The Sorry State of Genre Fiction

Yesterday saw the posting (or at least the arrival on my RSS reader) of two different discussions of the current state of genre fiction. I have issues with both discussions, but reading them together makes for an interesting effect.

First, there’s Charlie Stross complaining about the state of SF, and once again lamenting the lack of… something in the SF vein. I’m not entirely clear what it is that he would like to see, other than that it isn’t alternate history or werewolf porn– more on this in a bit. There are various responses and duelling anecdotes in the comments. Over at the Whatever, John Scalzi responds, and plays host to a different set of comments.

The other interesting post, generated independetly of the call for more science-y SF, is Sherwood Smith calling for less science in YA SF. Taken together, I suppose these mean that we should blow up the whole genre, and start over…

As most of my readers are less concerned with the minutiae of SF than I am, further discussion will occur after the cut.

Regarding Charlie’s piece, I should note up front that Charlie is a member of a set of Europeans who consistently manage to make sweeping statements about the US in a manner that really gets up my nose. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but something about the way they say things really gets my back up, and even makes me want to defend the Bush administration on some points. It’s a remarkable reflex, and Charlie is second only to Jo Walton (maybe) in his ability to trigger it.

I mention this by way of explaining why I have a hard time formulating a response to this sort of thing:

This turning away from the near future is going to be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the post-9/11 decade in American science fiction, as the chill wind of change blows through the hitherto cosy drawing room of the American century. The Brits aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid — well, some of them are serving it up in pint glasses, but most of them have got better things to do with their time — and this is why just about all the reviewers in the field are yammering about a British Invasion or a British New Wave or something: it’s not what the British are doing, but what the American writers aren’t doing that is interesting.

American SF was traditionally an optimistic forward-looking genre, the marching music of the technocrat movement (which, thankfully, withered up and blew away before it got a chance to build any mountains of skulls, thus providing us with the luxury of a modernist movement that we can remember fondly). Now the whole space exploration thing has dead-ended and the great American public have shuddered in their political sleep and realised — crivens! — that not everybody likes the way their lords and masters have been carrying on for the past five decades — the fragile optimism is lacking. So where better to flee than into the nostalgic past, to fight Nazis and communists and slave-trading aristocrats?

My initial response is an oh-so-scholarly “Well, fuck you, too.” Which isn’t exactly productive.

On a more coherent level, I have a bunch of problems with this. First of all, I’m deeply skeptical of any attempt to psychoanalyze an entire nation on the basis of its fiction, and especially of such a small slice of genre fiction. I’m not even all that comfortable with attempts to divine the personality of individual authors from their published books.

I also wonder how important the distinction between US and non-US authors and markets is these days. There are still some major disconnects between the US and UK markets– Iain Banks sells well in Britain, but not here, for example– it’s not like British SF exists in total isolation any more. If I want books that are only published in the UK, well, I know where is, and they’ll happily ship me whatever I’m after. I don’t think Americans buying UK books constitute a major market segment, but the boundaries are blurring a bit.

More than that, though, I think some of the commenters to Scalzi’s response have it right: Near-future SF isn’t terribly popular at the moment, because it’s really hard to do well. Most of the “classic” near-future stories look really corny now, and many of them looked sort of silly about five years after they were written. It’s hard to write near-future stuff that doesn’t immediately get demolished by either technological change or political events. It was somewhat easier in the past, as the Cold War kept the political situation a little more predictable, and technology wasn’t changing daily life all that rapidly, but now, it’s really difficult.

I think there are two things that happen as a result– some authors just push things farther into the future, to avoid any messy concerns about current politics. Others pull the horizon back closer to the present day, so that the extrapolated changes don’t need to be as drastic. In the process, these books become more or less indistinguishable from “technothrillers”– look at what Greg Bear is doing these days, for example. I think a fair chunk of the market for near-future SF has shifted into that area, which really wasn’t a separate category thirty years ago. Genre purists don’t consider this real science fiction– Charlie speaks of “excursions into the undergrowth of technothrillers”– but as the general approach of science fiction has become more acceptable in mainstream culture, I think this is where some of the near-future stuff has gone.

Which brings me around to Sherwood Smith’s comments about “hard SF” for the Young Adult set:

Back in the eighties, when I was at a con, the authors–all big names–on the panel I was listening to were opining the lack of quality SF for kids. “Let’s get the science back into science fiction!” was the call. I remember having misgivings. Yes, many of them got excited about SF ideas as kids reading idea SF, but wow, talk about a small minority. In my own memory, the very few of us in a high school with six thousand kids (there were probably fifteen in the SF club) who liked SF actually prefered what is now known as space opera. I can still name the four kids who loved the science part of SF–they were all in the advanced math class, and chemistry. And did they sneer at the stuff we liked! (Which might explain why the SF club only had fifteen members.)

It’s pretty much the same now. The kids I teach want more like Star Wars or TV SF. Science is just science–hard, uninteresting in what it does, no payoff outside of the gross factor. In stories they don’t want labs and cells and microscopes, or chemical formulae. They want kids with powers, they want fabulous other worlds (without the story being about how they work, or how the spaceships work that get there), they want cool aliens both as friends as foes, they want gadgets they’d actually like to have, like hoverboards and wrist TVs. One can slide goshwow science in, but that’s the storyline that I keep seeing in backpacks and book reports.

There are a couple of interesting things in the comments there, too (including some stuff on science teaching that I may pick up for another post), with some reasonable discussion of the Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke nostalgia that afflicts a lot of these discussions.

Two things occur to me in this: first, that having “good science” in the story is boring only when it’s done badly. When it’s done well– Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps is cited approvingly, and is an excellent example– you can work science in without drowning the story. The problem is that very few authors can do this sort of thing well.

I also think there’s a problem here with changing audience expectations regarding the pace of a story. The effect is probably easier to see in movies, particularly if you do something like watching the original and the remake of The Italian Job in close proximinty– the re-make moves a lot faster, and to modern eyes, the original is really, really slow. You couldn’t make a caper movie that moved at the pace of the original Italian Job these days without getting blasted by critics and audiences– look at The Score with Robert DeNiro, for example.

I think the same thing has happened with books, to a large degree. A lot of older SF seems really slow and clunky to modern readers coming upon it for the first time. Which is why I’m skeptical about people recommending tons of Heinlein juveniles as “the best way to hook new readers.” They may have worked fifty years ago, but audience expectations have changed, and kids raised on modern storytelling conventions (in cartoons, tv, and videogames) may not find it as gripping.

This ties into the science thing because the expectation of faster pace makes it that much harder to sneak in explanations of “good science.” If you expect the story to move at a fairly leisurely pace, you’re less likely to be bothered by an “As you know, Bob,…” discussion of rocketry (or whatever) than someone who’s expecting things to move along a little more briskly.

This is turning out to be even more rambling and incoherent than I expected, so I’ll stop typing now. I do recommend reading all three of the linked pieces, though, and the associated comments. And I may come back to some of this later.


  1. #1 Aaron Bergman
    August 5, 2006

    I think I agree with Kozlowski. Too much British SF is by Usenet and for Usenet, and I’m not sure I see the wide appeal. A lot of modern SF also lacks any sense of fun; too much is direly about the fragility of humanity whether in the face of the vast uncaringness of the universe or the soon-to-encompass singularity. Where’s the sf equivalent of trashy fantasy? Is it Jack McDevitt? MilSF? A genre can’t survive on Serious Fiction alone, especially when the seriousness seems to require an an intimite familiarity with the entire slashdot oeuvre.

    Like Koz, I didn’t like Rainbows End either. I think it mostly just came down to that I’m sick of that whole theme. Technology will change things. Big whoop. At least everyone’s not gleefully uploading themselves, I suppose. Does anyone have anything new to say? It doesn’t feel like it.

  2. #2 Will
    August 5, 2006

    My initial response is an oh-so-scholarly “Well, fuck you, too.”


    I was also amused by his opinion that capitalism, the war on terror, and the divine right of kings will all be consigned to the garbage heap of history some time in the next fifty years. Don’t look now, Charlie, but your biases are showing…

  3. #3 Peter Erwin
    August 5, 2006

    I was also amused by his opinion that capitalism, the war on terror, and the divine right of kings will all be consigned to the garbage heap of history some time in the next fifty years. Don’t look now, Charlie, but your biases are showing…

    Well, if by “biases” you mean “focused on the idea of the Singularity”, yes… He doesn’t strike me as a hard-core Trotskyist a la Ian MacLeod, if that’s what you’re implying. And note that his off-the-cuff “silly ahistorical SF” reference was to the 37th Century, not the next 50 years. Try imagining someone in the early 18th Century (before Adam Smith) writing about economics in the 20th Century.

  4. #4 David Harmon
    August 6, 2006

    Diane Duane and Diana Wynne Jones (sp?) come to mind. Their young-reader series have the trappings of fantasy, but a distinctly rationalist attitude. Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar has some of that too, especially in more recent books. (For example, even interventions by the gods have to be triggered by their mortal worshippers, and those “gods” don’t even claim omniescence nor omnipotence.)