I watched the TV series The Secret of Crickley Hall – last episode last night – and though I enjoyed it I couldn’t really engage with it. I got the same feeling watching it as I got from watching Woman in Black, which is that though it was entertaining I could not suspend disbelief. When I was younger I could watch this sort of stuff and feel a little bit spooked – two that spring to mind are The Haunting (the original version) and The Entity – but my opinions about the supernatural have hardened over the years and now I simply cannot believe in ghosts. The films and the fiction haven’t really got any worse, if anything some have got better, but I have changed.
By this route I come to those who keep launching assaults on science fiction. I’d call it self-flagellation because often these people are ‘in’ the SF world, but for the fact that many of those attacking don’t actually write the stuff. Science fiction is dying or dead, it’s no longer relevant because of the accelerated pace of technological change (how could it not be more relevant?), and the latest one ‘science fiction is exhausted’ - based on some Best SF collections so generalizing from the specific and ignoring Sturgeon's Law.
Moving on to the stuff about it being relevant in the rapidly changing world: How can someone read recent books like Windup Girl or Quantum Thief and dismiss them as irrelevant? Who says a requisite of SF is that it has to be relevant? The job of a writer is first to write books and then to sell them. The main requisite of the latter is to make them entertaining, and for them to be that, for an SF reader, requires a good story that can suspend disbelief, world building, the zing of technology and science and that essential sensawunda.
Now let’s go back to ‘science fiction is dying, or dead’ (yawn). I’ve been here before with this here, here and here but the neatest way of putting this in perspective is via a link provided by Gary Farber in response to my, "I'm betting there was some plonker declaring the death of SF the moment Sputnik beeped or just after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon."
Who Killed Science Fiction? won the Hugo Award for Best Fanzine in 1961. The Fifties were rife with talk about the death of science fiction, and Earl Kemp's symposia of so many sf pros and prominent fans summed it all up.
If science fiction was dead back in the 50s and 60s, why does it still seem so mobile now? If it was dying back then why isn’t it dead now? And really, science fiction is nowhere as near as exhausted as the perpetual wanking on about its decline.
Let’s have a little list: Iain M Banks, Alastair Reynolds, Peter F Hamilton, Adam Roberts, Ted Chiang, C J Cherryh, Peter Watts, Gary Gibson, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Ken McLeod, Neil Gaiman, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jeff Noon, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Egan, Hannu Rajaniemi, Stephen Baxter, Sheri S. Tepper, Elizabeth Bear, Paul J. McAuley, Ian McDonald Greg Bear, David Brin, Orson Scott Card, Cory Doctorow, John Meaney, John Scalzi, Kristine Kathryn Rusch … I could go on. Now, as far as I know these are all still alive (though I don’t keep up with my Ansible obituaries) and are still producing stuff people want to read. Whether or not they are exhausted I don’t know, whether or not the fiction they produce is dying, exhausted or dead I leave to you to decide.
All these attacks on science fiction are utterly subjective and ultimately pointless because, in the end, they tell us more about the one writing than the fiction they are writing about (much like many reviews). Perhaps they loved science fiction once and could suspend disbelief, and now, just like me watching Crickley Hall, it simply is not pressing the right buttons any more. Maybe they have changed.
Because you feel you have read it all before doesn’t mean others have and equally, just because you might have become more discerning and sophisticated doesn’t mean others are. Just because you are suffering ennui and have lost the credulity and optimism of youth doesn’t mean others have. Just because you are inured to wonder, and can no longer find that vital sensawunda, doesn’t mean it has disappeared, dried up, been exhausted.
Maybe the next time somebody feels the urge to write something about the terminal decline of SF, they should consider that the 'crisis' is in the eyes that behold, and take a long hard look at themselves first.