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Does Science Fiction, in Fact, Suck?

Jay @ Kill The Goat hates science fiction, as evidenced by her recent rant Why Science Fiction Sucks the Big One. Jay’s main complaint is that science fiction writers lack imagination.

…science-fiction writers appear to be even less able to imagine the future than the average cat. In the eighteenth century, science fiction consisted of: we travel to places quite quickly with our new hover-horses, and we wear hoop skirts with many pockets in them, convenient for storing our super-cool gadgets, like the combination garlic press\candle stick that comes in handy ever so often and we have no idea how people used to live without them, and a loaf of bread costs a whole 90 cents these days! Science fiction today is pretty much the same crap, with different hover crafts, and slightly different gadgets, but never different by much, and slightly different spellings, like putting a K where a C belonged.

Obviously, most readers of SF Signal (sf fans) would disagree. Perhaps Jay needs a “gatewaytitle?

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

15 Comments on Does Science Fiction, in Fact, Suck?

  1. Not that I want to sling mud at Jay, but honestly did he actually read any SF before posting that crap? I can understand why some folks may not like SF, but that “rant” (and yes I used quotes) is like me ranting about western novels or romance novels (both of which I have seen in bookstores, but have not read). I am not sure what her expectations are, but I don’t think she has read enough to classify the whole genre. Thanks for your “rant” and thanks for your time…

  2. You can replace the title of this rant to “Why Fantasy Sucks” and replace ‘hovercraft’ with ‘elves’ and pretty much rant about fantasy instead. There are topes in nearly every genre that make it suck.

    I can appreciate how a seemingly small thing (like videotape in Snow Crash) can put you off a story. I’d argue that videotape is still alive and well in the TV/video industry today (1/2″ is still used ubiquitously) if not your living room, and that digital tape formats exist in data centers around the world. However clearly the days of magnetic media are probably numbered. Something like that can keep you from suspending your disbelief and making you resent the entire story. I’ve certainly seen plenty of movies that take too much license with the internet or computers for my taste.

    However, to trash Hyperion because you didn’t like the monster is to miss the point. Have you read any Chaucer? And Snow Crash does present an interesting set of ideas on the future regardless of getting some wrong. Every science fiction writer will get something wrong, but that doesn’t mean the entire work is lame. At least it shouldn’t.

    Perhaps I’d suggest a book like Frame Shift as a better read on near-future fiction, or Earth Abides for a look back at one of the best books from the golden age. Perhaps this writer just like’s dystopias, in which case she might prefer almost anything from Le Guin or Huxley’s Brave New World. Or maybe Ender’s Game or Red Mars?

  3. Boy, where to start? Let’s go through her ‘essay’.

    Good lord I hate science fiction.

    I tried to keep an open mind yet, I really did, but the first sentence that goes a little something like “and then we ate some freeze-dried meatloaf” or “you walk through this portal to get to the next planet” and my mind just slams firmly shut in a stunning display of superiority and snobbery.

    I’d really like to know what stories Jay has been reading. I don’t remember anything starting out like that. Seriously, a little illumination on what stories were read would help tremendously. Otherwise, this huge generalization is just plain silly. Of course, the last part of this statement hints that Jay isn’t being totally serious, but the sentiment is still there. Superiority? No. Snobbery? Yes. Surprising? Not really, since most non-SF readers feel SF is inferior.

    I guess my main beef with stupid science fiction is that the authors’ imaginations are always so limited. Space travel quickly becomes a bore…travel is quick, but somehow it’s always done by a variation on the theme of rocket ship which is totally improbable (we move everything else virtually, or by fiber optics, but somehow for outer space, we like to travel by tin can)

    Jay tries to qualify her dislike for ‘stupid’ SF, but she never really says what books fit in that category. Instead, she tries to define it by ideas, saying ‘stupid’ SF authors have limited imaginations because, in the stories, people travel in space in (improbably) rocketships instead of by fibre optics. Wha? Perhaps she wants teleporters? Would that qualify as imaginative? I’m guessing she’d diss those as well. Which leads me to ask: How, exactly, are people supposed to travel in space? Something tells me that wiring up the solar system with fibre optic cables is a no go. As for virtual visits, yes, that sounds good, but it doesn’t compare to actually being there. And right now, the only really good way to get somewhere else is via the spaceship route.

    She also complains that aliens aren’t really alien enough, just re-imagined humans with green skin or large heads. This leads me to believe she has watched waaay too much Star Trek where, for budgetary reasons, aliens are exactly that. In written SF, there are lots of truly alien aliens. Take the aliens in Peter Watts’ Blindsight (see review). Something tells me Jay won’t like this book at all, and the aliens are one reason why. They are incomprehensible and difficult to understand because they are alien.

    She also slams authors for using habitable planets for people to live on. Some do, some don’t. And using habitable planets to tell a story isn’t ‘stupid’. Sometimes, its the easy thing to do. Other times its a convenience or even necessary. To say stories with Earth-like worlds are ‘stupid’ says a lot about the person making that statement.

    In fact, I think the whole ‘stupid SF’ thing is just an attempt to hide her true feelings, which are spelled out in the very first sentence: “Good lord I hate science fiction.” The goal post moving didn’t happen until she tried to explain what, exactly, is wrong with SF.

    Next, she harps on the era in which a SF story was written. She uses the 70’s as an example, where authors seemed to think that disco would continue and everyone would dress in silver and have platform shoes. Again, no story examples, just generalizations. In fact, this sounds like Jay has watched way more 70’s SF movies/TV shows than actual SF books. I don’t recall many books concerning themselves with future disco or fashion. Sounds more like Logan’s Run or Buck Rogers.

    She continues:

    But science-fiction writers appear to be even less able to imagine the future than the average cat…In the eighteenth century, science fiction consisted of: we travel to places quite quickly with our new hover-horses, and we wear hoop skirts…Science fiction today is pretty much the same crap, with different hover crafts, and slightly different gadgets…

    I’ve never read much, and I’m guessing she means 19th Century, old SF, but I don’t think Verne or Wells was worried about fashion or hover-horses. They were more interested in technology’s affect on society. And to bash modern SF as being the same as old SF, just with different particulars is just silly. That’s like saying that modern day fiction is crap because its just Shakespeare with different particulars, and I don’t see her making that comparison.

    She then says: “Science fiction writers seem to only be able to predict, say, the next 20 minutes or so.” SF isn’t really about predicting the future. This seems to be a mis-conception many people have about SF. All SF really does is take the mainstream stories, and place them in unique and unusual settings. This allows the authors to take chances and write about things that mainstream authors can’t because the readers expect a certain realism. Jay then rags on Snowcrash for its insistence on using videotapes. Again, Stephenson wasn’t trying to predict the future and video tapes where still big in 1992 and DVDs were still on the drawing board. Its easy to criticize older stories for failing to predict the future when that isn’t what they were trying to do, and, as it happens, your memory (or perception since I don’t know how old Jay is) of 1992 is incorrect.

    She harps a bit more on the term science fiction, then says she hates ‘science fiction’ again, thus putting the lie to her above statement about ‘stupid SF’. It’s really SF in general she hates. Something about the ‘formula’. One of her favorite books is The Handmaid’s Tale, which see thinks isn’t SF, because “it doesn’t emphasize silver parachute pants as the major fashion statement of the year 3287. Gadget talk is kept to a minimum.” She then praises it because it “tells us of the human experience, the psychology of the future, the moral implications of living in an ever-changing world.” This is precisely what SF does. It just does so in a way Jay doesn’t like. And I will say that SF does have an issue with being science and technology heavy. People who are scared of these things or dislike them are going to find SF inaccessible. This is probably the case here.

    Why do I say that? While Jay does have some nice things to say Asimov, she does say this: “Normally, the merest mention of ‘robot’ would have me running for the hills.” Not the writings of someone comfortable with technology.

    She then goes on to diss Dan Simmons and his Hyperion Cantos. She says: “Dan Simmons, I am sorry to say, you are a moron. Your “frightening alien” seemed more to me like the recycling of “swamp thing”, only with sharper fingers.” Now, calling Dan Simmons a moron is, in itself, a moronic thing to do. Clearly Hyperion isn’t her cup of tea. But to call Dan Simmons a moron is just wrong. His SF writing is some of the more literary writing around and it’s steeped in classical poetry and literature. I strongly suspect Jay didn’t ‘get’ what Simmons was trying to do the Shrike and Hyperion. But to attack Simmons personally isn’t right and certainly weakens any argument against SF she may have. But it gets worse.

    After you read a few of these books, you quickly get the impression that these guys live in mouldy basements with the same curling Star Wars posters on the wall, and tatty underwear in their drawers, and underused toothbrushes drying out by their sinks. Science Fiction is often paired with or synonymous with fantasy, which is ironic, isn’t it? I mean, what kind of fantasy is pretty much like reality, except with slightly smaller cellphones with slightly better reception?

    More ad hominems and stereotypical ones at that. This pretty much tells me Jay has issues beyond SF. It points to disliking the ‘geek’ crowd, or those who are technically or scientifically savvy. You know, the ones who make all the cool gadgets that are around today. Its sad, really. Attacking other people doesn’t make your case, it makes your case weaker. Plus it tells others that you are mean, petty and vindictive. Not a good thing.

    I think the failure of imagination here isn’t with the SF author, its with the blog author. She either can’t, or won’t, open her mind to SF. I suspect that sending her a list of ‘gateway’ books won’t work as she is pre-disposed to dislike SF, but I could be wrong. That’s why I say SF, as a genre, needs to get kids hooked. The younger the better. Adults are too set in their reading habits to change en mass.

    However, Jay does say something I think we can (almost) all agree with (though for different reasons):

    George Lucas, you’d better know you’re on my #$%^ [censored! – ed.] list too.

    Something tells me Jay isn’t riled up because Greedo now shoots first.

  4. I find myself vastly preferring fantasy over SF. I never really thought about why, but these posts made me think that one reason is because a lot of SF gets stale and ‘wrong’ before too long. This may explain why I enjoy reading ‘new’ SF, but stuff that’s older doesn’t interest me as much.

    William Gibson used to be one of my favorite writers, but I don’t really have any interest in reading his early stuff again.

    I guess with fantasy the expectation isn’t there that the author is creating a believable world that may exist some day.

    Just my $.0002.

  5. That’s a good point Kevin. SF does seem to be a product of its time much more so than fantasy.

    Although SF which isn’t as heavily invested in current tech or science thinking should last longer. I’m thinking of early Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke.

  6. Glad someone noticed that ‘Jay’ is a ‘she’, not a ‘he’.

    I’ll have to point her over here if she didn’t notice, she’ll find the responses hysterical. Over the brief time that I have ‘known’ Miss Jay via the interweb she has given me very good natured ribbing over my love of science fiction. By and large I understand what she is saying but just don’t agree with any of it. Which is totally okay. I am an unabashed fan of both science fiction and fantasy. I don’t think one is more socially relevant than the other and I though time may in some respects make some science fiction novels a bit dated or irrelevant, even the best of these manage to defy the limitations of time and language.

    I am honestly of the belief that there is a science fiction book out there than any avid reader would like, the key is to finding out what that book is. I think it is really hard to recommend said ‘gateway’ book unless you really know the person well and what their likes and dislikes are.

    In the end there are sci fi and fantasy and whatever haters all over the place. I just wish everyone could express their opinions as entertainingly as Jay. 😉

  7. SF is THE literature of change and because we live in an age of fast changes it tends to get dated even faster nowadays than 20-30 years ago. But that is exactly like science, after all most science papers and books get dated quickly too. You want to read and enjoy sf, better start with the current state of the art (say from the past 5-6 years) sprinkled with a classic like Hyperion or Use of Weapons. I tend to agree that for most people who read fiction, there is a recent SF novel they would enjoy, but you gotta know them to find out which.

    Fantasy on the other hand is as old as humanity (Homer is fantasy by any definition you care) and epics are also as old as humanity, so it’s a different story there and no wonder there is a lot of old enjoyable fantasy out there, maybe not about elves, but fantasy nonetheless (check Arabian Nights, Melmoth the Wanderer, Manuscript Found in Saragossa – just to give some books that I still enjoy and are several hundred or more years old).

  8. What strange power gives blog authors the ability to write a loose ramble and call it ‘expository’? How did ‘rants’ become so popular?

    Writing in the age of message boards: all flash, no substance. No examples. No attempt to tie opinion to personal background or culture. No sincerity.

    And the notion that derision is a tool of logic or ‘expository’ illumination. I blame the pundit culture, but then perhaps the internet is giving public opinion a bad name.


    SF has nothing to fear from clowns like this author.

  9. The beauty of the internet, Arref, is that it gives us all the opportunity to ‘rant’ and call it anything we like. What makes it a more enjoyable form of freedom of speech is that we don’t have to read it if we don’t like it. Keep in mind that this is a person on a non-science fiction blog stating her own opinion, in her usual humorous manner, not someone coming over to sci fi blogs to pick fights with those of us who love the genre. Stooping to calling someone a ‘clown’ just validates the negative stereotypes of genre readers, etc.

  10. Hi Carl

    No, I wasn’t stooping, actually.

    I said she was a ‘clown’ as in she is performing for an audience in what she feels is humorous ‘rage’. It’s deliberately preachy and affected and dropping any sincerity. She wants us to laugh at her ‘hate’. She is putting on a show and ‘clowning’ for her audience.

    I see how you could think I meant differently. I did not mean the slang usage of clown.

  11. Coincidentally I recently read The Handmaids Tale. I thought it was well done but (gasp!) no mention of that ubiquitous modern technology… the Internet. So, based on that, do I think that Margaret Atwoods book lacks merit? Not at all. She, like Stephenson, is a writer, not a psychic (not even a professonal futurist).

    My suggestion: Jay should skip the hard-sf, and bypass the space-opera. Perhaps some books by Le Guin or Bradbury or Silverberg or Kress. There are plenty of options. Thats one of the things I love about SF. It casts a wide net.

  12. Wow, what a [Deleted. Let’s not get personal. – Ed.]. If you like Asimov then you definetly like Sci-Fi. Too many people get caught up in those stereotypes, not that it has all that negative effect on anyones life. I actually kind of like it that most people don’t give a crap about what I like, although it would be nice if people didn’t jump to conclusions so quickly. Just go by Sturgeons Law: “Ninety percent of SF is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.”

  13. Jeff Patterson // February 22, 2007 at 12:19 pm //

    And if you make a similar litany of hate against the murder-fetishism of Mystery novels, the irrational tribalism of sports fans, or the fact that soap opera addicts should be relocated to a faraway camp, they call you a nerd.

  14. I’d be quick to join the soap opera relocation brigade…if it wasn’t that the fact that so many sci fi shows I like are pretty close to soaps!

    Thanks for the clarification, Areff, sorry I misunderstood.

  15. I’d rant and complain about how skewed and juvenile this person’s argument is, but after I realized how much of a waste of time it was…well, I think I’ll just go and enjoy a good book…a SCIENCE FICTION book:)

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