Friday, August 20, 2010

Playin' Taps for Sci-Fi

All right, before we get down to what I have to say, this blog post about the withering of sci-fi is a must-read. Go there, absorb like a sponge, maybe do a shot (or two) for courage, and then come on back. :)

I lament the slow, painful death of sci-fi, but I must acknowledge my role in its decline. I haven't bought but maybe two or three sci-fi books in years—even though I used to devour them when I was younger and didn't get into fantasy until later.

I think the sentiments expressed in that blog post by both Mr. Allen and Mr. Martin are correct—we've become less optimistic about the future, we might be thinking things are getting worse instead of better, and so the already large suspension of disbelief we'd need for lots of sci-fi grows exponentially with our worries. It's like, "DUDE, not only can you not travel faster than light, but you can't seriously think there'd be a worldwide human government in the future when all we've been doing for the last few decades is splintering into ever-smaller tribal factions even as we're joining the ‘global village.’"

But I think there's even more to it than that: I can't keep up with the science anymore, and perhaps (??) that's a large part of the decline as well. We know so much more about the costs and realities of space travel than we did in the 50's and 60's, and so it's tougher on those grounds to suspend our disbelief for spacefaring shenanigans. If I'm reading about this nanotech idea or that idea for an FTL drive, part of me will think it's cool and part of me will think, "this idea will be completely exploded in ten years."

The last sci-fi I was really into was cyberpunk. The dystopian futures laid out so clearly in William Gibson's novels and Stephenson's Snow Crash now seem quite spookily prescient: we have multinational corporations running things and an urban planet on the way where everyone is plugged into the net. Hmm. Maybe that's why I stopped; the fiction is becoming reality, and I read fiction to get away from reality.

I think the reason fantasy has become ascendant—besides fulfilling the need for escape—is that it's filling another need: the need to examine social structures from a safe distance and figure out where we went wrong. Sci-fi often looks at alternate social structures that we can't possibly hope to achieve anytime soon; these days the social issues raised in fantasy allow us to wonder if there's some way to make things better now, to hell with the future on other planets. The struggles that urban fantasy heroes face, in particular, permit us to say "Okay, I know modern life can be shit, but look at what THAT guy/girl has to deal with on top of everything else," and we feel a bit better. It's nice to think that someone can deal with everything we deal with plus paranormal issues.

The sci-fi I'd like to read now is that which convincingly envisions a way through these times. I'd buy a book like that and read it over and over and buy copies for all my friends. I'd like to be optimistic again; I'd like to see a rebirth of sci-fi because it would mean that optimism is widely shared. Until then, I'll read and write fantasy.


  1. When I can find the stuff I want, I love sci-fi every bit as much as fantasy. The problem is that the books publishers are choosing to publish in sci-fi are just not so wonderful on average, in my opinion. The last sci-fi books I really loved since Ender's Game were Scalzi's series and the Risen Empire series by Westerfeld.

  2. I still pick up sci-fi books at the store ... but I just don't find the stories compelling enough to buy ... and I still have loads of 70-80's "space operas" and serious stuff on my bookshelves ... that I re-read.

    But, I think another factor comes into play. The dumbing down of American education. One example: Had to replace our garbage disposal and the plumber commented it was next to impossible to find an apprentice that could do math needed for plumbing.

  3. Well said Kevin...I know how busy you are these days, but I REALLY enjoyed the book club you hosted a couple of years ago. Maybe we should get a science fiction book club going and explore these issues further. (It would also be a good excuse to walk down the stairs to actually see you. I swear the downstairs of building two might as well be another planet for the "upstairs English teachers.")

  4. Dang it, Julie, why'd you have to go and say that? Now I want to start a "Punk" course and do a tour of 'em all, explore how these *punk novels shine a light on societal issues we're currently wrestling with...

    You are secretly trying to kill me by giving me more stuff to do. I know it. ;)

    Ted, the last sci-fi I read was Scalzi too! It gave me hope.

    Kay, good to see you here! I can't comment on the education thing since I teach as a day job, but here's a rhetorical question: what motivation do teachers have to push kids to excel and hew to high standards if politicians keep linking their paychecks and performance reviews to students meeting minimum standards? An evil question, I know. Mwah-ha-ha-ha!

  5. Mr. Hearne I love your blog! You are funny. I'm really excited for your book!

  6. Thanks, Brendilyn! Hope you're still a happy camper!