Monday, December 03, 2012

Exhausted by Doom-mongers.

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.  


robann said...

Science fiction often doesn't date very well - cyberpunk written in the late 1980s is a good example of this. Often because what was envisioned has occurred it's is the small differences between the fiction and the now-reality that grates with the reader.

Surely this is a sign though of its quality and success? It is a good reason for new authors to write new works!

Neal Asher said...

It sure doesn't date well - hence some of my maintenance robots now acquiring matter printing heads as if they always had them!

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

Avaturd: a sigh fie box office smash hit! the greatest movie of all time!

if a toilet is hyped, the world will cluster to look at the contents.

Jezcentral said...

Sci-fi also changes. This makes it a prime candidate for those who should really know better to declare time-of-death. Just because it doesn't have space-ships doesn't mean it isn't sci-fi.

I suppose an even bigger piece of the puzzle might be these writers are interested in science (obviously!), They tend to be ahead of the curve. Things like the self-publishing are under the radar for a lot of people, and if they can't see the adverts or the books on the shelves, then no-one must be doing it, right? Sales figures can be hard to come by, so they don't exist.

Steve Gilham said...

SF has its share of fads and fashions; which can be enough by themselves to cause an estrangement until the next one comes along. The dreadful spawn of the late-60s New Wave, and the alternately angsty and gung-ho mil-SF spawned in post-Nam depression that followed kept me at arms length from the main body of new SF until well into the 80s when a measure of optimism was eventually rediscovered.

So by now I'm used to there being comparatively dry spells, as interesting new notions are mined out; or annoying ones come to the fore, without declaring the field dead because I've not found much to read for a year.

Neal Asher said...

Ah but Vaude we can lose Avaturd in Sturgeon's 90%. Roll back in time and how often were there any good SF films? Things are improving in that respect now since we have the CGI to display what authors have been imagining for a hundred year. All Hollywood now needs to realize is that CGI, no matter how good, isn't enough.

Jez, there's a lot of good stuff out there. I'd say more than ever before. I get very annoyed with the dead/dying/exhausted crowd because of the arrogance of their assumption that because they don't like something it is therefore bad.

Steve, I've rambled on about the waves in SF before. They come they go, they leave their rotting flotsam and jetsam along the shore.
... "without declaring the field dead because I've not found much to read for a year" - that hits the nail square on its head.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

"Ah but Vaude we can lose Avaturd in Sturgeon's 90%."

WE can, but the world has embraced blue cat face. thus, SF is legit at blue cat face fan drudge.

Shinymelon said...

Perhaps that is why it is called 'science fiction', or it's somewhat more accepted cousin 'speculative fiction.' A diet of education stressing Big Name 'Classical' Fiction imbues literature with a sense of the immutable whereas science and speculation are by definition anything but.

Imagine...a friend. Impressionable teen, has read Dune many times, loves Asimov: one day discovers cyberpunk. But lo, that starts to feel stale after some years. Is SF dead now? No, my...err, THEIR sense of perspective is stuck. Much whining for a time.

Then Banks, Gene Wolfe and Tepper are discovered by...them. WOAH.

What was the problem again? ;-)

Neal Asher said...

Yes, I guess if people judge science fiction by the films it won't come out looking good, Vaude.

Shinymelon, quite - but it's also the case that rediscovering that frisson of youth can become more difficult. Someone declaring something dead because they are jaded and cannot find any pleasure in it is plain silly. - Getting kippered on a Saturday night is so 90s. Yeah, because YOU can't do it any more.

Alex Cull said...

In one online article I read once, the writer argued that SF will die out because the pace of technological change will slow during this century, and then SF won't be relevant any more. Or something like that. I can't see it happening, myself. Not this century, certainly, maybe not ever.

Neal Asher said...

That's an odd one, Alex. I doubt Ray Kurzweil would agree!