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MIND MELD: Is SF Still The “Big Idea” Genre?

[This week’s question was submitted by an SF Signal reader. Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

Recently Neal Stephenson wrote an article for the World Policy Journal titled “Innovation Starvation“. In the article he discussed the serious lack of innovation in science today. Later in the article, he discusses a presentation that he made at the Future Tense conference where he said that good science fiction supplied “a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place.” One scientist that he talked to complained that SF writers are slacking off, saying that SF writers need “to start supplying big visions that make sense.” With Planetary Resources announcing their plan to mine the asteroids, it seems that reality may be encroaching on science fiction’s “big idea” territory.

We asked this week’s panelists:

Q: Are SF writers “slacking off” or is science fiction still the genre of “big ideas”? If so, what authors are supplying these ideas for the next generation of scientists and engineers?

Here’s what they said…

Alexis Glynn Latner
Alexis Glynn Latner‘s science fiction novel Hurricane Moon was published by Pyr in 2007. Twenty-three of her novelettes and short stories have been or will be published in science fiction magazines, especially Analog, and horror and mystery anthologies. She also does editing, teaches and coaches creative writing, and works in the Rice University Library.

Possibly neither. The arc of big, epochal, scientific ideas may have run its course in science fiction – having flowed on into nonfiction and reality. In addition to asteroid mining, think about Google as an example. Bruce Sterling remarked at a convention that despite a unitary artificial superintelligence being a big idea in SF, there hasn’t been one invented, but there’s such an amazing, unanticipated thing as the distributed intelligence of Google searching and all.

I don’t think SF writers are slacking – although many on the advice of editors and agents have been writing fantasy because it sells better. Some are creating alloys of SF and fantasy. In the century we’re in now, for a big idea to catch fire with the upcoming scientists and engineers it may have to be not just an an overweening head trip, but a profound heart trip as well.

Allen Steele
Allen M. Steele is the author of eighteen novels and five collections of short fiction; his work has received numerous awards, including three Hugos. His most recent novel is Hex; a young-adult SF novel, Apollo’s Outcasts, will be published by Pyr later this year.

I don’t think SF is suffering from a shortage of big ideas, or authors who are willing to play with them. If the genre seems to currently lack vision, I believe it’s because of constraints imposed by editors and publishers.

Over the last decade, the publishing industry — particularly in the U.S. — has become increasingly obsessed with bestsellers. For the major publishers, it’s no longer enough for an author to write novels that sell enough copies to produce a modest yet meaningful profit over a period of time. What the publishers want instead are big, breakout books that will sell thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of copies in the first few weeks of publication.. These kinds of novels make money fast and therefore please shareholders, so the pressure comes down on editors to produce bestsellers, and they in turn press writers to deliver novels which will have a chance at landing on the bestseller lists.

The easiest and most reliable way to produce a bestseller is to imitate that which is already successful. So if paranormal romance is selling well, then the impetus is to produce lots and lots of paranormal romances. If military space opera is the all the rage, then publish tons of that stuff. If the trend in dystopian young-adult SF has put novels like The Hunger Games series on the bestseller lists, then you can expect to see many more novels very much like The Hunger Games. Last year it was vampires, this year it’s steampunk, and next year it’ll be something else. Run it into the ground, and then move on.

The problem with chasing the bestseller lists is that it pushes aside anything that isn’t in line with current fashion. So that which is original, or at least isn’t repetitive, tends to get shunted into a neglected, unpromoted midlist that’s getting smaller all the time … and science fiction is a genre which has always depended on originality. So the author who writes a novel that doesn’t fit in a bestselling category runs the risk of not having it published, or ignored even if it is. That means authors are being discouraged from doing anything new, but instead produce the same damn thing over and over again.

Fortunately, not all is lost. There are small, independent publishers who aren’t afflicted with Bestseller Fever, and they’re the ones putting out novels that aren’t about gun-toting vampires in love with werewolf detectives who ride zeppelins. The magazines, both print and online, continue to be the place where writers are free to work with new ideas. And the digital publishing revolution is allowing both new and established writers the means by which to publish ebooks that don’t belong to fad du jour. Just the other day I received from one of my colleagues a hard-SF novel that his publisher turned down because it wasn’t “marketable.” I expect it will do well … if it’s noticed by enough readers.

The big-idea SF novel or story isn’t dead. It’s just gone underground.

Charles Stross
Charles Stross‘ first novel, Singularity Sky burst onto the science fiction scene in 2003 and earning Stross a Hugo nomination. Since then he has earned several awards for his novels, and his works Missile Gap and Accelerando are available online. His other novels include Glasshouse, Halting State, Saturn’s Children, Wireless, Rule 34, the books in The Merchant Princes series and the books in The Laundry series. In addition to writing, Stross has worked as a technical author, freelance journalist, programmer, and pharmacist. He holds degrees in Pharmacy and Computer Science, and some of the creatures he created for his Dungeons and Dragons adventures, the Death Knight and Githyanki, were published by TSR in the Fiend Folio.

This question relies on so many implicit underlying assumptions that I feel some dissection is in order before I can try to answer it.

The first unquestioned assumption is the post-18th century Enlightenment concept of progress. This, if anything, is the ideological bedrock underlying “ideas” SF — that Things Can Get Better. Historically, almost all civilisations prior to the Enlightenment ran on the mythology of a distant golden age in the past, which bequeathed us a bunch of moral precepts and firm knowledge about how the world works which we poor degenerates living in the debased relics of a higher civilisation should turn to for guidance. The very concept that we are actually discovering how the universe works, and improving our lives, was a revolutionary rupture with the past — and one that took a long time to sprout any kind of literary or artistic shoots.

The second assumption is that science fiction has ever primarily been a genre of big ideas. I’m not at all sure that this is the case. Certainly fiction with big ideas has found a home within SF, but that’s not the same thing at all! For almost all of its history, most SF has been pulp adventure fiction, conceived and written as escapism — lest we forget, Damon Knight’s original characterisation of space opera as horse opera (the Western) with blasters instead of six-guns and space ships instead of horses still holds water. The big ideas are, if anything, secondary, not to mention exhibiting a tendency to date badly and carry sinister ideological overtones (as William Gibson so brilliantly skewered in his short story “The Gernsback Continuum”).

Calls for more big ideas in SF are generally a political cri de coeur. We might equally imagine a similar essay in the context of mid-sixties Soviet fiction, calling for more fiction about tractors and breakthroughs in agricultural genomics. Whether earnest depictions of young people in space suits wrangling asteroids and bringing home the carbonaceous chondrites actually make *sense* is another matter entirely; I’m inclined to think that it’s a rather implausible future, unless the earnest young people are robots. Tinned apes don’t survive exposure to vacuum and cosmic radiation very well, after all.

But. I have my nagging doubts. Because, despite my cynical pose, I am more than a little sympathetic to Stephenson’s project, because I share his axiomatic belief in the loose constellation of post-Enlightenment values that brought us this idea of progress and constant improvement. If only because when you stop moving you’re dead, and reverting to a late palaeolithic lifestyle looks like it would be a drag, and that’s the most likely alternative long-term future for our species if we burn all the coal and oil, wreck the climate, and turn our back on the Enlightenment’s ideological values.

In recent decades SF has been spinning its wheels. In fact, in the past 30 years the only truly challenging new concepts to come along were cyberpunk and the singularity. Both of which amount to different attempts within the genre to accommodate the first-order implications of computers and networking as the defining technology of the near future (as opposed to rockets! for! everyone! a la “Space Family Stone”) — cyberpunk was the sociological/post new wave SF modelling of a future derived from the 1970s and 1980s weltanschauung, and the singularity was the chew-toy of those members of the hard SF brigade who actually understood computers. There were other movements, true, and possibly more visible to onlookers; urban fantasy and its hybrid offspring (by way of genre romance) the paranormal romance: steampunk (both first, second, and the current third wave varieties): and a huge bloom in alternate history/counterfactuals as much of the rigorous world-building effort that had formerly gone into the near-future space SF field turned sideways and looked for other outlets. But none of these seem to engage with the future in the way hard SF supposedly did in the 1940s to 1960s. What we call “hard SF” today mostly isn’t hard, and isn’t SF: it’s fantasy with nanotech replicators instead of pixie dust and spaceships instead of dragons. Explorations of Singularity teeter dangerously on the precipice of a tumble into Christian apocalyptic eschatology, and in any event beg far too many questions about the nature of intelligence to make a convincing stab at artificial intelligence.

In fact, those people who are doing the “big visionary ideas about the future” SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation. Greg Egan’s wonderful clockwork constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe, fall on the deaf ears of critics who are looking for depth of characterisation, and don’t realize that in his SF the structure of the universe is the character. On Hannu Rajaniemi’s brilliant The Quantum Thief — I have yet to see a single review that even notices the fact that this is the first hard SF novel to examine the impact of quantum cryptography on human society. (That’s a huge idea, but none of the reviewers even noticed it!) And there, over in a corner, is Bruce Sterling, blazing a lonely pioneering trail into the future. Chairman Bruce played out cyberpunk before most of us ever heard of it, invented the New Space Opera in Schismatrix (which nobody appreciated for a couple of decades, until Al Reynolds built a pyrotechnic career atop a more accessible parallel vision of its Mechanist/Shaper future), co-wrote the most interesting hard-SF steampunk novel of all, and got into global climate change in the early 90s. He’s currently about ten years ahead of the curve. If SF was about big innovative visions, he’d need to build an extension to house all his Hugo awards.

So what’s at the root of this problem? Why are the innovative and rigorously extrapolated visions of the future so thin on the ground and so comprehensively ignored?

I’d put it down to us mistaking Sense of Wonder for Innovation. We used to read SF to get the heady high of a big vision, the “eyeball kick” as Rudy Rucker describes it, of seeing something brain-warpingly different and new for the first time. But today you don’t need to read SF to get a sense of wonder high: you can just browse “New Scientist”. We’re living in the frickin’ 21st century. Killer robot drones are assassinating people in the hills of Afghanistan. Our civilisation has been invaded and conquered by the hive intelligences of multinational corporations, directed by the new aristocracy of the 0.1%. There are space probes in orbit around Saturn and en route to Pluto. Surgeons are carrying out face transplants. I have more computing power and data storage in my office than probably the entire world had in 1980. (Definitely than in 1970.) We’re carrying out this Mind Meld via the internet, and if that isn’t a 1980s cyberpunk vision that’s imploded into the present, warts and all, I don’t know what is. Seriously: to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF.

We people of the SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future, and our dirty little secret is that we don’t much like it. And so we retreat into the comfort zones of brass goggles and zeppelins (hey, weren’t airships big in the 1910s-1930s? Why, then, are they such a powerful signifier for Victorian-era alternate fictions?), of sexy vampire-run nightclubs and starship-riding knights-errant. Opening the pages of a modern near-future SF novel now invites a neck-chillingly cold draft of wind from the world we’re trying to escape from.

And so I conclude: we will not inspire anyone with grand visions of a viable future through the medium of escapism. If we want to write inspirational literature with grand visions we need to dive into to the literary mainstream (which is finally rediscovering fabulism) and, adding a light admixture of Enlightenment ideology along the way, start writing the equivalent of those earnest and plausible hyper-realistic tales of Progress through cotton-planting on the shores of the Aral sea.

Do you really want us to do that? I didn’t think so. So let me pose for you a different question, which has been exercising me for some time: If SF’s core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?

Any answers gratefully received.

Daniel Abraham
Daniel Abraham is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author. His work includes the International Horror Guild Award winning and Nebula nominated “Flat Diane” and Hugo nominated “The Cambist and Lord Iron.” His Long Price Quartet novels are published by Tor in the US and Orbit UK, along with editions in half a dozen other languages. Daniel’s latest novels are Leviathan Wakes (which he co-wrote with Ty Franck under the shared pseudonym James A. Covey) and The Dragon’s Path.

Well, let me start by disagreeing with the premise. While there are some points in Stephenson’s article that I think are well taken, “a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an a alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place” isn’t a definition that matches my experience as a reader. Are we saying that Dune, Left Hand of Darkness, Dhalgren, The Stars My Destination, Stranger in a Strange Land, or the Foundation Trilogy are plausible futures driven by technological innovation? That they’re not science fiction? That they’re not good? For that matter, what’s the compelling innovation that informs the (plausible?) alternate realities of Snow Crash?

If anything, looking over the history of science fiction shows that when it comes to accurately predicting technological and scientific innovation and its implications, we’re pretty bad. There is certainly a strain of science fiction that engage more with big intellectual and scientific ideas, but the proposition that the measure of success in science fiction is how well it informs space exploration seems suspect.

That said, I think that tradition of stories that considers big ideas and gets readers excited about the scientific process is absolutely still out there. Ted Chiang is doing stories with a kind of rigor and accessibility that makes them pretty much universally brilliant (and also some non-fiction like his essay “Reasoning About the Body” that I think would be very good food for thought for any up-and-coming scientists or science fiction writers). Scott Westerfeld’s YA vampire novel Peeps is also the best introduction to the logic of parasitology I’ve ever read. Rebecca Stead’s Newberry winning When You Reach Me is a lovely human story and also a great introduction for young readers to the thought problems around time travel. Kim Stanley Robinson is working with extrapolation and hard science in the way that Stephenson seems to be advocating. Going back a few years, Wil McCarthy was not only writing big idea science fiction like To Crush the Moon, but also engaging in the actual big idea science of programmable matter. Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain books are still in print almost two decades after the first one came out. Robert Charles Wilson and Greg Egan are working out alternate realities based on wild cosmological and scientific speculations.

So to recap, on the one hand, that’s a terribly narrow and exclusionary definition of science fiction. And on the other, the relatively small subset of the field that does fit it is alive, robust, putting out good new work and keeping older titles available.

So yeah. Not seeing it.

Maurizio Manzieri
Maurizio Manzieri is a freelance illustrator based in Turin, Italy, who specialises in surreal worlds of the imagination. His artwork has appeared on the covers of the most prestigious magazines of leading Italian and international publishing companies – Mondadori, Longanesi, TEA, Editrice Nord, Fanucci, Dario Flaccovio Editore, Delos Books and, overseas, Interzone, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Putnam/Berkley, Prime Books and Subterranean Press. He has signed contracts giving him exclusive partnerships and allowing him to work in close contact with writers like Tad Williams and Clive Cussler. During the course of his career he has received countless honours, including the Europe Award, the Premio Italia (twice) and, in 2003, the Chesley Award. Several of his works have been periodically chosen for annuals, including Spectrum, The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art.

Today is more and more difficult being able to enter the Hall of Fame of the “big ideas” without falling in a feeling of discomfort. There are several degrees of big ideas, some of them unpractical, some others alluring, unreal…ideas that people has been able to imagine and still waiting to happen, or ideas we didn’t imagine at all and indeed happened… Consider the Internet, for an example! Out of the blue the Internet was among us… and it seems yesterday when Schiaparelli discovered the Mars Channels and Burroughs wrote the John Carter cycle. Now awesome pictures from the Red Planet and the outer space keep constantly arriving on our tablets. It’s quite a challenge to compete with a Universe changing day after day in front of our eyes. It’s a matter of time before we’ll be taking shots in the jungles of a Twin Earth without leaving our planet!

What about science fiction authors? Will they be able now and then to outclass reality? Have they already invented everything? Without forgetting that some great authors are themselves scientists, the reply is… maybe yes, maybe not… Their work and their skillfulness in putting on paper the sense-of-wonder isn’t something everybody is trained to do. Science Fiction will always be the genre of “big ideas” because inspirational to future classes of creative artists and scientists. If we’ll survive our instinct for self-destruction there will be much more ideas in the thousands of years to come, ideas probably alien to a citizen of the 21st century…

In 1955 Fredric Brown published a terrific short story titled “Imagine”. After listing a series of common places in the fantastic literature, from unicorns to spaceships, he writes: “Is there then anything that’s really hard to imagine? Of course there is…Imagine a universe…with a billion, billion, billion suns in it. Imagine a blob of mud whirling madly around one of those suns. Imagine yourself standing on that blob of mud, whirling with it, whirling through time and space to an unknown destination”

Among the current authors giving lymph to my artistic production can be ranked Peter Hamilton, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, Iain Banks. You can dive in their novels and find tons of inspirational ideas each time you turn a page!

Alastair Reynolds – Blue Remembered Earth
Stephen Baxter – Ark
Peter Hamilton – The Naked God

Peter Watts
Peter Watts (Starfish, Maelstrom, Behemoth and Blindsight) is a disgruntled sf writer who has failed to win every major award for which he has ever been nominated. You might be surprised by how pleasant he can be in person, though.

Science fiction’s a pretty big tent; if you’re interested in Inspiration for Engineers, there’s plenty of fresh fodder from both the giants (Benford and Niven’s Bowl of Heaven posits an STL spaceship built out of a star with a demi-Dyson sphere tethered to it like a catcher’s mitt) and the upstarts (can you get more big-idea-y than Karl Schroeder’s Virga books?). I think perhaps the difference may be that engineering was mainly what SF was about, back in those slide-rule days before synaptic rewiring and molecular biology. Rivets and megaprojects dominate the field less now because we’re diving down as well as up, in as well as out. We’ve been mining the wonders of space and the riches of the asteroids and the no-limits indomitability of the Human spirit forever; it’s only been the past couple of decades in which we’ve started to understand the neurological limits of that spirit, the ways it can be hacked, the ways it might interface with harder-edged tools. It’s not that there’s nothing left to say about Big Dumb Objects. It’s just that small smart ones are a vein that hasn’t been mined as extensively, and they’re finally coming into their own. We’re looking inward now not because we’ve grown small and timid, but because at long last we have the tools to look inward; and we see multitudes there.

Like I say, though: big tent. The nuts-and-bolts stuff is still a healthy part of the mix, even if neurogunk and synthebio happen to be getting more press at the moment. This time next year, something else will probably be front and center.

Vampires, maybe. I don’t think anyone’s really done anything with those.

Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds is the author of Blue Remembered Earth, due in June 2012 from ACE books. He is currently working on the sequel to BRE, as well as a Doctor Who novel. He is a former space scientist and is generally upbeat about the state of SF, except on the days when he fancies a good moan about something or other.

SF is a vast, protean thing, of which the part likely to appeal to scientists and engineers looking for the next “big idea” has only ever been a relatively small component. To that end, I don’t really see a problem. For a start, there is still more than enough of that type of “big idea” SF being written – more than I can reasonably keep up with, anyway. SF writers are still engaging with the future, are still excited (and alarmed) by the possibilities – which is exactly the way it has always been. There is always more of this broadly speculative core SF than any one person can reasonably assimilate. The writers who shaped the direction of hard SF twenty or thirty years ago are all still active, and in some cases returning to “big idea” SF after some time away from it. Take a look at the average SF section in a bookstore. While no one would deny that epic fantasy is now dominant, that doesn’t mean that there’s *less* in the way of core SF than there used to be. The slice has not shrunk, it’s just that the cake has got considerably bigger. I’d even argue that the slice is healthier than it’s been for a while. A case in point would be the recent uptick in realistic, forward-thinking novels about the solar system, such as Paul McAuley’s Quiet War sequence, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s eagerly awaited 2312 (eagerly awaited by me, anyway).

That said, I think Stephenson’s venture is a good one – I’m all for it. But I don’t think there’s any particular crisis in SF that needs fixing. SF is doing what it’s always done, which is far more complex and nuanced a thing than can be summed up in a few go-get-’em buzzwords about big visions. As to reality encroaching on SF’s territory – well, isn’t that what it’s always done? Reality encroached on Air Wonder Stories pretty damn comprehensively, from what I remember.

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26 Comments on MIND MELD: Is SF Still The “Big Idea” Genre?

  1. Not to nitpick, but Wilson Tucker coined the phrase “space opera”, not Damon Knight.

  2. Charlie Stross seems quite taken with the idea that I built my career on the back of Schismatrix, so much so that he feels the need to get the word out every few years. Speaking for myself, I’ve always been upfront about my indebtedness to that book – see, for instance, my afterward in Galactic North and the recent appreciation I did for one of the SF monthlies. But I’ve also been open about my indebtedness to Clarke, Delaney, Cordwainer Smith, Philip K Dick, AE Van Vogt, M John Harrison, Iain Banks, Gene Wolfe …and a hundred other writers encountered and consumed in the first thirty-odd years of my life. Isn’t it a trifle reductive, not to mention insulting, to point to a single book and suggest that a writer built their career on the back of it?

    Other than that, I agree entirely with what Charlie says about Sterling.

    • Sorry Al, of course I didn’t intend to imply or say that you’re a one-trick pony, and of course you’ve written a lot of excellent work outside the Revelation Space universe! I’ll try to remember to leave that comment on the shelf in future.

      However, I *will* stand behind “Schismatrix” as one of the great under-recognized masterworks of the field from the 1980s (along with “Islands in the Net” and, er, “Holy Fire” and “Heavy Weather” from the 1990s now I think about it — Bruce has *always* been a decade ahead of the rest of us)!

      • I think it takes at least 10 years for us to “see” what is in the end influential or who is influential. It’s 20/20 hindsight.

        What works being written today will be similarly talked about in 2022 or 2032 as being obviously influential on the writers then? I’d propose that as a Mind Meld question for ME to ask but I don’t think you could come up with any answers more or less valid than others.

        Still, bears thinking about. And is a bit intimidating to this not-a-published-writer.

      • Suspect Schismatrix was the Velvet Underground of mid 80s SF novels. Not many people read it but it had a profound effect on a significant number of those who did.

        • Yes. A book doesn’t have to be widely read NOW, but it can be influential far beyond the number of copies it sells.

          That makes my question even more impossible to answer. It doesn’t have to be a Jordan, a Martin or even a solid midlist writer…

  3. Peter Watts:

    “…Vampires, maybe. I don’t think anyone’s really done anything with those.”

    Wait a second, Peter, *you* did 😉

  4. Ian Murphy // May 23, 2012 at 5:39 am //

    I find it strange that anyone would think an author has built their entire career on the back of a single story. Yes, there are some people who have published very little and had one outstanding success followed by dross. However, they are in the majority and often disappear without trace after a while.

    Over the last three decades of reviewing SF, most authors, at some point or another, reuse ideas or advance theories put forward by those who came before and their peers. Singling out an author whose books are all well written and easily stand on their own, irrespective of whether they are part of a series, makes little sense. If there was a very poor book, slate it but this seems to be more of a running commentary by Stross against someone who writes better and easily outsells him. Sour grapes in the extreme.

    • This may come as a surprise to you, but I *like* Al’s Revelation Space series. It’s a major influential work within the field. You’re reading way too much into a short, off-the-cuff email reply to a question on SF Signal.

  5. WhiteWolf // May 23, 2012 at 7:39 am //

    Did Stross just hump Bruce Sterling’s leg? And then pee on Al Reynolds’ carpet? At the same time?

    Holy moly.

    • Bill Stewart // May 23, 2012 at 1:55 pm //

      Whitewolf, are you calling Charlie an Internet Puppy? That’s been done already….

      • WhiteWolf // May 23, 2012 at 9:18 pm //

        Are you suggesting I’ve made a pyrotechnic post built on top of someone else’s more accessible blog? Because it wasn’t all that pyrotechnic. Perhaps I should build an extension to house my pretentiousness. I was going for levity and humor, not snark.

        This is really a good discussion with some very high quality writers and doesn’t need to be derailed. My apologies.

        Although I still think it was rather funny.

  6. What CR said
    “If we want to write inspirational literature with grand visions we need to dive into to the literary mainstream (which is finally rediscovering fabulism) and, adding a light admixture of Enlightenment ideology along the way, start writing the equivalent of those earnest and plausible hyper-realistic tales of Progress through cotton-planting on the shores of the Aral sea.

    Do you really want us to do that? I didn’t think so.”

    Sounds good to me actually. Why does Science Fiction’s big new ideas have to be more of what’s been done before.? I think new approaches and treatments count as new ideas. If you want good old fashioned hard SF there’s plenty of it in the canon and there’s still plenty of new stuff coming out. It’s all good.

    P.S. I don’t buy the premise that we could usher in the era of space elevators one millisecond faster if only people were writing the right kind of science fiction.

  7. There is a lack of innovation today?

  8. With the breakneck pace of ever-evolving technology, the visionary writing of Arthur C Clarke and Issac Asimov (to name just two) can’t be as cutting edge as what’s cooking in the R&D departments of giant tech firms and tiny startups right now.

    I think science fiction authors (myself included) need to fast-forward our brains a couple of centuries and ask ourselves a lot of “what if” questions about what will be possible in the year 2212 and beyond. And then start writing.

    • WhiteWolf // May 23, 2012 at 10:11 pm //

      How cutting edge are the giant tech firms and tiny startups, as far as how anything they are doing can be applied to SF?

      If you were to poll people and ask what the greatest technological advancements of the last decade have been, they would say the iPhone and social networking sites. I have done zero polling or research to prove that or back it up, but I’ll go out on a limb. The interest in science and technology for the average person is more inward-looking and entertainment or convenience-oriented than anything else. Poll those same people and very few would claim the Kepler telescope or the Large Hadron Collider, or even know what those are. Once again, I have nothing to back that up, but I am reasonably confident in the claim.

      I’ll agree that SF writers need a fast-forward button, and that it is a tough task. But it has been the primary task of SF writers since Verne and Wells got a twinkle in their eyes and a twitch in their writing hands. The more appropriate question, rather than “Is SF still the Big Idea Genre?” might be “Why the hell wouldn’t SF be the Big Idea Genre?”

  9. The more I look at what the other folks in the Meld said and then sit with it myself, the more I’m thinking that the issue is less whether there are big ideas (there clearly are), but to whom they are accessible.

    • WhiteWolf // May 23, 2012 at 9:39 pm //

      Are accessibility and marketability the same thing? We would like to think no, at least most of the time.

      Greg Egan is writing Big Idea SF, but how accessible is it? Then there are writers like Jack McDevitt, whose books are accessible but not in the vein of “Big Idea” SF; they are not grounded in hard science, but certainly not ignorant of it either. Instead, McDevitt draws a reader in with Golden Age-type adventure and broad swaths of cosmic mystery. Sometimes asking Big Questions, and then leaving them unashamedly unanswered, is enough to get a reader’s gears working. Laying a Big SF MacGuffin at the heart of a story is not enough, nor is it (necessarily) accessible to the reader.

      • I’m sure there’s some overlap between marketability and accessibility, but I also don’t think either one is a dirty word. But I was thinking of the stuff I read as a kid — Asimov, Clarke, Niven, Harrison — and more than anything what I remember is that they were *fun*.

        It may say as much about me as it does about the field that I included two YA titles without even thinking about it and no one else did. It seems to me that one of the problems of the big idea science fiction that we’re talking about is that so many of them are for people whose reading experience is already so steeped in big idea science fiction.

  10. Re: Charles Stross and What SF should be doing now — Usurp mainstream literature’s place in dealing with the present. Take Gibson’s lead. We are living in a science fictional world, and mainstream literature does not do it justice. Or take the Long Now Foundations lead (like Stephenson did in Anathem) and tackle the kind of bigger, slower, long-term questions that near SF doesn’t work for. Let’s have more far-future, non-space-opera SF. Or deal more with social questions. I want to read a fresh new SF novel about poverty, or about race, gender, crime, etc. SF could use more sociology. Anyway, these are the sort of things I’d like to see more of on bookstore shelves.

    Re: Greg Egan — I don’t think I’ve read a single thing discussing him that talks about how much his novels are filled not only with mercilessly hard science, and epically mind-blowing ideas, but incredibly lovely moments of humanity. Despite all the criticism I’ve heard about his characters, he is still one of the few SF writer that fully engages my emotions in a mature way. I found Diaspora and Schild’s Ladder incredibly moving. Egan’s characters may be minimally drawn, but he gives serious attention to human questions, and it is the human stuff that is half the reason I think he’s so wonderful. Egan deserves so much more love than he gets. He is not just one of my favorite SF writers, he is one of my favorite artists.

  11. There is no “innovation starvation” at the university where I work, though it may seem that way from the outside looking in. What is happening is that the nature of innovation is changing, and rapidly, too. Collaboration is becoming much more important in all disciplines. The days of involved staff being limited to physics and astronomy are ending.

    Here’s Maybe A Big Idea: what are the consequences of a society, say, 10, 100 times more collaborative than we are now, where the constraints to collaboration (including lack of reward) have been removed? This might include removal of both social and technical constraints.

    These constraints are being removed in the software industry, which is experiencing a Cambrian explosion of innovative tools and methods. This is (IMO) a result of synergy between an idea (FOSS) and a technology (github).

    Stross maybe goes part of the way in Accelerando. I think.

    Perhaps what we’re seeing is invisible innovation. Technical and social advance unaccompanied by incipient or potential explosions. Exploding rockets punctuate advances in innovation with a bang. WordPress allows *anyone* with an internet connection to self-publish. Ruby on Rails is unlikely to make the news, despite reducing web application development by orders of magnitude. Collectively changing the world 140 characters at a time. I claim these are incredible innovations. I’m tremendously grateful to be a bit player on this field.

    More importantly to the principals in this conversation, thank you for your books, and I have a few new authors to check out.

    And whether Mr Stephenson is “right” or “wrong” is much less important than keeping the discussion moving.

  12. Charlie,

    When you listed urban fantasy, steampunk, and alternate history, you left out military sf. Seems to me it fits right in that comfort zone. Did you leave it out because it’s not really a new development? Or maybe because it’s not so large a movement as it so often seems to me to be? Or some other reason?

    Possibly military sf is as much an anti-Enlightenment subgenre as is epic fantasy. It’s pretty firm on its claim that no progress can be made past war.

  13. SF doesn’t have a core message. SF writers do and their messages are manifold. Maybe it sometimes looks like it has a core message because a whole bunch of authors had the same or similar experiences, which produced the same or similar messages. Maybe it sometimes even coalesces around a core message, but that doesn’t mean SF came into existence or currently exists for the sake of whatever it coalesced around in whichever era one most favors. Nor is its sole purpose to supply big ideas and inspiration to scientists and engineers.

    I especially agree with Daniel, Alastair, and Peter. Science Fiction is not a static, strictly defined thing that exists independently of our own existences, and which may die if it isn’t fed particular kinds of ideas. No. We are Science Fiction. Science Fiction is us. It is a collective that exists for the sake of the authors and readers who enjoy it, whichever way they enjoy it. Therefore, it can never lose relevance. It has been and always will be a reflection of our experiences, our knowledge, our passions. The more of us there are and the more varied our voices, the more SF will evolve to be something bigger and more inclusive from what it was in bygone days. That has never been a problem. SF and we will be no worse because of that.

    Thanks to everyone who participated in this article, and to the authors who offered their thoughts and insights. I enjoyed the read and ruminations.

  14. watcher // May 26, 2012 at 7:06 pm //

    This UK-based “rediscovery” of Schismatrix is amusing. I recall the “taste makers” big in the 80s, such as the Daves Wingrove and Langford, shouting to all and sundry about what a remarkable and sadly out of print work was Schismatrix. Well, that and Involution Ocean.

  15. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a fun adventure set in space. Big ideas are great, but those who seek primarily to entertain are not “slacking off”.

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