Thursday, December 31, 2009

Don Hasmat Suit and Jump in!

I’ve been sampling around the Internet from articles, essays and rants on the subject of the ‘death of SF’ and ‘relevant issues’. Some interesting points raised but, good grief. Apparently SF must do something, it must re-invent itself, update itself and, wait for it, it must become more socially relevant. Apparently it is conservative, racist and sexist, runs away from present science and pitches itself into the far future to escape that (?), it’s behind the curve, only highlights present ‘issues’ by visualising dystopian crashes resulting from them … on and on.

Bollocks. Science fiction is updating itself continuously. Neuromancer is a case in point (as de Vries pointed out), bringing things up to date and thereafter incorporated. Nanotech is in the fold, so is biotechnology, quantum mechanics, brane theory … in fact point at any present day science or technology and an avid SF reader will be able to point at a book in which it is included or extrapolated. Science fiction isn’t running away from present day science (hard) but leaping to a future where that science isn’t the territory of a few experts, some learned journals or struggling from the laboratory, but out in the real (or unreal) world.

There’s also the danger here of chucking out the baby with the bathwater. To be more relevant should SF, as some seem to think, discard its own history? Why should old ideas become less relevant? Arthur C Clarke wrote a paper once about satellite communications, but that’s so old, let’s get rid of it and start polishing up the new shiny thing. We should dump the lasers too, and someone needs to tell Boeing to stop shooting UAVs out of the sky with them. Spaceships, they gotta go, are you listening Branson?

But the rest, outside of real science in my terms but in the territory of ‘soft’ science in others is that ‘social relevance’. Nothing new then. Just another New Wave slopping on the beach to deposit its flotsam of liberal guilt, its need to shove away real science and get deep into humanities man. Having an interest in hard science, a preference for sensawunda and a stonking good story is conservative, apparently. Telling a story without sufficient sexual or racial diversity is sexist or racist, except, if your main character is a black woman and you’re a white male writer, you’ll get pilloried for that too. (Oh, and apparently SF awards need more positive discrimination. Call me old fashioned, but I always thought awards should be given on the basis of the product, not the colour or sex of the producer. To positively discriminate is hugely patronising and is sexist and racist in itself.)

Damn, every single point in all these debates (just like the death of SF itself) has been bludgeoned into insensibility over forty or fifty years. Do they serve any purpose, do they help to inject new life? Usually each essay, article or rant is just the vehicle of the prejudices of the writer concerned (like here) but, applying Sturgeon’s Law, something of interest or use can be found, you just need to put on your hasmat suit to go and find it.  


Unknown said...

I have been following with interest your postings on the 'Death of SF' and find myself in agreement with most of what you have to say on the matter.

I am, however a little perplexed by
what I discern as a hostility on your part to the presence of any aspect of the 'New Wave' in SF (I take your use of the term to refer to the literary movement in SF that occurred in the middle 1960's, especially on your side of the Atlantic)

It is true that a literary or other
artistic movement often manifests initilally as an insurrection (with all the attendant rhetorical bomb throwing and axe grinding), bent on toppling the Old Order and sweeping it away, but the contributions of such a movement should be judged by what it leaves
behind when its tide has ebbed
(to mix metaphors); the
lasting legacy of the New Wave was the importation into the SF field of a new literary (and, yes, political) sophistication, one that
has so percolated into all sub-fields of the genre, even Hard SF at its most diamond-hard , that both writers and readers take it for granted.

As you say the 'sense of wonder' is at the core of SF, but it need
not be in any way eroded by this
new sophistication; the works of
'New Wave' writers Brian Aldiss and
Samuel Delaney, for instance, are as informed by that sense as those of any writer of the Golden Age. (The early space opera novels of Delaney, in particular, are a crucial part of the literary ancestry of the New Space Opera, a movement you are often identified as belonging to)

Michael Stone said...

I agree with everything you say. If SF loses its sensawunda we're doomed. I couldn't believe it when that horrible 'mundane sf' movement started a few years back. Thank God it didn't gain much of a following among writers or publishers.

Neal Asher said...

Ian, seeing what goes on in present SF debates, and having read up a fair bit on what occurred during the New Wave, I tend to get exasperated. Yeah, by all means do something new - most of the old guard will probably congratulate you for that - but iconoclasm is not particularly endearing or constructive (though of course it might be good publicity).

Another thing that annoys me about the New Wave and every subsequent 'new' wave since, is the focus on 'soft' sciences (of which I'm mostly contemptuous) and an obsequious attitude to mainstream literature. Get over yourself and write your fiction, and realize that your supposed radicalism ceased to be new 40 years ago. And for fuck's sake stop whining and attacking what's popular just because nobody loves your work.

'Wave' seems to be a very suitable word. It splashes, causes a big kerfuffle, then retreats to leave debris on the rocks.

Neal Asher said...

Mundane science fiction just cracks me up, Michael. Yeah, let's write SF minus the entire element that got us reading it in the first place.

Another thing that gets me with these SF debates. So many participants bemoan the lack of (written) SF's general popularity and opine that we should all pull together to get it out there. Yet behave like the People's Front of Judea & the Judean People's Front in the face of the Romans.

LarryS said...

Sensawunda,love it! A neologism for the SF brigade!
I'm tired of all the 'SF is dead, no need to try to be original any more,lets write cyber punk' brigade. Yes cyberpunk is relevant but its not all that modern SF needs to be!
Space opera is very much alive in my mind, thanks to Reynolds,Banks and yourself!
Long may she sail!

Athena Andreadis said...

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape