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?