There is a certain inevitability about things – like once the monetary support for research being done on the International Space Station starts drying up, it is inevitable that space tourists will be invited aboard. Once the number of space-goers reaches a certain level per year, a space elevator will be built because it becomes cheaper overall. Once the realisation dawns that it is cheaper to mine asteroids for rare earth minerals rather than recover the minutest bit with great difficulty, space mining missions will start up. It’s all a consequence of need, or if you want it translated, monetary need.
There is a certain inevitability about where science fiction is going. I’m not talking about the revisiting and refreshing old stories, but rather what new things are happening in science fiction. To do that we have to a certain extent look at what happened in the past. Here is a graphic of what I call the big shifts in science fiction during the last hundred years (note the bottom line is not to time scale).
Followers of this blog will have seen a similar graphic before – and a lot of it is generally accepted by the science fiction community. What is new is that I have added the top three bars – literary SF and the two question marks. The last two are perfectly understandable. But literary SF?
What about the slew of dystopian novels we’ve recently hard? Well, they tend to be adventures, or highlighting the impact of climate change or some other natural disaster which means they really belong to the Classic Period. So, they’re in the main a revamp from past movements.
Back to literary SF. Yes there have been the occasional attempts at literary SF during the decades, but it is only comparatively recently that there’s been the feeling that for an SF novel to be good, it has to be literary. You only need to look at what happened to the likes of Interzone.
Let’s be fair to literary SF – it has brought the standard of writing up considerably. Sure, the standard continues to improve. And therein lies the current science fiction problem. The need for literary science fiction precludes those writers who cannot yet write to that standard. Inevitably, a lot will be put off by having one story after another rejected because its writing is not super-perfect. These are the people who come to the genre with fresh ideas and fresh hitherto unthought of worlds. They are the ones who will breath fresh live into this venerable genre. Yet, they are continually turned away. You only need to look at the history of writers like Jeff Noon to see this happening – though he has been lucky in that he made his name before literary SF took its stranglehold on the genre and therefore has been able to use his kudos to get new novels out there.
In the meantime, we have seen a culture of space opera novelists develop. Their novels tend to published by small presses or are self-published. Look at the history of Andy Weir. The Martian was initially a set of short stories he wrote on his blog – until the publishers noticed there was a lot of interest in his work and thought they could make a profit out of publishing his novel.
I see no abatement in the space opera movement. If anything it is growing. I think this is in part encouraged by the easing of access to space, like having space tourist on the international space station, and the development of the Skylon and other spaceplanes.
With this fuelling of interest comes another opportunity. We, as a race, are going to need some innovative thinking if we are to make planetfall on Mars, Callisto, Enceladus etc. Our technology is not yet up to dealing with the radiation or the damage caused by lack of gravity that comes from the anticipated long journey times. How are we going to deal with these problems? What are the consequences? Etc.
This needs the progressive science fiction writers to come to the fore, take the lead, be the go-to authors. These are the writers who point the way to where society might go in the future in a pragmatic, extrapolative and innovative way.
And they will come, because there is a whole caboodle of as yet inventions that are waiting to be suggested.
Don’t believe me?
How many times have said to myself that is a crazy idea to put into a science fiction story, only to eventually realise that if I did this or that to said crazy idea, it becomes distinctly feasible? (I do have a track record for putting up suggestions for inventions, only to find quite a few years later, someone else has made them into reality – so I know what I’m talking about here.)
The answer is far too many. Which means more progressive science fiction writers are coming.
They only have to get past the literary SF hurdle mentioned above. Worst case scenario, is we progressive science fiction writers can out-wait the literary SF movement. What we have to say won’t go away. What the literary SF movement has to say will exhaust itself in due course. And then the progressives can fill the vacuum they leave behind.
Currently the schism between literary SF and space opera/progressive SF continues. Time is not on the side of the literary SF.
In the meantime, does anyone know why the dimensions forces work in get fewer the smaller the physical artefacts become? For instance the gluons of the strong force act in a 1-dimensional sense. The weak force that acts on electrons is kind of 2-dimensional. And gravity and electromagnetism that act over long distances act in three dimensions. This has been begging me – and incidentally, this question is a good source of ideas! You just can’t keep a progressive science fiction writer down!