It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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A literature of ideas


They say science fiction is the literature of ideas. They say every science fiction text is about two dates: the date it is set, and the date it was written.

Yet when discussing a science fiction text, it is generally the “big themes” which are addressed: identity, the survival of the human race, the invasiveness or pervasiveness of technology in society, the nature of the physical universe, etc… While it’s true that the concerns and issues of “the date it was written” are typically present, as major themes of a work those concerns are usually sadly lacking. Tackling those issues head-on might well date a novel, although, to be honest, it seems many of the problems affecting modern-day society are, if not perennial, at least recurring. In the relatively short term, that is – say, a few centuries.

So where are the science fiction stories and novels which deal directly with the problems affecting readers today? Why must space operas be based on centuries-old political structures? Why must they refight wars long since lost or won? Why must cyberpunk novels wallow in the economics and geopolitics of the 1980s? Why must hard sf pretend the 1960s has lasted for fifty years? Why must sf ignore existing difficulties and challenges and invent entirely new and irrelevant ones?

I look around and I see that we are failing as a species. We are rendering our planet uninhabitable, and yet are making only token efforts to find solutions. We’re not even looking seriously at off-planet as a possible escape route. Thousands of years of civilisation and we have yet to eradicate wars, hunger, poverty, disease, inequality, slavery… Solutions to all these lie within our grasp, but we refuse to do anything about them. Do these not count as “ideas”? Are they not fit subjects for genre fiction?

True, science fiction is neither predictive nor didactic. It has not been since the 1920s, but I sometimes wonder if it needs to be once again. Back then, it was a marketing gimmick, a way of selling the newly-formed genre to readers of electronics and popular science magazines. Now, the genre has grown far too sophisticated for the simplistic agendas of Gernsback and his contemporaries. As a literary mode of fiction, it has evolved a vast repertoire of tropes, an extensive toolkit, and a lexicon that is in many ways peculiar to it. And along with this increase in sophistication has come a shift in viewpoint from the immediate to the abstract.

Abstract commentaries, however, often yield abstract results. Neither prediction nor didactism are useful tools in today’s fiction market, but that doesn’t mean sf should ignore the immediate. At a time when science itself is coming under attack, perhaps the genre which includes “science” in its name should take up arms once again. I see labels such as “speculative fiction” and “strange fiction”, and all I see is a move to define the genre by its aesthetics.

Science fiction is not fiction which incorporates a defined catalogue of tropes. It is not fiction which features science, or which is about science. It is fiction that once battled for science, which was once a soldier in science’s army. Science fiction is every mode of fiction, every trope, every writing tool, which was invented in order to win that struggle. And, once upon a time, it fought the good fight, inspiring generations to take up careers in science and engineering – including those who made the Apollo lunar landings a reality. Sadly, it could not sustain the offensive, and the war has long since been lost.

This is not to say the genre is as uniform as the above might suggest. Like any movement which has evolved, which has been in existence for more than eighty years, it is varied and disparate. It is a house of many rooms. And a great many people live in that house.

Not everyone is a spectator. I like to think I’ve done my bit, that I’ve contributed something. My story ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’ was a direct attack on climate-change deniers (see here). My Euripidean Space stories are based on the latest data on the moons of Saturn (see here). My story ‘Human Resources’ comments on capitalist economics (see here). I wrote a story to celebrate the achievement in 1960 of Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh (see here) – although the story has yet to find a home.

I plan to contribute much more.


19 thoughts on “A literature of ideas

  1. Isn’t Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent Hugo/Nebula/Locus award winning The Windup Girl a commentary on Global Warming and how we’re ruining out planet? I guess it fits into the small group of authors and works who are trying to make puissant commentaries on the current state of things…

  2. I always include John Brunner’s horrifically disturbing The Sheep Look Up in that group of ecological sci-fi — yes, the work is old (70s), but….

  3. I really can’t get into Kim Stanley Robinson’s works — I somewhat enjoyed Red Mars — but, I hate how characters rarely make more than a few appearances. Green Mars was much much better but I couldn’t get through all of Blue Mars… again, for similar reasons… I understand that he is purposefully creating a kaleidoscope of figures to populate his “Marscape” but, I rarely felt for them or the ones I enjoyed disappeared completely from the narrate…

  4. Paolo Bacigalupi’s YA novel Ship Breaker is also a novel addressing current concerns and in a recent interview Bacigalupi mentioned that he will be writing more YA novels as he feels that his message may be better served by presenting it to the audience most likely to rise up and do something about and/or have to deal with the consequences of the decisions being made now. It is a very interesting interview, you can find it here:

    Great thoughts Ian, and I don’t disagree with you. I would like to see more science fiction that addresses current or near-future issues, in particular novels that do not always take the “oh my God, we’re doomed” approach but also the “here’s how cool everything could be with a little work” approach. After awhile dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction gets old. Even the very best of stories get to the point where they merely entertain without promoting real inspiration for change if they are yet another example of “the world is going to hell” fiction.

    “I see labels such as “speculative fiction” and “strange fiction”, and all I see is a move to define the genre by its aesthetics.” I see that too and it annoys me for many reason. One being the fact that I don’t quite understand the constant need for science fiction and fantasy to try to legitimize itself by finding a palatable label for the mainstream to accept and two because I think the petty bickering that often results from this steers tentative potential readers away from giving either genre a try.

    • Dystopian and post-apocalypse fiction can make valid points, and often does. But a book about an apocalypse caused by a virus which turns people into vampires is definitely a step backwards…

      • “Dystopian and post-apocalypse fiction can make valid points”

        Oh, I agree, and didn’t mean it as a slight to this type of fiction as I have enjoyed reading several short and long form stories with this viewpoint of the future. However, I would like to see a broader range of ideas explored in near-future fiction besides destruction, or at the very least would like to see more hope and potential mixed in with dystopian/post-apocalyptic tropes. Or at the very least more ideas explored about how this could be changed and avoided vs. just an examination of where our road seems to be leading us.

  5. I’m also thinking of many Geoff Ryman stories, all of Ian McDonald’s latest novels and short stories, Jetse de Vries’ “Shine” anthology…

    And when I’ve been reading short fiction, I’ve been a bit sad that 80% of the short sf is set on Earth in the near future, and very little is set out in space or in the far future anymore. i.e., in my reading I have identified *exactly the opposite* problem that you have. 😉 Probably we’re both just constraining our reading too much.

    • I think perhaps I read too much space opera. But it also often seems that space opera is the default mode of science fiction. When I look at my bookshelves, I see mostly books set in space or more than several centuries from now.

      I’ve not read MacDonald’s latest few novels, but while they may be set in the near-future, aren’t they just tackling the same old big themes?

      • The same old big themes… like post-colonialism and the effect of climate change and increasingly ubiquitous technology on the developing world? I guess I really don’t see *anything* in common between ‘same old’ sf and McDonald’s India/Brazil/Turkey novels.

      • Sorry. I did say I’d not read them – other than the novella which was on a short list a year or so ago.

  6. Interesting post. Not to get into politics, but I was always expecting, during the Bush administration, to start seeing more science fiction about the dangers of theocracy.

    After all, that was a theme of many classic SF stories, like Fritz Leiber’s “Gather, Darkness!” (1943), Robert A. Heinlein’s “If This Goes On -” (1940), or Leigh Brackett’s “The Long Tomorrow” (1955). For years, as I was seeing a turn toward theocracy in America, I kept expecting this to return as a major theme in science fiction.

    Well, maybe it has. I’m certainly not as familiar with modern SF as I am with the classic stuff. But if it has, I haven’t seen it.

  7. I was think of McDonald as an example of a writer who is successful in this arena as well as Paolo Bacigalupi when I was reading your post originally. Primarily his short story collection, Cyberabad Days, which mixes a lot of interesting future-tech with what seems like a plausible course for the middle-east, and the world really, given its current course.

  8. Hello, Mr.Sales,

    Excellent article. Kindly allow me to translate it and to post it on non-profit site of the Romanian Science Fiction&Fantasy Society, giving you the credit and inserting a link to the original.
    Thank you very much.

    Yours sincerely,
    Cristian Tamas
    Romanian Science Fiction&Fantasy Society

  9. Pingback: Societatea Română de Science-Fiction şi Fantasy » O literatură a ideilor

  10. In the 60s this was the future. But the present is the result of not listening to the futurists back then. John Kenneth Galbraith was writing about the planned obsolescence in 1959. So is the environmental degradation you see today the result not listening to sci-fi back then?

    Read “The Door into Summer” by Robert Heinlein. Pay close attention to what he says about cars in 2000 even though he was writing in 1956. We took a wrong turn in the 60s. That is what is wrong with the present.

    But I have never seen a sci-fi story where double-entry accounting was mandatory in the schools. What would that do to the economy? People keep talking about education but isn’t any teacher that can’t figure out that planned obsolescence is going on in cars 41 years after the Moon landing pretty dumb?

    Look at computers. How is it that before 1990 multi-billion corporations could use mainframes with less than 128 meg of RAM. But today you can’t run a ma and pa grocery store with less than 2 gigabytes. So do we have the planned obsolescence of grossly inefficient computer software?

    Our science fiction today just ain’t realistic enough about what to do with technology. It just promotes the “everybody is supposed to be a good little employee” idea. Why isn’t everybody supposed to know how to do accounting on these computers more powerful than 1980 mainframes? Where is that science fiction?

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