The Future of Futuristic Fiction

 

About 13 years ago, in August 2003, an article by Spider Robinson, titled “Forward into the Past”, was published in the Globe & Mail newspaper. The article states that science fiction is in an ever-increasing slump. Reading the article, it becomes clear that the science fiction Spider Robinson is talking about specifically is hard science fiction. This article caused a great furor in science fiction circles and was the hot topic of discussion on several message boards.

It is a very well written piece and shows the concern Robinson feels - not just for the genre but for the future of humankind in general as mirrored through the genre. His concerns are valid. With an 87 billion US budget for war efforts and just a few pennies for the space effort, it is every thinking person's right to ask: where are we headed?

Spider Robinson, after asking the question about why our imaginations are retreating from space and science and into fantasy, goes on to state unequivocally: "young people no longer find the real future exciting. They no longer find science admirable."
 
The result is that these days, fantasy overshadows science fiction.

What could be the reason for this sorry state of affairs? Is science fiction itself contributing to this disinterest in science? It is quite possible. In the thirties and forties, it was science fiction that fired the imagination of several youngsters who later went on to become actual scientists. It was science fiction that made the general populace aware of the possibility of space travel. It was science fiction that opened up new vistas for its readers, forcing them to think beyond their narrow sensory boundaries. If science fiction could make readers interested in science, it could also make them lose interest in it simply by changing its nature.

In those days, science fiction was a literature of ideas, and in present times, this description seems shameful to some people. The contrast in the public image of science fiction past and present is mind boggling.

Antagonistic feelings against science fiction exist among mainstream authors and readers. There is no doubt of this, as is evident to anyone who reads Dave Langford's newsletter, “Ansible” (news.ansible.uk). He has a recurring section in it, titled  "As Others See Us", that is pretty enlightening to read. However, while this antagonism is deplorable, it is not surprising. What is really surprising is the antagonism of science fiction writers themselves against science fiction. There is a fairly long list of science fiction writers who would be offended if you called them science fiction writers. The list includes names like Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Ira Levin, Michael Crichton, Margaret Atwood, Andrew Weiner, etc.

In defense of the present stand against the "literature of ideas", the post-modern readers and critics come up with this: the science fiction of old didn't have good characterization and literary values. One of the writers responsible for popularizing this idea is Ursula Le Guin with her famous essay, "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown." Mrs. Brown is a character from a Virginia Woolf story and used by Le Guin as a metaphor for good characterization. According to her, Mrs. Brown was not found in science fiction. I immensely admire Ursula Le Guin but I disagree with her on this point.  

Damon Knight did his share in denigrating and discouraging "ideas" SF through his critical writings (most of them collected in In Search of Wonder) and through his stable of Milford writers, most of whom subscribed to his views. The early Nebula awards further helped in creating a negative impact on hard SF while giving a boost to soft SF. Fred Pohl, in his book The Future as it Was, states that there were years when the Nebulas, every single one of them, went to Milford writers.
       
But is this contention about classic science fiction lacking good characters true? Didn't old science fiction have good characterization and literary values? What about Wells? And Verne?

A few years ago, the online magazine, Anotherealm, held a readers’ poll to find out who was considered the most memorable character in science fiction by the readers. Guess which character came out on top? Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, with Dr. Susan Calvin from Asimov’s Robot stories a close second. It seems we had Mrs. Browns even in those ancient days, when science fiction was indeed a literature of ideas.

Coming back to the original question, the reason for the slump in science fiction - particularly hard science fiction - seems simple enough. Influenced by the negative image of hard science fiction and unembellished storytelling, the pros moved over to soft science fiction (soft to the point of being mushy and squishy) and have become entrenched in their view. The new writers, influenced by the pros, continue walking on the same well-trodden path. And the vicious circle continues.

In Hell’s Cartographers, Brian Aldiss states that what made science fiction unique was the fact that it went against mainstream thoughts and ideas, thus breaking new ground and treading where none had trod before. These days, science fiction seems to have been whipped in line, and now docilely follows the mainstream.

Gone is the literature of mind-expanding ideas. In its place is a body of depressing, claustrophobic and anal-retentive work.

When it comes to today’s SF short stories, one does come across some uplifting and life-affirming writing but these gems are sporadic: a few Ted Chiangs, some Chris Beckets, some Lisa Goldsteins and some consistently good stuff from Connie Willis, Mike Resnick, Michael Swanwick, Robert Sawyer, Geoffrey Landis and Ted Kosmatka. Some of the old pros, like Robert Silverberg, Ben Bova and Spider Robinson, are still writing fine stories.

Through the murkiness of the present state of the genre, I find a beam - or several small beams - of light emanating from a source that is unjustly looked down upon by so-called serious critics and serious readers alike: The Web magazines.

Granted, there are some lousy stories out there on the web, but those are mostly on sites that don’t pay their writers. In general, the standard of fiction in decently paying webzines – like Strange Horizons, Clarke’s World, Tor.com, Subterranean, New Myths, Anotherealm, to name a few - is pretty high and can be favorably compared to the fiction in print magazines. And the percentage of positive, hard SF stories in these webzines is much higher than most of the print magazines, with the possible exception of Analog and Andromeda Spaceways. The webzines also have the advantage of being much more accessible to readers than print magazines.

In conclusion, in order to inject new and vital blood (of both writers and readers) into the flagging field of science fiction, it is important and necessary to popularize e-fiction, particularly in the hard science fiction category. Spread the word.