What makes good science fiction these days?
Indeed, what made good science fiction in the past and what lessons can we learn from that?
Let’s list some of the accepted classics that are read and reread even today:
- Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
- 20,000 Leagues under the Sea – Jules Verne
- The Time Machine – H G Wells
- The Invisible Man – H G Wells
- The Island of Doctor Moreau – H G Wells
- The War of the Worlds – H G Wells
- The Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon
- The Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon
- The Caves of Steel – Isaac Asimov
- Foundation – Isaac Asimov
- Childhood’s End – Arthur C Clarke
- Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C Clarke
…and of course I could go on. But I notice that all these novels have one attribute in common – a fundamental cosmos-shattering idea at the time of writing.
Have we seen anything similar in recent years?
Well, I think Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and Iain M Banks’ Culture Series have deep significant aspects to them. So I would say yes to the question.
Could there be more?
This is where I really do hesitate. There are ideas out there of similar imagination and significance. It’s just I do not believe the publishing industry has nerve to go for something that big. After all, their main aim is to make a big enough profit to stay in business, and in a culture of recession and austerity that we are seeing at the moment, even more so.
But there is another common aspect to the classic novels I’ve mentioned above. Each and every one of them was influenced by knowledge and factors of circumstance outside of science fiction. A good example is that Frankenstein would never have come into being if it were not for a bet. Another good example is the Isaac Asimov robot series came about as a result of John Campbell pushing for the laws of robotics. So if there is one of those outside influences lurking in the background, there may be hope yet.
But as to what makes good science fiction these days? To me, it’s usually a mix and match of the great ideas in novel ways. After all, did not Asimov himself combine his Robot series with his Foundation series? Yes, they are interesting in themselves, but they do not have the draw of the classics. Nevertheless, this is what is considered good science fiction these days.
So in comparison to the past science fiction, we are falling behind the real hopes of the readership, which is why, I suspect, some people say science fiction is dying.
I suspect this has been recognised by Tor, which is why I suspect they are wanting to push the novella. They have a call out for unsolicited submissions here. They are hoping to boost the science fiction side of things by using the natural advantages of the novella length. To quote Robert Silverberg:
it allows for more extended development of theme and character than does the short story, without making the elaborate structural demands of the full-length book. Thus it provides an intense, detailed exploration of its subject, providing to some degree both the concentrated focus of the short story and the broad scope of the novel.
It will be interesting to see how the Tor novella initiative pans out.