It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

England 3 Scotland 0

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Last month, Neil Williamson was bemoaning his lack of productivity in short fiction on his blog, so I proposed a friendly competition to motivate him and myself. For each story we completed and submitted we would score one point. (Resubmissions didn’t count.) And for each story we sold or placed, we would earn another point. The one with the least points at the end of the year would buy the winner a slap-up meal in Glasgow at the 2014 Eastercon.

At the moment, I’m in the lead. With three points. I finished and submitted a story, ‘The Incurable Irony of the Man who Rode the Rocket Sled’, to Rustblind and Silverbright, an anthology of railway-themed genre stories edited by David Rix and to be published by Eibonvale Press, but… Rocket sleds ran on rails, yes, but I knew the link to the theme was tenuous. And so it proved. Which proved a bit of a problem, as I didn’t think the story was really sellable. It’s a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, has no plot, is only really genre if seen in a certain light, and is far more literary than most genre venues are comfortable with. Happily, The Orphan has taken it for their next issue. And I see from the contents of previous issues that it’s in excellent company.

‘The Last Men in the Moon’, however, is more overtly science fiction, but it’s also quite literary. I really must get that t-shirt printed up: “too literary for genre fiction, too genre for literary fiction”. (Joke.) Happily, literary serial anthology The Fiction Desk has taken it – my second sale to them after ‘Faith’ in The Maginot Line last year. ‘The Last Men in the Moon’ is a bit of a piss-take of sf, and it’s a bit of a deconstruction of the hoary old alien invasion / conquest of the earth trope, and I also get to flatten Sheffield in it.

I describe myself as a science fiction writer, but I’m starting to wonder if what I write really qualifies as sf. But the Apollo Quartet!, you cry. Except, as someone said to me recently, “I’m just waiting for someone to twig that the Apollo Quartet is not hard SF”. And it’s sort of true. The novellas are set in the past, they’re about real space hardware, and the central tropes to date are handwavy things like the Bell and a FTL drive I don’t bother to explain. And then I look at my last few stories to see print and… ‘Faith’ features real named astronauts but inexplicable irrational woo-woo things happen to them (it’s available free here). ‘The Way The World Works’ is set in an alternate 1984 and the ending is in no way science fiction. ‘Wunderwaffe’ is a Nazi / Metropolis / alternate history / time travel mashup, and probably deserves a genre all its own. ‘Dancing the Skies’ is just pure fantasy, with flying monsters and Spitfires. On the other hand, ‘Words Beyond the Veil’ is heartland hard sf, even if it does quote from the lyrics of a death metal album (you can read it here).

I think I write with a sf sensibility, even if what I write isn’t always science fiction. What I read is reflected in my writing, and I read a mix of science fiction and literary fiction. But I admire the prose of the latter more, and so try to emulate that. However, when I try to write straight-down-the-middle sf, I find I can’t do it. It feels… too arbitrary, too ungrounded. It’s not anchored to the real world. Even my fantasies have to be grounded in the real world – Spitfires and Wellingtons and the ATA in ‘Dancing the Skies’, for example.

Or perhaps I write with a literary fiction sensibility, which is why my sf usually turns out to be weak sf. It has been mooted that some of the most interesting science fiction being written these days is being written outside the genre. There are certainly literary fiction novels which use genre tropes that I consider better than most genre novels, like The Road or Girl Reading or Never Let Me Go. I used to think such books felt old-fashioned because their writers didn’t know how to deploy their tropes, didn’t have the experience of practiced sf authors in doing so, but what those literary authors have actually done is make the tropes more accessible.

And that I think is a problem with a lot of modern sf – it’s too abstruse, too much the product of, and for, a private members’ club. I complained, for example, that Leviathan Wakes was regressive, a throwback to the hegemonic space operas of the 1970s, but how many people actually care about that, or know enough about sf and its history to realise it? A small group within the small group that is the readers and fans of science fiction. Which makes me wonder what a space opera written by a literary fiction writer would look like. Not one of Banks’ Culture novels, there’s far too much pure genre in them. Is such a story possible? It would be a wonderful experiment, I think.

I’ve a feeling science fiction as a genre is no longer as willing to experiment as it once was. It’s settled into a happy rut, a happy series of ruts, in which expectation plays a large part – as it does in so much of twenty-first century life. This is a century defined by the management of expectation. Yes, there is stuff that challenges those expectations, but it’s way out on the long tail. And we’re happy with that because it can’t destabilise the centre from there. And yet everything that has destabilised science fiction in the past has made it a stronger, better genre – the New Wave, Cyberpunk, New Space Opera. Even if it did eventually get co-opted by the establishment as it became a core fixture.

It is time, I think, to repudiate science fiction’s core values. We need a New New Wave.

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8 thoughts on “England 3 Scotland 0

  1. Intelligently phrased, as ever.

    Yes, indeed, a New New Wave is exactly what the SF genre needs AND more SF authors doing as you do, seeking out superb writers beyond the genre’s high, imposing walls. Your non-SF influences and inspirations are what make you a solid, innovative and technically sound author and gives you a critical leg up on the assholes who still draw their water from the same rancid well as Asimov, Heinlein, etc.

    Write on, Mr. Sales…

  2. >Which makes me wonder what a space opera written by a literary fiction writer would look like

    Harrison’s “Light”, presumably?

    >We need a New New Wave.

    I don’t think it’s as simple as that any more. Back when the New Wave happened the published output of the genre was small enough to be grossly affected by the experiments of a bunch of authors. Nowadays we have the same things happening – S’punk, Weird, whatever – but, while they’re notable, the genre’s big enough now to allow them to play out and, in another part of itself, still retain “core values” (whatever they are).

    There *is* a lot of experimentation out there, a lot of “literary” writing. I know you’ll contend that most of it is applied to fantasy as opposed to SF, but to me it’s all part of the same genre, and that matters because a lot of people read and enjoy across the whole genre. Only hardcore I-Know-What-I-Like fans stick only to space opera or whatever, and they presumably don’t want change.

    Bottom line for me is that the genre’s so big and wide and multifarious now that for a reader it’s all there to pick from, and for a writer, anything goes.

    • I don’t think Light qualifies – it’s still mostly inaccessible to a non-sf reader.

      Nor do I think the genre was that small back in the late 1960s that the New Wave could “grossly impact” it. If there is a difference between then and now, it’s that big names got behind the New Wave. But then their careers were likely less fragile back in those days than is the norm for genre writers today. Also, a lot of the “experimentation” I see going on in the genre nowadays is all surface – particularly in sf.

      I’d also contend that few people are all that catholic in genre reading. On most forums, you’ll see readers who stick to commercial sf and readers who read only commercial fantasy. They’re committed to their genres, and keen to discuss it and its works.

      But having one big genre in which anything goes solves nothing. Piddling little experiments on the edges prove nothing. Commercial fantasy has seen a defining change in the past ten years with grimdark fantasy. to be honest, I think it’s a step backwards – or, at the very least, it’s regressing very quickly as people try to one-up their predecessors. Sf had New Space Opera twenty-five years ago, but its impact is beginning to fade already.

  3. >I don’t think Light qualifies – it’s still mostly inaccessible to a non-sf reader.

    What’s its accessibility got to do with it? For me, it’s written very much with a “literary” approach. It’s not the content, it’s the style. Or may be we disagree what we think “literary” is here?

    >Nor do I think the genre was that small back in the late 1960s that the New Wave could “grossly impact” it.

    Okay, maybe “significantly” is a better choice of word. As I understand it there were far fewer SF books and magazines published in those days. You hear about readers with a huge appetite for SF reading virtually everything of note that was published in any given year (which gave awards and critical discussion the kind of foundation that we simply can’t have now, but that’s another discussion).

    >If there is a difference between then and now, it’s that big names got behind the New Wave. But then their careers were likely less fragile back in those days than is the norm for genre writers today.

    I think there’s some truth in that, with Aldiss, etc, but my feel is also that one of the things that made impact with the New Wave was the new writers that broke through at that time – the ones without the trad credentials, who then went on to influence the next generation.

    >Also, a lot of the “experimentation” I see going on in the genre nowadays is all surface – particularly in sf.

    Care to unpack that one? I’m not sure what you mean. Are you talking about style over content or structure or…what?

    >I’d also contend that few people are all that catholic in genre reading. On most forums, you’ll see readers who stick to commercial sf and readers who read only commercial fantasy. They’re committed to their genres, and keen to discuss it and its works.

    INteresting, you seem to be thinking mainly about novels – me about short fiction. And when you think about it the reader behaviour is quite different isn’t it?

    >But having one big genre in which anything goes solves nothing. Piddling little experiments on the edges prove nothing.

    No it doesn’t, because if everything is available *somewhere*, there’s no problem. I’m not sure what the problem really is? That regressive SF and Fantasy still exist at all? Should they be eradicated? That they’re still the flavours that get the most book contracts? But isn’t that down to reader demand (as perceived by the publishing world)?

    >Commercial fantasy has seen a defining change in the past ten years with grimdark fantasy. to be honest, I think it’s a step backwards – or, at the very least, it’s regressing very quickly as people try to one-up their predecessors.

    But again, “grimdark”, is only part of the genre – even while those kinds of THE have been selling well, so have other forms of Fantasy. It’s not a case of “ooh, it has to be gritty and bloody to get a contract these days”. (And, agreed, the sooner that influence wanes, the better).

    >Sf had New Space Opera twenty-five years ago, but its impact is beginning to fade already.

    What *was* it’s influence, exactly? I thought it was just that Space Opera had been out of fashion for a bit, and then Banks etc brought it back into the limelight. If it’s impact is fading, what’s being left?

    • Yes, Light is written with a “literary” style, but when you look at how literary writers use sf tropes, it sometimes feels old-fashioned to us because they’ve made it more accessible. That’s what my original comment meant.

      Also, yes: I see some stylistic experiments in sf short fiction, but I think more than that is needed. And in such things, it’s usually short fiction that leads the way. But I suspect the link between short fiction and novels has broken in the past few decades. They might as well be entirely different markets, given that some of the audience for one is a tiny subset of the audience for the other…

      Space opera was a derogatory term until Aldiss wrote a paean to it in the early 1970s. There was a lot of space opera about – from Brunner to Clayton – but it wasn’t very sophisticated. Banks made it sophisticated and progressive, and later authors added a degree of realism to it. But some recent space operas have been regressive and less sophisticated.

      • >Yes, Light is written with a “literary” style, but when you look at how literary writers use sf tropes, it sometimes feels old-fashioned to us because they’ve made it more accessible. That’s what my original comment meant.

        Well there’s that balance isn’t there between making more accessible and making lead-footedly obvious. Out-of-genre writers (let’s call them that, literary is just the wrong word) regularly fall on the wrong side of that. But yes I’d like to see more OOG writers approaching SF tropes and doing amazing things with them too.

        >Also, yes: I see some stylistic experiments in sf short fiction, but I think more than that is needed.

        But needed to do what exactly? Basically it seems like you’re saying that you’re dissatisfied by the quality of commercial SF (ie the stuff that sells in fiscally realistic quantities) and *something* ought to be done about it. But not *what*…or *who*. Are we saying that commercially successful writers should pull their socks up, ditch their winning formulas and stretch themselves in their writing? Or that publishers should ditch those writers in favour of more experimental (and therefore risky) ones? Or that all those silod fans out there should just grow up and start enjoying proper fiction?

        The core market exists as it is for a reason. And there’s plenty of experimentation on the margins – from the indie publishers and the self publishers like yourself. How else *could* it operate?

        >Space opera was a derogatory term until Aldiss wrote a paean to it in the early 1970s. There was a lot of space opera about – from Brunner to Clayton – but it wasn’t very sophisticated. Banks made it sophisticated and progressive, and later authors added a degree of realism to it. But some recent space operas have been regressive and less sophisticated.

        I’m pretty certain that a lot of space operas even during the NSO heyday were also pretty unsophisticated. I still don’t see the problem here. Banks is still writing, so’s Al Reynolds, Gary Gibson…. a whole bunch of those guys, and they’re as successful as ever. So what if there’s a James Corey from time to time?

        • People will find their own solutions, I’m not laying out some sort of recipe for “fixing” science fiction. I’ve identified something that I think is wrong with the genre, and which I will try to address myself in my own writing. I’ve discussed it here on my blog in order to get a conversation going about it.

          As for new space opera… compared to what went before it was all more sophisticated. I don’t recall any new space operas that I’d have called unsophisticated. Banks’s last three Culture novels have been disappointing, Al’s latest was near-future sf (and he never liked being called a new space opera writer anyway), and Gary’s last two were both near-future sf too.

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