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Fables of the Deconstruction


I’ve recently been reading a new science fiction anthology for review for Interzone and this, coupled with David Hebblethwaite’s remarks on science fiction awards here and Nina Allan’s comments here, has brought into focus some elements of my increasing dissatisfaction with the genre and its resistance to progress. Especially hard science fiction.

David complains about the lack of experimentation in form in sf, but I think there’s also a lack of experimentation in settings and narratives in hard sf. It’s all very well using cutting-edge science, the latest descriptions of exoplanets or the moons of Jupiter… But it always remains outside, outside the reader’s viewpoint on the plot, outside the characters’ psychology, their motivations or perceptions or worldview. While it’s true human beings need a specific environment to survive, and will take their society and transplant it wherever they may find themselves, irrespective of that external environment… their new surroundings will affect them, will change them. Not only must they make accommodations with their location, but their society will likely change as a result. But it rarely seems to in science fiction stories. Writers simply transplant a society little different to the writer’s present to their new environment, and add some technological bells and whistles to justify its presence. Even worse, they often model their society on an older one, such as the Wild West, with all its lawlessness and amorality, and stick it on, say, Io. How progressive is that? It’s not, of course. For all the story’s gimmickry and ideas, it still posits the sort of individualistic and brutal human (male, usually) that hasn’t characterised human society for centuries and is certainly unlikely to do so in the future.

To me, hard science fiction’s inability to reflect its settings in the psychology of its protagonists is a failure of the imagination. A good non-genre example would be Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, comprising The Jewel In The Crown, The Day Of The Scorpion, The Towers Of Silence and A Division Of The Spoils. It covers the years leading up to, and during, the independence of India, but much of the story is set among British expatriates in the country. While the British in India built communities that were models of those back home in the UK, they could not help but evolve into something different through contact with the country’s population. And the people living in those countries changed too – so much so that they often suffered culture-shock on their return to Britain.


If you look further afield in sf, particularly in the short fiction market, there’s plainly a twenty-first century strain of the genre, one which freely borrows imagery and tropes from fantasy and New Weird. It also displays a greater spread of settings, societies and protagonists. Personally, I think the focus on imagery is mostly surface and usually hides a lack of sfnal progress – that’s progress in terms of how science fiction works, of course; the elements which go together to create science fictions and so differentiate them from other works of literature. The other areas in which sf is progressing – diversity, non-binary gender, etc – I think are excellent and long past due.

All this makes hard sf’s insistence on sticking to old story patterns all the more puzzling. I once defended hard sf from an accusation of being inherently right-wing. I still think it’s not right-wing, though I recognise many of its proponents write from a right-wing perspective. But certainly the subgenre is reactionary and conservative (with a small “c”, note). It doesn’t have to be. The laws of physics may be immutable, but there’s nothing that says human societies always tend to the Competent Man (usually a white Westerner) lording it over others by virtue of his competence, wits and willingness to commit violence. In fact, that’s a pretty offensive characterisation of human society. It’s sadly also widely prevalent in hard sf (and in sf too, in a wider sense).

Nina Allan, in her post, writes that sf no longer seems to comment on political and social issues, nor displays “evocative and original use of language”. She also makes a very useful distinction – between authors who write from within science fiction and authors who “draw their influences from science fiction”. Both her and David’s comments are addressed to the former – as are mine.

I think Nina makes some interesting points, but her comment about language seems to me to forget that science fiction is chiefly a genre of commercial fiction, with much of its DNA provided by pulp fiction. The current economic climate (well, actually, the global economy the neoliberals and neocons have gifted us over the past thirty years) means publishers prize commercial science fiction more than they do literary science fiction. The small presses – and self-published authors, to some extent – have picked up the latter baton, but they are still small fry in a large profit-driven ocean. When writing commercial fiction in any genre, there’s a tendency to stick to tried and tested – and familiar and lucrative – patterns. So it doesn’t really surprise me that prose in sf novels is blanding out, or even that ideas and the presentation of those ideas is tending to more… comfortable forms. I can rue this, I can compare it unfavourably with the situation thirty or forty years ago… but there are too many things that need to change, many of which the publishing industry has no control over, before it can be resolved. Plus, there are other issues which need to be addressed first – notably the lack of diversity, and the preponderance of sexism and racism – and it’s good that the sf conversation keeps on talking about these topics and is making progress at combatting them.

But. Science fiction. The stuff that makes these stories what they are. Nina uses this year’s Clarke Award shortlist as a barometer of the state of the genre. Which is not necessarily a fair argument. It has never been part of the award’s remit, and the jury are, as she acknowledges, all too human – in fact, I suspected one of the judges of championing the Mann but when I asked they said they hadn’t… which only shows the danger of making such assumptions. And speaking of Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise, for all the book’s faults, it can’t be accused of not being experimental in form. True, its structure is hardly original – a story-within-a-story, with “author” interpolations, plus ancillary material presented as appendices – but neither is it the far more common straightforward linear narrative, or indeed the relatively common dual narrative, past versus present, of the eventual winner, Ancillary Justice.

The point I’m trying to make, which unfortunately I keep on ruining by drifting from the point, is that the science-fictionalness, to coin a phrase, of a text, particularly hard sf, has not appreciably progressed for decades. I don’t doubt that the bulk of sf authors in years past never really bothered to interrogate or deconstruct the tropes they used – although some did, Samuel R Delany certainly did – and likewise very little present-day science fiction makes a serious attempt at examining the science-fictional assumptions, the tropes and genre furniture, of which it makes use. Nor do they explore the psychology of their protagonists. These, I think, are not only a missed opportunities, but also make sf, for me, a less interesting genre than it could be in the twenty-first century.

So let’s add these things together – from David, the lack of experimentation in form; from Nina, the lack of contemporary commentary; and from myself, the failure to examine what science fiction actually does and why it does it… Surely there’s something in among that lot worth exploring? Which is why the hard sf anthology I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post proved so disappointing a read – and also seemed to be so emblematic of much that I feel in sf isn’t working for me. The anthology’s contents certainly met its theme, and they definitely qualified as “hard science fiction”… but there were so many unaddressed assumptions implicit in the stories, and so little examination of what makes a story hard sf rather than simply sf, that I couldn’t understand why the editors had even bothered to put it together.

Science fiction is by definition fecund terrain for stories. Hard sf may add some restrictions, but that should in no way limit how it tells its stories. Why can’t sf writers dig a little deeper into the tropes they use so blithely? Why can’t they take science fiction apart, examine it from all angles, and then put it back together in interesting ways? I’d not only like to see that happen to a much greater extent than it does presently, I’d like to see it as the default mode for writing science fiction – especially hard science fiction.

15 thoughts on “Fables of the Deconstruction

  1. Todays fables may become tomorrows realities – who knows. Changes in literature and/or literary style, however, shall only come forth, if society changes and those changes could be mirrored correspondingly.

  2. Hard science fiction is hard. Science continues to poke and stretch. While it can’t out-pace imagination, it certainly breaches reasonability at times. The Higgs Field? Come on. Aquaman makes more sense. Which is not to say I’m giving SF writers a pass on the rest of existence. I just think that the level of difficulty in writing decent hard SF is going to make the number of successes drop. I cheated, myself. I consider my book The Milkman hard SF, but the science is economics. A soft science (if science at all.) It meets your other criteria for being progressive, but can you have hard SF of a soft science? Karl Schroeder has been doing some excellent stuff. His new book, Lockstep, is hard SF that absolutely creates a new world, facing forward, that gets you thinking.

  3. The standardization continues, commercial interests and money-grubbing agents, editors & authors evincing little interest in stretching (or erasing) boundaries and, yes, even science fiction is not immune. The situation will only get worse as that corporate, profit-centered approach fouls everything it touches, dumbing down literature (of all kinds) more and more with each passing year..

    Don’t expect thematic or stylistic invention and innovation in a commercial climate–it will never happen. And the worst is still to come…

    • Cliff,
      I can’t see how this fits with the small press and self-publishing boom. The market is filled with people doing what they want and out of love. Maybe it’s just so noisy in the market place that we don’t hear about the more innovative pieces.

      • Michael–and how’s the distribution network for those small presses and self-publishers you allude to? Having worked both sides of that particular fence I can tell you: it is nearly impossible for either to find shelf space in the box stores or have representation in the marketplace. While they may be venues that allow good writers to work without commercial/hack sensibilities, any authors they publish have to accept the reality that they will find very few readers and will remain largely unknown to vast numbers of fans and bibliophiles.

        And with a shrinking number of bookstores, indie bookshops disappearing, ownership concentrated in a few hands, Amazon sweeping the field, I don’t see things improving any time soon.

    • You may be assigning more power to agents and editors than is the case. They can only buy what they can get past the marketing and finance droids, as all those two groups care about is units shifted and profit made. And as late-stage capitalism has belatedly proven, that’s no way to run a business. Unfortunately, as long as the capitalists themselves profit from their stupid business practices, they’ll continue to ensure their corporations follow them.

  4. Cliff –
    Ian’s original post is about the lack of progressive, forward-reaching hard science fiction. Where is it? I don’t think commercialization of the market is having a chilling effect on innovation. I agree with you that finding an audience is difficult. Oh, man do I agree with you. But one of the reasons is the growth of the market. Not the decline. If only five people self-published books this month you, Ian and I would have no trouble seeing what was going on in contemporary fiction. As it is, five authors have put up books while you read this comment. Some of them are putting out exactly the kind of fiction Ian is seeking. (Some of them. My other point was that hard SF is hard to write.) Still, the problem isn’t commercialization, it’s communication. Who are these authors? Are they any good?

  5. Well, I would argue with Ian that using terms like “progressive” or “innovative” in the same sentence as hard science fiction is almost an oxymoron. Like looking for “diversity” and “liberalism” in military SF. I can’t think of many hard SF guys I would read for their literary value, can you? Again, it’s a genre of golly gee whiz ideas, instead of explorations in human potential, how progress retards or exalts the human spirit.

    There’s damn little fine writing these days in ANY genre…and the corporates and their money-grubbing ways are, I believe, largely to blame.

    Along with the lazy, stupid, atavistic readers., with shit for brains.

    Good discussion and thanks for addressing my remarks.

    • Actually, Ian’s stuff is literary hard SF – but he is a rare exception. I agree well-shaped prose is not normally the thrust of the genre.

      I like your icon. The illustration is very cool. Got to get me one.

      • A self-portrait…and I am definitively NOT a visual artist, just dabbling. It’s funny, my wife really likes that one too. She says it’s a startling resemblance.

        And I agree, Ian is one of the few exceptions to my rule. He is a superb writer.

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  9. “It’s all very well using cutting-edge science, the latest descriptions of exoplanets or the moons of Jupiter… But it always remains outside, outside the reader’s viewpoint on the plot, outside the characters’ psychology, their motivations or perceptions or worldview.”

    I think this is a really good point, actually. I’ll elaborate on the forums. 🙂

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