It has been said that current science fiction is not especially relevant, if at all. It fails to address or comment on the concerns which face us on a daily basis. As we watch the world around us change for the worse, so science fiction fails to either document it, or perhaps chart a way out of it. When it does try to offer object lessons and thought experiments, they always lead to dystopias, while ignoring the fact that we’re already heading in that direction. We don’t need sf to tell us what can go wrong. We can see what’s going wrong in the world about us.
This is not true of all science fiction, of course. There are some sf writers who write about the world we know – Ken MacLeod, for example; or Bruce Sterling.
I have even tried to do the same myself, write stories about the abuses capitalism and the super-rich perpetrate upon everyone, stories about the climate, the economy… In ‘Human Resources’, I posited a world in which the free movement of labour followed the same rules as the free movement of capital, and described some of the ramifications of that. In ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’, I described a post-wealth world created by a billionaire’s catastrophic attempt to “fix” global warming. In ‘The Contributors’, I wrote about the effects on people when they’re treated as nothing more than dispensable components in an economic system.
But no one wanted my stories.
Two of them were published by M-Brane SF, after numerous rejections from other magazines. One I published myself here on my blog.
People want stories in which spaceships get blown up. They want stories about wars against humanised aliens… while in their daily newspapers the human enemy their armed forces are fighting are othered and demonised. They want stories about privileged heroes making their mark on the world around them. They want stories where violence – something which requires no talent or intelligence – solves seemingly intractable problems and makes lives better. They want simple solutions, not complicated problems.
It could be, of course, that my stories were crap. No one wanted them because they thought they were rubbish. Which does suggest that only good stories get published – but you’d have to be a real idiot to believe that. There is a lot of crap that gets published. Some of it even becomes popular.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. For every Leviathan Wakes, there’s an Embassytown (for every A Game of Thrones, a The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). Not that any of those four novels are relevant. Science fiction (and fantasy) is a broad church, and the most popular sect will always be the least sophisticated. Most sf readers – most sf fans, in fact – don’t contribute to the genre conversation. They just consume. And it’s their levels of consumption that dictate in which direction the genre travels, not the commentary by those actively engaged with science fiction.
Take, for example, the Arthur C Clarke Award. Yesterday at noon, I started a thread on this year’s shortlist on SFF Chronicles. As of 8 am this morning, there were no comments on it. No one’s interested. They want to discuss the latest installment of A Song of Ice and Fire, or some fifty-year-old piece of crap that’s set firmly within their comfort zone and does little more than reinforce their prejudices
How can science fiction combat that willful blindness? No matter how relevant the genre is, if it’s preaching to an empty room it can never succeed.