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An anthology of optimistic, near future SF

Should SF Die?

(Cross-posted to my personal blog and the DayBreak Magazine site for those who prefer a more Spartan layout.)

There’s been a lot of musing about the fate of science fiction, lately. To be clear, I’ll be discussing *written SF* here (predominantly), not SF in movies, comics, video games or other media. To summarise (and this is far from complete, but I hope it touches upon the main points):

My viewpoint is that SF is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and that lack of relevance can be attributed to developments and trends already mentioned in the points above, and SF’s unwillingness to really engage with the here-and-now. That doesn’t mean that SF needs to die (actually, a slow marginalisation into an increasingly neglected and despised niche-cum-ghetto is probably a fate worse than death), but it does mean that SF needs to change, and that it needs to become much more inclusive of the alien (and I mean alien in ‘humans-can-be-aliens-to-each-other’ sense) and proactive, meaning it should not just shout ‘FIRE! FIRE!’ (and do almost nothing but), but both man the fire trucks *and* think of ways to prevent more fires.

That’s the short version: allow me to expand on it below the cut.

There have been several flame wars on the internet about what SF exactly is. For one, I think it’s as much a marketing niche as a genre defined by certain hard-to-define characteristics. For another, I think that if SF wants to prevent becoming more marginalised, it needs to ditch the common concept that it’s ‘the literature of ideas’ and should try to become ‘the literature of change’.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Ideas flow by the bucketloads as half-drunken people quip witticism in a bar, as stoned students discuss RPGs at a frat party, as white collars desperately brainstorm in anther effort to hide a lack of true inspiration. The utmost majority of ideas are ethereal, as lasting and interesting as the latest trending topic on Twitter. Yes, there are those very rare good ideas: and I’m willing to bet that most really good ideas are carefully kept under wrap until they’re patented and ready for the big time (see, for example, how Apple launches new products like iTunes, iPods, iPhones, etc.). And renaming SF ‘the literature of really good ideas’ is lame at best and pathetic at worst.

SF — should it be willing to move forward — needs to reinvent itself as the literature of change. This means that SF needs to be willing to change, itself, and continue to be willing to change, to either adapt, or — dare we think it? — be proactive. Because, let’s face it, SF hasn’t been particularly proactive in the last few decades. This also means that SF needs to be open to outer influences instead of being afraid of those. SF as a species should be willing to cross-fertilise with everything around it, and thrive, or otherwise become a genetic dead end.

So let’s apply this viewpoint — SF as a literature of change, willing to change itself, as well — to the points, mostly mentioned by others, above:

  1. SF is racist (Ashok Banker);
  2. SF is predominantly an anglophone white man’s game (Lavie Tidhar), not open enough to women, people of colour, LGBTs  and cultures other than western ones;
  3. SF is on a commercial dead end because (a)women aren’t buying it, (b) it can’t keep up with the current rate of technological change, (c) it’s eaten up from the outside by the mainstream and (d) most people grow up on fantasy films, anyway (all Mark Newton);
  4. SF, like much of the current US way of thinking, is too dismissive of actual science (Athena Andreadis);
  5. SF is not exploring relevant topics deeply enough (me);

1. SF is racist:

Let’s jump immediately into the deep end. Is SF racist? And of so, should it die, or should it mend its ways?

First one qualitative distinction: SF is not a homogenised group thing, but rather a collective of writers and readers (and publishers, editors, reviewers, critics, fans etcetera) that prefer to experience story in a certain mode. Saying that *all* SF is racist is a bit like saying all Christians, all Muslims, all Buddhists, or all atheists are racist. Unfortunately, some Christians, Muslims, Bhuddists or atheists will be racists. Fortunately, some of them will not be racists.

Thus, not *all* SF is racist: throughout its history novels and short stories by people of colour have been — and continue to be — published: Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Vandana Singh, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor and David Anthony Durham immediately come to mind, and then I realise I am overlooking many, many others (for which my profound apologies).

Therefore, a better question is: ‘Is SF, as a genre, predominantly racist?’ That’s a tough one to answer. Are the SF novels and short stories written by, or about, non-white or non-western people just a small, negligible minority in a sea of conservative WASP tales? Or is there a trend towards more inclusion of diverse cultures in SF?

On the one hand, it is extremely hard to deny that the majority of both SF writers *and* SF protagonists are white males. The Racefail discussion earlier this year does not exactly show SF from its best angle, and incidents like The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF don’t exactly help in that regard, either. I remember that some statistics were made of the number of male/female authors in the SF digests, but can’t find them right now, although I do distinctly recall that the majority of writers in them was male (and white).

That none of the 57 Hugo Awards for Best Novel have been won by people of colour (and 15 by women), is not a good sign. That all of the SFWA Grand Masters are white, and that only 3 of the 27 SFWA Grand Masters are women doesn’t help matters, either. Compare this with a literary prize like the Man Booker Prize (where 8 people of colour, and 15 women have been awarded among the total of 43 recipients), or the Nobel Prize for Literature (where 9 people of colour, and, admittedly, only 9 women have been awarded among the total of 106 recipients), then one can clearly see that SF still has way to go in that respect. OK: one could also say that the whole of western literature has quite a way to go in that respect, but I do note that the number of ethnic and women recipients of both literature and SF prizes has been going up since, say 1960 or so. If looked from that perspective, SF has much more catching up to do than literature.

So in SF there is, undeniably, a strong bias for fiction written by, or written about, white males. Part of this is historically grown (yes, the whole western world was more racist in the past — think slavery, witch hunts, concentration camps and other atrocities — and only slowly becoming less racist over time), but I can’t escape the impression that a large part of it is due to the fact that SF, that is: a very large part of the community that we call SF, is very conservative, and as such very much behind the times.

(Obviously, there remains the question how much of this bias is intentional, unintentional, or just plain white privilege at work. It’s another tough question on which I don’t have an easy or definite answer. I’m ignoring it for the moment, as I like to concentrate — in my best Shine fashion — on improving things, on looking for solutions.)

On the other hand, I do have the feeling that the tide is, finally, slowly, yet inevitably turning.

One very recent point of light is provided by Ahmed A. Khan’s and Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad’s A Mosque Among the Stars anthology that portrays (at least one) muslim, or Islam, in a positive light. Then there are anthologies like Cosmos Latinos, Dark Matter and Visions of the Third Millenium, and websites like SciFiNoir, the Carl Brandon Society, Afrofuturism, and The Angry Black Woman (even if the latter is only partly about SF & fantasy), and more.

If there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that I am missing quite a few similar ethnic SF loving people out there, for which my apologies: the more, the merrier, as far as I’m concerned. And do enlighten me!

2. SF is predominantly WASPish:

Check out several summaries on the World SF News Blog about how much SF short stories from international writers are published: it’s very little, indeed.

Still, this is an area where I do see quite a bit of forward movement, to wit:

These are all examples of international SF with — mostly, although not exclusively — non-white writers and protagonists. Maybe they’re just drops in the bucket, but these drops are not colourless: they are distinct, and they keep falling in greater numbers. Like in literature, the landscape will change. And this is a change SF should embrace.

Then there is the problem of ‘writing the other’: should people from culture A write about people from culture B, or not?

Of course, this is frought with perils, but still needs to be done. If everybody in the world would only write and read about their own culture, cultural exchange and quite possibly culture itself would die a slow and painful death. Trying to imagine oneself in another’s place is highly important, and trying to write from another culture’s viewpoint is part and parcel of that.

Make no mistake: this has been done (Men Writing SF as Women, Women Writing SF as Men are just two examples), and hopefully will continue to be done. However, SF often takes the easy way out by using a white male protagonist who is slowly (or often incredibly quickly) accepted in the alien culture (FernGully, Dances with Wolves [OK: not SF but a telling example], Avatar), and then — as the hero — solves all problems. That Hollywood movies do it is one thing, but if written SF is reallyfifty years ahead’ of big movie SF, then shouldn’t it feature much more stories where the hero is a (non-white) native and/or female and/or LGBT?

The obvious answer here is that SF needs to open itself more, much more to writing from other viewpoints: other sexes, other ethnicities, other cultures. For a literature that’s supposedly interested, and often about, the alien SF, but all too often, seems ethnocentric and infused with xenophobia.

3. SF is on a commercial dead end:

Here’s where Mark Charan Newton has stirred up quite a ruckus — and rightfully so — but while this would have been a good chance to analyse how much written SF sales are dropping, and the deeper causes to that, that unfortunately happens only somewhat in the follow-up post (‘What is happening to SF is a negative feedback loop, reinforced by the way modern publishing works, as well as some potential cultural problems’), where Richard Morgan comments:

…that where the SF/F genre is concerned,the message has gone out, loud and clear, that in order to make successful artefacts of mass entertainment, you must not challenge your audience with anything that a 14 year old American mid-western teenager can’t instantly relate to.

This, BTW, is totally aimed at SF movies. Hence Morgan’s and Newton’s musings on risk-taking (‘Is fantasy too risk-free?’/‘risk isn’t everything to casual readers’).  However, there are already whole SF lines aimed at ‘no risk’-taking: see the Star Wars, Star Trek and other sharecropper novels that indeed sell pretty well, thank you. I don’t think most ‘original’ SF needs, or should, compete with that. Written SF should be ahead of Hollywood, right?

Mark provides a good explanation of ‘frontlist sales’ in bookshops, and while his observation that —

What we have is a vicious circle. If there are only a few SF books selling well each year, that isn’t enough room for it to acquire significant market share/nurture a culture. It attracts fewer new readers. And as Dark Fantasy rises, this will only squeeze SF out further.

— is certainly true, it overlooks the positive effect that a truly new SF blockbuster, a game changer can have. An obvious example from over two decades ago is William Gibson’s Neuromancer: while not the very first cyberpunk novel, nor the best, it broke cyberpunk to a larger audience, paving the way for more titles and more sales for SF overall.

And Neuromancer took risks: in many aspects it was different from the ‘mainstream’ SF that it preceded. So obviously, if SF keeps churning out the same old/same old all over again, it will certainly dwindle into insignificance, both commercially and artistically.

So in order to get out of this slump, SF must re-invent itself. For that, SF must welcome change, and change itself. It should face the modern world and the near-future, instead of running away from it. For that, it must — inevitably — take risks.

Roughly speaking, both the New Wave and cyberpunk were catch-up exercises: with the New Wave SF caught up with the cultural and sociological changes of society at that time (60s/70s), with cyberpunk with the technological changes (back in the early 80s, almost no SF was about computers, software and the internet).

One might argue that with the short burst of SF novels and short stories about the technological singularity in the early oughts SF was, for once, trying to be ahead of the game. However, this focused merely on the high tech computing frontier, and mostly ignored a flesh-and-blood world that was (and is) suffering major problems like environmental degradation, overpopulation, climate change and more.

It’s high time SF faced that one head-on, and while some may argue that it’s already doing this, I fear that the ‘dystopia-only’ approach is proving less than fruitful. More on this later. But it seems imperative that SF does its next catch-up exercise, and quick.

(And quite possibly I’m wrong: maybe SF should be about mind-blowingly virtual avatars doing mind-numbingly stupid things, a kind of reverse ‘science fantasy’ where SF is merely a thin veneer on an escapist fantasy power dream. The cynics among you may observe that this has always been the case…;-)

Then also it might be smart to aim this at a larger audience: not just the ‘14 year old Midwestern American teenager’ (where we can safely add *white* before teenager), but maybe at women, blacks, hispanics, asians and other ‘minorities’ (I wouldn’t call women a minority, as there are more women than men on average, hence the quotation marks)? As Mark Newton remarks, more women read books, and they’re spending the most money on books. And those other ‘minorities’ read as well, increasingly so. So it’s not only wrong-headed (to say it softly) or medieval (to say it hard) to marginalise women, non-white people, LGBTs and other cultures from SF, it is also commercially stupid.

4. SF dismisses actual science:

This fresh in from Athena Andreadis, where she laments the casual attitude with which American society at large, and also — seemingly — SF in particular, dismiss science and the scientific method.

The prize quote:

The real problem is not that science is hard to portray well in SF. The problem is impoverished imagination, willful ignorance and endless repetition of recipes. In short: failure of nerve.

Amen to that, and I’ll expand on it in the next and final point→

5. SF is not relevant enough:

Where we finally arrive at one of my favourite bugbears. Yes, I know: SF does handle urgent, near-future topics like climate change, pollution, environmental degradation, overpopulation, biodiversity loss and more. However, it almost exclusively shows how things will go from bad to worse to worst, and almost never comes up with the merest hint of a proposal to a solution.

Why?

Because SF is mostly behind the times. While an offhand remark from Nick Mamatas in his brilliant Avatar review — “Avatar does represent a step forward in science fiction film in that it is only forty years behind science fiction literature rather than the usual fifty years.” — sollicits applause and warm fuzzy feelings of entitlement in several comments, the truth is that written SF is, in most cases, way behind the curve of actual scientific, technological and sociological developments in the real world.

As Marcus Chown muses in his Guardian review of When It Changed:

The discovery that we live in a universe far stranger than anything we could possibly have imagined poses a problem for science fiction writers, whose stock-in-trade is, of course, imagining what the future will bring and the impact it will have on us.

Geoff Ryman thinks that a lot of science fiction writers, faced by this difficulty, may have given up, and that a lot of science fiction — particularly what appears on TV and film — is little more than cowboys in space.

It’s worse than that: most SF writers are not only overwhelmed by developments in science, they are doubly overwhelmed by (the pace of) today’s technological and sociological progress. It’s why the utmost majority of SF writers shies away from near-future SF: things change too fast and too unpredictable for them to keep up. Which leads to the usual excuses, and to most SF written safely in the far future, which has another advantage: instead of all today’s problems and developments happening in a highly complex and often strangely intertwined manner, an SF writer can isolate a problem quite nicely on a different planet or different timeline.

This is both a folly (most of today’s problems are complex and intertwined by definition: if not they’d be different problems) and writerly cowardice as in ‘it’s too difficult so I ignore it/run away from it’ and the already cliché’d repartee ‘it’s not up to SF to imagine solutions to today’s problems’.

Because that’s the problem: SF doesn’t want to (try to) tackle today problems. It just wants to highlight them, exaggerate them into apocalyptic disasters and let the world go down the drain in five hundred different ways. SF is very good at imaging how civilisation (or the world in general) ends: if it only used part of that imagination thinking about solving an actual problem it might have had some more respect from the world at large.

So let’s call it what it is: a failure of the imagination. Yes, quote me on it: ‘most written SF today suffers from a failure of the imagination’. It’s lazy, it avoids doing the hard work. As Athena Andreadis said:

However, the nation’s radical shift to the right also brought on disdain for all expertise – science in particular, as can be seen by the obstruction of research in stem cells and climate change and of teaching evolution in schools (to say nothing of scientist portrayals in the media, exemplified by Gaius Baltar in the aggressively regressive Battlestar Galactica reboot).

This trend culminated in the choice of first a president and then a vice-presidential candidate who flaunted their ignorance and deemed their faux-folksy personae sufficient qualifications to lead the most powerful nation on the planet. Even as the fallout from these decisions deranges their culture, Americans cling to their iPods, SUVs and Xboxes and still expect instant cures for everything, from acne to old age, seeing scientists as the Morlocks that must cater to their Eloi.

It seems not only true for the unthinking masses at large, but for a large amount of SF, as well.

In short, SF should get off its arse, be totally open to outside influences and other cultures, and get involved with proactive thinking, proudly using science, about the near future.

Conceptual breakthrough doesn’t happen by looking at the other while not trying to understand her/him/it: it happens when a fresh understanding, a new insight opens up the previously weird and uncanny behaviour of the other, enhancing our view of a highly diverse world, opening us up to the beauty of it all.

Sense of wonder doesn’t arrive by watching the world from the safety of the couch or the local pub: it comes from engaging with the strange and the alien, then truly understanding it, and seeing the world in a new light.

Conceptual breakthrough doesn’t happen by pointing only to the things that go wrong, shouting fire and then depicting the seven-hundred-and-twenty-fourth version of Ragnarok: it happens when engaging with a problem so deeply that either obvious or lateral approaches come to the fore.

Sense of wonder doesn’t come when the scientific, technological or sociological causes of a phenomenon are ignored, taken for granted or not understood: it comes when the root cause — which can be something initially alien like quantum mechanics, string theory, complexity or chaos theory — suddenly becomes obvious, when a new way of looking at the world becomes clear, when a wonderful new understanding dawns.

Neither can be achieved without hard work and inspiration, quite possibly more hard work and inspiration than ever before (in that manner, like in When It Changed: collaboration may be the new way forward. It is already so in science, so why not in SF? Must writers remain isolated islands in a sea of change?), but this is also the challenge. Is SF up to this challenge? If not, I suspect it’s bound for a slow deterioration not unlike that of, say, the western (I know: there are still plenty of western *movies* — which  even show more signs of engaging with today’s culture that SF: Brokeback Mountain, anyone? — but western fiction has been on life support for decades). If SF is up to the challenge, then it may become relevant once again.

Since this is the festive season, I remain hopeful (although that’s hard, sometimes), and next year I intend to lead by example.

41 Comments»

[...] Dutch editor and writer Jetse de Vries discusses the future (and present) of science fiction in Should SF Die? over at the Shine Anthology blog. Jetse addresses issues of race, international SF, commercial [...]

  euphrosyne wrote @

Wow, interesting-sounding premise, but I literally can’t read the post on this absurd layout you’ve got. Maybe you should dedicate more than a 60-character column width to your main posts so that 80% of the page isn’t taken up by the stuff that’s of 2% interest?

Sorry to be harsh, but standards exist for a reason. Breaking them can be worthwhile, but not like this.

Cheers.

  Fabien Lyraud wrote @

I think hard science is a dead end in science fiction genre. The french philosopher Regis Debray says the technological paradigm becomes a right wing paradigm in the end of the 70′s. In the other way the cultural paradigm becomes a left wing one.
The only way of survivance for the genre is the anthrpological approach. The reconciliation between human science and exact science is a necessity.
It seem a real preocupation of few editors in magazine and anthology. Your anthology Shine push authors to describe a real near future in an anthropological manner (the only way to write an optimistic view of near future).
I’m french and the most readed french authors are the ones who use anthropology in theirs novels. But publishers prefer translate damned hard science. I would read french translations of authors like Liz Williams of Elisabeth Bear but they jures only by Egan and Reynolds.

  uberVU – social comments wrote @

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by Outshine: [Ed] For those interested, “Should SF Die”: http://is.gd/5Ame0 . Tomorrow a superb DayBreak Magazine story from Carlos Hernandez: “Fembot”!…

  Jason Sanford wrote @

Jetse: You make some dead on points here. Yes, SF is overwhelmingly WASP. Yes, SF needs to focus more on stories which resonate with people, and are relevant to their lives. Yes, many genre writers work within a limited imaginative sphere.

But your words can’t help but remind me of the mundane manifesto from a few years ago, and how that was the answer to all which ails SF. But then the mundane SF issue of Interzone came and went without any love from readers, and that was that. Because stories and readers are the key.

So I look forward to your anthology, and hope it provides great stories which address your concerns. B/c without the great stories to back up this debate on what ails SF, none of this intellectual back and forth matters even a tiny bit.

  Joe Chiappetta wrote @

Wow, great insights in your essay. I agree that morality is largely missing from most science fiction today. That’s one of the concepts that I address in my book coming out next year.

As for the lack of women science fiction fans, I am doing my part, since my wife, daughter, and sister are SF fans.

  Should SF Die? « DayBreak Magazine wrote @

[...] 25, 2009 · Leave a Comment (Cross-posted from the Shine [...]

  shineanthology wrote @

Euphrosyne–

I cross-posted it on
my personal blog
and on the
DayBreak Magazine
site, which have a more Spartan layout.

Each to his own!

  shineanthology wrote @

Fabien–

I’m not sure if hard SF is a dead end: I often quite like it myself (BTW: there will be a story by Alastair Reynolds in Shine: it’s not hard SF…;-).

Hard SF gives a writer the opportunity to muse on the true nature of reality (explore the fabric of reality, if you like), and as such it often goes deep into space, and deep into time, and on such scales humanity is dwarfed.

I do agree with Greg Egan (who can be very humane in his short stories, BTW) that space is such a vast and hostile environment that only AIs or uploaded humans can traverse it.

In any case, I do think SF should face today’s huge problems head-on, and while good science is an essential part of that approach, it is also adamant that we address what *humans* are doing, and there anthropology becomes indispensable. In other words, I think we need both approaches, at least.

Finally, sorry to hear Liz Williams and Elizabeth Bear aren’t translated into French. You could also check out your compatriot Aliette de Bodard, but ironically she might not have been translated into French, either.

  Fabien Lyraud wrote @

I think author like Egan are the swansong of the Hard SF. If the technological paradigm became a right wing paradigm i have no envy to read neo conservative cyber utopy or something like. The french hard SF author Maurice G Dantec is a far right neo conservative and he has a very destructive prose. I am scared this kind of author became more and more numerous in hard SF. The transhumanity is a way to speak about super human being like a superior race or a providential race. It’s a a la mode theme. The paradigm change is visible in the SF landscape.
The cultural and civilisational thematics are a very royal way. At to speak about science it’s necessary to speak about humans. And few hard science authors have forgotten its.

Jetse i guess you to read Roland C Wagner’s “les future mystères de Paris” a optimistic series of near future SF by an acclamed french author.

  shineanthology wrote @

Jason–

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Obviously, doing it the other way around — first put out an anthology on a specific theme, then explain what the idea was afterwards — is not very viable. I already had to spend a lot of effort just explaining writers what exactly I was looking for (otherwise it would have been an antho full of happy clappy stories where a single invention instantly changes Earth into paradise), so I might as well keep explaining what I’m aiming for and why.

Also, as evidenced by the many links to debates elsewhere, this is a hot topic in SF circles, and I can either ignore it, and not be very relevant myself, or face it head-on. Not much of a choice if I want to practice what I preach.

FYI, you can already check out several near-future, optimistic SF stories at
DayBreak Magazine
.

Finally, if story is the be-all and end-all (and I’m not saying it’s not important: it’s of crucial importance. But it’s not the *only* thing) then why bother dressing it up as SF, thriller, mystery, literature, horror, steampunk and what-other-genres-have-you? We might as well call it all fantasy and be done with it.

But I think SF can have a unique approach that justifies its existence. But for that approach to remain unique instead of becoming stale, it needs to change and re-invent itself.

  shineanthology wrote @

Fabien–

I would love to read Roland C Wagner, but my French isn’t up to it. Has he been translated? The wikipedia article on him doesn’t mention translations.

Also, while hard SF can be right wing (and there certainly is some), I can assure you that Greg Egan does not intend his hard SF to be seen as ‘Aryan Superhumans in Space’. He has been on a writing hiatus for five years where he was involved in the fate of refugees in Australia, fighting for their rights. I interviewed him for Interzone last year, and he is very humane, far from right wing.

  Fabien Lyraud wrote @

You are right about Egan. It’s the reason i spoke of swansong. Egan is perhaps the last of the mohican of hard SF author.
But Egan is of these authors who are labeled postmoderns. I don’t like author would break with ton of things like literature. I’ve read stories from Egan and i’m not impressed. Oceanic looks like aearly Clarke story. A lab story with metaphisical preocupation. It’s not revolutionary.

  sfmurphy1971 wrote @

Per racism and the Eurocentric tack of science fiction, I’d agree that inclusiveness is desireable. If the effort is about expanding the tent and making it possible for everyone to share their story, then I’m behind it.

Problem is, that isn’t the feeling I get. I get the same feeling about science fiction that I often get as a history instructor. That gut feeling is that we are merely planning on switching our prejudices.

Which is a bit of a problem for me as a writer. I like to write about stories set in the American Midwest, preferably far away from any city. The way the debate has been going over the past few years, I get the ongoing message that folks like myself need not apply to this new SF future.

Moreover, I have no problem reading about the Other (I’m a historian, it is part of my job) but when it gets to the point where none of the stories resonate with me on any level at all then my urge is to simply walk away.

And go read a history book.

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

  Patty Jansen wrote @

(Copy of a comment I left of the Word SF blog.)

I think it doesn’t help that there seems to be a subset of SF writers and fans who seek to excise from SF anything they don’t think conforms to their narrow vision of the genre (usually the while, male, ‘ideas’ type). If SF were to fully embrace the full variety of the genre, I don’t think its future would look bleak at all. There are plenty of different people writing Speculative Fiction that uses a future timeline (and therefore cannot be termed fantasy?) that is not ideas-based but uses sociological elements or just a cracking plot.

Patty Jansen

December 25, 2009 at 5:39 pm

As reader, I connect with stories and characters, not with ideas. As woman, representing 70% of readership, that is what makes me pick up a book. As writer, I think SF as a whole should get over its 1950′s must-have-new-ideas cringe and move on to write stories that engage readers in a similar way fantasy does. If that means that my sociological/mystery/crime-tinged SF gets labelled ‘Futuristic Fantasy’ then I’d be more than happy with that.

  Die, SF, Sie! | The Crotchety Old Fan wrote @

[...] Jetse DeVries has offered up a very thought-provoking piece on the future of SF in his recent piece entitled Should SF Die? [...]

  Antonino wrote @

A very enlightening essay! I agree with the most part of it. But, about the statement: “I think that if SF wants to prevent becoming more marginalised, it needs to ditch the common concept that it’s the literature of ideas and should try to become the literature of change”, I wonder how SF can be the literature of change, doing without ideas (however, I imagine you don’t mean that). It’s true, as well, that “most written SF today suffers from a failure of the imagination”. Whereas “SF can have a unique approach that justifies its existence” sounds slightly apodictical, in my opinion. I’m inclined to believe that SF can have multiple approaches to change.

  Jeff VanderMeer wrote @

I think SF should die because of all the irresponsible generalities in this post.

  shineanthology wrote @

Jeff–

Instead of SF carrying on in, well, ‘responsible silence’? A bit like homosexuality in the US army: “don’t ask, don’t tell”? (see Fembot: it doesn’t work.)
;-)

(Of course, talking about *change* in a literature that’s supposedly about a *changing* future, is like cursing in the Church. Of scientology…;-)

  shineanthology wrote @

Antonino–

SF should use the idea(s) as the *starting* point, not as the single feature. Or, differently put: ideas are a means to an end, not the end in itself.

The times that an SF story could work with *only* the single idea, should be well gone. That is like an oldster insisting that an iPhone (or BlackBerry) should be *only* a phone, and not a mulitpurpose tool and gateway to the internet, to boot.

The world has grown up: so should SF.

So SF can indeed have *multiple* approaches to change, as long as the *single idea* approach is well left behind: the real world is complex and interlinked, and while a hammer and nails work fine when repairing a wooden cabin, they’re pretty useless when trying to repair a computer.

  Science Fiction is not about science « Damien G. Walter wrote @

[...] de Vries asks if SF should die? Jetse lays out some of the core arguments around this much debated topic. My own response is very [...]

  Antonino wrote @

Jetse-

I agree with you that «SF should use the idea(s) as the starting point, not as the single feature.» But, about your metaphoric reference to hammer and nails, I think that new ideas provide new tools. After all, Sf is a job performed working up ideas.
According to Damien G. Walter’s, it is true indeed that SF concerns (and conceives) myths (and, consequently, ideas). However, it provides *future* myths, and therefore it shares in building the future, intended in a scientific and tecnological sense, as well. The first space probe that China launched to the Moon was named Chang’e, that is very alike to *Change*, but is the name of the chinese Moon goddess. Here, as elsewhere, fiction, science, mythology and technology cross each other.

  Antonino wrote @

I apologize: I meant “According to Damien G. Walter”, of course (I was thinking something as: “According to Damien G. Walter’s statement”).

  Jeff VanderMeer wrote @

Jetse:

It’s not that–this stuff all needs to be talked about. But the b.s. has to be separated out from the non-b.s. Legitimate problems exist in genre fiction with regard to diversity. A midlist POC author who wouldn’t do PR for his books and whose sales were mediocre and thus was dropped…that’s not racism. That’s the business we’re in. For anyone. Of any color or culture.

Now, *getting* to that point–to the point of maximum opportunity–that seems to me to be the real issue for debate. To what extent are POC not getting that opportunity. Is it a problem? With which particular publishing houses or editors? Etc., etc.

There’s also a matter of commercialism. The most vibrant, best POC writers writing SF/F, like Vandana Singh, aren’t bestsellers–they don’t write the equivalent of airport thrillers. So they can’t automatically generate publicity. If like Singh they’re not writing very commercial fiction, it’s hard to get traction within genre, which is looking largely for the same-old same-old and has become more conservative, not less, at the top levels in recent years (hard to blame some editors, given the economy, though). Then you factor in some degree of some people being uncomfortable with “the other” or with experience not their own, and that just makes it harder admittedly.

And the bit about the Hugos is insanely horrible, I agree. (At the same time,the Hugos are f—ed for more than the reasons you cite. They’re f—ed in a more general way and have been for many years.) Honestly, if I were a POC looking at that kind of record and developing a strategy for my career, I would probably opt to find a mainstream literary imprint to publish my books and let them call me “magic realism” or whatever, because I might have a better shot at reaching an audience.

No, I fully admit I didn’t read your post as carefully as I should have. This stuff should be talked about. But I’m frankly worn out just by reading the discussions of it. And I’ve got a lot of editing and writing to do over the next five months. I am glad there are others with more stamina right now.

Re Best American Fantasy–it’s a good example, btw, of people not understanding how much effort it takes to do an anthology. Readers didn’t initially support the effort at all, bashed us for including lit mags in the US/Canada (which are much more diverse than most genre mags), then some bashed us for not covering Latin America, when we simply didn’t have the money or resources to cover more than North America. Meanwhile, there are issues of translation and being able to get a fair sampling.

So, yeah, we’re covering Latin America now, which I feel great about as an editor and as a person. As a businessman who needs to put food on the table, not so great, because it’s probably the one thing that’ll sink us because of the extra time and energy devoted to it…with very little gain. (Ann and I already take no advance on BAF to make sure it stays afloat) because the same people who diss anthos for various reasons don’t seem to put their purchasing power or their blogging efforts behind the ones that are going for more diversity. Hell, we had more diversity than most genre anthos even with just covering North America. And we’re going to have a guest editor who is Kenyan-Canadian next year, which will add a whole new perspective.

Do I think any of these positives will affect our bottom line? No. Because I don’t believe that enough of the people who discuss these things actually buy the stuff they say they actually want. I’m hopeful I’ll be proved wrong, but it’s frustrating.

The bottom line is: antho series that don’t sell get canceled. Authors that don’t sell enough don’t get more commercial book deals. If readers don’t BUY the diverse stuff then the diverse stuff simply won’t effing exist.

So there’s some activism for you. BUY THE FUCKING STUFF YOU SAY YOU WANT. Support presses like Aqueduct more, for example. Buy Nalo Hopkinson’s novels fer chrissakes. Or does everybody in their heart of hearts just want more crap like Avatar, whether it’s on the screen or on the page?

The other thing–we need more home-grown efforts by POC *as editors* of anthologies. Take a look at all of the major editors in the field. What do you see? A bunch of white folks for the most part. Granted, a bunch of people who work their asses off for often minimal gain because they love genre fiction, so I’m not dissing myself or others. But I am saying–you cannot have true diversity in the field until there are more anthologies and mags *edited* by people coming from diverse backgrounds. (This, also, doesn’t seem to be a problem outside of genre.) Part of the point of the revolving series editors for Best American Fantasy *is* exactly that: to inject, year after year, a *different* set of opinions into the field as to what “best” means, and in what context.

All right, I know I’m just babbling now and somebody’s likely to come down on me like a load of bricks. Still, Jetse, ultimately, thanks for the post.

  Antonino wrote @

If it’s true, as Jeff states, that SF “might have a better shot at reaching an audience” by calling it “magic realism, or whatever”, then a pervasive prejudice exists against it. So, Sf might change, but something else ought to change, to invert the trend. I don’t know what, to tell the truth. It is a damned vicious circle, I fear.

  shineanthology wrote @

My comment above got scrambled, so I deleted it. It should have been:

Jeff–

Many thanks for the thoughtful and well-considered comeback.

“it’s a good example, btw, of people not understanding how much effort it takes to do an anthology.”

Believe me, I do.

“if readers don’t BUY the diverse stuff then the diverse stuff simply won’t effing exist.

So there’s some activism for you. BUY THE FUCKING STUFF YOU SAY YOU WANT.”

True: I read Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “Racing the Dark, David Anthony Durham’s “Acacia”, Housuke Nojiri’s “Usurper of the Sun” (with Otsiuchi’s “Zoo” lined up. And a large amount of short stories from PoC, as my reading this year was predominantly short fiction (I’ve read very few novels).

“The other thing–we need more home-grown efforts by POC *as editors* of anthologies.”

Also true.

So here’s my pledge for 2010:

(1) I pledge to buy and read at least 10 books written by PoC;

(2) If SHINE sells well enough that I can talk my publisher into doing a follow-up anthology, then I pledge to have a non-white co-editor.

Anybody care to pledge something along this line for 2010, as well?

(NB: this is not aimed at Jeff, who is — through Ann’s and his effort with Best American Fantasy and the Last Drink Bird Head Awards, to mention just a few, and the things he said in the post above — already doing his best.)

  Laura wrote @

Well, those are very good intentions. However, if the story offered is not interesting, I wouldn’t buy it, even if is has been written by a PoC (for the records: I am Latin American). I only buy good stuff and that means good stories. That is all. Good stories. Well written, well developed, with original touches, with fresh ideas or fresh statements. If characters in the story are plain, or just typical, or simple boring, I quit reading and maybe quit buying from that author. What do I expect to find in a story? Excellence, entertainement, and ideas, charismatic characters (interesting female characters would help) and original arguments. If it has this stuff, I am sold. :)

  Kathryn Cramer wrote @

Genres live by argument and discourse. They die when no one wants to talk about them anymore. If you want SF to grow and change, keep talking.

  Dylan Fox wrote @

Interesting essay, but you’re asking a lot from SF writers, aren’t you? People in the public eye are still arguing whether human caused global warming is even real and scientists are struggling to find a solution. Do you really expect a lone writer–or even small group of writers–, whose expertise is in using words, to succeed where the scientific community fails?

Maybe the biggest problem is that there is a very easy solution to most of the world’s problems, and there is no way to implement it: People need to stop breeding. The only way to stop people in sufficient numbers is to remove their free will. Should SF writers focus on making that palatable?

The other solution is extra-terrestrial colonisation, which falls into the ‘not near-future’ trap.

The other question is, if PoC want more anthologies, magazines and awards to show their particular colour, are they setting up anthologies, magazines and awards themselves as well as pointing out the shortfalls of the existing lot?

  shineanthology wrote @

Laura–

Almost exactly what Jason Sanford said a bit upthread.

As the saying goes: ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’, so quite often you need to actually *buy* the novel/story collection/anthology/magazine to be sure if the story is to your liking. Reviews can help, but I have greatly disagreed with reviews before (not to put down reviews in general: I just agree with them, and disagree with them, in various degrees), so while they can be a good indication, you often need to read the actual book for yourself.

Hence it helps if you develop broad reading habits.

Obviously, you will be disappointed, but I like to think the rewards are worth the effort.

As it is, I will be featuring excerpts from every Shine story from January 1 onwards until the anthology is released (April 2010), at DayBreak Magazine.

I’m also featuring a near-future, optimistic SF stories there every second Friday, and the most recent one is from latino writer Carlos Hernandez, called “Fembot”, and it’s free at the click of a mouse!

  shineanthology wrote @

Kathryn–

Indeed.

However, roughly speaking, that keeps a genre artistically alive. To keep a genre commercially alive, as Jeff has pointed out above, people need to put their money where their mouth is.

In every way.

  shineanthology wrote @

Dylan–

Yes I am (asking a lot from SF writers).

But I want SF to think about *possible* solutions: if SF writers knew the *actual* solutions I’m pretty sure they’d either be shouting those from the rooftops, or patenting them.

And you’re already doing it yourself:

“People need to stop breeding.”

I fully agree with that. But you assume that the only way to solve that is:

“The only way to stop people in sufficient numbers is to remove their free will.”

With all due respect I disagree, and so does New Scientist.

“Should SF writers focus on making that palatable?”

I think they should try to imagine a humane solution to that (hint: increasing both education levels and wealth worldwide helps: so maybe the western world needs to share more, much more).

But, to repeat: I don’t expect SF writers to come up with the silver bullet, the actual solution: I just wish they would try to imagine possible alternatives, and so inspire actual scientists, and as such be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Yes, it’s very, very difficult. But, like others, you have already made the first Tentative Steps Forward.

  Kathryn Cramer wrote @

Jeste, here’s the situation commercially. There is some commercial pain out there. It is not evenly distributed. It is pretty scary out there, but there is a lot of reason for hope.

Google and Amazon wouldn’t be trying so hard to eat publishers’ lunch if there were no lunch to eat.

Where this wave of financial pain seems to have hit is the publishing monoculture, the Really Big Books. As someone in the midlist, I find that this wave of disaster is having much less effect than I expected.

  Antonino wrote @

When Jetse says that SF writers should try to imagine humane solutions, I suppose he’s referring to some kind of political alternative or scientific project, as well. He thinks, obviously, that to imagine those solutions is the same as being on the right track, and I agree with him. Only, it sems to me that no innovative solution could run if it doesn’t allow an economic benefit. So, it is evident that Sf writers have to devise this side of the question.

  Rage against the dying of the light… wrote @

[...] SF Die? Jetse DeVries (crossposting from the Shine Anthology website lays out the various reasons suggested throughout the intersphere as to why printed SF is doomed, [...]

  V-Hausen wrote @

This is kind of in response to Jeff V’s posting regarding gender and race inequalities vis-a-vis SF. I – as many other fans – have read a lot of articles shouting how women writers and people of color are under-represented in genre fiction, especially science fiction. The most often evidence cited is “look at these publication statistics from the big three in comparison to these other magazines” (at least in the case of gender-related discussions).

But Jeff – rightfully – points out that this is a business. In this business, readership drives sales. So where is all the market research data pointing out that READERS (i.e., BUYERS, the people who subscribe to the big three, etc.) are complaining about gender and race inequality? Where is the research showing that if magazines would just publish more stories from racial or gender perspectives X, Y, or Z, they’d bump up their sales? And when I say “readers” I’m not talking about aspiring writers – I’m talking about people willing to shell out their own money for a good magazine instead of someone doing market research for their next submission. Show me reader data – market research data – and you might convince me of your positions on equality. I’m serious here, I haven’t seen any such data in the Strange Horizons articles on gender inequality, etc., and it would help me believe that you and others have any kind of a valid point. Right now, the whole gender/racial discussion in SF has a social agenda tone rather than a “this is good business” tone.

Again, you said it yourself: this is a business. It’s not a charity designed to give new authors a shot at an audience. I say if the big three have a paying audience that demands a certain kind of fiction, it’s up to you to prove to them that their audience isn’t what they think it is and that they need to somehow change. I have seen no proof. Vomiting out male-to-female author ratios is not market research. Showing a decline in readership over time does not magically link said decline to gender or racial inequality. The market is the market and all this complaining about how it’s unfair (a) isn’t proof that under-representation is somehow partly responsible for a shrinking SF market, and (b) won’t change crap. I want data, not another opinion.

  shineanthology wrote @

This piece is about written SF in general, not just short stories. And as novels—which still form the utmost majority of sales—go, fantasy is outselling SF by a mile. Go check both Mark Charan Newton’s posts on that.

Last time I checked, fantasy had (and has) huge bestsellers like the Harry Potter and Twilight series, both written by women. For reference, check out the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list of 2008 (that of 2009 is not available yet, AFAIK).

First *SF* novel at number 100: Neal Stephenson’s “Ananthem”. Then at number 139: “Ender in Exile” by Orson Scott Card. Followed by “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed” by Sean Williams at number 145, “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” by Karen Traviss at number 149, “Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Invincible” by Troy Denning at number 151.

So basically *one* SF novel in the top 100 (and it barely scraped in), and 5 in total in the top 151. Two of those by very well-established authors (Stephenson and Card), three of those media tie-ins.

Fantasy? Already starting with Stephenie Meyer at number 3…

In fantasy *writing* the gender imbalance is much less pronounced (it may even have disappeared) than in SF *writing*. At least as important—see again Mark Charan Newton’s comments: he was an editor at Solaris Books, he knows what he’s talking about—is that the majority of genre fiction *readers* are women.

So alienating the majority of your genre buying public is not a smart commercial move, to say the least.

As to short fiction: most online magazines take (and some of them, like Strange Horizons, have been doing that for quite a while) a pro-active approach to the gender imbalance issue: Clarkesworld Magazine published more women than men in its first year, and has kept up a good (read: about equal) gender distribution after that. As mentioned, Strange Horizons has done that throughout its inception in September 2000. The same for Fantasy Magazine, and if you take a look at the submission guidelines for the upcoming Lightspeed Magazine (“We believe that the science fiction genre’s diversity is its greatest strength, and we wish that viewpoint to be reflected in our story content and our submission queues; we welcome submissions from writers of every race, religion, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation.“), we can expect the same over there, as well.

And even in one of the ‘big three’, namely Asimov’s, I notice more new names appearing, and a much larger proportion of women. Incidentally, Sheila Williams told me at Anticipation that the Kindle sales of Asimov’s were rising considerably, compensating for the loss of the paper circulation.

Combine this with all the developments of SF and fantasy becoming more welcoming to international writers (see point 3 in my post above), and I see a movement of the genre becoming more inclusive.

If for SF this is just in time, or too little, too late remains to be seen.

As always, YMMV.

  P. Fitzpatrick wrote @

I hesitate to invoke Hegel, but I feel the swing towards Fantasy is bound to shift back towards Science. It may take some time. The post-war 50′s was a perfect time for phallic rockets and interplanetary dreaming. Failure in Viet Nam and the end of the Moon program kind of put a hole in that sense of wonder and progress. Computers are fun and exciting, but intrinsically not human. Just how soft and mortal our bodies are makes the heroism of old SF seem more and more deluded.
Rationalism and Science are important and needed but are not sufficient for the human psyche. P.H.d. candidates have been known to devote their lives to pure science or mathematics and then suddenly up and leave for some mystical cult. I think that somehow this is reflective of our culture’s love/hate relationship with science. It reminds me of the poet William Blake’s 4 Zoa-s. They were fallen beings, scattered from an original unity. Urizen – Reason was one. Los (Art) was another. Yet they had been one.
Another question is whether or not all this civilization is just some extension of nineteenth century confusion and ennui over the message of Charles Darwin. Fantasy can help blunt his message, particularly if the Bible Belt has loosened to the extent that your religious pants are falling off. I think R.E. Howard may have had it partly right, barbarism is not all that far from us. His intellectual opponent, H.P. Lovecraft, may have championed civilization, but I think he had a better picture of the human condition that emerges, existentially, once the pants have fallen completely. Horror. So many people would rather embrace Fundamentalism than face that. I believe we are in two wars over something just like that. Science Fiction’s conceit has been to presume that humans can REST there. Science never rests. We are Lensmen, Galileo, Heretic. We would deny man’s importance. The fascination for that possibility will never completely disappear. But our capacity for rage and terror at it will never cease either.

  Sven Damgaard Ørnstrup wrote @

Hi Jetse,

I just stumbled over this blog post by accident – searching for pictures of fire, actually. But instead you set ME on fire! Great article on SF! I agree with you in a lot of your observations.

I also know that you discuss generel tendencies, and that you know there are exceptions to the rule.

But still I feel a need to mention Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. By now the series is 15 to 20 years old. But still it stands as a proud example of what SF can achieve in regards to a serious and imaginative discussion of the challenges and possibilites(!) that our current society / world faces.

You probably know the series, since you seem to be very into the genre, but since this is really the kind of SF, that you are asking for and since the series wasn’t discussed in the article, I thought it deserved to be mentioned.

Again thank you for a very interesting article.

Greetings from a fantasy writer – yeah, I guess I chose the right genre ;-) – from Denmark

/Sven

  shineanthology wrote @

Hi Sven,

Sorry to be replying so late: I really have been stupendously buy.

Anyway, I love Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy. I actually had a very good talk with Stan himslef at the last WorldCon in Melbourne. And yes, I did ask if he wanted to write an optimistic short story, but he told me he was way too busy with his next novel.

Make no mistake: I would have loved to include a Kim Stanley Robinson story in
SHINE
.


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