It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

A reading guide for grown-ups


There’s a common misperception that as you get older, so your tastes in reading drift toward non-fiction. No more fanciful story-telling, from here on in it’s facts and figures. And I’ve certainly found that as I impinge on my sixth decade on this planet – that makes me fifty – so I find myself wanting the certainty of non-fiction and a world I can relate to. They say the Golden Age of science fiction is thirteen, which is, perhaps, a comment on the ability of the thirteen-year-old to read uncritically, given that the vast bulk of sf novels fail even the most cursory critical read… But I think it’s more generally accepted that at thirteen we as readers are more willing to be wowed, we are not so cynical, we can surf the tide of ideas generated by a science fiction text. As we age, so we need more scaffolding to those ideas – possibly because we know more about the world and so are less willing to accept unsupported the premises upon which most science fiction stories rely.

Personally, I continue to read the same sort of novels I read ten or twenty years ago. But I do find them less satisfactory– No, that’s not quite right. There are ways of telling science fiction stories, and I can now discern how they are constructed, and if that’s lacking then I see it is lacking. I can think of a number of sf novels whose flaunting of the so-called “rules” actually makes them stronger fiction, and I doubt I would have seen it that way two or three decades ago.

One of the things I have certainly noticed in my response to my reading as I get older is that I’m no longer willing to put up with world-building which creates abhorrent universes in order to either create drama or, worse, make a point about our own world. The world right now is shit and getting worse on a daily basis, so writing a novel in which human beings can sell themselves into indentured labour to pay off their debts is… so fucking mindlessly right-wing it beggars belief. Why are sf authors writing the playbook for our right-wing future, when they should be telling tales to prevent it?

Remember “cli-fi”? A horrible neologism, but the point was that writing about climate collapse – which is still going to happen, by the way – would persuade the public it was a cause worth pursuing. Except no one gave a shit. Because one mid-list novel is not equal to the PR budget of an oil company. So when science fiction sets stories in futures in which human rights have been removed, all they’re doing is normalising the political thought behind the removal of human rights. Look at how many science fiction television series show torture – in 2018! – despite the fact it is morally abhorrent and globally illegal.

Science fiction has spent the last five to ten years fighting for diversity. And it has partly won that battle. Women, and women of colour, have dominated genre awards for the past couple of years. This is a step in the right direction. However, while we’ve been celebrating those successes, science fiction has been normalising the sort of right-wing shit even the Nazis had to soft-soap the German public before they would accept it. So we have a Star Trek series in which a villain repeatedly kills the crew of the Enterprise over and over again… but that’s okay because it’s a time-loop. I’m sorry, but his way out is death for everyone? How is that right? And then there’s The Expanse, in which the nominal government of Earth, the UN, uses torture, and in which a corporation murders millions of people in the cause of research. How is this right? How is this even moral? We have been so busy celebrating our own victories in the cause of  inclusivity that we’ve allowed fascist stories to take over our genre.

I don’t want to see stories of the future in which humans are treated as slaves, in which millions are murdered to disguise the kidnap of a plot token, in which torture is treated seriously as an intelligence-gathering technique, in which violence against women is used as “character development”, in which the othering of non-white people is considered “world-building”…

I want a socially responsible science fiction, that is self-aware, that knows it is a powerful tool for affecting public opinion – and not just at the behest of corporate paymasters. I want a science fiction that scorns shit right-wing concepts like evo psych and alpha males and eugenics. I want a science fiction that tells good stories and does so responsibly. I want a science fiction that doesn’t abandon its ethics or its artistic integrity in pursuit of the bottom-line. And I want a science fiction readership that accepts partial responsibility for the shit content that is produced, that demands more reponsible content and rewards it by consuming it in sufficient numbers to make it profitable. Cli-fi, after all, had its heart in the right place. But a tendency to be too preachy, an inability to match the oil companies and their anti-global-warming lies, and an inability to find a story that resonated… told against them. Science fiction has a much wider remit, and somewhere in its countless worlds and stories, there must be something we can use to tell stories of the futures we want to see, not futures we’re afraid to see.

7 thoughts on “A reading guide for grown-ups

  1. Excellent post! I’d be very interested to know some of your speculative fiction recommendations from the last 5-10 years.
    Oh, to read like a thirteen year old again:)

  2. No, that makes you 590, dumbass!

  3. Oh, yes! I agree fervently, and then think about my own writing – it’s so much easier to see where everyone else has done things than where I’ve pursued those paths myself.

  4. Glad we agree on torture. For the record King in Prussia Frederick The Great abolished it in the 18th century in his country. He did that as part of the Enlightenment. We have regressed and crap SF encourages more of the same.

  5. Totally agree about right-wing SF. Throw in the military stuff as well. Yoon Ha Lee positively wallowed in death and mutilation in “Ninefox Gambit” (which was also not well written) yet it was on the Clarke Award shortlist last year. Thank goodness a much better book won it.

    PS. “Flaunting the rules.” Typo for flouting?

  6. Very glad to find someone commenting on the fascism of the future in The Expanse. Diversity is but one of the disguises/distractions. Earth v Mars as different but the same is another. The implicit secular Christianity (but not Mormonism!) is another. Centuries in the future and we still have scrip and wage slavery and for profit health care and stoners watching tv and brothels and on and on. Evil but redeemable trillionaires.
    Binge watching it now. Some of the acting is great and the real star is the effects BUT it’s really quite depressing. Because it’s just a western war movie set in the 1990s with the worldview of the 1950s. Fave malapropism— “the Calvary is coming”. Worst but most telling myth— the European ships being “invisible” to natives on old earth. (Like the alien to Bobby, sort of …) They didn’t have the ability to see them. And they were wiped out. Americans like to think that genocide was complete, apparently. The worst aspects of genre space opera. And yet so many think this is the best sf on tv.

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