Tuesday, October 09, 2007

N is for Nobody

Science fiction is dead.

Exhibit 1: Last month I found myself in the ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ section of an average-sized bookshop, one of a major chain of such shops that you can find in any shopping centre in the country.

There were some Star Trek books. There were some Star Wars books. I think there may have been some Stargate books. There were a few of those sequels to the Dune Books by Brian Herbert which I have never had the slightest inclination to read. There was ‘I, Robot’. There was, in one gleam of hope, a whole slab of shelf devoted to a new edition of Philip K. Dick’s novels.

Beyond that, it was all Fantasy.

Of course, not all bookstores are like that. But if Science Fiction was a going concern, there wouldn’t be any bookstores like that.

To a first approximation, therefore, it would seem that no science fiction with mass appeal is being written today.

Refutations of this statement, with copious counter-examples, would be welcome. While awaiting them I will have a go at possible explanations:

(1) As a superannuated fuddy-duddy, I am out of touch with the vibrant and populous community of modern science fiction readers. Entirely possible... but if they were really vibrant and populous one would still expect to see more evidence of it in the chain bookstores. I think.

(2) It just got too hard to write science fiction, because the real world got too science-fictiony, and was more or less the same as the Cyberpunk world we used to read.

Exhibit 2: When I read science fiction, even my favourite stuff, it always has a period feel nowadays: In all but a very few cases, it is obviously of the 50s, or the 60s, or the 70s, or the 80s, and could not be anything else. I can immediately imagine a ‘generic’ science fiction story of each of those decades, as dated by its themes and characters as if it were full of artifacts and celebrities of that period.

Exhibit 3: I can think of two authors immediately who wrote science fiction that was interesting and good, in different ways, and then went off to achieve fame and fortune writing formulaic fantasy. I can’t think of anyone who went the other way.

I sat down once and thought about what sort of thing I liked to read best of all, and I remember deciding that it was science fiction stories of the sort written by Larry Niven. I can’t think of any particular way they stand out. It is just that every other particular science fiction author I think of has particular foibles that would grate on me if I had to read only them forever. So, if I was forced to take the short stories of only one author with me to Camp X-Ray to read and re-read for the term of my natural life, it would have to be Larry Niven.

Having said that, I have almost never re-read a Larry Niven novel.

And, I can’t think of any way in which Larry Niven has changed my world view. Perhaps changes in world view only arise in response to being sufficiently irritated. So, although ‘N’ was originally going to be for Larry Niven, I have changed my mind.

N is for the next science fiction author to make an impact on the way I look at the world.



Jenny said...

Elizabeth Moon is still in the chain stores (Serrano series about a space navy and so on) and I think she started in fantasy - deed of Paksenarrion etc.


Also occasionally Lois McMaster Bujold (though to support your discussion, she's now writing fantasy)

One of the problems I have is that while there are still some SF books in Dymocks and the like, they aren't character driven (or don't have likable characters) or have blurbs that indicate that they won't be character driven, so i don't buy them.
I'm not interested in exploring limits of scientific endeavour or sweeping galactic ideas in a novel unless its background to characters- I can do that in New Scientist, or my own head.
I'm also not a fan of bringin in 30 characters in one book & that seems to be the latest trick - you can't get attached to any of them.

three times I've got the word verification wrong

Dr. Clam said...

Nicely counter-exampled, Jenny!

Most science fiction isn't character driven, true, but most science fiction has always not been character driven. Did people get more interested in characters of a sudden? Or did they get less interested in ideas? Or, did the Cephalopod Masters of Omicron Cephei realise we were getting too close to the truth in some of our science fiction and irradiate the Earth with mind control beams to make it less popular?

Now, I am going to get this word verification wrong, too, because it's horrible...

Dave said...

You're just an old grump, Clam. there's plenty of good science fiction out there, though there's a colossal amount of dross with Kevin J Anderson's name on it as well. The dross no doubt sells better, hence its predominance on the shelves.

What astonishes me is that Philip K Dick is widely in print at the moment, given that of the films made based on his work, only Bladerunner and (sort of) Minority Report haven't been unwatchable garbage.

Charles Stross is doing some good stuff at the moment which pays as much attention to character as its ideas. Accelarando got a lot of recognition, though Glasshouse is a better novel for my money.

That said, my current "To read" pile includes some popular philosophy, a Conan collection, some Dad-lit I won't be returning to, two RPG rulebooks and a stack of about fifteen books on the Italian Renaissance.

Dr. Clam said...

Hmm, yes, I think there is some validity in the old grump theory. Stross, you say? It's a shame his name doesn't start with U, I'm still thinking of a U.

I got up at 4am to read Valis- well, I got up at 4 am because I thought it was time to get up already, and my copy of Valis had arrived in the post the other days so I sat around and read it. I wanted to get it since I heard about it, because it has a sane narrator and (apparently) an insane author. Being the same Philip K Dick. Perhaps the lunatic ramblings of his later novels have become the underpinnings of an as-yet-largely-secret religious movement, and hence all his works are selling well in preparation for the immanentising of the eschaton? Just a theory.

More importantly, why the sudden obsession with the Italian Renaissance? Are there moves afoot to reorganise your department using the court of the Medicis as a model?

And I miss Vash, every time Thursday night rolls around. :(
Though we are getting a phenomenal (relative) amount done around the house in the post-WOW era.

Dr. Clam said...

Thanks for the Stross tip, dave! Woot, he invented githyanki!

This is really good but has lots of disturbing similarities with the novel I started last Christmas. Curses...

Dave said...

He invented githyanki? Holy crap! I didn't know that! That's *fantastic*! (Reads wikipedia: and slaad, too! Sweet!)

The obsession relates to novel planning, in that if I am going to set a novel there, it occurs to me that I should know at least as much as the next armchair historian. Although I should stress the unlikelihood of the end result being in any way mistakeable for actual history.

I am also finding the lack of WoW-based timesinking to have numerous other benefits. But I know what you mean about the Thursdays. We should think about setting up some alternative form of regular virtual get-together.