March 2008

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

A History of Today

One winter during the mid-'60s I was off school for a while with, I think, whooping cough. A neighbour brought round a small pile of paperbacks they thought I might enjoy. Among them was a novelisation of the TV series Time Tunnel. It was, so far as I can recall, the first science fiction I ever read. Over the next few years my discovery of sf was mostly limited to the Golden Age from the '40s and '50s; it was only in the early '70s, as the New Wave was already fizzling out, that I started to catch up with sf from the '60s. All of which is par for the course; during the 1980s I must have been the last sf fan in Britain to latch on to William Gibson or get a taste for this cyberpunk stuff. In other words, as far as movements in science fiction are concerned, I’m something of a late adaptor.

But that didn’t matter, because movements weren’t really a big part of sf. The first to have a name, a magazine, a manifesto during its lifetime was the New Wave, which grew out of Michael Moorcock’s take-over of New Worlds magazine. In Britain the New Wave reflected a counter-cultural rejection of what had gone before mixed with a belated discovery of the techniques of literary modernism. In America, where it took a somewhat different form, it grew out of a counter-cultural iconoclasm, in particular a throwing out of the taboos, notably regarding sex and politics, which had bedevilled golden age science fiction.

After that it was twenty years before another movement came along, with its own name (cyberpunk), dedicated anthology (Mirrorshades) and manifesto (Bruce Sterling’s Cheap Truth). But since then…

One of the ways you can tell that a previously disreputable style of art or form of popular culture has reached a certain life stage -- call it "respectability," "maturity," or "moribundity" as the mood takes you -- is when serious publishing houses start producing heavyweight companions to the topic. Science fiction has been the subject of enough examples of the breed over the last three or four years to make any library shelf groan. And there’s another due out this year, from Routledge. I know, because I’ve contributed to it.

I was asked to write a chapter on the history of sf over the last 15 years or so. That’s a poisoned chalice if ever there was one, because there is absolutely no historical perspective that allows us to see which authors will last and which will fade, which books will become the classics of the genre and which will become the unregarded stock of dusty second-hand bookshops. In the end I think I probably mentioned as many books first published in 2007 as I did books first published in 1992 or 1993 at the start of my period. But it’s a gamble.

However, as I worked on the chapter during the summer of 2007 I came to realise one unexpected thing: that the history of the period was a history of movements as much as it is of individual authors and novels. We seem to have had a plethora of movements recently, and if anything their number is increasing. There’s been New Weird and New Hard SF and the British Renaissance and New Space Opera and mundane sf and interstitial arts and… and… They are not all seriously meant, though enough of them are, and practically every one of them has had its own anthology (usually a very thick one) or a special issue of a magazine, there have been manifestos and critical articles and all the other paraphernalia we have come to expect.

Am I alone in feeling all of this smacks of desperation?

The insistence on "new" in so many of the names is disturbing. Science fiction is a genre that lives and dies by novelty. The "novum" is the key to one of the most academically respectable of all the definitions of sf (Darko Suvin’s cognitive estrangement). We expect newness in our science fiction, so much so that it should be a given, we shouldn’t need to have novelty shouted from the rooftops like this. The fact that so many people seem to think it essential to hammer home that these movements are new, new, new, makes me think that really they’re afraid that they’re not new at all. That really it’s more of the same, and that maybe science fiction is starting to get a little old and tired and familiar. Hey, we all know what Hard SF does, but this isn’t really Hard SF, it’s New Hard SF, which does exactly the same as the old except it’s revitalised, it’s fresh!

Though what bothers me more is the sheer multiplicity of these movements. If we want to convince people that some core approach to the sf we were brought up on is still vital and relevant, let’s stick the word new on it and call it a movement. If we want to convince people that sf as a whole is still vital and relevant, let’s keep inventing movements. If we have so many movements going on in sf, it has to be dynamic, it has to be going somewhere. Doesn’t it?

Personally I think that if sf is still dynamic, if it is still relevant, it is despite these movements, not because of them. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong in any of these movements (though I remain deeply unconvinced by the idea of interstitial arts, and much that has been labelled new Hard SF or new Space Opera doesn’t exactly conform with any notion I have of what constitutes Hard SF or Space Opera, old or new). But the movements in and of themselves are both tediously artificial and tendentiously conservative. Artificial in that they do not reflect what is actually happening in sf but what certain arbiters are choosing to link together. Yes, there has been a boom in British science fiction writing over the first half of this decade, but that is a sociological phenomenon rather than a movement directed along certain lines or aimed at certain defined targets. There is no more linking writers of the British Renaissance such as Hal Duncan, China Miéville and Charles Stross than the fact that they emerged from a roughly similar educational, economic and political background.

Conservative in that movements automatically assume that old models should continue to be followed, that what conforms to a particular set of guidelines (however loosely drawn) belongs, while anything that does not conform is excluded.

Yet science fiction, for me, is about change, it is about confronting difference. But that confrontation cannot happen if the genre is tied to a set of assumptions, styles, approaches or whatever makes a movement. If the genre is to remain relevant, then it has to be as dynamic, as open to change, as the world that it treats. It is possible to trace lines of descent that take us, for instance, from Godwin’s The Man in the Moone to Shelley’s Frankenstein to Wells’s The Time Machine to Asimov’s I, Robot to Bester’s Tiger Tiger to Ballard’s Vermilion Sands to Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness to Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, but those strands of connection are not the robust threads of a movement, of shared themes and devices. No; the linkages are in the way the various authors call on certain sets of tools to deal with very different sets of interests and circumstances. They belong within the history of science fiction, but they are by no means the same science fictions. Just as we have to reinvent our notions of reality with every new sf work we read, so we have to reinvent our notions of science fiction to deal with ever new realities. And if, at the end of the day, these reinventions of the genre turn it into something we no longer recognise as science fiction, is that necessarily a bad thing?