... right now if you ask me about science fiction I’d suggest it was burnt down to the ground. Nuked back to year zero so we can all start again. It’s just, largely, lost its way. It's stopped being about ideas, the present or even the future and has just become another slack-jawed asset of the escapist entertainment industry.
Such are the words of SF author Tim Maughan, and I think I agree with him — and with Michael Moorcock, also quoted in the piece:
... our day-to-day world has in lots of key ways become science-fictional. No, we didn’t get personal jetpacks, but we’ve got the internet and mobile phones. How do we write about this? The realistic novel in its strictest sense doesn’t seem equal to the task, but nor funnily enough does science fiction. Solution? As ever, think about stuff, then try stuff, see what works.
That's more or less the approach I've been advocating: get SF and straight-fic (so to speak) to teach each other the right lessons. Get the former to pay a little more attention to human beings as they actually are; get the latter to give more cred to the way things could be. Get a little ecumenical accord going, willya?
I am leery, however, of creating a formal program out of these impulses, something to describe as a Movement with a list of undersigned and a slogan in Latin on the letterhead. That might just be a reflection of my reflexive resistance to sticking a hard-and-fast label onto things, since the minute you label something it stops becoming a living thing and becomes just another category into which you can consign (or discard) other things.
The ideal cure for SF and litfic's mutual hardening of the arteries does not seem to be a specific set of directives, but rather "votes cast in the form of individual books," as Dale Peck put it in his own essay on a similar problem. No one book alone will remake SF, or literature, but each one in its own way can point a bit further up the road we need to be walking.
My current joke about Pacific Rim (which all things considered, I am looking forward to) goes something like this:
Guillermo del Toro couldn't make an H.P. Lovecraft film (R-rated, natch) because no one wanted to back the project. He couldn't make a Godzilla film because someone else was already on that job. And he couldn't make a Neon Genesis Evangelion movie because that project's been stuck in development hell for god knows how long now.¹ So he got Warner Brothers to give him the money to make a combination of all three!
That said, why is it that every time I see trailers or posters for Pacific Rim, I keep saying to myself, "This film is going to tank bigtime"?Read more
Had a conversation yesterday with some other SF fans about the problem of folks who live in a world where they have immediate access to the whole history of a given genre — to just about everything, really — and don't avail themselves of it. Fewer people reading SF know names like Clarke or Asimov; I get the impression most people reading "SF" today think it's "all the stuff on bookshelves with the names of video games and TV shows and movies on them".
That brought to mind a bitter question: Why would people want to try and keep up with the backlog of classic movies, books, etc., which they have no emotional connection to in the first place, when they can just sit back and bathe in the firehose of what's being released anew every day, every week? Not everyone who watches a lot of movies is a lover of movies; some of them are just there because they want something moving in front of them on Friday night.
Now, I can stomach such passivity from rank-and-file audiences. I can't choke it down when it's the behavior of people who call themselves creators. I always felt a big part of the point of being an artist of any kind was to also be a student of your chosen art form. Not just in the sense of examining the stuff produced in the field before you, but to look at as much of it as possible, and to understand why and to what end things were done that way.
Some projection on my part may be at work here. This is why I always felt books on how to write were unintentionally misleading or limiting: they can give you a recipe, but that doesn't make you into a chef. The books that made the most difference to me were the ones that were about writers rather than writing per se — and, of course, the books by those same people. By studying them, I felt like I was better able to develop a program for how my own work had to evolve than if I had simply been handed a checklist and told to follow it.
If we spent the last thirty years inspired by what we saw in Star Trek, what’s going to inspire us for the next thirty? If Hollywood’s fixated on the now, then the only futurism we have is funded by Silicon Valley venture capitalists and massive tech companies.
And that's exactly the same complaint I've made myself.
Actually, I cast my net even wider, and demanded that SF not simply be content with showing us the gadgetry of the future. Anyone can do that now, and they're not even obliged to do it particularly well for it to be salable.
What's far harder is to imagine the human being of the future. All these "futuristic" toys tell me nothing about the kinds of human beings that would be wielding them — or, rather, it tells me that the human beings using them would be even duller and more materialistic than the ones we have now. That's not a future I want.
SF is always a product of its moment in time, but that should be a constraint to be pushed against and transcended, not capitulated to. But when you have technocrats like J.J. Abrams in charge, people who are hired not to be imaginative and visionary but to simply use their skills to maximize the profitability of a franchise, I'm not sure anything else is possible.
Steve wonders if the more traditional formats for delivering SF (prose, video) are the best ones:
... as I read a solid SF novel and muse over what forms work, it seems apparent to me that the forms of novels with a physical footprint and singular/episodic video (television shows, but maybe online) are the best methods at this time.
By this, he means in comparison to "new media" like webcomics and such. I agree with this idea up to a point, but only so far, for a couple of reasons. (Addendum: Rob Barba has his own reply here, which is well worth reading.)Read more
it is an urgent task of contemporary American fiction, whose characteristic products are books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things — the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons! — but do not know a single human being. Such books, congested and anxious, resemble the millipede mentioned by Meyrink, which, when it realizes it has a thousand legs, is suddenly unable to move an inch.
The first time I read these words, I couldn't help but think of the same problem facing SF. If anything, SF has this issue, only even more acutely. It has hypotheses about terraforming, quantum computing, faster than light travel, et any number of als, but it has the worst time thinking about how a single genuine human being who is not an authorial stand-in would live with such things. The shining exceptions get little recognition in either SF or mainstream circles, since they break unspoken rules for both domains.
The other day I was talking to a friend, doing my usual back-of-hand-to-forehead routine about SF&F, and out came this bit: "I feel like the whole way we go about exploring ideas in SF and fantasy these days is so depersonalized. Not [just] in the sense that there are no characters, etc., but in the sense that there is none of us, ourselves."
The first germ of this complaint sprouted back when I read Harlan Ellison's discussion of Charly a/k/a Flowers for Algernon. The book embodied for him a major, ongoing complaint he'd had about SF — the way the genre had consistently failed to deliver characters worthy of being remembered. Here we have a Paul Atreides, there an Ender Wiggin, but for the most part character in SF is relegated to the back seat, if not the glove compartment, in favor of concept and gadget. It took TV and movies to deliver memorable characters for SF, in big part because you have to go big or go home with such things in those media.Read more
... my theory is we need the kind of SF that inspires people to explore science and technology and invent new things. Good SF gives us ideas to aim for as it imagines solutions we want in some relatively conceivable manner, or it extrapolates on existing technology that gives us a rough idea of where to go and how to get there. Having these goals and at least vague directions, we get inspired to do things with science and technology.
Steve and I have been going back and forth about these issues (1,2,3) for some time now. My feeling is that every time we start talking about a concept of the future that revolves around what to invent or how to invent it, we are doomed to fall short if we don't think first and foremost about who is going to be inventing those things and why — what kind of human being. The real things we need to be thinking about inventing are not gadgetry or infrastructures. They will be new ways of living, of which those gadgets or infrastructures will play a major role.Read more