It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

The Future of Science Fiction?


My last post seems to have caused a bit of a fuss, with responses, agreements and commentary appearing in a surprisingly huge number of different places. At last count, it was about 22 separate blogs and sites. It was the Great August Bank Holiday Blog Storm.

I was amused by the various “facts” about me which appeared in some of the comment threads. I’m apparently a kid, who has read none of the classics. I’m also a published author, who is trying to promote his own books, or is jealous of classic writers’ success.

For the record, I’ve been reading science fiction for about 30 years (so not a kid, then), and that includes most of the classics. I didn’t write Don’t Look Back in Awe to boost sales of my own book or short stories. That would be difficult because I’ve not been published yet – although I do have an agent, John Jarrold, and I have sold some short fiction.

You know what they say about assumptions: they make you look like a complete idiot.

Ah well. Debate is good. Or so I’m told.

I think my favourite comment from the whole affair was the incredulous bleat of some fan who couldn’t understand why Foundation was out-of-date as it’s set 20,000 years in the future…

Here, however, is a topic which follows on quite nicely from the aforementioned infamous post: what do I actually want science fiction to be?

I want it to be… a toolbox.

I want science fiction to be seen as a set of tools that writers – of whatever stripe – can use to tell a story. Action-adventure, “literary fiction”, thriller, satire, romance… it doesn’t matter. Sf is called a genre, but it’s characterised by its furniture. Thrillers aren’t. Romances aren’t. They have their conventions, yes; but their setting doesn’t actually define them.

I’m not saying we should throw away the label “science fiction”, or remove the marketing category and hide all the sf books in amongst the general fiction. Nor am I saying we should stop thinking of ourselves as sf readers or fans.

But as writers and commentators, I would like to see the tools of science fiction be recognised as tools of writing. Good science fiction, after all, still has to be good fiction. Too many people seem to forget that. They focus on the idea as paramount. Foregrounding the idea is not an excuse for bad writing.

Science fiction should be good writing using the tools of the genre. It should be judged as writing which happens to use the tools of the genre. It gets no special dispensation because it’s science fiction, because it has this great big flashing idea going bang in your face.

If you look at a lot of modern sf, then you can sort of see this approach in action. Not just the military action-adventure of David Weber and Jack Campbell, fighting various historical wars with spaceships. But also in excellent novels such as Richard Morgan’s Black Man, which uses the tools of science fiction to hoist a near-future thriller into a position where it can ask the sort of questions, and make the kind of commentary, we demand of good science fiction. And that we often can’t get, in fact, from other genres.

I’m going to leave this here for now. I suspect it needs more thought – if only to determine whether or not I’m reinventing some kind of wheel. Or pointing out something that’s bleeding obvious.

3 thoughts on “The Future of Science Fiction?

  1. Funny thing about SF as good writing (or vice versa.)Ken MacLeod said to me about my novel A Son Of The Rock that he wasn’t sure it was Science Fiction but that it was literature.I can cope with that.

  2. Alastair Reynolds (one of the best modern authors about, BTW) recently said “Ideas are ten a penny. Stories are actually harder”. I think that’s a pretty relevant point here.And yes, it is indeed pretty stupid to recommend stuff from 50 years ago, with its substandard prose, racist/sexist ideas and so on to people today. We simply value different things in literature.This is probably partly why a lot of people think that sf has nothing in it for them. A lot of people, when they hear “science fiction”, all they can think of is star wars, star trek and the like, because that’s all they know. And recommending more of the same, however profound its ideas may be, won’t do much to change that. Recommend will written science fiction to audiences looking for well written fiction, and we might just get somewhere.

  3. Nah – you want to think of SF as a toolbox because you’ve just thrown a spanner into it. 🙂

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