November 2008

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

Genre at the End of Time

There is a superb passage midway through Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time in which our universe hits the end of time, rolls back and rolls in again like a wave crashing against a sea wall. Echoes of those final moments reiterate; people, all unaware, repeat and repeat and repeat their final actions.

In an interview with Melissa Mia Hall from 1981 (just republished in Shadows of the New Sun edited by Peter Wright) Gene Wolfe said: "I think that we are entering now the real Golden Age of Science Fiction… Science fiction is in better shape than it has ever been." It’s a quote that captures the optimism of the time, a feeling that science fiction was doing and saying something important. So how come, less than thirty years later, I keep seeing blog entries about the death of science fiction? Some of them even cite earlier columns of mine to support their case, though I think they are misreading what I actually said.

Yet there is a part of me that understands the sentiment. There are times when I look at science fiction today and see precisely what Greg Bear is describing. The same bits of sf hitting the end wall, rebounding and coming back again in ever fainter echoes of the past.

We are still, more than 30 years after the original film, seeing endless Star Wars novels, branching out into ever more esoteric sub-sets and still attracting reasonably big-name authors. At the more interesting end of the literary spectrum we are seeing, as I’ve noted in previous columns, the constant revisiting of old forms: new space opera, new hard sf, new weird. One of the more interesting new anthologies, Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse, is consciously modelled on the anthology series of the early '70s like Universe, Orbit and New Dimensions. The most successful sf author of the 1990s was probably Lois McMaster Bujold with her long, long sequence of novels about Miles Vorkosigan, and even if that series has come to an end there are plenty of other authors, from Kage Baker to David Weber, whose work involves series characters. One of the most ubiquitous sub-genres that has sprung up over the last few years is romantic sf, which strikes me as the unholy offspring of Anne Rice and Georgette Heyer, in which the characters follow a path as tightly prescribed as in any Mills and Boon novel.

Some of these are well done and interesting, some are less successful, and some hold no interest for me whatever; that is beside the point. The thing that links all these seemingly diverse aspects of contemporary science fiction is that they rely very deliberately on familiarity. We are meant to fall in love with attractive characters and want to meet up with them again and again. We are meant to delight in the revival of old forms that give us the sort of thrill we discovered when we were first getting into sf. We are meant to enjoy returning to a familiar universe, whether it’s the imperial space of the Star Wars series or the Culture of Iain M. Banks’s novels.

There’s nothing wrong with familiarity. Go back to the 1920s and '30s and the pulps were full of series characters and further adventures in the same universe and stories designed to resonate with fans of an older model. There’s nothing new in all this. But it does feel sometimes that there used to be a creative tension between familiarity and novelty, that as much as they were coddling the readers with the safe and recognisable, those old writers were also trying to challenge them by taking off in new directions. Nowadays, entropy like, it can seem that the familiar is winning out over the novel.

So yes, part of me, the jaundiced part, can look around and think maybe those bloggers are right, maybe science fiction is dying. True, there are still novels that are, indeed, novel. Greg Bear’s book is a tremendously ambitious work, even if the achievement doesn’t come close to matching the ambition. But books that take your breath away with their daring, their innovation, seem few and far between these days.

But maybe in this I’m guilty of the same hunger for familiarity. I want my science fiction to be shocking, to upset my equilibrium, to make me think. That’s what science fiction did for me when I first encountered it, so shouldn’t it still be doing the same thing? Except I’ve been reading the stuff for a long time now, and it’s simply not so easy to surprise me, or rather, it’s far too easy for me to catch an echo of something I read 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. And that can perhaps make things seem less innovative than they really are.

The truth is, we tire of novelty more quickly than we tire of anything else. And because science fiction as a genre lives and dies by novelty, it suffers from this ennui more than any other form of fiction. So if, for whatever reason, science fiction is not challenging the way we understand the world, disrupting our sense of reality, or doing any of the other things we associate with novelty, then our automatic reaction is that the genre is dying. It is all or nothing.

Well, in the early '70s, when I was first being bowled over by the excitement of science fiction, there were knowing voices saying it was in terminal decline. In the early '80s, just at the time Gene Wolfe was proclaiming the liveliness of the genre, I was writing a piece mourning its passing. I imagine there were die-hard space opera fans shaking their heads in despair at the damage being done to their beloved genre by that young upstart John W. Campbell in Astounding; certainly that was the horrified reaction of many readers to the stuff Michael Moorcock was publishing in New Worlds.

Science fiction has always been dying. That’s how it reinvents itself. 

I can’t help feeling that our constant worries about the death of the genre says more about us than it does about science fiction. The science fiction we read today cannot be like the science fiction we remember, because that would defeat the whole object of the exercise. But that doesn’t stop us wanting it to be the same. If it happens that the science fiction written ten years from now has nothing in common with the science fiction written ten years ago, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We may not like the new form, because despite our liking for the genre we’re not really as comfortable with novelty as we like to think. We may not even find it easy to recognise the new form as science fiction (I certainly find a lot of today’s science fiction is closer to what I think of as fantasy, for example). But whatever shape it takes there will always be a literature that pushes at the boundaries, that upsets our viewpoints, and that literature will be a direct lineal descendant of the science fiction being written now, just as the science fiction written now, however different, is a direct lineal descendant of the work of Godwin, Shelley, Verne, Wells, Asimov and Heinlein, back in the days when the genre really was dying.