The Future of Science Fiction

I recently received of copy of a book published by the British Science Fiction Association, called British Science Fiction and Fantasy.  It was compiled by Paul Kincaid and Niall Narrison, and is a survey of the state of these two genres, based on interviews with authors.

I was interested in some comments from  Charles Stross (on page 169) in which he observes that the great weakness of SF is that:

…it is getting close to a century old.  Most art forms do not survive the life expectancy of their founders, while retaining their initial vibrancy and openness; by the third generation,  most of the active practitioners are “second artists”, recyling standard clichéd tropes and running variations on the classics.  Comforting, reassuring classics  – which are the trump of death to an art form based on cognitive dissonance and a sense of wonder.

I agree with him that it would indeed be ‘the trump of death’ to try and endlessly recreate the science fiction of a previous generation.  But I increasingly think that it is mistaken to think of science fiction as ‘a genre’ or ‘an art form’ (singular).   Think of  Orwell’s 1984, Ballard’s  Terminal Beach, a Star Wars movie,  Dan Dare, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, District 9…   Are they really all the same genre?  Hardly.  But they are all science fiction as I would define it.

Rather than think of SF as a genre, perhaps we should think of it as a resource which can be used for many different purposes, as a pack of playing cards can be used for games from Bridge, to Poker, to Canasta to Snap and Old Maid.  SF’s continuing value as a means of telling stories and exploring ideas is illustrated by the frequency with which authors who don’t think of themselves as SF writers nevertheless make use of it (Orwell is a case in point, but see also Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.D. James, Doris Lessing etc etc.)

Stross is rather sniffy about this sort of thing.  He speaks of SF being ‘colonized by backpackers from the literary faculty, who appropriate the contents of the [SF] toy chest’.   But surely it is precisely the concern to cling onto our toys, to be pure,  to discourage miscegenation, which lead to the kind of death by staleness and repetition that he himself warns about?

5 thoughts on “The Future of Science Fiction”

  1. Well now. There are stories in other genres that make use of an SF setting or toolkit to tell a different story and those, likely, make up the majority of what passes for SF, but then there are those stories that are based on, revolve around, and are focused on SF issues to the extent that there is no “other genre” lurking beneath the surface, or if there is, then *it’s* toolkit is used to tell what is, essentially, a SF story. Cut away the SF or try to replace it with another setting/toolkit and you are left with a story that makes no sense or no story at all. A lot of hard SF falls into this category, although not exclusively – e.g. Blindsight by Peter Watts or Vast by Linda Nagata. There’s no western, war story, romance or horror lurking under the cover there, and yet those books are among the most cutting edge and sensawunda-filled stuff out there at the moment.

    And those backpackers… ugh. Their SF, when it happens, is usually a rehash of stale and overdone stories that they are simply not familiar with since they are not, actually, SF writers and thus did not do their homework.

  2. I liked Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I suppose he’s an example of a ‘backpacker’? Ishiguro doesn’t see the book as SF, and it doesn’t feel like SF, but it is set in a world where clones are raised to provide organs for transplants. Is it ‘really’ SF, who cares? But its a good book (not perfect, but good), which makes use of an old and familiar SF idea to tell a new story.

    1984, on the other hand definitely is SF. It’s set in the future (or was when it was written), it depicts a society radically different from our own, with new technology and new social structures. This radically different world is not simply backdrop, it is the point of the story. Without it there would indeed be no story at all. The world is one of the two main characters (the other being Winston Smith). So it really is SF, even though not marketed as such, in the same general ballpark as works of sociological SF such as, say,The Moon as a Harsh Mistress (a favourite from my childhood). Is it the same genre as a hard SF novel, though?

    Really it is just a matter of how you define words like ‘genre’. But to me the important thing is whether a book works, not whether or not it fits into this or that pigeonhole.

  3. I agree that the best SF stories are ones in which the scientific device is integral to the story. Nevertheless, most science in SF is total nonsense. At best, it’s an extrapolative gedanken experiment (FTL, stable wormholes, lifeforms on neutron stars, gender shifts at will…). What SF can convey is the liking for science that can excite youngsters enough to become scientists. Or the dislike for it.

    Further explorations of this topic:

    The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction Double Helix.pdf

    SF Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

  4. In the days before Gilgamesh, humankind was just beginning to to use the tools of domestication. We still have not successfully learned how to use them and I suspect they have an evolutionary role as stimuli – we have not successfully adapted to them. If we had, we would all today be a part of the first original civilization. Homo sapiens is not a creature that can be civilized for our sentience premeditated in survival skills & psychology of hunter-gatherer units. This is why the the SF ‘genre’ appears played-out – all the different ‘ways’ applied to homo sapiens do not match reality… Orwell does. Blade Runner does. Dystopia does. Apocalyptic civilizational crash does with a slow die-off of technology and population afterwards. Why? These themes match history and our psychology. Star Trek does not… If it did, we would not find funds for 30,000 drones to spy on Americans and then cut funds for NASA going to Mars.
    – Duane Peed

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