THE OVERWHELMING SENSE ONE GETS, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. Not so much physical exhaustion (though it is more tiring than reading a bunch of short stories really has any right to be); it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion. In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them. ... Asimov’s [robot] stories can still entertain, and [Elizabeth] Bear’s story ["Dolly"] is much the same, but to find that one of what we are told are the best stories of 2011 is ploughing a furrow that is more than seventy years old is somehow dispiriting.
There is much meat in the article, not least of which being the insight that a story needs to be more than just called SF to be SF. I also nodded at the notion of how SF is simply falling back on the tropes of fantasy as a way of evoking a future where "things are so different that there is no connection with the experiences and perceptions of our present."
This was something I myself mused over in the early days of writing Flight of the Vajra. I had to split the difference between the future I wanted to talk about and the present that I was writing for; if I leaned too far forward, I'd run the risk of losing everyone. I'll leave it to the reader to determine if I struck that balance.
Likewise, I was worried about falling into another trap described here: "... if anything can happen, then what is the consequence of any action? Any time the plot might put our central characters in jeopardy, the author is free to invent some new weirdness—and with one bound, they are all free." I saw two ways to avoid that: give the weirdness certain rules (and if you aim to break them, give us some advance way of picking up on this), and bind the use of those rules tightly to the personalities of all involved. In a future where people can theoretically do anything, much of what they do, or do not do, is going to be dictated by the people themselves — their personal proclivities, their social inclinations, and so on. And again, I'll leave it to the reader to judge if I pulled that off properly.
The one thing I felt I did not want to do with this book was compound, or repeat, many of the same mistakes and limitations I felt rising like swamp gas from the pages of so many of the other books I'd been reading to get caught up on SF. The "new space opera", as described in the essay, is roughly where Vajra would fit, but everything I saw sporting that label seemed, if anything, to be as beholden to the Bad Old Space Opera that the new one had been allegedly devised to eclipse.
Somewhere early on I said to myself: I don't read about "the future" in SF because I want a forensically precise depiction of what it might be, or because I want to just recapitulate my existing real-world sense of unease and apprehension about the future. I want the author to be empathetic with my unease and apprehension, to express sympathy for it through their work. They do not have to assure me that everything will be all right; they only have to give me the sense that I am not alone with my feelings, and to give me human models through which I can come to a greater understanding of such feelings. (Philip K. Dick did this for feelings of paranoia and numinosity.) I want his future to be fascinating and absorbing to me, not simply aloof and confusing. I hope whatever I do, I capture at least a sliver of that sensibility.
In that spirit, I suspect the best advice for the SF author (and, in turn, myself) would come from Karlheinz Stockhausen: "I demand two things from a composer: invention, and that he astonish me."
Other Lives Of The Mind