It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Relevance? What’s that then?


It has been said that current science fiction is not especially relevant, if at all. It fails to address or comment on the concerns which face us on a daily basis. As we watch the world around us change for the worse, so science fiction fails to either document it, or perhaps chart a way out of it. When it does try to offer object lessons and thought experiments, they always lead to dystopias, while ignoring the fact that we’re already heading in that direction. We don’t need sf to tell us what can go wrong. We can see what’s going wrong in the world about us.

This is not true of all science fiction, of course. There are some sf writers who write about the world we know – Ken MacLeod, for example; or Bruce Sterling.

I have even tried to do the same myself, write stories about the abuses capitalism and the super-rich perpetrate upon everyone, stories about the climate, the economy… In ‘Human Resources’, I posited a world in which the free movement of labour followed the same rules as the free movement of capital, and described some of the ramifications of that. In ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’, I described a post-wealth world created by a billionaire’s catastrophic attempt to “fix” global warming. In ‘The Contributors’, I wrote about the effects on people when they’re treated as nothing more than dispensable components in an economic system.

But no one wanted my stories.

Two of them were published by M-Brane SF, after numerous rejections from other magazines. One I published myself here on my blog.

People want stories in which spaceships get blown up. They want stories about wars against humanised aliens… while in their daily newspapers the human enemy their armed forces are fighting are othered and demonised. They want stories about privileged heroes making their mark on the world around them. They want stories where violence – something which requires no talent or intelligence – solves seemingly intractable problems and makes lives better. They want simple solutions, not complicated problems.

It could be, of course, that my stories were crap. No one wanted them because they thought they were rubbish. Which does suggest that only good stories get published – but you’d have to be a real idiot to believe that. There is a lot of crap that gets published. Some of it even becomes popular.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. For every Leviathan Wakes, there’s an Embassytown (for every A Game of Thrones, a The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). Not that any of those four novels are relevant. Science fiction (and fantasy) is a broad church, and the most popular sect will always be the least sophisticated. Most sf readers – most sf fans, in fact – don’t contribute to the genre conversation. They just consume. And it’s their levels of consumption that dictate in which direction the genre travels, not the commentary by those actively engaged with science fiction.

Take, for example, the Arthur C Clarke Award. Yesterday at noon, I started a thread on this year’s shortlist on SFF Chronicles. As of 8 am this morning, there were no comments on it. No one’s interested. They want to discuss the latest installment of A Song of Ice and Fire, or some fifty-year-old piece of crap that’s set firmly within their comfort zone and does little more than reinforce their prejudices

How can science fiction combat that willful blindness? No matter how relevant the genre is, if it’s preaching to an empty room it can never succeed.

10 thoughts on “Relevance? What’s that then?

  1. It was ever thus. Back in the 1970s, when Asimov’s was new, there was a lot of comment about their editorial policy, whereby they didn’t want “relevant” stories about ordinary people tackling problems caused by technological or societal change.

    Of course, it’s the same editors and commentators who moan about sf not being “relevant” that applaud and promote the high concept and(/or) space opera stuff that sells. I suspect that there’s an element of looking for any stick with which to beat sf; if the commercial decisions continue to force sf into the metaphorical gutter (where many of the fans insist it belongs), then the literati can sleep safely in their beds, confident that their hegemony over the art form is safe and secure.

  2. I’m not sure how to react to your comments Ian. On the one hand I don’t feel that I’m the sort of person you’re talking about because I do want dept to the SF I read, I like something that can teach us something about ourselves and our society.

    But on the other hand, my reading is predominated by older SF. Although I would argue that a lot it is still relevent today, I realise that I am missing out on not reading more current SF that is relevent right now.

    Perhaps the lack of thought provoking, relevent modern SF is one reason I don’t favour modern SF more but then again, perhaps my failure to support those authors who do is part of the problem.

    I must admit that a too thinly veiled and one sided attack on modern society can be a turn off for me. I prefer a more oblique and multi-faceted approach. Such fiction shouldn’t be trying to force the reader to reach a particular conclusion, but rather make them question their preconceptions and consider the options, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions.

    BTW, your stories sound interesting. I would love to see them in print some day (I really don’t like reading stories electronically).

    • I don’ t disagree with you, but sometimes sf falls back too often on the so-called “big themes” – identity, destiny, purpose, etc – to disguise the fact it’s not actually saying much that’s relevant. You could argue that such themes are always relevant, but there are better tools than sf to discuss them, like philosophy.

  3. One of my stories did provoke such an argument within my group of friends, so much so, that I was reluctant to send it out. In the end I did and yes it’s going to be in print.
    So what I’m hinting at is that this battering (as opposed to constructive debate) that some writers receive at the hands of their readership puts the writers off producing such interesting pieces. So it’s no wonder SF tends to blandness!

  4. Ian, your paragraph ending ‘They want simple solutions, not complicated problems’ is superb.

    Who could disagree?

    If I’m going to point to (or argue about) anything it’s a few of minor(ish) things:

    1) What’s the solution, education? If people who actually read at all (i.e., probably the ‘educated’ minority amongst the population as a whole) only derive enjoyment from bangs, humanised aliens and heroism, do we need to push education to a whole new level? Are you hinting at a malaise infecting all of ‘civilised’ society and culture?

    2) If we’re peaching to an empty room, maybe the lesson is that we oughtn’t to be preaching at all? People mostly read to be entertained. Personally, my objective is to tell stories that are engaging to me and that are “true” to me, and if I happen upon some of life’s big questions that’s just a bonus.

    3) I suspect that many people, like me, might’ve responded to your Chrons thread on the ACC awards IF they’d read the books. I’m not uninterested, but I am unwilling to comment where I don’t have first-hand knowledge.


    • There’s no reason why stories can’t do more than entertainment. In fact, they should do. And sf is a famously didactic genre, so why refuse to use that? I’m not saying Gernsbackian levels of didactism, just show readers how vast and wonderful the universe really instead of pretending it’s just like planet Earth some time around 1830.

      I was expecting people to have read all of the books on the ACCA shortlist, but I did expect them to have read some books that were published last year and that they thought were award-worthy. Or is nothing they read award-worthy? I find that hard to believe.

      • The problem with reading books that were published last year is that they are hardbacks and cost more (or are ebooks and cost more!). You have to wait another year to get the paperbacks and by then all the awards for that book are done and gone.

  5. I’ve been thinking a little about titles that engage with big Qs AND entertain. An example that springs to mind is GG Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan.

    I think it’s often about addressing big Qs on a personal level. Capitalism, prejudice, global warming, war … they don’t truly engage a fiction reader, they don’t cause readers to emote, unless they’re seen through a prism of individual’s lives.


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