Traditionalism of Science Fiction

In general, science fiction has become far too traditional for my liking.

Think about it… what new themes and ideas have we had since the 1980s? At least then we had William Gibson start the cyberpunk movement and Larry Niven come up with his Ringworld and Integral Trees.

Can we say the same for the last two decades?

Um… err… precisely.

I’ve tried to bring new ideas to the fore. The idea of self-learning software and how its struggle to get a grip of dealing with its surroundings (see Agents of Repair and the C.A.T. series) is one. How to develop a natural way to survive underwater (see Cold Pressure) is another. How humans can view 3-D graphics is a third (see Getting There).

But those interested in reading this kind of science fiction are small in number compared to those wanting to read other sub-genres.

We even see this effect in the film industry. Star Trek, whilst admittedly good entertainment, still works on the science principles that were developed for the first series. Basically, its science is stuck in the time bubble of the 1960s imagination. The Terminator series has a similar time bubble for the 1980s. We are getting rehashes of old TV series e.g. The Tomorrow People.

Of course there are exceptions. There is the TV series, Person of Interest. But the ratings have I understand not been brilliant and hence it being moved to less favoured time slots. Then there was the TV series, Flash Forward. Now that did get a lot of interest. But these are the exceptions.

Why is this happening?

  1. Well, those in the golden age of science fiction and before, basically had a clean slate to write on. The ideas had to be invented; they could not be rehashed from what other authors previously wrote. We have the space opera of E.E. Smith, the robots of Isaac Asimov and hollowed-out spaceships, like Rama, of Arthur C Clarke.
  2. Also the science fiction writers have to learn their craft. In one sense it’s easier for them as they can take previous themes and redo them in their own voice / style. It’s only natural for them to offer these stories to the publishers.
  3. The public and hence the publishers reacting to their wishes want a ‘guaranteed good read’, which usually means a variant of what they already know about
  4. People as a rule don’t like change. So anything new tends to be treated with caution.
  5. Science as a subject of interest has become so vast that for many people it is difficult to spot what is a new idea amongst those that have come before. So they don’t have chance to appreciate what is new when they see it.
  6. A lot of writers are being forced to churn out stories at such a pace that they don’t have time to sit back to search for / come up with new ideas.

There are of course exceptions today, like Greg Egan and John Meaney, but they are, because of some of the reasons above,  not getting the buy-in from the public that authors in other sub-genres are getting. You only need to look at the publicity campaigns for their books to see this (given that the publishing houses respond to where they think the profit will be).

Can anything be done about this?

Maybe. The first step is to categorise what ideas have gone on in the past. We can start with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and move forward from there. (O.K., some of you are going to add various pre-1800 voyage to the moon stories). It is a vast field to cover and how would you set up the structure to start with? I know of the Ward-Shelley diagram that takes science fiction through to 2009, but that deals with significant titles, rather than ideas.

But it would act as a starting point for the exploration of how to put the structure together, wouldn’t it? To know what we’ve done so we can move forward… into the unknown.

 

 

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4 Comments »

  1. 1

    I can see the problem. How exciting is it to write about neutrinos and gravitons? Mobile apps? Cancer cures? The truth is there hasn’t been any huge new discoveries for some time, so even new advancements are things we’ve already written about. Unless someone has a startling new scientific theory about the afterlife or God, I can’t foresee anything that’s going to rock our world for a while. The last few centuries we had several mind-altering, reality-changing breakthroughs. Now it feels more like we’re just fine-tuning things.

    • 2

      Welcome Judy,

      Thanks for the comment. I can see where you are coming from and to some extent I have to agree with you. There is a slight but… whilst a new ‘fundamental law of physics’ hasn’t been discovered for quite some time, there’s loads and loads of engineering developments going on.

      Some day I suspect they’ll put a system together that will really make a fundamental difference to the way we live. Predicting such disruptive technologies is difficult at best, nigh impossible at worst. There is room for such predictions being developed and used in science fiction… I’ve got a story subbed at the moment with just such a prediction – I just wish the editor concerned would hurry up and make a decision on whether he wants it or not…

      But I grant you these opportunities are few and far between.

  2. 3

    This has been bothering me as well. Perhaps a deeper study of the history of science fiction is warranted.

  3. 4

    Hello James and welcome to my blog.
    Absolutely. I keep going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Last Man, Jules Vernes’ fantastic voyages and H G Wells’ science fiction novels – The Time Machine, Dr Moreau’s Island, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man as a fundamental basis. There’s no computers (that came with E M Forsters’ The Machine Stops published in 1909) and no deep space travel that I know of.


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