roots is to promote the innovation, literary merit, and relevance of the best modern genre writing.
Some fans will always cling to the ‘golden age’ works of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and I can understand why. They provide a magic door back to the simple pleasures of a simpler world – a world before global warming, oil shortages, terrorism, and economic uncertainty; relics of a world where the future was easily understood, and (largely) American, middle class and white in outlook, origin and ethnicity.
Part of me understands and sympathizes with that need for security. I still draw comfort and enjoyment from those old books. Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Philip K. Dick… These writers are the elder gods in my personal pantheon; but they are neither the beginning nor the end. Society and culture have moved on, and there’s more to our genre than words written more than half a century ago.
As a writer, all my novels have been attempts to take the tropes and settings I loved as a kid and reinvigorate them for a modern audience; to breathe something new into the mix, and reinterpret them for a different age.
Silversands took the classic idea of a Tau Ceti colony and used it as a backdrop to consider issues of corporate nationhood and identity, through a cloned child, a reanimated scientist, and a man so old he’d become sick of life.
In The Recollection, I introduced an intelligent nanotechnological singularity into a reasonably standard space opera setting, in order to discuss notions of love, family and duty; and used a modern day London cabbie as one of my viewpoint characters.
With Ack-Ack Macaque, I explored the boundaries of what it means to be human by focusing on three characters: an uplifted primate, a brain-damaged reporter, and a genetically modified member of the royal family; and in its sequel, Hive Monkey (Solaris Books, January 2014), I continue that tale, employing the furniture of 1930s pulp literature – Zeppelins, Spitfires, cigar-smoking monkey pilots, evil android armies – in order to examine some fundamental philosophical questions to do with artificial intelligence and our notion of what constitutes a person.
Yes, I am paying homage to the rich history of science fiction, but I am also trying to take all the best parts of that history and use them to move forwards. And science fiction should always move forwards, even while tipping its hat to the past.
The books I’ve admired most have all been groundbreaking in their time: books such as Dangerous Visions; Ringworld; The Centauri Device; The Stars My Destination; Babel-17; Roadside Picnic; Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep; Stand On Zanzibar; Neuromancer; Consider Phlebas; Red Mars; A Fire On The Deep; Accelerando; Altered Carbon…and many others.
These books took the rich heritage of science fiction and used it as fuel. They built on what came before. They pushed the boundaries of the genre and, by doing so, enlarged them.
You might not like the New Weird, the new Star Trek reboots or the new Doctor Who episodes, but being a fan’s a bit like being in a marriage. You have to accept that the person you’re with will mature and change, and you have to embrace that, and change with them in order to keep things fresh. You can’t keep your relationship in a plastic bag on a bookshelf in your basement. Treasure your memories and old photographs, but accept that the genre has to keep moving forward in order to renew itself.
Like the blade and handle of the philosopher’s axe, the various ingredients of the genre may change and then change again, but the essential spirit remains. Science fiction isn’t a museum exhibit. It isn’t a collection of musty old paperbacks on a dealer’s table, or a cardboard box of old videos in your attic. It’s a vital and evolving genre, filled with verve and possibility. To let it stagnate would be to let it die.
So, the next time a non-SF reader asks you what they should read, resist the temptation to throw them a copy of Foundation or Slan, and point them instead at something published in the last five years. Maybe even something published in the last five months. They can always go back and dig out the classics later. Give them something modern, and they’re more likely to find characters, ideas and attitudes with which they can relate.
Yes, science fiction has a past, but it also has a future, and to focus on one at the expense of the other risks killing the restless spirit that’s taken us this far.