There’s been a few posts lately about science fiction not being cutting edge like it used to be and falling behind the progress made in literary science fiction. David Hebblewhite for instance states:
“But, when I look at genre sf published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents (to literary fiction) emerging. I wish I could. All in all, though, my reading is showing me that sf has a lot of catching up to do.”
He states that the New Weird movement typified by the emergence of the likes of China Mieville was the last time science fiction had that progressive nature.
I have in previous blogs stated that part of the problem is that publishers have to make sufficient profit to stay in business, which means they have to publish what they think will sell sufficient copies to get their money back. With the recession there has been a natural tendency to sell variants on what has successfully sold in the past, which means cutting edge science fiction, the really new and exciting stuff, does not get an on the shelf place in bookshops. But it appears the literary fiction has done this. So why doesn’t science fiction?
Nina Allan tends to some extent to agree with him. She argues that the lack of the cutting edge science fiction is showing up with a lack of innovative writing techniques. There I would tend to agree with her.
There are two reasons why people would write in innovative forms. The first is to see how form can change the mood of the story content, to give a richness and hidden depth to the writing. The form usually resonates with the content, but there exceptions that indicate some form of literally deception is going on. The second is because the english language that we all know and love is totally inadequate to get new ideas across. Simple examples include coming up with new words to cover new concepts. I’ve had to do this quite a few times now and believe, I’ve scoured the dictionaries to find the right word and it just did not exist.
Whilst I have seen some literally mood-inducing techniques being written and published, there is a distinct lack of the latter type of innovative writing, the one where the ideas push to change the language.
Ian Sales makes an interesting point. Science fiction is stuck with the acceptance of past tropes. Writers are not examining science fiction assumptions. I know some of them have been found wanting when science has stepped in to say they are not true, but they are still written about as if nothing has changed. We are living with a science fiction that was written in the past to be read in the past, not in the here and now. He, like me above, argues that this is in part due to the commercial nature of science fiction publication today.
O.K. This is where we are at at the moment. Can anything be done about it?
Well, let’s look at the underlying reasons for why science fiction was written in the past. They included:
- Working the impact of new technology on the way we live
- Examining the current social and political issues of our day through extrapolation into the future or on another world
- ‘Experiencing’ places that we ourselves will never be able to reach through the means of fantastical journeys
Each of these reasons has in general one of two endings for the characters. The first is to reject the new order they are dealing with by expounding in a fictional sense on why it is not a good idea, which in general is not something that is that obvious (it’s usually a story about discovering why it is such a bad idea). The second it to embrace the new order and see how it changes the characters.
New technology that we can can perceive the impact of is becoming less abrupt in our lives. Think of home computers. They were such a change to the way our lives ran when they first became affordable in the 1980s. Now it’s a case of upgrade this or change the choices in that. The difference is less perceptible for the upgrades than for the introduction of home computers. Worse, we have a fairly good idea of how they are going to improve int he future as we’ve identified how the upgrades are trending. So we know what’s going to happen. It’s become boringly predictable.
Whoa… that can’t be right. Technology is making huge progress – some at the early stages e.g. Alcubierre’s Drive, some at the later stages – well on the way to curing heart disease and loads between. But I hear you say, a lot of this has been written about before in science fiction.
Some, but far from all. What for instance is the impact of the different types of calculation that the faster quantum computing offers us? It’ll major on some problems and leave others untouched. It’ll make a quite a difference to which type of problems we solve and what the impact of that lob sided bias in problem-solving has on society. Has anyone written about this? Or what about cold fusion becoming a reality and its reliance on say palladium. What effects with mining this mineral have on our world? I won’t go on, but there are loads more like that – and they all have a big impact on the way society will evolve. But we’ve not seen them in the science fiction. Why?
My guess, is that it’s hard to research the subject in the first place. Hands up who knows about quantum computing? Not all that many of you, are there? So it just doesn’t get written about!
Social and Political Developments:
The human is changing, imperceptibly from year to year. We are growing taller and bigger in other ways. The wiring in our brains are changing to different stimuli. We are changing our diets, which has an impact on our health and moods.
But who amongst the science fiction writers has picked up on these changes, extrapolated them to see what could happen and written a novel to highlight the changes?
In the past we had authors like H G Wells and their novels like The Time Machine to highlight potential extremes of society.
What will happen to sexuality if the planet gets hotter? Will we go round with even less clothes and what happens under those circumstances?
What happens if we are forced through epidemics or climate change to think and act as global race? For all its ills, competitiveness between nations produced societal progress in its various guises.
The trouble is we are now living in such a ‘politically correct’ society that controversy is avoided, certainly if you are publisher wanting to sell books.
Experiencing New Places:
Earth is now well mapped and measured. Yes there are still a few surprises, but they tend to be on the small scale.
So that leaves the planets etc. Again we know an awful lot about them, and therefore they are more predictable in their nature than when the golden age science fiction was being written. It takes work to get the facts straight. Work that professional writers don’t have the time for to read up and digest. If you look around at the harder end of science fiction writers today, you’ll see most of them have come from specialist backgrounds. Alastair Reynolds did an astrophysics doctorate and worked at ESA. Geoffrey Landis works at NASA. Charles Stross and John Meaney have expertise in information and computing technology, from which they can develop ‘computing worlds’.
And even if you come up with a new world, it has to be consistent with the laws of science. And that is hard work that takes time, which detracts from income. No wonder a lot of writers, who don’t have relevant areas of expertise, have fled to worlds of fantasy.
So all the major themes in science fiction are suffering from one problem or another, which means cutting edge science fiction is becoming less available on the bookshelves.
Is there anything that can be done about it? Apart from a few exceptions to the rule, can we have progressive science fiction?