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Has science fiction lost the plot?
September 1, 2014 5:16 AM   Subscribe

It strikes me that these two branches of science fiction are actually conditioning us to accept our current situation. Dystopia readers are waiting for a Katniss – and then everything will be all right. Post-apocalypse readers know they’re currently better-off, even if they’re being oppressed, than they would be with gangs of marauding slavers, rapists and murderers roaming the countryside. Science fiction was once a literature which encouraged change, which explored ways and means to effect changes. Now it’s comfort reading, it makes us feel good about our reduced circumstances because at least we’re not suffering as much as the fictional characters we read about.
Critic and science fiction writer Ian Sales is concerned about the state of the genre and what it says about our future.
posted by MartinWisse (80 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite

 
Only people completely unconcerned with anything but their own survival can find the dire predictions comforting.
posted by hat_eater at 5:24 AM on September 1 [3 favorites]


This is more a matter of "pull" than of "push". It's not that SF is shoving these ideas down readers' collective throats, it's that stories like this are the ones that sell because it's what readers want to read.

So the SF market responds by creating more of it.

It says something about the readers. I don't think it says something about SF, as such, except that SF is responding to customer desires, just like any other marketplace
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:24 AM on September 1 [5 favorites]


Well yes. They've been going on and on about that evil dystopian SciFi for some time.
posted by Tanjit at 5:31 AM on September 1


Off the top of my head, what about Peter Watts? Yes, gloomy, perhaps because he's a scientist first and novelist second, but in his prose when a society is falling apart, it goes down fighting to the end against the forces that destroy it.

I've fallen far beyond the times with my sf reading but I'm sure there are others.
posted by hat_eater at 5:32 AM on September 1


" I’ve objected before to the assumption that the survivors of any apocalypse would immediately start killing each other, when clearly cooperation is the only sustainable strategy for survival."

I agree with this guy.

Also, Mr. Vitabellosi has take to letting people know that we're living in a dystopia present.
posted by vitabellosi at 5:38 AM on September 1 [5 favorites]


He has some points, but I think he underestimates how right-wing "optimistic SF" from the 30s-60s was. And I am not sure an "optimistic" novel about fighting global warming (which, for most SF writers, would involve the creation of a new technology), wouldn't be equally "soothing" as a pessimistic one.

Palsy, I think the YA thing is something of a red herring. Dystopian YA has a long history (Christopher's Tripods come to mind, and I am sure that wasn't the first). Dystopian settings are very attractive for YA because a) there is usually a layer of social commentary in YA, and that's easy to see in a dystopia, b) a well-ordered and positive society partially exists, like parents, to prevent young people from having any but the most mild adventures, so it (and the parents) need to be absent, and c) most teens are living in a sort of dystopia, where their choices are curtailed and their urges thwarted. With good reason, but dystopias still resonate.

Lastly, I'd like to see him write this up as a long form with more research and development of his ideas; this sort article kind of reads like he wishes the Road Warrior would get off his well-manicured lawn.

Also, really lastly, no mention of Banks?
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:48 AM on September 1 [32 favorites]


As an anxious child and a confused, lost adult, I found dystopian sci-fi (and apocalypse narratives in general) spectacularly soothing. As if by reading enough about the end of the world, by rehearsing it emotionally, I could give my overactive and fearful brain a meaty distraction, and maybe that distraction would offer me, oddly, some peace in my normal, everyday life.

In recent years, my interest in dystopian and end-of-the-world fiction has slowly waned. I didn't even notice it at first. And truth be told, I miss being able to lose myself in a book like The Stand, lost for days at a time in the downfall of the world. I'm not even completely clear on how and why I have changed. But I look to the future with a mix of measured hope and confidence these days, and I have found myself longing, like Ian Sales, for SF that speaks to those feelings, that shows me possible futures of wonder. I'm seeking out Contact, not Katniss.

Also, Neal Stephenson has been on about this for a while himself. Heiroglyph, etc.
posted by minervous at 5:49 AM on September 1 [14 favorites]


I also think that the Lone Hero trope is a misreading of most current dystopian YA, which typically requires a lot of people to work together. Katniss is a weird example there -- she was a figurehead in a lot of ways, a symbol to bring together huge numbers of people working together. This comes and goes, but I see many more stories where a group of people work together than where the lone protagonist (plus perhaps love interest) end the dystopia.
posted by jeather at 5:49 AM on September 1 [7 favorites]


Building on GenjiandProust, I think sci-fi settings have often been dystopian, only in the past, the dystopias were high tech. Take I, Robot, for example: optimistic about technology, but still a dark mood.

Post apocolyptic, low tech dystopias may be more popular by default. Young people are not as enamored with technology, or spaceflight in particular. Older generations had the Apollo program and the birth of computers; we have the Space Shuttle and Twitter.
posted by Hume at 5:59 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Hmmm. I wonder if this is to do with science fiction being culturally very white and European and male, and white European males (like me) no longer seem to be in the ascendency? So more doom and gloom. Parallels with the huge number of "London destroyed" stories in the last part of the 19th century, as the relative power of the Empire waned? The narrative that science = progress = prosperity (= power and success for educated white men like me) is breaking down with the hard limits of environmental capacity, the growth in non-Western powers in Asia and Africa, a new sensibility of the racism and abuse embodied in the white male Enlightenment's history, the rebirth of religion, the collapse of the Communist economies, a tougher labour market, aging populations, and the failure of science to give us some absolutely necessary parts of the SF story - you can't go faster than light, there are no aliens, and AI doesn't work.
posted by alasdair at 6:00 AM on September 1 [19 favorites]


I used to enjoy a good end of the world as much as the next guy, back in my unsuccessfully nihilistic youth, but I think that where we've arrived is more about rewarding the fantasies of glumly self-righteous eschatologists, those fever dreams of purifying degradation that have escaped the asylum of the revival tent and slipped into the cracks in our culture like the furry roots of poison ivy. We've completely embraced the notion that we're dirty, evil, damaging creatures that are somehow set apart from nature and who deserve a calamitous demise, whether we're histrionic religious right wing nutbags into the mortification of the flesh before the awesome god or post-intelligence neo-hippies circulating the ten thousandth email about Monsanto, Fukushima, and fucking bees this month on Facebook.

It's easy to think you belong to a species of monsters, particularly when you're that special exception, who's looking down on all the horrors from a height, and it's rewarding in the same way that pornographic narratives about orgasmic destruction are rewarding.

The world is going to get what's coming to it. Then you'll all be sorry.

As the narratives of a five-year-old, they're pretty good.

It's much harder to solve problems rather than just see everything as haywire and getting haywirier. One involves complex, holistic reflection, while the other just requires projection and a crack CGI department with a monster rendering farm.

I've been working on a set of connected stories, set in rural West Virginia in an improving future fifty to a hundred years from now, and I'm trying to work from principles like Ursula Le Guin's carrier bag theory of fiction (4 page pdf here) and a humanist approach, in which I'm trying to tell stories that aren't war stories and conquest yarns and invasion fantasies or collapse neuroses, and there's definitely an ingrained cultural pull towards epic action when I'm going for epic emotional scope.

It's worth noting that, in my own country in 2001, people ran into burning buildings, and people helped each other down the stairs instead of shoving each other aside, and people didn't panic as much as they drew together…until the close narrative was adopted by a nation of people who weren't there, and who'd experienced the whole thing as an epic film with post-production and retroscripting, and the people who weren't there went bug nuts crazy, not the ones who were.

What if all the old empires fell, and we went about being fully human at long last instead of descending into savagery, because the empires were never the civilizing force they'd claimed to be?

What if we found that we were only using 10% of our compassion and figured out how to change?

What if the future is a story about waking up?
posted by sonascope at 6:07 AM on September 1 [73 favorites]


He has some points, but I think he underestimates how right-wing "optimistic SF" from the 30s-60s was. And I am not sure an "optimistic" novel about fighting global warming (which, for most SF writers, would involve the creation of a new technology), wouldn't be equally "soothing" as a pessimistic one.

the equation of progress with technological change is part of the intellectual kernel of right-wing sci-fi. we build tools to solve problems but it is our culture and politics which determine the problems to solve. by taking culture and politics out of sci-fi you are reinforcing the assumption that these are the things we can't actively change. and then there's Heinlein...
And if it’s not apocalypses and dystopias, it’s interplanetary or interstellar wars. Making us feel good about our governments’ military adventurism. And fictional universes that embody so many libertarian sensibilities it’s becoming increasingly hard to argue that right-wing politics are not the default mode for the genre. Even left-wing authors create worlds built on right-wing principles, as if dramatic stories were impossible any other way. Which is simply not true.
Once upon a time, science fiction was driven by an outward urge.
outward towards the Western plains or darkest Africa.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:11 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


Dystopian & post-apocalyptic fiction has never been progressive. Everyone who read 1984 were content with the Stalinist regime it was criticising. A Cantical for Leibowitz made us rally behind nuclear weapons.
posted by jb at 6:11 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Readers of Fahrenheit 451 agreed that books were really a bit too disruptive, and all the readers of The Handmaid's Tale acquiesced quietly to biblical misogyny taking over North America.

or maybe someone is ignorant of the rich history of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction from the past century. The broader category of what I would call "sociological science fiction" is more interested in exploring different forms of human society than technology - and has produced many of the most critically acclaimed and significant speculative fiction of the 20th century.
posted by jb at 6:15 AM on September 1 [17 favorites]


The advantage of dystopia for writers is that it provides a rich and natural source of narrative conflict. If your future is optimistic about the large societal issues then you have to find the central conflict for your story somewhere else, or put some kind of fly in your optimistic future ointment.

Most writers want to tackle the big issues and it's hard to stay focused on some little guy when you're building a whole world that is so different from ours and which you want to show us.

This is also why most Singularity stories end with the Singularity.
posted by localroger at 6:17 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Actually: 19th century as well - 1884's Flatland is not classically post-apocalyptic or dystopian, but is a delightful speculative novella addressing class and perspective.
posted by jb at 6:17 AM on September 1 [3 favorites]


Hmmm. I wonder if this is to do with science fiction being culturally very white and European and male, and white European males (like me) no longer seem to be in the ascendency? So more doom and gloom.
I don't know: the books he's complaining about appeal as much (if not more) to women and girls as to boys and men.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:17 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Save us from boomer utopias. I think we've mostly worked out by now that science is a neutral force.

Peter Watts' Rifters series is basically hopeful, and includes undersea exploration to boot. Charles Stross has written hopeful novels of both the near and far future, quite deliberately. Karl Schroeder's novel "Lockstep" is notable for its hopeful politics. That's just off the top of my head.
posted by pfh at 6:18 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


the equation of progress with technological change is part of the intellectual kernel of right-wing sci-fi.

No I think it's the assumption that all the technological progress in the world could happen without any re-structuring of social and political relationships that is the intellectual kernel right-wing sci-fi.

outward towards the Western plains or darkest Africa. What?
posted by glasseyes at 6:19 AM on September 1 [2 favorites]


I'm wary of when a writer employs "Once upon a time" as a rhetorical trope, as Mr. Sales has done in this essay, because it often means you're about to be fed a fairy tale, which is what I think Mr. Sales is doing here -- he's offering a highly edited version of the past and current state of science fiction to argue against a particular brand of science fiction he's not happy with.

His position elides, for example, the fact that apocalyptic and dystopic themes in science fiction reach all the way back to one of its arguable founders: Mary Shelley, whose novel The Last Man, published in 1826, features all the elements he's grousing about here. There's has never been a time where apocalyptic and dystopic themes have not been a large element of science fiction literature: From The Last Man to R.U.R. to Make Room! Make Room! to The Windup Girl to The Hunger Games, it's never not there.

Nor is it necessarily the case that the point of such apocalyptic and dystopic themes is to make us feel better about the world we live in now, because by comparison it sucks less. That's actually a fairly tendentious reading. What is more likely, in my opinion, is that these books are doing what science fiction very often does -- models out the concerns and neuroses of the current era so that people can see what might happen if we don't get our shit together. All the post-nuclear apocalypses in 70s-80s era science fiction film and literature gave us a glimpse of what it would be like to live after a nuclear exchange, and speaking as someone who lived through the era, they sure as hell made me not believe a nuclear exchange was either survivable or desirable.

Positing dystopias and apocalypes, in other words, is doing what Mr. Sales says he wants -- using science fiction as a way of encouraging change -- but it's doing it using a different rhetorical mechanism. Now, Mr. Sales might feel that mechanism is not effective, but that's a different argument entirely.

It's also the case that there is plenty of reasonably optimistic or at least emphatically not dytopic or apocalyptic science fiction out there, that doesn't fall back on eschatological tropes just for a zippy kick. Iain Banks' Culture series has already been noted as an example of a post-scarcity universe where the large majority of intelligent beings are doing just fine (Banks' novels tend to focus on the places where there are gaps or wrinkles in the prosperity, because that's more interesting from a storytelling point of view; even so); there are many other examples.

(And for that matter, dismissing Katniss Everdeen as just another example of the Great Man trope in literature is just so wildly tone-deaf to the issues of gender representation in science fiction that it genuinely deserves its own rant, which I won't perform at this moment. Just know that it's out there.)

In sum, Mr. Sales' piece here for me boils down to "I don't like this stuff I don't like," coupled with a less-than-satisfying rationalization for the same that doesn't actually appear to show any great knowledge of the field, a thing which would be useful when proposing to assert what the field used to do (or not).

Grade: C-. Return to the author for further research before re-submitting.
posted by jscalzi at 6:19 AM on September 1 [87 favorites]


People keep writing these articles because they're apparently content to ignore the body of sci fi work which is neither dystopian nor particularly best-selling. There's plenty of it. Some stories have civilizations rise and fall during the actual progress of the story without being particularly dystopian themselves.

Just like there was plenty of "Wizard who goes to school" fantasy before and after Harry Potter which was better, but not particularly popular because it either didn't scratch a popular itch at the time or wasn't particularly well-marketed, there's a lot of genre fiction that's essentially ignored due to a lack of popularity or cultural awareness. I think we've seen enough of these articles by now to push us into reading some of these more-ignored authors.

As an aside, when Harry Potter first came out (I was around twelve at the time), I was bemused by its apparent popularity, because I'd already read a good deal of Diana Wynne Jones and Diane Duane, as just two examples, and they did it all better.

Maybe some more reading of the more bizarre and different books and authors is in order. Heck, even Aasimov found time to get some more optimistic ideals and happy endings out there in The Gods Themselves.

If I see Hunger Games used as an example much more, it's going to annoy me. They're just not great books. Same deal as Harry Potter, a huge audience is only now getting introduced to Genre Fiction they actually like. Makes me frown because of all the worthy authors toiling in obscurity.

So it goes.
posted by Strudel at 6:23 AM on September 1 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure that it's useful to consider dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF as examples of a single phenomenon.

The complete inability or unwillingness of people in post-apocalyptic stories to work cooperatively to rebuild the structures of the vanished society (as real people in a real post-apocalypse would immediately do) makes much more sense when you realize, as one commenter on the linked piece correctly points out, that these stories are about providing a fantasy of escape from the routine and drudgery of a highly organized society more than they are about life after an apocalypse. In this way they are basically the spiritual successor to the western.

Dystopian stories are something else altogether. The appeal seems pretty clear to me: we are living in a fucking dystopia. The cyberpunk future of my adolescence—which was always intended more as fantasy and what-if than as a serious attempt at prognostication—is, increasingly and alarmingly, the actual literal present. The authoritarian turn in the western democracies, the unprecedented scale and scope of surveillance, police made into little armies, the inability of civic institutions to exert power over ever-wealthier and more mobile moneyed interests, the growing income gap and the self-segregation of the wealthy into private communities that don't have to bother with democracy, the sense that living a normal life requires walking on eggshells so as to stay on the right side of the growing number of databases used to control access to jobs, housing, transportation, etc.—all right out of the cyberpunk playbook. Yeah, no shit people aren't writing anything like Star Trek these days (as the author of that Wired article complains)—the world doesn't look much like Star Trek. It looks a whole lot more like Snow Crash or Neuromancer. Star Trek at this point looks like a frothy bit of self-congratulating wish fulfillment, a kind of societal Mary Sue.
posted by enn at 6:27 AM on September 1 [39 favorites]


We live in very cynical times. This isn't limited to sf writers, it spans the breadth of society. Nobody of the current generations has much confidence in government or religion or any other typical source of power. Sf in the golden age was written during the height of nation state power and the U. S. ascendancy to hegemony. But it has since waned. We don't have a model of power in the West.
posted by deathpanels at 6:28 AM on September 1 [7 favorites]


Isn't genre fiction--romance, murder mysteries, sci fi, fantasy and friends--usually comfort/entertainment/escapism fiction? If not always. Certainly with darker bits for tension, but basically "things turn out OK" in overall effect. It's hard to imagine any of this stuff ever encroaching on territory that Kafka or Dostoyevsky have got scent-marked. Or any writer trying that as a career move and eating regularly (or even irregularly) thereafter.
posted by jfuller at 6:35 AM on September 1


jfuller:

"It's hard to imagine any of this stuff ever encroaching on territory that Kafka or Dostoyevsky have got scent-marked."

It's hard to imagine a science fiction/fantasy writer might encroach on territory held by a writer who had a protagonist wake up as a large bug in one book, and featured a different protagonist trapped in the maw of a dystopian bureaucracy in another? I'm not 100% behind your police work here.
posted by jscalzi at 6:42 AM on September 1 [19 favorites]


Isn't genre fiction--romance, murder mysteries, sci fi, fantasy and friends--usually comfort/entertainment/escapism fiction? If not always.
No.

Traditionally, the line has been that mysteries were conservative, because they were about the social order being threatened and restored, and sci-fi was radical, because it was about imagining possibilities outside of current experience. But in recent years, crime novels have become one of the major places where writers explore the inequities of contemporary society, and I think there's been more awareness that sci-fi often reflects contemporary society as much as it challenges it. At any rate, I don't believe that genre fiction is any more inherently conformist than any other kind of fiction, and in fact I'd argue that it's frequently more challenging than so-called literary fiction, which sometimes seems to endlessly revisit the same settings and themes.

At any rate, the line between genre and literary fiction is often a matter of marketing, rather than content.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:46 AM on September 1 [15 favorites]


Bah. He's arguing that people read dystopic narratives for only one reason, that it's only a recent phenomenon and that it's damaging to society because not every book is a wild polemic.

The whole essay is a bunch of 'things are the worst in my time! Not before!', a sprinkling of 'get off my lawn!' and a heaping of 'wake up, sheeple!'

Another dreadful essay trying to argue that things the writer does not like personally are, in fact, things no-one should like, because they are Bad and Damaging To Society.
posted by gadge emeritus at 6:54 AM on September 1 [3 favorites]


Metafilter:A bunch of 'things are the worst in my time! Not before!', a sprinkling of 'get off my lawn!' and a heaping of 'wake up, sheeple!'
posted by 445supermag at 6:57 AM on September 1 [5 favorites]


> It's hard to imagine a science fiction/fantasy writer might encroach on territory held by a
> writer who had a protagonist wake up as a large bug in one book...?

I can imagine it, yes. But if it appeared under a fantasy imprint and not Alfred A. Knopf I would expect it to be, in the denouement and after much travail, a happy fun bug.
posted by jfuller at 7:01 AM on September 1


I can imagine it, yes. But if it appeared under a fantasy imprint and not Alfred A. Knopf I would expect it to be, in the denouement and after much travail, a happy fun bug.

You're simultaneously ignoring all the non-genre works that has happy endings and all the genre works that don't. People like to tell stories with happy endings, people also like to tell stories with unhappy endings.
posted by Gygesringtone at 7:19 AM on September 1


Katniss is NOT the Great Person in history. She is used and abused as a tool by sundry psychopaths. At the end she gets to take one Great Action.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 7:22 AM on September 1 [6 favorites]


I don't know: the books he's complaining about appeal as much (if not more) to women and girls as to boys and men.

Good point. Maybe though it's the absence of the Dominant Heroic White Male Book that makes the presence of these hitherto unimportant books galling? So if we were all still mainly going to conquer foreign alien lands in ships occupied by white straight male Americans, then all would be well, but since this kind of narrative is decaying, the other narratives are more prominent - and we don't like them?

I mean, Margaret Atwood or James Tiptree write great science fiction, and have done for years, but it's not much fun for this rich white man. Lots of things I don't want to read about, like abuse of women. If my genre fiction is no longer about heroic men in impossible spaceships finding impossible aliens' impossible architectures in space, but is all about horrible things like the effect of science and technology on humans, well, where's the fun in that?

Now, I can do two things: first, admit that I don't REALLY want to examine the effects of science on society. What I really want is a good yarn, dressed up with robots and spaceships instead of African sidekicks and sailing ships, but a good yarn nonetheless.

Or second, I can claim that lots of things that claim to be science fiction AREN'T science fiction, and that the failing is in these (feminist, black, gay) authors and their "anti-science world views".

The first is true, but the second is much more appealing to my identity as a rational, smart, forward-thinking man.

And I think that's what a lot of this "science fiction is going to the dogs because of these Others!" narratives are about. White men like me have pretensions that our escapist genre fiction is about something more worthy than yarns with science-y dressings. No, it's about exploring the future and technology and its impact on society! But when someone actually does this, we get all antsy and sad, because if we really wanted to read about the impact of technology on society we'd be economists or sociologies, and it turns out the impact of technology is really mediated by power and racism and money and sex and nationalism and messy stuff like that. And that's not fun to read.

It occurs to me that one way out of this is indeed the super-powerful and good AI - the Culture series, for example - which lets us have our rocket ships without making our simplistic 1950s world view too obvious, but it does involve reinventing God...
posted by alasdair at 7:33 AM on September 1 [7 favorites]


I don't think there's anything wrong with SF dystopias. What's gone wrong is that they no longer pack the cautionary punch they used to simply because no fucker reads any more. I blame television.
posted by flabdablet at 7:35 AM on September 1


Eh. The author tried to explain popular SF sub-genres by essentially appealing to the idea that we were "better" in the past, which is always a notion people find flattering. The simpler explanation is that scifi is fiction which many people read to relax which means a lot of it is going to be fairly familiar and comfortable - and always has been.
posted by R343L at 7:47 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


... things that claim to be science fiction AREN'T science fiction...

Margaret Atwood explicitly claims NOT to be writing science fiction.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 7:56 AM on September 1


Margaret Atwood explicitly claims NOT to be writing science fiction.

Interesting in itself, because she's clearly writing science fiction - in the sense of "exploring the impact of technology and science on society and humanity". But she's NOT writing science fiction in the sense of "three intrepid adventurers discover an amazing alien device in orbit around Jupiter - but how will they stop the resulting alien invasion through hyperspace?" yarns. So I guess she's kind of in agreement with me: she's NOT writing "science fiction", because she's not writing yarns in space, and because "science fiction" is really an escapist genre aimed at straight white Western men, and she's not?
posted by alasdair at 8:05 AM on September 1


Actually, one thing I notice about a lot of post-collapse dystopias - they are really utopias because the Big Intractable Bad (global capitalism, the surveillance state) has broken down. Small groups of local heroes can overthrow the local bad, but don't have a prayer against global capitalism. We're living in a world that - despite the deeps of the sea and the depths of space - is mapped and known in incredible detail. We're living in a world where global capitalism extends virtually everywhere and where its logic prevails over almost everything. There's no outside, short of going off-planet, and that doesn't seem very likely in the near future unless that too is run by some private tech-bro enterprise out of Silicon Valley or maybe Hong Kong or somewhere. Why not imagine that you've survived after the collapse and your biggest problem is the local warlord?
posted by Frowner at 8:06 AM on September 1 [11 favorites]


"The Time Machine" by Wells was rather dystopian IIRC. So was "Rossum's Universal Robots" by Capek. Dystopian stories have always been part of SF.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:12 AM on September 1


My god I hate the whole "Margaret Atwood vs. science fiction!" thing. What she said was that, according to her own idiosyncratic definitions, she considers herself to write "speculative fiction" rather than "science fiction". And she also said that others use the terms interchangeably so she certainly does write science fiction by their definition. Hold me while I faint, my tender ears they cannot cope with such blasphemy.
posted by kyrademon at 8:19 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


There's no outside

Exactly. It's the same reason why it seems like every YA book starts with a real or symbolic orphaning -- it creates a forced "outside" and opens fictional possibilities that don't exist within the everyday structure.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:24 AM on September 1 [5 favorites]


As for the linked article, it basically read to me as, "By pretending that some trends which have existed throughout the history of science fiction are new, and pretending that other trends which have existed throughout the history of science fiction have vanished, I can pretend that modern science fiction is completely different from all that has preceded it. And bad."
posted by kyrademon at 8:27 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


> "... if it appeared under a fantasy imprint and not Alfred A. Knopf I would expect it to be, in the denouement and after much travail, a happy fun bug."

So, if I'm reading you right, you're saying that, for example, Frankenstein, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, The Handmaid's Tale, A Clockwork Orange, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Time Machine, The Road, etc., might all be "science fiction" because they fit all the definitions of it but they are not "genre fiction" because they were not explicitly published and marketed as science fiction? And that most or all things so published and marketed are by definition escapist and ultimately feel-good?

I really don't buy that. I mean, it's pretty easy to think of things that were explicitly published and marketed as science fiction which plumb the depths and don't have a happily ever after. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Flowers for Algernon, The Left Hand of Darkness, Perdido Street Station, The Martian Chronicles, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream ...
posted by kyrademon at 8:46 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


You mean MeFi's Own Peter Watts.
posted by tigrrrlily at 9:19 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Re whether Hunger Games is good compared to earlier, similar narratives, I think that it's punch is largely in the form of having a female hero, who is a full person (flawed, conflicted, unsure, talented) rather than a Generic KickAss Heroine, as the center of its dystopian world.

I had some beefs, in other words, with some of how her world was presented, but was pulled along by the novelty and delight of a female heroine who was highly talented, brave, and recognizably human. And the cynicism about what heroism actually means and how it is used, how messy revolutions actually are, was surprisingly insightful for a YA sci-fi book. At least compared to the stuff I read at that age.

It's a clever series and doesn't deserve to be dismissed as fluff or as soothing apologia.
posted by emjaybee at 9:50 AM on September 1 [5 favorites]


I remember way back when SF was subversive. The stories constructed realities that subverted our own, and helped us conceptualize our mundane reality in subversive ways. But I have stopped reading SF mostly, because I don't see that subversiveness anymore. I think this is mostly because SF writing and publishing became an industry. It could not survive going mainstream. Even the modern writers I do like, carved out a niche where they could subvert SF.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:55 AM on September 1


I recall that a decade ago, Popular Science did a piece on this very topic, exploring what is the future of science fiction. Their conclusion was that Singularity fiction, at the time exemplified by Doctorow and MeFi's own Stross, was the way of the future.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:02 AM on September 1


Surprised that China Mieville's lecture on the implicit ideologies of SF hasn't come up. Be warned: It's rather ponderously delivered.

That said, Mieville makes a very important point: SF (including so-called "hard" SF) is almost never plausible in a scientific sense (many "hard Sf" authors are hilariously ignorant of the content of the social sciences, for example). Instead, the SF style is one of authoritative delineation, where "the way it is" is broadcast by the author to the reader. The issue is not plausibility, it is authorial certainty. As such, SF is no less subjective than other forms of literature, but instead distinguishes itself by maintaining a pretense of objectivity.

The charge that SF has "lost the plot" thus boils down to a clash of ideologies. Sales' view is typical of an old guard who long for the idealistic visions of yesteryear, when it seemed we could reshape society and tame nature. Many younger reader see such utopianism as both naive and arrogant, a specter lurking behind many of the uglier chapters of 20th century history. It goes much deeper than a difference in taste.
posted by belarius at 11:05 AM on September 1 [11 favorites]


There's no outside, short of going off-planet, and that doesn't seem very likely in the near future unless that too is run by some private tech-bro enterprise out of Silicon Valley or maybe Hong Kong or somewhere. Why not imagine that you've survived after the collapse and your biggest problem is the local warlord?

This is how/why I read dystopian fiction.

But, I think Sales has kind of inverted the problem. Science fiction has always been tied to the industrialization of culture. The science fiction author's main concern isn't imagining a new and better world. Their main concern is the production of words for paid publication. Science fiction, as culture, has always existed in a feedback loop with the manufacture of culture itself... which we can see as getting paid to create content becomes increasingly difficult. P K Dick could crank out words for miserable pay, but he could get paid. The SF author today starts off creating content for free... which all comes back in terms of what topics are discusses in books/novellas/stories and how they are discussed.

I think MeFi's on cstross is a case in point on this topic (and indeed the explosion of YA content after harry potter.)
posted by ennui.bz at 11:14 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Mieville makes a very important point: SF (including so-called "hard" SF) is almost never plausible in a scientific sense (many "hard Sf" authors are hilariously ignorant of the content of the social sciences, for example)

The easiest way to see this is Niven's "Known Space" stories/books, which many people think of as hard sf. Even though they have FTL travel. And psychic phenomena. And luck as a physical phenomenon that can be affected by DNA. And many different kinds of unobtanium and magic devices. And that's before we get to how they treat biology or social science.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:39 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


I'm going to just slot this piece into the current war for the soul of science fiction. There's a very vocal contingent of the old guard who are convinced that the younger, more feminist, more multicultural writers are ruining SF, what with their political correctness and social concerns.

Sales in this essay puts himself in that group, by longing for a non-existent past of SF where white men going out, and conquering the universe was the only SF. Ignoring stories ranging from The Time Machine to The Screwfly Solution to A Dog and his Boy, to The Shockwave Rider, he dreams of a past where white men solved problems through technology, while keeping the dominant culture the same. In fact in the current version of SF he's looking to, it goes even further into reactionary ideology, with libertarian societies throwing off the shackles of government regulation and political correctness.

A lot of readers today however, don't see technological panacea to today's problems. They don't see someone inventing a gadget to solve the Great Extinction, or stop government surveillance, or end harassment of women. It's the calling of the old guard to try to supress those readers, before the other, social speculative side of SF becomes dominant.
posted by happyroach at 12:11 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


also,

Margaret Atwood explicitly claims NOT to be writing science fiction.

the reason why I hate this argument is that the distinction between "fiction" and "genre fiction" is whether the product i.e. a novel, is a commodity or not, that is, whether any given Margaret Atwood novel is replaceable by some equivalent novel by someone else. Science fiction authors have been traditionally replaceable. That is, the market is determined by the genre rather than the particular author. Now, of course, you have strong partisans of various authors, just like you have people who strongly prefer Pepsi to Coke, but in terms of the market as a whole, cola soda is largely identical. So, people wanting Atwood to come out as a Sci-Fi author basically want her to take money out of her wallet. She gets paid in part for who she is, that is her particular authorship is unique, rather than what genre of fiction she writes.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:16 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


The easiest way to see this is Niven's "Known Space" stories/books, which many people think of as hard sf. Even though they have FTL travel. And psychic phenomena.

That's because "Hard SF" has become a political and sociological label as much as one having to do with actual content. Hell, some people basically use it to mean "NO GIRL COOTIES".
posted by Justinian at 12:22 PM on September 1 [3 favorites]




I'm going to just slot this piece into the current war for the soul of science fiction.

On top of this, I tend to slot them into "authors whose nonfiction suggests I shouldn't bother with their fiction" because my experience is that authors who write genre discussion tracts that grump about what I think of as the interesting parts of the genre are generally writing fiction that bores me as a reader.
posted by immlass at 12:44 PM on September 1


Mieville makes a very important point: SF (including so-called "hard" SF) is almost never plausible in a scientific sense (many "hard Sf" authors are hilariously ignorant of the content of the social sciences, for example)

WTF? IMHO the most significant trait of Hard SF is that the math and physics IS plausible scientifically. And social sciences are considered "soft science" so they don't really have any place in Hard SF. You want to read Hard SF? Go find a classic like Dragon's Egg by Robert L Forward. If you want Hard SF, it is likely the author is an expert, like in this case, a PhD physicist.

That's because "Hard SF" has become a political and sociological label as much as one having to do with actual content. Hell, some people basically use it to mean "NO GIRL COOTIES".

That is utterly ridiculous. Using my same example, in Dragon's Egg, the protagonist is a woman and major sections of the plot are about her struggles with gender discrimination in the scientific community. And then [spoiler] the finale is about breast cancer.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:27 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


No. Wrong wrong wrong.

Here's what's interesting about the Hunger Games, or at least, one of the many things that is interesting about the Hunger Games: Katniss is profoundly not okay.

Katniss has her entire world, which totally fucking sucks anyway, ripped apart and put back together wrong and then crushed over and over again and she doesn't come through it with a Batman-esque amount of personal angst but the ability to function. She basically spends several months catatonic and staring at a wall. She spends the entire series reacting like a fucking human being and being used as a symbol and having her agency stripped from her and her image taken out of her control.

I don't particularly give a shit if the Hunger Games is well-written enough by whatever standards these things are judged by, because those books gave me a heroine who felt more true than most in how she dealt with the psychological torture and trauma that was constantly inflicted upon her over the course of the series.

The world of the Hunger Games also manages to reflect our own in ways that I really recognized, with the way that everyone in the books have to be re-packaged and made marketable for the Capital, often becoming sanitized and turned into products that are bought to support the revolution, and though the books don't really take down that system, they make it recognizable when we see it in the real world, which adds a great layer of irony to the amount of products being sold branded by the movies.

Speculative fiction in general-- and by that I mean that massive category of science fiction, fantasy, and some stuff that has some of those genre trappings but usually gets slotted into thriller and/or horror-- has expanded its scope and created a lot of YA stuff and a lot of that has female characters and it reflects the attitudes of our times in a lot of ways, with stories where the worldbuilding is pessimistic, where the government is overreaching (City of Ember, Hunger Games) or collapsed (Chemical Garden), or ones in the more Brave New World vein, ones that look utopian at first glance but which have removed some of what makes us human (Matched, Delirium, The Giver).

I've always been one of those people who uses fiction to make frameworks to understand the world through; fiction can be a comfort, a catharsis, a lens, a learning experience, or, more often, a combination of all of those things. I prefer to read stuff that's set some distance from my world, because I have a lot of shit to deal with in my life and I prefer to read in a way that distances me from the everyday trappings of that but still reflects things I understand and identify with, because while stuff like The Handmaid's Tale is great and worth reading, it kind of fucks me up and scares the shit out of me, and not in the way that thriller-type stuff does where it's hard to put down, but in the way that sticks with me and makes me scared, and I don't want to be like that all the time.

This is a big part of why my two favorite space-based science fiction works-- The Expanse by James SA Corey and Battlestar Galactica-- use their settings and the trappings of science fiction to tell a story that is, more than anything, profoundly human, with a front seat often given to the ways that politics end up broken by the thoughtless and misinformed actions of individuals. Both take place in space, but most of the time are only nominally about space, and that's because while there's a lot of cool nonfiction-type stuff to learn about astronomy, space itself is kind of boring, because it's empty and cold and can't support life.
posted by NoraReed at 1:30 PM on September 1 [11 favorites]


The bien-pessant-acclaimed division of science fiction is about a nine-iron's worth of righteous artist statements away from the ideological lockstep of the Whitney Biennial. But I actually don't know that it will cover that distance, if only because it still depends upon the dollars and emotional investment of white male nerds who know that they will never be cool kids, and will find somewhere else to go if forced to that end.
posted by MattD at 1:33 PM on September 1


I think that the Hunger Games worldbuilding gets a couple of things very right. It understands that our present mores and social organization are contingent upon a lot of circumstances which can be undone and wouldn't necessarily be reassembled as they were. It also understands that apocalypse will be succeeded by civilization, not chaos, even if you don't necessarily like the new rules. I've written this before, but humans are organizing animals -- the entropic direction of two or more individuals is to form and regulate a society. Authors who don't grasp this are really low on their basic insights.
posted by MattD at 1:36 PM on September 1


Sales in this essay puts himself in that group, by longing for a non-existent past of SF where white men going out, and conquering the universe was the only SF.

If you think this is what's Sales is arguing about, you haven't read his essay nor understood it.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:55 PM on September 1


I read this essay with a distinct lack of sympathy similar to what others here seem to have felt: yet another lament for the decline of optimistic SF from the old-guard, hard-sf right.

But that's not really what he's trying to do -- although the solutions he (indirectly) suggests are a bit familiar-sounding, the critique here is basically from the left:
My point – which many people seem to have missed – is that the genre has become complicit with the establishment and is as often as not peddling the same sort of stories which only reinforce existing prejudices and encourage readers to be happy with their meagre lot. Sort of like the Daily Mail, but not full of hateful spiteful lies.
In the main essay, this is also clear from his comments about accepting our situation, the fascists of Downing Street, etc.

And this is a critique I'm pretty sympathetic to. Don't get me wrong, I both love and value dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF, but although many if not most of the great works of imaginative fiction fall into these categories, I've felt like many of the recent stories I've seen -- in movies, TV, and YA in particular -- are not only not interested in thinking about how to solve or prevent these problems, they're also not interested in pointing out new problems, or new aspects of old problems.

This was crystalized for me in the recent debates over Snowpiercer. My objection to Snowpiercer was not the unrealism per se, but how the non-realism allowed the societal critique to remain so familiar, because reality could be tweaked whenever needed to allow the analogy to trundle on; and the conclusion was neither optimistic nor pessimistic because it either refused to try to figure out a solution, or thought that there was no solution, or was meagerly gesturing towards some utterly undefined renewal that is no use whatsoever in thinking through the pre-apocaylpse.

I think this is perhaps all by way of saying that, like any genre, the dystopian and post-apocalyptic stuff can be good or bad, and having grown popular recently, there's a fair amount of bad stuff out there now. Not bad as in badly written, but bad as in retreading old problems and old solutions, without the moral or narrative novelty of grappling with something anew. For me, this lack of Suvin's novum is in part due to these stories becoming allegories rather than realistic imaginings -- but that's not a very general way of thinking about it without a lot more legwork, since I consider Kafka and The Handmaid's Tale to both be rigorously realistic.

In some ways, the Hunger Games is a great example -- the dystopia is utterly familiar, as is the overall narrative thrust -- but the genuinely novel (for YA) and morally serious aspect, IMHO, is how it deals (very realistically) with the psychological costs of revolution, even one that is "won". In that sense it's great stuff, in the way that Ember or Wool -- entertaining though they are -- are not.

Suvin's demand for the new is often taken as a structural, technological, or genre-definition move, but it's also deeply political. Social SF that isn't making a new critique is in many ways reinforcing political inaction, and thus is inherently conservative, even if it is lamenting a left-wing disaster (such as global warming). It's much harder to think about what we do now -- and how to portray that in an interesting SF or fantasy setting -- than about post-apocalyptic libertarian/feudalism and boat-building. Centrists often believe in global warming, think it is a bad thing, think it is man-made, and think it is inevitable. They can enjoy post-apolyptic fiction that confirms all these beliefs. More fiction about spaceflight isn't going to solve the problem of the unimaginative dystopia. But it's worth some serious thought about how we get ourselves out of the post-hope-and-change, post-colored-revolution liberal ennui that politics and (some) political fiction seem to be falling into. And it's going to take serious thought because the answers are not at all obvious.
posted by chortly at 1:57 PM on September 1 [6 favorites]


Which is that Sales has (independently?) latched on the idea of what Mark Fischer calls Capitalist Realism and how it's prevelant in contemporary science fiction, the idea that our current hypercapitalist, neoliberal political system is the only feasible alternative and that everything else is just not possible. Sales argues that this understanding of the world has seeped into science fiction, as it has elsewhere to the point that it no longer seems possible to imagine a better tomorrow, other than in sterile tales of interstellar genocide, that the future only seems to hold an apocalypse or some form of hideous dystopia.

So we get supposedly liberal science fiction novels like The Windup Girl, widely praised for its realistic look at a future devastated by climate change and corporate greed, whose message seems to be that things won't get better but geisha sexbots will always be awesome.

Science fiction, whether the technocratic fantasies of the thirties and forties, the mindbending of the New Wave, the feminist utopias of the seventies or the cyberpunk imaginations of the eighties and nineties always had a streak of arrogant confidence in it that sure, of course it would change and change it for the better, at the same time as it was happy to smash the old world to bits, the better to rebuild it.

But now we seem to be stuck with science fiction that's only too keen to smash the world, but not to rebuild it.

That's Sale's argument and it's far more a political, than a literary criticism; it's a bit disappointing (though not entirely unexpected) to see people nitpick his hunger Games example rather than tackle the argument itself....
posted by MartinWisse at 2:07 PM on September 1 [4 favorites]


WTF? IMHO the most significant trait of Hard SF is that the math and physics IS plausible scientifically. And social sciences are considered "soft science" so they don't really have any place in Hard SF.

Yes, that's exactly what many fans of hard SF insist. Except you can't really get away from "soft" subjects like money, social organization, or the workings of the mind, so hard SF is rife with opportunities to be hilariously scientifically wrong about these topics.

There's nothing intrinsically inappropriate with being wrong a priori (this is fiction, after all), except that hard SF picks and chooses which scientific fields it claims are more or less important according to whether they're "real" sciences or not according to the narrow lens of an ultimately cultural nature.

These distinctions of "hard" and "soft" don't arise from within the scientific community itself (which is quite small and has no particular hierarchy of disciplines), but instead arise from a much more widespread culture of engineers whose scientific literacy is disproportionally biased towards applied math and classical physics. Most of the hard SF readership is enthusiastic enough about science to read The New Scientist or Scientific American, but is not expert enough to read actual scientific research. These readers value "hard science" over "soft science" because those categories were fed to them by their tribes, not because they have a functional understanding of how rigorous each field is.
posted by belarius at 2:58 PM on September 1 [10 favorites]


charlie don't surf: WTF? IMHO the most significant trait of Hard SF is that the math and physics IS plausible scientifically. And social sciences are considered "soft science" so they don't really have any place in Hard SF. You want to read Hard SF? Go find a classic like Dragon's Egg by Robert L Forward. If you want Hard SF, it is likely the author is an expert, like in this case, a PhD physicist.

The summary of Dragon's Egg on amazon reads: "human scientists establish a relationship with intelligent lifeforms--the cheela--living on Dragon's Egg, a neutron star where one Earth hour is equivalent to hundreds of their years." It's pretty hard to take claims to plausibility seriously when you have two impossibilities in one sentence.

Which don't matter in science fiction as properly understood. Not many people care that Asimov got AI almost, but not quite, entirely wrong (although to make excuses for him, the theory undermining his premise were classified secrets when he started the stories.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:00 PM on September 1 [2 favorites]


What kind of story does this chap want?

A utopia full of intelligent pansexual cyber unicorns that eat toxic waste and shit rainbows and their plucky posthuman sidekick?
posted by Renoroc at 3:02 PM on September 1


It's pretty hard to take claims to plausibility seriously when you have two impossibilities in one sentence.

Impossible is a pretty strong word to use when discussing SF. Forward actually included an appendix explaining the stuff that didn't fit in the narrative as to why it was plausible to propose nucleonic life with the parameters he used for the story.
posted by localroger at 3:06 PM on September 1


Dystopia readers are waiting for a Katniss – and then everything will be all right. Post-apocalypse readers know they’re currently better-off, even if they’re being oppressed, than they would be with gangs of marauding slavers, rapists and murderers roaming the countryside.

I disagree on both here. Dystopia has traditionally been a way for science fiction to highlight current social problems by magnifying them and creating a sense of estrangement. Lauren Beukes, for example points out that the dystopian science fiction and fantasy coming out of South Africa provides a way to comment on issues that had previously been subjected to government censorship. Elysium comments on both American health care and the lingering class system of South Africa. Similarly, Hunger Games has a fair bit to say about class disparity and the use of sports as a balm to cover them up.

One of the tensions that I don't think the series entirely negotiates well is that Katniss both is and isn't a hero-figure who fixes things and provides a Hollywood ending. In many respects, her story in Mockingjay parallels that of Paul Bäumer in All Quiet on the Western Front. Both are "war heroes" primarily by virtue of surviving, and both find that they can't communicate with anyone who's not a survivor.

Datlow suggests that dystopia is popular among YA because teens find themselves in an awkward middle ground when it comes to political agency and change.

In terms of apocalyptic fiction, most of the narratives I seem to get are about the communities that attempt to establish social justice and equality in spite of their perilous circumstances. Parable of the Sower is a read in this area.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:18 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Not many people care that Asimov got AI almost, but not quite, entirely wrong (although to make excuses for him, the theory undermining his premise were classified secrets when he started the stories.)

This is a good point, so I'll supplement it by pointing out that Asimov's other great franchise (the Foundation books) are also based on utterly spurious propositions. The dream of "psychohistory" was a dream of perfect, deterministic predictability, which has been entirely shattered by chaos theory, whose roots lie in the 19th-century demonstration that the three-body problem is insoluble. Asimov clearly knew that psychohistory was doomed, because he went on to demolish it himself... except he used a psychic mutant to do it.

What is too often lacking in the hard SF of today is that basic playfulness that Asimov so clearly enjoyed. He knew many of his premises were either wrong, or doomed to later be overturned. That wasn't troubling for him, because many of his most famous stories predate the invention of the "hard SF" label. He was willing to play the "what if" game regardless, about whatever content domain struck his fancy.
posted by belarius at 3:21 PM on September 1 [4 favorites]


But now we seem to be stuck with science fiction that's only too keen to smash the world, but not to rebuild it.

I think this is an accurate reflection of the current mindset of most thinking people right now. Any utopian/hopeful stories are going to be greeted with skepticism given that our present reality is mostly a growing awareness of how profoundly fucked up we are, and how much we have fucked up the world as well as each other. Most of us spend a lot of time feeling as if the world is headed for collapse, with no real rebuilding possible. I think apocalyptic/dystopian sci-fi allows us to think that through in a fictional landscape, as a way of either preparing for, resigning ourselves to, or simply confronting that possibility. And occasionally as an attempt at imagining a solution or solutions.

Is that wrong? Might as well ask: were the blues wrong, to make art that comforted out of a bad situation? After all, that energy could have been put into protest songs, or political action.

We make the art we need, I think. We are not allowed, in our day-to-day, family- and work-lives, to be blunt about capitalism and consumerism and corporate ownership and climate change; not without being labeled fringe or cranks or shouted down. Those truths are a taboo and because they are painful, one that is heavily enforced.

But apocalyptic/dystopian fiction takes all those facts as truths and givens and gives us the small comfort of the truth being told. I think that's what a lot of it's really about, not just the hero or survivalist fantasy.
posted by emjaybee at 3:25 PM on September 1 [5 favorites]


To clarify, Katniss rarely has effective agency. Most of the time she's reacting (badly) to events or the manipulation of others. In the last act of Mockingjay, spoiler.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:45 PM on September 1


And that's sort of why she's a great teenage hero, because teenagers have little agency/control over their lives and then are constantly judged and shamed when they do make decisions that go badly, despite the fact that you have to learn somewhere. It's another reason that she's so identifiable.
posted by NoraReed at 3:59 PM on September 1


Criticizing the young adult dystopic genre seems to be in the air. Ewan Morrison wrote an article for The Guardian called YA dystopias teach children to submit to the free market, not fight authority. Excerpt:
Of course, there is not some secret underground bunker filled with a Bilderberg-group-type-fraternity of neoliberals & neocons dictating what Young Adult authors write and neither is there a conspiracy among right-wing media moguls to implant reactionary messages through the mass media into the minds of the young and impressionable. This is one of those zeitgeist moments where the subconscious of a culture emerges into visibility. We might be giving ourselves right-wing messages because, whether or not we realise it, we have come to accept them as incontestable. This generation of YA dystopian novels is really our neoliberal society dreaming its last nightmares about the threat from communism, socialism and the planned society. We've simplified it to make it a story we can tell to children and in so doing we've calmed the child inside us.
posted by Kattullus at 4:28 PM on September 1


Science fiction, whether the technocratic fantasies of the thirties and forties, the mindbending of the New Wave, the feminist utopias of the seventies or the cyberpunk imaginations of the eighties and nineties always had a streak of arrogant confidence in it that sure, of course it would change and change it for the better, at the same time as it was happy to smash the old world to bits, the better to rebuild it.

You have obviously been reading a different science fiction than I have for the last 40 years. While you've been reading stories where white male technocrats change things for the better, I've been reading the following:
Solution Unsatisfactory
Night of Masks
Dark Piper
The Time Machine
A Bowlfull of Biskies Makes a Growing Boy
Farmer in the Sky (read what they say about Earth and what will happen to it, and try to tell me it's not a dystopia)
The Mote in God's Eye (the future is condemned to rule by an aristocracy that trampled civil rights-though I guess Pournell would see that as a paradise)
The Word for World is Forest
Z for Zaccharia
Brave New World
Make Room! Make Room!
The Children of Morrow
A Canticle for Liebowitz
No Blade of Grass
Stand in Zanzibar
Hellstrom's Hive
A Clockwork Orange
Fahrenheit 451
The Minority Report
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
For I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream
Ubik
A Dog and His Boy
Jack of Shadows
Cat's Cradle
The Running Man
The Shockwave Rider
Oryx and Crake
Dhalgren
The House of Stairs
The Handmaid's Tale

From this list one might conclude that a major function of Science Fiction is to darkly comment on the flaws of current society. But they don't have technocrats setting out to fix the universe, so I guess they don't qualify as proper Science Fiction.
posted by happyroach at 4:35 PM on September 1 [6 favorites]


A lot of 70s sci fi was nihilistic as fuck. I read Moorcock's The Black Corridor recently and it's horrifying.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:48 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


IMHO the most significant trait of Hard SF is that the math and physics IS plausible scientifically.

That's fine, but if that's how you define hard SF you have to accept that it's a small and not terribly significant subset of SF consisting mostly of Bob Forward's work, the more mundane stuff by Clarke like _Fall of Moondust_, maybe _Mission of Gravity_, and not much else and not much that's recent. Maybe some of Egan's work if you allow one big leap.

You also have to accept that it excludes most of what people mistakenly call hard SF. Thinking of stuff that's commonly on lists of hard SF... Niven is out because FTL. Rendezvous with Rama is out because reactionless drive. Baxter's _Ring_ : out indirectly because FTL in the same universe. RGB Mars: Out because huge, screaming violations of thermodynamics. Foundation: out because FTL. Revelation Space: Out indirectly because FTL in the same universe and also violations of thermodynamics. Niven+Pournelle: out because FTL. And so on.

I have to agree with Mieville that the thing that actually defines stuff-that-people-usually-call-hard-SF isn't scientific plausibility or accuracy at all. Instead, it's a sort of confident truthiness about the physics that's often wildly mistaken.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:21 PM on September 1 [14 favorites]


ROU Xenophobe speaks the truth.
posted by Justinian at 6:06 PM on September 1


Maybe some of Egan's work if you allow one big leap.

I recall reading and thinking this was hard science fiction in a different sense, that I could only understand it because I have studied way more math than most people.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 6:11 PM on September 1 [3 favorites]


Can somebody just mail this guy a copy of The Gernsback Continuum?
posted by deathpanels at 10:27 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


I don't think y'all are giving the dude enough credit --- there's a larger current in the zeitgeist, he's picking up on the way it affects Sci-Fi, but you see it in other places, as well --- all the zombie stuff that's taken over horror, that's an apocalypse as well, one that's been running solid for 10 years now at least.

His example of The Hunger Games I think is ill-chosen, betraying an unfamiliarity with the work --- Katniss is not an old school-saviour figure; most of the books are concerned with her role as a leader of the rebellion but as a symbol of rebellion, an icon, and her chafing within the constraints of that role. Her side of the war ultimately proves little better than the capitol it fights against, as is seen in the really rather ruthless ending of the series, which subverts and renders meaningless the personal sacrifice she makes at its outset.

But leaving that aside, dude's still not wrong that the popular current is with broke-down futures, human civilization in a state of failure and collapse. And that I think is true and interesting because it is different than what came before, and it goes beyond the sci-fi genre itself, although sci-fi is perhaps where it's most evident.

Because while there's always been a strong dark current in sci-fi, a bunch of books that are concerned with warnings and dooms, there is something a bit different this time around, I think --- sci-fi's always been concerned with technology's power to change us, to stretch the limits of being human, to change what that means, to re-order society. Even the dark stuff --- in Brave New World, it's drugs and indoctrination and a bit of genetic engineerings, to create a permanent caste system, letting tech be used to mold human will to make us pliable sheep.

But in a lot of contemporary apocalypse fiction, that's all out. We don't change. Instead the doom comes and takes us back to feudalism, in one form or another. There seems to be a lack of trust, a lack of belief that things can, truly, fundamentally change. That we can be other than as we are. That's interesting, I think. Any maybe that's partly because the lessons of physics really have sunk in --- we will never traverse "the final frontier" in any meaningful way, because we can't go faster than light. And I'm sure it's partly for the same reason that other bastion of feudalism, fantasy, remains so popular -- because when it's all back to swords and sticks, political problems get human-sized again. The right man with the right sword can save the world, or change it, at least.
posted by Diablevert at 10:57 AM on September 2 [3 favorites]


While you've been reading stories where white male technocrats change things for the better

Where the fuck do you get "white male technocrats" from?

Also, the inherent nerdish trait of always wanting to find and enumerate counterexamples to any sweeping statement is cute, but misguided. Nobody has been saying it's all been sweetness and light in sf until now, or that dystopias and apocalypses haven't had a long and proud history in it, or even that you can't get the kind of sf Sales is wanting today; rather this is a piece about broader trends in the genre, in the perception of it by its readers and writers alike, as well in broader media as a consequence or symptom of our current political climate.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:01 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Neal Stephenson has been on about this for a while himself.

Q&A: The sci-fi optimist
The collection Hieroglyph, out this month, showcases work by 20 visionaries, including astrophysicist and award-winning writer Gregory Benford, and science-fiction authors Cory Doctorow, Elizabeth Bear and Bruce Sterling. My contribution is 'Atmosphaera Incognita', about the construction of a 20-kilometre steel tower and the resulting adventures...

Growing up in Ames, I went to a Methodist church filled with professors who never would have questioned the validity of evolution. I think a lot of opposition to global warming and evolution is not about science. The majority of people who identify themselves as global-warming sceptics, for example, do believe it is happening. But they think that admitting that will open the door to excessive regulation by the government. They don't come from the scientific community, where it is important to say what you mean. They come from a political community, where what really matters is the final outcome. I think it's self-destructive in the long run — people who refuse to face reality are infantilizing themselves.
also btw...
-Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto
-"Crux, by Ramez Naam, is an excellent and highly underrated sci-fi book."
-Geek's Guide to the Galaxy interview with me, Ramez Naam, and Paolo Bacigalupi
posted by kliuless at 6:11 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]


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