It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Make It Real Not Fantasy


Science fiction is apparently dying, or at the very least it will die unless it changes. Mark Charan Newton says that as a commercial literary genre, sf has had the crap beaten out of it by fantasy and now lies bleeding on the floors of book shops around the English-speaking world. Jetse de Vries says he’s not surprised sf is declining because it’s lost its relevance.

Lots of other people disagree.

I can’t deny that written fantasy appears to be in ruder commercial health than written sf. Nor do I think modern science fiction is especially relevant.


These days, sf is more of an entertainment genre, a cross-media genre. And while that’s true, written sf will live on. After all, the vultures have circled overhead before, but it’s still here. For some people, cinematic spectacle, FPSs set in post-apocalyptic wastelands, and spandex-clad loons singing about space unicorns are not enough. They need a regular fix of the pure strain: the written form.

But even as a written genre, sf covers a wide field. The interesting, exciting stuff – the smart stuff – has always been a minority within sf. The populist stuff has always been, well, the most popular. Obviously. All that’s really changed is that much of the populist sf is now media-driven. As sf fans, we like to think that we’re smarter than the average reader – all those Big Ideas, the universe our playground, science… But sf readers are no different to mainstream readers. The majority like escapism, mind candy; they don’t want to think too hard while slurping down their tales of spaceships and robots. They want colourful tales and bright futures. Which just happen to be set in galactic empires or on alien worlds.

It has always been thus.

Which means that sf as a whole has never really been especially relevant. It’s not becoming “increasingly irrelevant” as Jetse would have it, because it’s only a small proportion of the genre which has ever tried to be relevant. Of course, increasing the size of that minority, making more of the genre relevant, is certainly worth doing, and is something I certainly think should be done.

Which is why I feel “Strange Sci-Fi” is a step backwards. Pretending it’s really fantasy, or disguising sf as fantasy, is not doing science fiction any favours. Sf has its own toolbox – why do we need to steal tools from fantasy? It not only obfuscates the story’s genre credentials, it often obfuscates the story itself.

What sf needs to be is real. We need Real SF. Not Mundane SF – there’s no point in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The genre has a large catalogue of literary devices, from AIs to faster-than-light travel, and I see no reason why they can’t be used to populate the sf landscape. But they’re devices to enable the plot – not background, not setting, not colour.

There’s a lot we know about the universe, there’s undoubtedly a great deal more we don’t know. But that doesn’t mean sf should go backwards and unlearn what we do know. That way lies fantasy. It’s not just the authorial handwaving, or the bollocks science – if we’re calling FTL a literary device, some of either, or both, is going to be necessary. But I’m a firm believer in rigour. It has to be airtight, it has to be turtles all the way down. You don’t see mainstream authors winging it. Well, yes, all right, you do: Dan Brown makes it up as he goes along, and then claims it’s historical fact. But you certainly don’t see writers of literary fiction doing that.

For sf to show that it’s not at death’s door, it needs to up its game. It needs to ditch the dynastic struggles in galactic empires. It needs to boot the giant space crabs into touch. It needs to forget the kindergarten politics and early 19th Century science. There are ways to write about the Now using the tools of sf. The genre needs to take note of the world around it, and then write about it. If it wants to do so in a story set on an alien world, then fine. If the plot requires FTL in order to make a point about the Present, then no problem. The devices are there to be used.

There’s also the writing itself, of course. In this area too, sf covers as wide a range as mainstream fiction – from the top prose stylists to those whose lack of facility with the language is frankly embarrassing. But I think the bar needs to be raised across the entire genre. Likewise, for characterisation and other hallmarks of good writing.

I agree with Jetse that science fiction as a whole needs to become more relevant. I don’t agree that it’s dying, nor do I think making it relevant will necessarily re-invigorate it. But I’d certainly like to see a shiny new science fiction genre in 2010, one that’s healthier, more relevant, better-written, more insightful, and with much more rigour.

One that’s real.

How’s that for a New Year’s resolution?

9 thoughts on “Make It Real Not Fantasy

  1. Pingback: The Death of Science Fiction (Yet Again). - Page 2 - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

  2. Re your twit: “despite recent blog post, doesn’t want the fact he just delivered 2nd book of an unsold space opera trilogy to his agent held against him”

    Ha haa, well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? The question of relevance has little to do with the subject matter. It has everything to do with intent. Technically speaking, Forever War is ‘just’ a military sf novel. But those who are steeped in the genre understand it’s much, much more than that, a timely commentary on the nature of humanity and its relationship or possibly even need for conflict, and how it forces itself upon the universe. It doesn’t really matter where your book is set – the Hebrides, Mars, London, 13th Century Nottingham, a giant city-sized castle in a vast unexplored plain – it’s the intent and the underlying thematic issues that an author may actively try to address that make a work ‘relevant’. And sometimes sf – and even space opera – facilitates such statements through the unique nature of the tools it offers to the writer.

  3. To be fair, the novel took several years to complete, so I wasn’t going to throw it away just because I now feel space opera is not the best way to write relevant sf.

    Having said that… yes, it’s true that relevancy does not depend on setting, and you can write a sf story about 9/11 and Gitmo and the invasion of Iraq that just happens to be space opera. But, dragging out the Big Questions – the nature of humanity, etc – doesn’t really address the relevancy of a sf text. Those questions are timeless – commenting on them in a story or novel doesn’t make that story or novel relevant.

  4. Yeah, so you make the nature of the commentary intrinsic to the form so that it becomes intrinsic.

    At the same time, I think it can sometimes be a mistake to worry too much about presenting a Grand Message in the form of fiction. It’s a great way to never actually get something written. And a lot of the time, the message people take from a book is the one the author never intended or sometimes even imagined. That’s not to say one shouldn’t think about important themes, but I suspect that for most of us those themes appear naturally without having to deliberately wedge them in there. One might certainly argue about the ‘relevancy’ of much sf, but in that case you’d have to argue about the ‘relevancy’ of *all* fiction of any kind, It’s an argument that always seems to spiral down into mere semantics.

    But thematic depth can’t be woven out of thin air: it tends in the best of cases to come out of direct personal experience, whether it’s seeing comrades murder each other during the Spanish Civil War, finding yourself a POW in a Dresden bunker who’s one of the few survivors of that city’s bombing, or being a conscientious objector who’s shipped off to Vietnam regardless who decides to write a sf novel that expresses his feelings about war. In the end, all the majority of us can really do is write the best story we can and hope it means something to someone, because to do otherwise is simply not to get anything written. And let me reiterate my main point – this is NOT to say people shouldn’t try. They should, so long as the muse is agreeable enough to take them there. Try and force it and you wind up writing Atlas Shrugged.

  5. Okay, I meant “relevance”. (I should go back and edit my comment, but I won’t.)

    Sf is a genre that exists because of imagination, so it seems counter-intuitive to demand personal experience when writing about a specific theme. Strong feelings and imagination should be enough. Granted that themes can come out of the writing, whether they were put there or not – but it often seems to me that the nature of genre means some themes will always be pulled out by readers.

    I still don’t see why you can’t write about something in a sf story. You can take certain positions – e.g., the climate will crash – as givens in a story, and continue from there. Doesn’t mean you’re going to end up channelling Rand, but neither does it mean you’re writing total space fluff.

  6. “You can take certain positions – e.g., the climate will crash – as givens in a story, and continue from there. Doesn’t mean you’re going to end up channelling Rand, but neither does it mean you’re writing total space fluff.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Doomed, Ian, I tell ye … we’re all DOOMED. That’s what we need more of: The End Is Nigh. Seriously.

  7. So much for Jetse’s whole optimistic sf thing, then…

  8. “It needs to boot the giant space crabs into touch.”

    I think I resent that!

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