It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Science fiction has lost the plot


I recently finished The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, which was not published as science fiction but was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award last year. In it, a flu pandemic has killed 99% of the population of the US, and the survivors have, of course, turned to warlordism and survivalism. It’s not a very good book – its presence on that shortlist is, frankly, mystifying. One character appears to be ripped off from John Goodman’s part, Walter Sobchak, in The Big Lebowski; and the narrator apparently suffered minor brain damage previously from a bout of meningitis and so narrates the novel in mildly-broken English… which serves no purpose in the story at all.

Anyway, warlordism and survivalism… There’s a long tradition of such post-apocalypse tales in science fiction and I’m sure we can all think of at least half-a-dozen examples. I’ve objected before to the assumption that the survivors of any apocalypse would immediately start killing each other, when clearly cooperation is the only sustainable strategy for survival.

And then there’s the dystopia, a much-beloved setting for YA. In almost all cases, a privileged elite enjoy lives of luxury while the bulk of the population either scrabble for a living below the poverty line, or are rigorously oppressed with no freedom to object; or both. I can understand the dystopia’s appeal for the YA market. In order to “break” the setting, which is the point of the story, the protagonist needs to be a super-special snowflake – which not only feeds into teenage narcissism but also relies upon, and reinforces, the risible “Great Man of History” theory, which is itself the sort of nonsense kids believe.

It could be argued that such dystopias only reflect the real world, that their popularity is a symptom of the times we live in. Perhaps that’s true. Certainly the UK is currently governed by a cabal of greedy fascists who are hell-bent on selling off as much of the country as possible to their plutocrat friends. There is not much difference between Downing Street and Panem’s Capitol.


It strikes me that these two branches of science fiction are actually conditioning us to accept our current situation. Dystopia readers are waiting for a Katniss – and then everything will be all right. Post-apocalypse readers know they’re currently better-off, even if they’re being oppressed, than they would be with gangs of marauding slavers, rapists and murderers roaming the countryside. Science fiction was once a literature which encouraged change, which explored ways and means to effect changes. Now it’s comfort reading, it makes us feel good about our reduced circumstances because at least we’re not suffering as much as the fictional characters we read about.

And if it’s not apocalypses and dystopias, it’s interplanetary or interstellar wars. Making us feel good about our governments’ military adventurism. And fictional universes that embody so many libertarian sensibilities it’s becoming increasingly hard to argue that right-wing politics are not the default mode for the genre. Even left-wing authors create worlds built on right-wing principles, as if dramatic stories were impossible any other way. Which is simply not true.

Once upon a time, science fiction was driven by an outward urge. True, we know a great deal more about our planet and our universe than we did then. But there is still a lot we don’t know – the depths of the oceans, for example, remain mostly unexplored. We’ve found over 1800 exoplanets, but the furthest we’ve trod is our own moon, 400,000 km away – and that was over forty years ago anyway. What happened to that urge? Where are the science fiction novels inspired by it? I can perhaps think of only a handful published in the past twelve to eighteen months which might qualify.

The bulk of sf currently being published seems more designed to accommodate us to our meagre lot. It’s not holding up a mirror to our times, it is complicit with those forces which shape the modern world. It is telling tales to maintain the status quo by showing just how improbable, how impossible, meaningful change is.

A friend is currently trying to put together a list of sf novels about climate change – and it’s perhaps telling that most such science fictions take place after the climate has crashed. It’s almost as if we’re unable to prevent it – it’s going to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. Except, of course, there is. There are lots of things we could do. But certain powerful interests in the modern world don’t want the changes preventing climate crash would entail. So we have become resigned to consuming stories in which climate crash is a faît accompli.

Back in 1926 when Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of his magazine and so created the genre, he saw “scientifiction” as a possible force for good. And it’s certainly true that fiction can have profound effects on the real world – and not just in terms of inspiring nerds to invent new gadgets. These days, however, science fiction has all importance of middle-class fad foodstuffs. We consume it like we consume Greek yoghurt – and it’s not even that, it’s more like a bee flew over a pot which was then filled with curdled milk from a dog they found wandering the back streets of Athens…

So what went wrong? When did we become so resigned to the present, so resigned to our powerlessness, that we began to ignore not only change but the possibility of change in our science fictions? And what can we do about it?


113 thoughts on “Science fiction has lost the plot

  1. Excellent blog, Ian. You pose some very pertinent questions to all the current sci-fi writers out there.

  2. I remember a confounded BBC reporter in the wake of Katrina saying he had reported on natural disasters all over the world. Floods, earthquakes, tsunami. and this was the first time he had reported one where the survivors shot at each other.

    • Americans don’t even need the excuse of a hurricane or apocalypse to shoot at each other…

    • I’ve been through several hurricanes, including Hurricane Andrew, and while there was a certain amount of looting and shooting, most of the people helped each other out. But that’s boring stuff that doesn’t get in the news: people prefer especially to read about the perceived well-off (as Americans are all supposed to be) suffering and being horrible. So the looting and the shooting gets reported, and later that’s all people remember. That’s why we have so many après vous le déluge stories in scifi. We’ve been conditioned to think that’s the way it is, and refuse evidence right before our faces of otherwise.

  3. Couldn’t agree more–science fiction has become insular and BORING. We need more visionary talents in the field, enough of the near future, post-apocalypse stuff, let’s have writing that addresses humankind’s destiny in the stars. Contemporary SF lacks ambition and scope, mere extrapolations on present day circumstances…surely we can do better. I’m more interested in the state of our species a hundred, a thousand, a million years from now–which, of course, requires authors to, y’know, use their imaginations and not fall back on familiar stand-bys and tropes.

    Good on you for calling out our colleagues, who are spending too much time in their comfort zones and need to challenge themselves (and their readers) with a more daring, inspiring and far-seeing approach to their prose.

  4. When did we become so resigned to the present, so resigned to our powerlessness, that we began to ignore not only change but the possibility of change in our science fictions? And what can we do about it?

    Some of that outward push, of course, Ian, was cold-war fueled, having the Soviets and the West (mainly the US) engaged in an ever-expanding attempt to get higher ground.

    It ended in the 1980’s (coincidentally when Neuromancer and company came out) because of three reasons:

    1. The cold war ended. The space race was done, over and the need to keep fueling that drive over the other bloc vanished. You don’t need to, quoting the 50’s story Coming Attraction, to build up your moonbases so that they can launch alphabet bombs toward the earth. So that drive for space went away

    2. Space and the worlds out there have proven to be harsher and less hospitable than we ever imagined. Venus is a hellhole worth nothing. Mars is a dry, cold, airless desert. Robots can explore it just fine, and so the drive to put a man there just isn’t there. Robinson’s Mars trilogy is the capstone, then, of the idea of humans going and making something of Mars.

    3. We’re screwing up the planet, and Faux News pundits aside, its bloody obvious, and bloody obvious that short term gain authoritarian capitalism is destroying the planet and ourselves.

    Some authors are trying to work that space (hello Tobias Buckell! Hi Karl Schroeder!) but the bleakness of what’s on the menu makes it hard to want to go there. There have been some attempts (the Metatropolis stories, which Schroeder takes a part) but it feels like wind-spitting.

    • The outward urge is only one aspect. I’m not demanding that sf should be inspired by only it, just that its absence is indicative of the genre’s complicity and acceptance of present-day realities. There are people using science fiction to write about what’s wrong with the world today, but they’re in a minority. Most sf – and epic fantasy, by definition – is simply immunising us to our powerlessness – or rather, it is perpetuating the myth that we can’t change things.

      The Cold War, on the other hand, was definitely something that did inspire people to effect change – CND, for example. And yet, now that the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction is no longer true, we seem to have more post-apocalypse fiction than before.

    • Rather than considering Mars and Venus, which I know you rejected for the good reasons you’ve mentioned, consider Callisto – a moon of Jupiter. It does not have the radiation problem that Mars has and therefore we can live on the surface – albeit in airtight enclosures – but we would have quite a view.

  5. Excellent blog and comments…

    I know from various comments I’ve received about the lack of happy outward going SF. For instance my short story in the The Kraken Roses anthology was acknowledged as the only happy one in there. Similarly my novel, which has a happy and indeed interesting ending won’t see print because I can’t get agents or publishers interested. [Before anyone asks, I’ve ditched it.]

    Re climate change – you only need to look my short story – Ripple Effect – about the real politics of climate change to know why the world is not doing anything about it. But I will make one prediction – there will be climate change, but not in the way we expect. [This comment alone should get visionary SF writers thinking…]

    • I think you should self publish your work that isn’t interesting to a publisher, through Amazon or some such. But that is my opinion, as that is what I did.
      I’ve tired of stereotypical story lines; used then changed them in my own book, Edwin and the Metamorph. Like what, you might ask? Ever notice any time an alien and an earthling fall in love, the story ends with the two unable to be together. Being a romantic, this particular plot line frustrates me. So I changed it.
      My book is unlikely to win awards for story line, nor be considered a great work of fiction. But I have attempted to contribute positive change, and instill the thought of better possibilities ahead for my readers.

      • As a matter of fact, that’s what I did. I self-published Adrift on the Sea of Rains under my own imprint, Whippleshield Books. And it won the BSFA Award. But it’s hard to be heard when you only sell a couple of hundred copies (Adrift on the Sea of Rains has sold over 1100, for the record) and the big review venues ignore you because you’re self-published…

        Yes, there are self-published authors who sell thousands of copies a month, but most of them write derivative escapist crap.

      • I echo your sentiment Dean. For years no publishing house wanted any of my SciFi based books. So I self-published them. They continue to sell on a regular basis. So, publishers do not always know what will sell.

      • You need to be a good marketeer to be a successful independent publisher, and that is one thing I am not.
        Ian with his good SF network was in a far better position than I could ever be for getting publicity, which is why he sold as many books as he did. And winning the BSFA award certainly helped sell even more copies.
        So this is not an option for me… instead I shall wallow in the thought that the world has missed some very interesting ideas… like how to cause a conflagration on an airless moon with no friction or naked flame… and that is just one little subplot.

        • It’s true that I spent a lot of social capital getting Adrift on the Sea of Rains noticed – and not so much not on the two sequels to date, which is why they haven’t been as successful. Even so, it was the mentions on the Guardian newspaper’s website that had the most impact on sales. Winning the BSFA Award was gratifying validation and proved that what I’d done worked, but it didn’t have much impact on sales.

  6. If I had to pick one year when it became reasonably clear that we were in for long-term trouble, I would choose 1973. The Coup in Chile on the true 9/11, and the oil crisis. I remember both vividly for two nonstandard reasons. A couple I knew were evacuated from Chili on the last Swedish flight and the Dutch Prime Minister, Joop den Uyl, stated that “life will never be the same again,” referring to future oil shortages. Far less important was my reading of books by Delaney. Nova and Babel 17 stand out.

  7. This is something I’ve noticed as well, Mr. Sales, but I can’t honestly say I’m doing much to fix it.

    • I’ve written anti-capitalism stories, and I’ve got a story about Yuri Gagarin on Mars that quotes freely from The Communist Manifesto which has yet to find a home… But I’m certainly actively avoiding writing post-apocalypse or dystopian stories, and I’m attempting to include left-wing sensibilities in my stories.

      • I can’t say I’ve done anti-capitalism, but I think my own work possesses an anti-corporate vibe. I depict a society where corporations which employee laborers at a fixed wage must fork over half their revenue to the Phoenix Society in pain of being dissolved and having their executives, board of directors, and primary stakeholders summarily executed “while resisting arrest”. Sole proprietors and worker-owned coops are exempt from such scrutiny, of course.

  8. I cut my sci fi teeth on asimov, verne, and a massive stack of 60’s 70’s and 80’s pulp magazines from a local book store (5 for a buck shrink wrapped. It was like buying baseball cards to fill in a collection!)

    I miss it. I miss the exploration sci fi. Hmm…

    • It’s not entirely dead. Even so, I think there’s more than simply tales of exploration that’s missing from science fiction. The old ones were frequently little more than what was written on the page, books like Mrion Zimmer Bradley’s Endless Voyage, which are little more than a series of xenological puzzles that need to be solved on each world the ship visits. Even Bear’s more recent Clarke-Award-shortlisted Hull Zero Three didn’t do much with its central premise. Which is not to say no one making good use of space exploration in fiction – a good current example is James Smythe’s The Explorer, The Echo and whatever the third book in the trilogy will be.

  9. While I agree, for the most part, it’s not like dark visions of the future are anything new. The Time Machine doesn’t take us to Utopia. 1984, Brave New World, a Clock Work Orange, The Drowned World – these are some of the landmarks of my literary upbringing and they were warning signs on our a journey to the future. Right now we’re wandering down a dim path, but it won’t be forever.

    • This is true, but now dystopia is so prevalent it’s apparently a genre all its own.

    • Oh, I agree. Dystopia is here now, and in several forms. I need only mention the ongoing collapse of the European Welfare States, often under cruel regimes. In this climate of opinion and mental violence, it seems hard to think of any escape from ruin, much less write about some. It takes an enormous imagination to do that, and the results might interest few, assuming they are not some sort of SF reality show. If all this seems hopeless and depressing, today’s demonstration by a violent Nazi organisation, near me in Stockholm, *ought* to induce dystopic states of mind, states that accord with the facts.

  10. I hate to chip in with nowt but pedantry, but: “The Dog Stars by Peter Heller … was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award last year”

    No it wasn’t.

  11. Ian, it appears that you are saying that the vast majority of SF authors have turned to navel gazing rather than being outward looking. This is something I have found very depressing and have said so at several places – Rosie got a burst of my thoughts an her blog.

    I have also wondered if the main problem is the current crop of authors are in difficulty because they are not scientists and/or engineers and therefore turn to the social ‘sciences’ as a cop out.

    Nowhere do I see SF writers taking the cutting edge of science, including quantum physics, and asking ‘what would happen if this was pushed a little more’. It is almost as if that thought is beyond them therefore they don’t want to know.

    Regarding your friend trying to find stories about global warming, all I can say is that they need to look back around the 70s when all the rage was on global cooling and we had stories about cities being engulfed in ice. As an engineer the whole thing appears to be a scam based on nothing more than computer predictions – again more doom and gloom for some reason.

    My last thought, where have all the SF authors with a positive vision of the future gone, because without them SF as we knew it is dead.

    • Scientists and engineers, as a general rule, write crap prose, so I wouldn’t go looking to them to “save” science fiction. I’m also not sure what your dig at “social sciences” is intended to mean. If genre writers are complicit with the modern world, that has nothing to do with their backgrounds or whatever sciences they choose to privilege in their science fictions. It has everything to do with their motives for writing, with the artistic choices they make while they’re writing, and with what they hope to achieve through their writing.

      Physics will not save science fiction. Writers that choose to do more than they are currently doing will save science fiction.

      • Scientists and engineers may write crap prose just as many of the old authors did but must we give up vision for prose and mediocrity. Science fiction that relies on prose to the detriment of science is not science fiction it is fiction of some other kind.

        My ‘dig’ at social scientists was more aimed at the fact the ‘science’ is not a rigorous science that has measurable results that are reproducible and stories that are based on it end up as you describe in your article.

        Physics, of itself, won’t save science fiction but some knowledge of it and what the implications are will go a long way towards restoring the vision of science fiction. How can writers chose to do more if they don’t know there is more there to use?

        • See, now, I disagree with this. Scientists and engineers are no more visionary than shop assistants and journalists (to pick two careers at random). If a writer plans to put science in their novel, then I’d expect them to research it thoroughly. It doesn’t matter if they’re not a scientist or don’t have a scientific background – that’s what research is for.

          Any science fiction that contains bad prose is bad fiction. Genre fiction does not get a free pass from having to contain good writing because it contains science. That’s a complete myth, put about to disguise that fact that most sf writers of the past were piss-poor writers. Science fiction and fantasy has spent far too long idolising writers who couldn’t string a coherent sentence or a logical plot together.

          • Ian, I agree with you to a large extent. Any writer that does not research a technical subject is not doing their job correctly – when I write a technical manual I insist on having access to the equipment.

            The problem that no amount of research can overcome is the lack of vision or the asking of the question ‘what if’. Taking quantum entanglement, thinking about it and taking a possible next step to using it as an instant communicator over galactic distances is the sort of vision I am talking about. It might not happen but, then again, it might in the future.

            Bad prose should be sorted out by the editor working with the writer. Polished prose for the sake of polished prose is like polishing a turd and even adding glitter to it – at the end of the day you still have a turd. I say that because I have thrown many, so called, literary works in the garbage because their polished prose ended up being nauseating. there is a big difference between well written prose and polished prose and very seldom do the two meet. Yours, Ian is well written, please don’t over polish it.

            • I think you might be confusing polished writing with over-writing 🙂

              Also, editors as a general rule will not take a badly-written story and work with the author until it is good. It has to be good to start with, their changes are intended to make it better.

          • fizzle…. Ffiiiizzzzzzzzzzzeelllllleeee….. EXPLODE…. and now that I’ve got that out of the way….

            I disagree with your statement “Scientists and engineers are no more visionary than shop assistants and journalists (to pick two careers at random).”

            The technology profession tends these days to attract the analyst-biased brains to such an extent that it takes away from other types of brains. This includes those with visionary capability. So engineers and scientists are less likely to write the creative visionary stories, no matter how good or bad the prose is.

            The problem with any visionary story, whoever writes it, is that the vast majority of publishers will not touch it because it is too way out for them. Way out includes reasons such as it is unlikely to sell or is too exotic to be called science fiction.

            • You guys are also assuming that people actually want to read the detailed physics and that sort. I love sci-fi, but if you put too much science into it, I quit the book. I do love science as well, I even work in IT, but I struggled with physics. I studied social sciences at the university, and I think that sort of thinking is more conductive to a good story, because the stories that touch you aren’t the ones with a lot of science, but with the people who live in that world. In social sciences we learn to look beyond what is now, and imagine what people can become. We also learn about how those changes are possible.

              • Um… I would not limit ‘looking beyond what is now, and imagine what people can become’ to social sciences. Systems engineering does a lot of this too – it has to to do its job.
                Heck I’ve written stories with a lot of info-dumping in, but that is to make sure the science is right. After I’ve done that draft, I go back and chuck out a lot of explanations, replacing them with the one sentence of the gadget does this to the person or the scene. It’s easy to do. So info-dumping to me is just a bad style of writing.

            • Granted, it’s easier for a good writer to research the science than for a scientist who can’t write decent prose to produce an engaging novel. Still, there is a record of people with a strong background in the ‘hard’ sciences and engineering (I’m leaving out medicine for now, that’s arguable) making an impact in the field. I argue that now and then someone who truly knows the science can have visionary insights that might be missed by a layman, even one who reads Scientific American. At the very least, science fiction needs all kinds…

              Asaro, Catherine (Chemistry/Physics)
              Asimov, Isaac (Biochemistry)
              Baxter, Stephen (Mathematics/Engineering)
              Benford, Gregory (Physics)
              Brin, David (Astrophysics/Applied Physics)
              Clarke, Arthur C. (Math, Physics
              Clement, Hal (Astronomy/Chemistry)
              Cramer, John G. (Physics)
              De Camp, L. Sprague (Engineering)
              Gawne, Timothy (Engineering/Neuroscience)
              Heinlein, Robert (Engineering)
              Kondo, Yoji (“Eric Kotani”) (Astrophysics)
              Landis, Goeffrey (Physics)
              Niven, Larry (Mathematics)
              Reynolds, Alastair (Astrophysics)
              Taylor, Travis (Engineering/Physics)
              Vinge, Vernor (Mathematics)
              Vonnegut, Kurt (“Kilgore Trout”) (Chemistry)
              Wells, H.G. (Biology – student of Thomas Henry Huxley)
              Wolfe, Gene (Engineering)

              • Certainly the genre needs all kinds, but some of your examples are debatable… A lot of people study subjects at university that they never use in their careers. I certainly haven’t. And from my fiction, I doubt you’d be able to guess what my degree was in or what my dayjob is 🙂

                • The whole statement “Scientists and engineers, as a general rule, write crap prose”, is a generalisation in itself. There are exceptions: just check out Hannu Rajaniemi’s THE QUANTUM THIEF, THE FRACTAL PRINCE and THE CAUSAL ANGEL (I still need to read the last one, though). There’s Toh EnJoe’s SELF-REFERENCE ENGINE (translated from the Japanese, released by Haikasoru).

                  Rajaniemi gets called out for ditching infodumps altogether, and his prose is fine. EnJoe mixed hard SF with an experimental literary style, which almost nobody in ossified SF fandom liked since STAND ON ZANZIBAR.

                  There are certainly more examples, but this engineer just got home dog tired from the day job…;-)

                • Of course it’s a generalisation 🙂 My point was that background of the writer should have nothing to do with how good or bad a sf text is.

                  I’ve read The Quantum Thief but wad not especially enamoured of it. Enjoe is new to me.

          • Good Article!
            Not sure where the Right Wing Thought control comes into play. I’d say 80% of SF/F authors would claim to be Liberals and much of the rest don’t feel comfortable stating that they are not.

            If it’s because they are and don’t know it. that’s just unconscious knowledge =)
            Myself I see a giant Leftest wave that has been gathering up steam for several years now and ready to take anyone not going with it, out to sea. There are many many examples of this.
            Very similar to the Atheism Plus movement where it may sound like a good ideal but it’s utopia quickly grinds into Dystopia such as the Rebecca Watson/Richard Dawkins or Freethought blogs vs. Free Thought.

            Anyhow, if you are saying that some Right Wing philosophy is a natural part of a thought process for anyone trying to make a system work. I would agree as people realizing there are two sides to the coin is always a good start as any sustainable future will have to have a steady foundation..

            It’s a Mad,Mad,Mad World out there baby.

            • I think you’re confusing the politics of the genre with the politics of the genre practitioners. My point was that the lot of the foundational tropes used in sf cleave closer to right-wing thought than left-wing. In fact, off the top of my head I can’t think of an overtly left-wing sf novel. There are plenty that are socially liberal – but when so many stories depend on imperialism and colonialism, you’ve got an in-built right-wing bias right there.

              The “giant Leftest wave”, btw, is just right-wing propaganda. The nutjobs are mostly racist and so object to the calls for diversity, so they pitching it as a Communist takeover. McCarthyism is not dead, after all…

        • I think you are overgeneralising in your second paragraph. There is plenty of rigour in the social sciences today. To choose a few examples: axiomatic social choice theory, population statistics, mathematical descriptions of emergent characteristics of social groups, mathematical analyses of socially significant brain functions. And, the biology relevant to social sciences is just as rigorous as any other study. Just a bid more messy; a sort of Earth-bound engineering, rather than (possible) universal physical theory.

          • George, somehow I don’t think I am. Most of your list are using statistical analysis to get any results and those results depend on what priors are chosen.

            If, in the biology, you are talking about such things as brain chemistry you do realise that the only way to get any idea of the chemistry of the brain is to open the skull and take actual measurements – everything else is just wishful thinking on the part of the psychologists – ritalin for every disorder is just drug companies pandering to social scientists wishing to appear better than they actually are.

    • You haven’t read Peter Watts Blindsight or Echopraxia have you then?

  12. Isn’t there the saying that when life is good, we look inwards, and when it’s bad, we look outwards?

    Or, to speak with the Dire Straits, “We gonna need a war to stop industrial disease” (probably showing my age a bit here).

    I write, amongst other things, space exploration SF, and have to admit there are not that many markets for it. I’ve managed to sell some short work to Analog, the Universe Annex and a smattering of other venues. Asimov’s sometimes does good space SF, as does Lightspeed. Well, in my opinion anyway.

    For longer work, I think the industry as a whole is trying to crawl out from underneath the 1950’s sauce, sexist blanket that I don’t think has disappeared at all yet (for one, the vast majority of commenters here appear to be male).

    The publishing industry seems to like playing safe, trotting out “more of the same”, mirroring past successes of the dystopian brand. I fully admit to having enjoyed some of those books.

    It’s not that space exploration SF is not being written. It’s being written and published in great numbers, just not by publishers. Is it any wonder that Hugh Howey’s survey of ebook genre top 100’s counted 50% of top-selling Science Fiction self-published? If you browse these lists, you’ll see that most of it is space exploration SF.

    • Most of those self-published sf novels are, as far as I can tell, space opera or military sf. There’s The Martian, of course – but I’m not aware of any other books like it.

  13. Space opera/hard SF/military SF is a continuum, and I’m not entirely sure where the boundaries are. Absolute 100% hard SF is not all that common in space exploration fiction. Most writers use at least one “get out of jail” card. In the days of the Analog forum, I remember some discussion that seemed to come to the consensus that if you used FTL (for example), but everything else was as close to plausible science as possible, people would still call it hard SF.

    Some space opera is closer to fantasy than SF. In fact, I think “Futuristic Fantasy” should totally be a genre, but much of it fall on the Science Fiction spectrum somewhere in between Star Wars and pure hard SF.

    I don’t necessarily equate space exploration fiction with hard SF, although it can be that, too. I think space exploration SF merely shows space travel in a positive way as a way of life, and scientific plausibility may or may not be part of any particular book.

    Not too many of the future dystopias are scientifically realistic either.

    • I’ve certainly used less-than-rigorous tropes in my Apollo Quartet – Nazi Wunderwaffe in Adrift on the Sea of Rains, reverse-engineered alien FTL in The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and the Bermuda Triangle in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. Having said that, most exploration sf I’ve read has not been very realistic – I mean, exploring exoplanets is, after all, pretty much fantasy anyway.

  14. Excellent. I recently read the early post-apoc novel ‘Earth Abides’ (1949), and was surprised to find it amazingly refreshing: I think this is because it pre-dates the establishment of so many of the cliches you mention (“warlordism etc), and in this way it felt kinda… new.

    Part of what unsettles me about so much modern apocalypse stuff is that, on some level (whether subtextually, or within the fan community), such settings are often treated as escapist fantasies, rather than the horrific and cold, illness-riddled existence that would probably be more accurate. Wouldn’t it be cool to scavenge and salvage in the wastes and be your own man and be liberated from the emasculation of the 9-to-5 office workaday life, and not have to pay taxes and etc. etc? There’s definitely something of the male power fantasy about so much post-apocalyptic stuff, with the setting often being used to normalise character behavior that would otherwise be hard for writers to justify (am thinking specifically of violence – so much easier to deal with the moral consequences of this when your setting is a lawless wasteland). The Man won’t take your guns away after the apocalypse etc. Lots of neo-con survivalist indulgence, with your average white guy finally given the opportunity to show how tough and resourceful and etc he is… or so it seems to me. 🙂

    • I think the warlordism and stuff definitely comes out of the libertarian and survivalist mindset, and I suppose that might have been sparked off by the Cold War. Of course, there’s also all that American rugged individualism bilge, invented as a direct counterpoint to Soviet collectivism and state planning. No doubt that filtered into sf as just another kind of Red-bashing. And then, like most sf tropes, was picked up and used unthinkingly by others. Which is why I maintain so many sf tropes need to be picked apart and re-engineered to be more meaningful, better suited to present-day sensibilities, and less downright offensive.

      • “I think the warlordism and stuff definitely comes out of the libertarian and survivalist mindset,”

        …or it could have come out of the briefest study of the history of civilization and of human nature. Absent functional institutions, people will, by and large, not randomly kill each other. But they will band together into new (more likely smaller) societies. With the exception of the last couple centuries of Western civilization (and really in many places in the world to this day), societies have almost always been rule by the local strong man. Maybe that strong man become powerful enough that he calls himself a king and invents his own Divine Right to rule. Or maybe he deludes a bunch of pawns into thinking he is the people’s savior, and his is the worker’s paradise, or some such drivel. But he really is no more than a strong man, a warlord.

        “there’s also all that American rugged individualism bilge, invented as a direct counterpoint to Soviet collectivism and state planning.”

        …or it could have been a long-ingrained traditional notion that grew out of the fact that the nation itself grew on the frontiers of the current civilization.

        Just spitballing here, but maybe these two things are not as nefarious as you seem to think they are.


        • Um, if you study imperialist and colonialist civilisations, you’ll see successful imperialism and colonialism because they, er, wrote the history books. But there are plenty of examples of past civilisations that didn’t rely on violence and intimidation. There was one in Central American, I forget its name, which was communist in all but name. And very successful too… until the Spanish arrived.

          Take the recent discovery that Viking women fought alongside the men. That sort of upsets the whole dominant male thing, given that Vikings have been held up for centuries as paragons of manly martial success.

          Again, it’s all about the meta-narrative. Look closely and you can see the gaps and seams, the bits that are conveniently ignored because they contradict the story we’re being told. And I think it’s time science fiction started looking for those gaps and prying them open – at least, a great deal more so than it has done in the past.

          The US was founded partly by the Puritans, and they were a pretty good example of groupthink. The individualism more likely came out of the mythology that built up around the country and its history. After all, Russia colonised a much greater area than the US and it has no comparable myths.

  15. Actually Ian I think that there is a little that is contradictory in your analysis. The assumption that society will collapse into violence and warlord-ism after the collapse of government is grounded in the general belief that it is only government that maintains order and cooperation and that it couldn’t possibly emerge from the ground up as it were. i.e. It needs to be imposed in a top down fashion. This is an authoritarian and, more commonly, left wing view.

    Libertarians believe that social cooperation need not be imposed in a top down fashion. Indeed, it is intrinsic to their beliefs that it doesn’t need to be.

    As for apocalyptic fiction generally, I’ve always thought that by envisaging worse case scenarios that might happen is something that SF has always done and it helps deter us from such outcomes. The scientists can talk about global warming (for instance) all day long but exploring the implications in fictional settings is a far better way to help the common man envisage what is truly at stake. I don’t think such fiction is merely resigned to the inevitability of these outcomes.

    • There’s nothing in left wing politics that says it has to be authoritarian. In socialism, the state exists to succour the poor and needy through the provision of services funded by those who have the wherewithal to provide the funding. Nothing about secret police or despots. In fact, law and order is more of a right-wing topic.

      Libertarians believe that government should be small and their freedoms should be maximised – which typically includes the freedom to shoot someone because they don’t like the look of them, er, because they might steal their food, women, gasoline, etc. None of which is at odds with typical post-apocalypse scenarios from the pages of sf novels (and some lit fic novels).

      The problem with sf as Cassandra is no one heeds the stories. Oh noes, anthropogenic climate change… and then they jump in their gas-guzzling car to go to the corner-shop. Governments rarely read sf novels to understand what they might be doing wrong.

      My point – which many people seem to have missed – is that the genre has become complicit with the establishment and is as often as not peddling the same sort of stories, which only reinforce existing prejudices and encourage readers to be happy with their meagre lot. Sort of like the Daily Mail, but not full of hateful spiteful lies.

  16. The current tide of post-apocalyptic dreck should not be allowed to eclipse truly groundbreaking novels of the past. Dhalgren and Canticle for Leibowitz come immediately to mind, and even recent works that rise to the level of not just good science fiction, but good literature, such as PD James’s Children of Men, McCarthy’s The Road and Cronin’s The Passage. The key I think is to rage against the mediocre and less, at which I think you’ve done quite well. Just don’t throw the baby out …

    Nothing prevents great works in post-apocalyptic and dystopian genres; indeed, it’s out there now, but maybe not on Amazon hot lists.

    On another note, I seem to recall a healthy pantheon of positive, optimistic exploration-type science fiction where wars raged and characters were dispatched in all manner of dark methods. Heinlein anyone? Long live death, taxes .. and fiction!

    • Dhalgren is one of my favourite sf novels, I thought The Road very good, but I wasn’t impressed by The Passage at all, and I enjoyed the film of The Children of Men more than I enjoyed the book…

      But I take your point about babies and bathwater, and it wasn’t my intention to tar everything with the same brush. I generalised in order to make my point more emphatically.

      • One of my favourite post-apoc works of recent years is actually a poem. “Thaliad” by Marly Youmans is this weird blank verse epic poem about a group of children who’re the only survivors of some non-disclosed apocalyptic event. It’s dark as anything, but very, good. Highly recommend.

  17. I feel your pain. But would you not concede that Banks, Reynolds, Bujold, Asher, Hamilton, Watts, Cobley, have not fallen victim to the dystopianism that infects movies for mass consumption and novels of dubious literary merit? Or am I mistaken?

    • Asher? The guy who rants about Pakistanis and the UK in public? He’s a right wing prick writing power fantasies.

      • Sorry, I live in the US where Asher is essentially unknown. Just know he writes space opera, but didn’t know anything about his public pronunciamento.

    • I’m a fan of Banks novels, and certainly he tried to do more than write glib space operas. Mike Cobley is a friend of many decades, but he’s writing firmly in the space opera tradition and while I enjoyed his Humanity’s Fire trilogy it read more like it was commenting on the genre than on the real world. Hamilton is definitely right of centre, and Asher a little further to the right. If they were UK newspapers, Hamilton would be the Daily Telegraph and Asher the Daily Express. Watts’ name has cropped up a lot during this discussion, and I don’t understand why. His stuff is about as bleak as you can get, and it pretty much covers a single subject – life is short and brutal, the universe is big and implacable, we’re all going to live meaningless lives and then die.

      • But you were looking for something that pushed a concept out to the edge yes? That applies to biology and neurology as well as physics. And he does that with neurobiology in a big way.
        He also hammers at assumptions in a big way, which isn’t comfortable at all.

        • No, I was looking for something that didn’t perpetuate the same old stories which reinforce what we’re told about the world by those who don’t want us questioning them. Watts’ fiction doesn’t fit that description.

  18. Though the status quo is criticized, this post provides no examples of works fitting the description of sci-fi it’s looking for.

    It seems the post is advocating activist works, of which there are few. However, they certainly do exist. See Cory Doctorow’s novels for an example. That said, I don’t think sci-fi activism sells well, as readers typically interpret it as being preachy and typically cite it as a turn-off in reviews.

    interplanetary or interstellar wars

    Nothing about human history has ever indicated that war will be absent from the future. Stories in which war has been eliminated are nonsensical at best.

    embody so many libertarian sensibilities it’s becoming increasingly hard to argue that right-wing politics are not the default mode for the genre. Even left-wing authors create worlds built on right-wing principles, as if dramatic stories were impossible any other way

    True, but happy, leftist utopian societies don’t make interesting plots because there’s no sense of urgency resulting from an imperial decree, stopping/enabling an invasion, etc.

    • I gave no examples because I wrote the post as a general call to arms, but yes, Doctorow is one genre writer who engages with the real world. As someone else pointed out earlier in the comments, Kim Stanley Robinson has also done so.

      I disagree that “preachy” works wouldn’t necessarily sell. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull was a massive bestseller. Paolo Coelho is one of the biggest selling authors on the planet. While I’m not a fan of either, I don’t see why it isn’t possible to write successful genre fiction that’s more than just comfort reading.

      When we write about the future, we’re making it up – so the only reason why we write about wars is because we choose to. There are many reasons why war could become absent, just as there are a number of countries these days who have not fought in a war for generations. The last few decades have seen developed nations indulge in nothing more than military adventurism for no good reason. It’s easy enough to imagine they might not have happened had we had intelligent leadership committed to peace. So no, a war-free future is not nonsensical.

      If you can’t imagine a story that takes place in a “happy, leftist utopia” then that’s a failure of imagination, not an impossibility.

  19. So I assume one thread of your reasoning here is that the dystopian novels being written deal with the subject of some version of civilization’s collapse in a simplistic way? And the other is that SF should be more hopeful about our future? Because if so, these two ideas contradict each other. In actual fact, it’s exceedingly unlikely that civilization will survive more than another 30 to 50 years. What I think is useless is the escapism in dystopias that allows for binaries to be expressed: enclaves of civilization holding out against barbarism, for example. In actual fact, the surface of the planet is just going to be unlivable for the most part and there will be no way to grow crops, etc. Just talk to most scientists who work in areas related to the environment. The sooner we face up to the awful truth, the sooner we might have some slim chance of surviving it in some form. But to suggest that SF needs to be more upbeat when what it needs to be is more specific in its pessimism…not sure I buy that. It’s a form of escapism and thus a form of lying–it continues narratives of progress and control that have brought humankind to this unsustainable position in the first place. It might suit your view of what SF should be, but it doesn’t fit what the world is becoming. – JeffV

    • I totally agree with you that civilisation’s days are numbered, and that the old “fallout shelter as last bastion of civilisation” is a trope way past its sell-by date (and like most such tropes never stood up to scrutiny anyway). But. My argument is that recycling the same old post-apocalypse stories – survivalist paradise! warlords! slavery! – sf is keeping afloat an idea that needs to be properly interrogated, an idea that suits the policies and strategies of our so-called lords and masters – your “narratives of progress and control”, in fact.

      Nor am I calling for sf to be upbeat. Pretending we’ll weather climate crash (did you see what I did there?) pretty much unscathed is wildly optimistic. And very foolish. And likely fatal. That, I would call escapism. But to write sf that calls into question that belief or pretence is, I think, something sf ought to do a whole lot more of.

      • Just coming back here now–thanks for the clarification. I do also think we’re now seeing the commodification of dystopia as disaster porn, most definitely, and that’s not useful.

    • I disagree with both of you that civilisation’s days are numbered, but since Jeff puts its past-sell-by date 30 to 50 years in the future, it’s unlikely either of us is going to live long enough to see who was right.

      Already 5 years ago I wrote lengthy posts (like this one: ) about how the world in general (note: not the *western* world) is actually becoming a better place. Just ask the average Asian, South-American or African. Crime rates in the western world are going down, while reporting of the excesses have gone up. The amount of sustainable energy sources around the world is increasing, despite economic crisis, with one of the biggest polluters–China–leading the pack in rapid adoption of clean energies (enlightened self-interest: it works).

      Renewable energy will be cheaper than fossil fuels on Hawaii in 2017 (per kWh generated), and eventually cheaper on the continental US in the early 2020s.

      I’m not saying that there are no big problems: there are. But I do disagree with the assumption that many people seem to make that nobody is trying to look for solutions. People are looking for solutions, new industries are being developed, and in time they will outcompete (economically!) the old and dirty ways of generating energy, agriculture and land development.

      Will it be in time to save humanity (I don’t think the planet needs saving: it’ll just move onwards to the next evolutionary stage)? That’s the question.

      What SF could try to do is imagine possible solutions. In that respect it has failed hugely over the past few decades. Jeff says: “it needs to be more specific in its pessimism”: I think people like Paolo Bacigalupi, Peter Watts and, indeed, you are already working very hard on that.

      It would be more helpful, IMHO, if SF writers, *after* acknowledging the problems, would imagine some solutions, and dare to be wrong about those solutions. SF is not about predicting the future, but more (if certainly not exclusively) about exploring ‘what-ifs’ in order to inspire a new generation to do better than the one before it.

      Throwing in the towel and saying human civilisation is doomed (as both Jeff and Ian seem to agree) is pointless: if you truly believe that, then any SF you write is indeed mere escapism (or masochism: civilisation is going to die, and we’ll show you excruciatingly how).

      I think, hope and believe we can do better than that.

      If not, then SF indeed deserves to die.

      • Hear. Hear.

        I have yet to work out where all the doom and gloom comes from?

        The one thing I would question is the viability of renewable energy (assuming the conventional wind and solar) since it is unable to supply base load. If you add nuclear to that the base load is available and all the others are redundant.

        Until SF writers return to having a vision of what could be better and possible ways of getting that SF is going to stagnate even more than it has and will eventually die.

      • I think human civilization as it exists is doomed because it’s underlying principles are not just unsustainable but so engrained that even if we patch things, our actual attitude toward our environment won’t change. That doesn’t mean human beings won’t survive in some form, but the way of life we exist within now is a failed system.

    • Science fiction can be used by scientists as a source of possible ideas as to how to solve problems. This includes ideas as to how to deal with climate change… in which case I would expect some upbeat science fiction.
      But all we appear to have for the more realistic science fiction is miserable dystopias…

  20. I think perhaps the proliferation of small presses willing to go contrary to the mainstream “popular” stuff may change the situation. The big presses have become almost formulaic in some ways.

    • True, some of the more interesting stuff is coming out of the small presses, but they’re only small platforms so the message doesn’t get far.

      • That’s unfortunately true. The “signal to noise” ratio is still skewed toward noise and impairing the process, but I do hope that changes over time.

  21. Interesting points. Still, that so much science fiction involves oppression or war – well, without conflict of some sort you don’t have a story, you have a discovery channel documentary on how we might colonize mars. Iain M. Banks used to complain that it was impossible for him to write about his fictional utopia “The Culture” because life for most Culture citizens was nearly perfect. So he wrote about where the Culture rubbed up against less advanced societies, and there was oppression and war and something to engage his readers…

    As far as the “Great Man of History” thing, well, yes, but. History only seems inevitable after the fact. Sure, in societies there are powerful mass-effect forces, but history is also chaotic and unstable. For better or ill a single person in the right place at the right time can change things… I think Frank Herbert wrote about this. In any event, if you don’t want people to think of themselves as impotent victims of fate, surely some credit must be given to the power of individuals?

    As far as libertarianism and ‘right wing’ principles, be careful with your labels there. Many science fiction novels do posit a sort of libertarian view, BUT THIS IS NOT RIGHT-WING. The disciples of Ayn Rand natter on about meritocracy and free choice, but the reality is that these people favor a totalitarian government that simply takes money from the average person and gives it to wealthy bankers. It’s just that they lie about that a lot (duh). True libertarianism has nothing to do with modern so-called right wing/conservative views, and with some tweaks could be compatible with what might be called left-wing. Think of the society of “The Dwellers” in Iain M. Banks’ work “The Algebraist” – not socialist, but no money? No debts? No drug tests? No wage slavery? It’s not Mario Draghi’s EU, that’s for sure.

    “Certainly the UK is currently governed by a cabal of greedy fascists who are hell-bent on selling off as much of the country as possible to their plutocrat friends. There is not much difference between Downing Street and Panem’s Capitol.” Well said! Kudos!

    • You give an example of a possible war-less drama in your first paragraph – colonising Mars. The colonists may be fighting for their lives, but it’s against nature not other human beings. This is essentially the plot of The Martian, which has been so successful it’s being made into a film within 12 months of being picked up by a big imprint.

      Having a science fiction author base fiction on a theory is a pretty good indication the theory is nonsense 🙂 Not just Herbert and the “Great Man of History”, but also Vance and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or van Vogt and his use of non-Aristotelian logic, or even the current blockbuster sf movie Lucy and its use of that discredited canard that we only use 10% of our brains…

      Libertarians, as far as I am aware, want small governments total freedom for the market, both of which are economically right-wing ideals. I see very little in left-wing ideology that maps onto libertarianism. (And both sides, of course, can lead to totalitarianism.)

      • True libertarians want small government, correct. Pure libertarianism is IMHO both intellectually and practically incoherent (you really want ‘the market’ to decide if a drug is toxic? How many people need to die before ‘the market’ makes the company go bankrupt?), but in modest doses the notion of people being free to do what they want is compatible with liberalism. Modern right-wingers talk about libertarianism, but their reality is that they want total state control. If a rich banker makes a bad investment then working folks need to be taxed to bail them out – that’s the reality of modern right wing. The issue here is that today political labels have been made incoherent.

        Sure you can make a good sic fi story about fighting nature and not other human beings, but that’s a one-note plot and if every novel used it I think it would pale. I suspect that in the long run a lot of fiction will involve conflicts with other sentient beings (both human and non-human)

        • Looking back over my own sf, Adrift on the Sea of Rains may be set after a nuclear war has destroyed Earth but the plot is entirely focused on how a bunch of astronauts on the Moon return home. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself is pure exploration – the first mission to Mars, and then the puzzling disappearance of an exoplanet research station. And Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is about the Mercury 13 and a trip to the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench. So no actual on-the page conflict in any of them.

          Nor is it true of the stories I’ve had/will have published this year – three exploration stories (Mars, Europa’s world-ocean, and the outer solar system), and one about 1960s future fashion… I’ve written fiction on a variety of topics so as far as I’m concerned an insistence that martial conflict is necessary is only a failure of imagination 🙂

  22. I don’t think the example of Katniss stands here. I mean, those who have read the books know that Katniss isn’t someone you wait for. She was a false symbol, someone made by the people around her to their own ends, practically dragged around through the whole thing. All she ever wanted to do was to be left alone. I think those books have really something to say to the people, especially the young ones. Look behind the images, because they are there to manipulate you. Katniss was their Christ on a Cross. It just annoys me when people talk about a story they actually don’t know, just probably heard about.

  23. I haven’t read any new sf in quite a long time, due to poverty and depression, but I think in your judgment of the older stuff you are falling prey to nostalgia and some over-enthusiastic publicity. Sf was *always* comfort reading; reassuring people that there was actually going to be a future since the nineteen-thirties. Every time it has tried to be something else, in the sixties, in the eighties, its adherents have turned in droves to fantasy, to the despair of the hard-core sf fans I used to work with. As for Gernsback, have you read anything of his? He deserves honour as one of the fathers of the genre, but his ideas about what it should be were ridiculous.

    Interestingly, I’ve just read an article on FB about a former activist, Paul Kingsnorth, who has publicly abandoned hope about saving the ecology and founded Dark Mountain, a movement based on what Brian Aldiss used to call “a decent despair.” As far as he’s concerned it’s game over. I’m not ready to give up hope yet, but to expect sf to play any meaningful role in saving the human race is, I think, misplaced optimism. Sf can’t provide practical solutions, and trying to stimulate the outward urge at this late stage is, I think, opening the stable door after the horse has died. If civilisation can’t be saved, then frankly most of us are dead people walking and we might as well read what we like. If it can be saved (and I have some ideas that might help, but this isn’t the place) then it’ll be good to have something comforting to read while we go through the chaos and upheavals that will follow.

    That’s what I think anyway.

    • Before sf broke out of fandom into the wider world, I think there was always an element amongst its readers of it being an “improving” fiction – for right or for wrong. And while many writers certainly write two-fisted tales of space heroes battle space empires, there were also those who are little more socially-engaged. The New Wave too, while it had a chiefly literary agenda, attempted to make sf serious and relevant literature. All of which is slightly irrelevant to the point I was trying to make…

      Which is that if the meta-narrative dictated to us by late-stage capitalism is that governments are necessary to impose law and order then most present-day post-apocalypse stories play into that meta-narrative by showing us that without government we immediately descend into barbarity. I think it would be more interesting if sf broke that meta-narrative and so made an effort to change it – ie, we don’t need plutocrats and oligarchs to keep us safe, we don’t need the bulk of our earnings to the greedy and selfish 1% in order to sleep soundly in our beds. If a catastrophe or apocalypse is a great levelling, wouldn’t it be better to show how that might work out?

      • I think it’s certain that sf readers told themselves that it was “improving” literature, just as Victorian readers prized the moral tales of Mrs Humphry Ward and others for the same reason. I also know, because I was there, that sf in my younger days served primarily as a consolation when older and wiser heads told us that going to the moon was at best a foolish dream and at worst a pointless waste of money that would have been better spent elsewhere. Dreaming of a bright future was pure comfort reading. And the New Wave was one of the times I mentioned, the first big fantasy boom, when everyone was reading Lord Of The Rings instead.

        It seems to me you’re equating the concept of “government” with that of “plutocrats and oligarchs.” The plutocrats and oligarchs will be always with us, as long as there’s anything that can be called plute to crat or any kind of olig to arch over. Some kind of government, some system of laws, is the only thing that can conceivably restrain them. That’s what we should be learning from the post-apocalyptic fantasies–there’s only one truly effective Great Leveller, the one that puts all of us safely under the ground. We have to keep ourselves level by building a better government, not by throwing out the thingy with the whatnot.

        Sf’s message, all my life, has been very simple–get off this planet as soon as possible, and find a way to get to the stars, before we kill this one. That warning has always been there. Well, nobody listened and we blew that chance, unless we can work some kind of miracle in the limited time we’ve got left. Even if writers can find some way of describing a post-apocalyptic utopia–a horizontal society, as Alexei Panshin calls it–that allows us to just scrape through with a few hundred thousand of us left alive, we won’t be going anywhere or wasting our substance on research while we’re hoarding and husbanding every scrap of usable resource just to stay alive, so it’ll just prolong the descent into darkness.

        If government can be changed within the next few years, if the power of corporate consumerism can be broken and the runaway cancerous “growth” of economies stopped–if we can slow down and get control of the bus, and stop thinking of politics, economics and technology as forces of nature–then, just maybe, we can pour the resources thus released into a massive effort to try to halt or even reverse the damage. I’ve seen reports of technologies that could possibly do it, if properly developed on a global scale. But for that we would still need some sort of overarching organisation with the power to make it happen. Anarchy won’t. Horizontalism, in which nobody has any power, won’t.

        If that isn’t going to happen, then, as I said, we might as well carry on reading what we enjoy. People tend to anyway.

  24. Pingback: This Weekend in Seattle: The Esoteric Book Conference | Word and Film

  25. No wonder the YA’s love dystopia – “In almost all cases, a privileged elite enjoy lives of luxury while the bulk of the population either scrabble for a living below the poverty line, or are rigorously oppressed with no freedom to object; or both.” It mirrors the way the rich and poor still live today…

  26. Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Has Science Fiction Losst its way. This blogger believes so…

  27. I think that there’s another type of dystopia that’s rampant in fiction that also seems hellbent on supportiing the status quo. The ones that are faux-utopias that seem fine or even great until the reveal. They seem to be pushing the idea that anyone saying things can be better is probably evil and out to abuse you. It’s often labelled as SF but I’d almost call it anti-science fiction.

    I could go on about this but someone else already did it better so I’ll link them and hope I don’t end up in the spam trap:

    • Interesting reading, thanks – but I think the writer of that LJ post missed the point of A Clockwork Orange. There’s a reason the book has 21 chapters…

      • Yeah, I agree that A Clockwork Orange was a bad example but there are definitely dystopias that fit the description. I suspect that the author of the post had either only seen the film or read one of the pre-1986 American editions where the final chapter was cut. Without the final chapter it’s a much different story.

        • Good point. Yes, the serpent in the Garden of Eden type story is both clichéd and banal.

          There’s a chapter in Alastair Reynolds’ The Prefect in which the title character (I think) visits one of the orbital habitats which makes up the Glitter Band, and finds a totally regimented society in which individuals have no freedom – because they’ve been neurologically altered to be happy in such a society. And it always struck me that that’s just as valid a utopia as any other.

  28. There is no accounting for people’s taste’s. When I was begging for $1,000 on Kickstarter, there were sic-fi, fantasy & shapeshifter stories getting thousands of dollars. The younger audience loves these stories. I have read some that go on & on describing scenes, seeming to get nowhere for pages upon pages. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure WHAT was going on!
    Personally, I don’t get it either, but they say as the economy gets worse, more and more people head toward the fantasy aisle so that the only thing I can think is happening!

    • The populist stuff is always going to be mind-candy… but that doesn’t mean it has to buy into the meta-narrative. In fact, wouldn’t it be better if the fluffy stuff was, well, rebellious? I can’t honestly think of a good reason why it doesn’t have to be.

  29. Pingback: Ian Sales asserts Science Fiction has lost the plot - #nerdalert

  30. Pingback: Links – September 17, 2014 | Martin Rose

  31. Pingback: Bear Versus Texting Man: Our Spectacular Disconnection | TiaMart Blog

  32. I know I’m late here but having read all of this (my head hurts, btw)…

    Strictly as a lifelong fan of scifi and just my opinion; I have to say “too much analysis here”. If writer’s are having in-their-own-head conversations like this thread, it’s no wonder it’s bleak and fractured out there in the scifi literary field.

    I started reading scifi at the age of six and some of the first books I read were things like E.E. Doc Smith, Edgar Rice Burrows and Andre Norton. Those stories weren’t literary masterworks but they drew me into imagining other worlds ideas and worlds. As I got older, I broadened my scifi reading and became very interested in science, culture and history as a result.

    I can remember the benefit of all the “layers” of writing styles and story types at different stages in my life. books I appreciated when I was older, would not have been appreciated when I was younger–but then, I wouldn’t have appreciated the genre when I was older if I hadn’t grown up with those simpler books at a younger age.

    To me, currently, the biggest issue (which several have mentioned here) is writer’s trying too hard to wed current social causes to the genre. I assure you, current gender politics will not be the “issue over all others” hundreds of years into the future.

    As to the capitalist, white leaning fare constantly being streamed: looking at and defining it that way and that hardly shows the influence very problem I just mentioned above.I haven’t read a scifi novel in memory thinking, “Ah! finally an African-American story!” or, “Wonderful! Income equality is finally spotlighted!”.

    Want different views? Get writers in other cultures and experiences to write scifi. No one is “holding them down”–you just have to produce a story that is universal in human appeal and present it with original creativity. Cixin Liu writes “Chinesecentric” views in his novels and it just happens he is Chinese and lives in china. I imagine now in the Chinese mirror forum universe, traditional state supporting Chinese writers and readers are wondering why more Chinese scifi authors aren’t writing about Western capitalistic developments in the Chinese future.

    Scifi is always about provoking thought and escaping (for whatever motive) into a newly imagined reality in, what one would hope, produces more people to think about more things than they might have otherwise.

    Isaac Asimov summed it up well (imo):

    Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today – but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.


    “I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing — to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics — Well, they can do whatever they wish.”
    (Introduction to Nemesis,1989)

    • I can’t decide if you’ve misinterpreted science fiction, or literature as a whole. Stories are always about something – and, often as not, they’re about something of the time of writing. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, for example, is about McCarthyism. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 may have been read as being about censorship but Bradbury himself said it was about the pervasiveness of television. Writers are not trying to “wed current social causes to the genre”, they are writing about things which affect them and using sf to do it. And until those inequalities are addressed in real life, they will continue to be fodder for fiction. Something doesn’t go away if you ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist.

      There is also no such thing as “too much analysis”. Analysis is how things improve, is how people learn things. Without analysis, science fiction would remain two-fisted adventures of white men conquering the universe – thereby excluding entire swathes of sf fans. I don’t want to write sf like that, I don’t want to read sf like that, and I don’t want sf to be a genre like that.

      Quoting Asimov will score no points with me, I’m afraid. He was a terrible writer and I find his fiction all but unreadable. Also, a writer who sneers at critics is a writer who knows his fiction is shit but wishes it were better – and also knows he is incapable of writing better.

      • I don’t disagree with you as regards the strictly literary side of science fiction–and the authors who reach a high literary style within the genre have been the minority. I cringe now at stories I loved as a child. but if you navigate science fiction on a purely literary basis, you can lose much of its wonder.

        Sure, there are merits to analysis and introspection and critique–but what science fiction accomplishes in and of itself is as great as any literary work of those who master the art of writing within it.

        I inspires and engages and often does so even at comic book levels of story telling. today’s scientist who entered his career as a result of the “pulp trash” he read as a child shows there is more to science fiction than only literary art.

        My argument is in agreement with Asimov (lol–who certainly thought much of himself) in that even the basest stories can inspire and it is the inspiration of science fiction that has the most value for mankind.

        • Well, no. Good writing and sense of wonder are not incompatible – and it does the genre a huge disservice to suggest they are. While it’s true that sf can be inspirational, I fail to see how that has anything to do with literary quality. People are likely inspired by the ideas in a story, and that has nothing to do with style. It is a complete lie that so-called “literary sf” contains no ideas, and only a fool would claim as much.

          • Sorry to have ruined it. ; )

            Politically correct is certainly a charged phrase but it serves a valid purpose in describing the ridiculous views of some of current American society (where I live) and some of that screwiness has been tentatively aimed at science fiction in more recent times.

            I think it’s up to the individual writers to write the stories that touch on views that matter to them–it isn’t an obligation as a writer for “all writers’.

            I mentioned Cixu Liu, the Chines author, and he writes a more Sinocentric future. I’m not surprised or offended by that. It makes sense, it’s where he is.

            I am all for people diversifying the worlds of the future with new views of society and new points of views from more diverse characters but you can’t point a finger at writers for not checking all the boxes in people’s heads when they write a book.

            The bigger problem with cookie cutter sorting, labeling and approving of stories based only on their base elements is that you end up making blanket judgments and eventually you end up with factions claiming “their view” is “the view”. There’s your sad puppies.

            I’m a white guy who grew up reading old science fiction. God forbid, one day I might write a book with the pov of a white protagonist who saves the day. If that’s all I write, then I’m a one trick pony but there isn’t anything wrong with such a story being written. You surely aren’t going to see me insert lots of ethnic and gender descriptors in any writing to draw approval from social activists.

            I’d be fascinated to read a distinctive science fiction story written by a black author featuring a future scenario where racial perspectives and realities were a big part of the story. But at the same time, I’d hate it being lectured to in a story by someone pandering a point of view that they felt was greater than the story.

            I’ve feel I’ve been seeing a trend recently where authors feel they have to make an exposition about their feelings regarding religion or sexuality with the heaviest hand possible and I have no appreciation for that in story telling.

            I seem to lean towards women authors in my own taste (no idea why) but you won’t catch me reading a romance novel. If you write a science fiction novel as a romance novel, I’m not going to want to read it.

            I don’t think “the good old” science fiction is the standard. It was a different time back then. Science was so emergent fresh that a lot of the less well written science fiction could be carried by presenting new ideas alone. Nowadays, i think we do need more literary substance but ideas are still out there too.

            My biggest concern is that people don’t begin promoting biases against certain types of science fiction stories or authors in an attempt to pre-decide “what people should read”. Science fiction reading has always been an open club with a shared enthusiasm and it would suck to see that broken into pieces to serve as altar instruments at someone’s ideological shrine.

            • First, “political correctness” as a term has no purpose other than as a smear. If you disagree with something, say why. And calls for diverse fiction certainly don’t demand that everyone start writing diverse characters, only that they think about not populating their invented worlds solely with white males. And since 100% of authors don’t live in worlds populated entirely by white males, this seems eminently reasonable. No one is asking authors to “check boxes”, only to pay a little more attention to the real world. Nor is anyone saying having white males as protagonists is wrong – most of my stories feature such protagonists. But they are not the sole population of this planet, and it’s only fair to recognise that.

              If you want to read excellent sf by a black author, read anything by Samuel R Delany. He’s been in print since the 1960s, and has won a huge number of awards. His Dhalgren is one of my favourite novels.

              • Delaney is one of the first scifi authors I read–before I was a teen. What I’ve stated here isn’t meant as a polemic–just an alternative view that was getting less press throughout the conversation.

                You can dislike political correctness all you like but it’s part of the lexicon now. I’d find the recent protests of many of our Ivy League college students today good examples of it that deserve the smear and justify the phrase.

                And I don’t feel this is all a one way or all the other sort of issue–which is why I responded. There’s a fair balance and science fiction has a big tent.

                My biggest concern as a life-long fan of science fiction is seeing recent trends towards the camaraderie of fans being split into factions by many of today’s self-appointed critics who would co-op the entirety of the genre and declare themselves experts on all aspects of it –with everyone else being dismissed as persona non grata.

                Science fiction is to good to be exclusive.

                • Science fiction fandom has never been monolithic – check out its history and you’ll see how factional it has been, and remains. It is also international, although in the past fans in diffeent countries only spoke in small numbers. The internet has changed all that. The biggest mistake Americans make is assuming that everyone else on the planet thinks like an American. We don’t, and we’ve no desire to.

                  There is no conspiracy to “split” science fiction. That’s a myth perpetrated by the sad puppies. There are different groups of genre readers who look for different things in their reading – and when they don’t find them, they quite legitimately ask why they’re not there. But that didn’t play well when the founders of sad puppies were looking for reasons why they hadn’t won any awards. So they invented this so-called cabal controlling the genre and intent on excluding people they don’t like. It’s total bullshit, and only a fool would believe it.

                  As for the college campus thing… do you mean the female students who don’t want to be raped and are asking for safeguards to be put in place to prevent it? Or perhaps the white students who are going round in gangs and assaulting black students? Political correctness is a term used by people who can’t understand why society can’t be racist and sexist and homphobic and transphobic, just like it used to be (and, I hasten to add, still is – although it’s being called out far more than before).

  33. Ala, the typos…and no edit.

  34. Oh–and there certainly are critics out there who want politically correct science fiction stories mandated for society.

    god save us from a world of “Tomorrowlands”.

    • Now you went and spoiled it. “Political correctness” is a meaningless right wing smear word. Any time someone complains about political correctness, what they are actually doing is saying it’s wrong for people who are not white males to be able to read stories to which they can relate. No one is mandating these stories – that’s Sad Puppies bullshit. Women, gay people, people of colour, they’re all asking for stories which speak to their concerns – and some of them are also writing them.

      Sf fans are supposed to be open-minded, but it’s amazing how many of them refuse to read stories that are not about white males. That’s blatant prejudice.

  35. Good blog post., Ian. Your comments highlight why I liked Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel so much and why it deserved its Clarke Award some years back

    It offers a different approach to the post-apocalyptic tale. It is a quieter one, neither dystopian or utopian. In one strand, a disparate group of people are stranded in an airport and organise themselves as best they can in an improvised democracy. It’s no utopia but people cooperate. The Sky Lounge becomes a library and museum to the old world that was lost; parties hunt venison in the surrounding countryside.

    At the same time, the man who spearheads the fundamentalist threat to freedom has emerged from this society. We first meet him as a confused little boy… This is one of the ambiguities of the book, in a sub-genre that’s often short of them.

    Station Eleven takes the post-apocalyptic beyond the Hobbesian multiple shoot-out and long pig chomp-a-thon scenario, and goes for something more complex and emotionally resonant. I’ve not seen anything quite like it since but I’d be interested in hearing about books of comparable quality if others have come across them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.