Andrew Wheeler gives a run-down on the Hugo fiction shortlists here, but it’s some of the comments he makes in passing that I find interesting. He first complains that Peter Watts ‘The Things’ is a “backwards-looking story … which retells a famous old story in a new way” and that “there have been far too many backwards-looking SF stories over the last two decades”. I don’t know about the “far too many” – I suspect Wheeler reads a great deal more sf short fiction than I do (and my reading will be skewed toward UK-produced sf short fiction anyway) – but I don’t recall all that many similar types of stories off the top of my head. Theodora Goss riffed off HG Wells a couple of years ago, I seem to recall. Even so, what’s wrong with approaching old stories in new ways? Science fiction is, after all, a genre in conversation with itself. Doing it too often, yes, can be bad, and I bow to Wheeler’s greater knowledge on whether that point has been reached. But in moderation I think it’s good and perhaps necessary.
Wheeler than goes on to say that Allen Steele’s ‘The Emperor of Mars’ “is the first really egregiously ‘gosh, wasn’t yesterday’s future so much better than ours’ story this year, flattering all of those aging Boomer SF readers who didn’t become the space-station jockeys and planet-hopping businessmen they all thought they’d be when they were twelve”. As far as I can determine, the story is not set in an alternate future – it mentions NASA missions to Mars during the 1990s, and the 2008 Phonenix mission – so if it is playing on a nostalgia for the space programme of the 1960s and 1970s, then it’s only doing so in imagining a renewed interest in crewed space exploration and colonisation in the next few decades. But how does that make it “yesterday’s future”? I can understand that baby boomers (I’m not one myself), who remember the excitement of Apollo, might look for something which harkens back to that in their science fiction. But why is that necessarily a bad thing? Wheeler goes further when discussing James Patrick Kelly’s ‘Plus or Minus’ and says, “monkeys in cans is so 1970”.
Magical spaceships are apparently twenty-first century? A complete absence of technological realism in sf is twenty-first century? Hardly – Edmond Hamilton and EE ‘Doc’ Smith were making up magical sf shit nearly 100 years ago. So what should modern sf be? Why should stories which attempt to treat space exploration and colonisation realistically – which doesn’t automatically mean they’re looking back to Apollo, of course – be bad?
Obviously, I enjoy stories which feature space travel and exploration. And I like stories which treat the topic realistically. Hence Rocket Science. And in my own fiction I’ve done both sorts of “looking back” that Wheeler identifies above: ‘Barker’, for example, re-imagines the first flight of an American into space. It’s retro in as much as it’s a re-examination of the historic flights of Alan B Shepard and Laika. But it’s not riffing off past science fiction, it’s riffing off history. I believe this is a perfectly valid approach to writing science fiction.
Yet any sf argument on the subject of “retro” or “looking back” is going look a bit foolish in the face of one of the genre’s most popular past-times: holding up sixty-year old works as the best sf has to offer. If that’s not “looking back”, then what is? Idolising old and not very good books simply because they’re are what introduced individuals to the genre makes no sense to me. It also seems an odd definition of “good”. Surely re-working those alleged “classics” is a valid artistic response to them? Likewise for reworking old tropes, or even old inspirations.
They say there is nothing new in science fiction anyway – there are no new ideas, only new spins on old ideas. And why limit the tools you can use when writing science fiction? Looking backwards is not always driven by a need for comfort. Sometimes, it can do the exact opposite.