I had to comment on this post, and not just because Steven plugs my Flight of the Vajra along the way:
... a lot of the modern fantasy and urban fantasy leaves me cold. Warmed over chosen-one plots, half-baked conspiracies, parades of demons and vampires and the usual stuff. A core that is often about cycles and with no sense of agency, and repetitious. Throw that mess into the Hollywood blender and . . . yech. No wonder people are bored.
... There’s no sense of agency, of building, of making. ... What I miss from SF is a sense of building a future, of wonder, of construction, of creation, of agency.
Steven goes on to cite how Pacific Rim had a little of that, and I agree there: I enjoyed the worldbuilding in the movie, to the extent that it rather paradoxically made the background of the film more interesting than the foreground.
What's clear to me, though, is how it's too easy to write SF and fantasy that are made out of recycled parts of other SF and fantasy — in big part because the writers of said works end up being trained, unwittingly, to do just that. There's no real disincentive to write SF that blithely recycles its forebears, because the people who read it, create it, edit it, and market it have all been trained to expect nothing more than such recastings.
I like it most when SF&F shows us people making things, not just people making things. Meaning also that the things we do creatively transform us as people, and any work about the act of creation must be informed by such an insight. If the only examples of how creativity works we have to draw on are our own — or the shorthand examples from a previous generation of SF&F — then our understanding of what it is or why we do it will be correspondingly limited.
This hit me most directly when I read Kurosawa's Something Like An Autobiography and saw the physical and psychological toll making some of those movies — especially Rashōmon — had on him. He could have quit and gone back to painting at any time, and he did drop back to that when his eyesight had deteriorated particularly badly and he couldn't find work as a director for some years, but in the end, though, he must have felt there was a value beyond description in accomplishing such things. The TV series that was created to document his life's work was entitled It Is Wonderful To Create, and there is a truth to his understanding of the subject that makes such a title seem less like a homily and more like an exaltation, an acknowledgment of a personal transcendency.
The balance between the people and the stuff is tough to get right, because it requires a sense of what people are actually like outside of the self-limiting worlds of both SF&F's pulp-entertainment origins and straight-up litfic's equally constraining spiritual snobbism. So writers do justice to one or the other — people or stuff — because it's easy to pick one and just march forward from there. But they rarely feel it's their duty to learn about what's going on outside their bubble. I suspect I haven't gotten it right, either, and maybe I never will, but I'm at least wrestling with that particular beast.
Random example. A lot of people loved Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars books because they had the "build something" aesthetic. They were about the terraforming of a whole planet! How's that not count as "building something"? But the books themselves left me cold, in big part because they were so atrociously written that I could barely stand to turn the pages. Robinson knew his Mars and his terraforming — actually, there's arguments about how well he knew any of that, but never mind — but it's plain he doesn't know people apart from what he's read in other, even less worthwhile SF. (As for his 2312, I'll say only this: don't go there.)
I suspect it seems unhip of me, or maybe just inappropriate, to dump on SF&F for not being something it was never intended to be. But maybe that's just the problem. At their very best, these books — and movies, and everything else — can be things that simply aren't possible in other domains. Why pass up that possibility in favor of just creating something that amounts to another can of beans on a shelf? Well, if that's what you want, no stopping you, I guess. But some of us want more, and are prepared to do what it takes to bring it into existence.
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Other Lives Of The Mind