Saturday, July 29, 2006

The State of Science Fiction

Lou Anders has a fascinating discussion going on his blog about the state of science fiction. See his posts (and the comments to them) here and here.

I just posted almost 900 words over there on this topic, and thought I'd share them here as well:
We often hear references in discussions like these (as echoed by the new SF reviewer at the New York Times) about today's SF requiring a degree in physics to understand it. The conclusion often wrongly drawn from that is that, therefore, hard science is what's bogging down SF. I disagree. It's eminently possible to write about hard science -- including quantum physics, string theory, brane theory, nanotech, subtleties of evolutionary theory, and so on -- in an inviting fashion. The nonfiction bookshelves are full of such things: Brian Greene, Stephen Pinker, and recently Seth Lloyd are all doing that to great success.

And the problem isn't infodumps being antithetical to fiction, despite what the MFA-derived workshopping movement wants to tell us. Michael Crichton and Dan Brown have outsold us all by orders of magnitude without ever once worrying about whether the reader will sit still for background information.

Aside: Lou, I almost titled my story "Flashes, " which is in your Futureshocks anthology, "Infodumps" instead, so that I could use that as the title of my next short-story collection -- reach out and tweak the critics right on the nose. But my wife talked me out of it. :)

Rather than infodumps being a problem, I think the real problem in a lot of books is a deliberate attempt to keep out outsiders. It started when we all thought it was cool to co-opt Ursula LeGuin's term ansible for any faster-than-light communication system, but it's gotten way worse than that.

Enormous numbers of SF novels whose plots hinge on nanotech or quantum physics fail to make the needed background self-contained in the book, and therefore exclude readers. Fantasy has to include all needed background in the book; perhaps to survive, science fiction should do this (with wit and charm and elegance, of course).

Instead, SF has become the leetspeak of pop literature: we like the outsider/misfit/subculture label, and set up linguistic barriers to keep newcomers out. Woot! $(13|\|(3 ph!xo|\| 12|_|73z! [Science fiction rules -- and maybe it does, but it's a pyrrhic victory if no outsider can read it. TANSTAAFL, and all that.]

For my own part, I've bet my career on trying to write accessible SF -- stuff that can be read with pleasure both by those who are intimately familiar with the genre and by people who've never read it before. You were there last month, Lou, when I won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel of the year -- and I was thrilled to get it, as I was thrilled to get the Hugo and the Nebula before that. But in all my career, the following are the two honors that mean the most to me, and they're what I call juxtapositional honors:

First, I was thrilled that my 2000 novel Calculating God hit number one on the Locus bestsellers' list -- meaning it was doing well with habitual SF readers who shop at the SF specialty stores that provide the bulk of the datapoints for that list -- and that Calculating God hit the national top-ten mainstream bestsellers lists here in Canada (in Maclean's: Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine and The Globe and Mail: Canada's National Newspaper) -- meaning that it was being scooped up by people who don't traditionally read SF.

Second, I was thrilled that last year, my Hominids was chosen as the "One Book, One Community" reading selection for a Waterloo Region in Ontario, Canada, and was warmly embraced by huge numbers of readers who'd never read SF before, and that Hominids was serialized in Analog, the bastion of hard-SF. You can appeal to the core SF readership and the mainstream audience -- it isn't an either/or proposition.

Note that none of this requires downplaying the term "science fiction" -- I make no bones about who I am and what I write.

Some of my British colleagues have similar experiences with both mainstream and genre acceptance, but not nearly enough American authors -- or publishers -- are even making a token effort to try for it.

It is possible to cater to both audiences with the same work, but it takes an understanding that this is what's being undertaken not just by the author but by the publisher as well. Yes, call it science fiction, but don't put an alien or a spaceship on the cover. I personally happen to like Robert Charles Wilson's Blind Lake better than his Spin -- although both are excellent, and both could easily be read by non-habitual SF readers -- but Blind Lake didn't get nearly as much notice, or, I'd wager, as many sales, because it has, literally, a bug-eyed monster on the cover (see above), whereas Spin has a very mainstream look, and was reviewed widely in and out of genre. Or look at Charles Stross's Accelerando (US edition) -- wonderful packaging that works both in and out of category.

Again, I'm not urging people to escape the SF category; rather I'm urging more at least try to do that tricky walk along the top of the fence around the category. Because it's only by making new readers feel comfortable in our field that SF will survive.


At July 29, 2006 8:33 PM , Blogger Ken Breadner said...

I'm one of those people who insists on a good story, well-written, with characters that live and breathe. Give me these things--particularly the characters--and I'll follow them anywhere, into prehistory or the far future or any point in between.
What makes your work great, in my opinion, is that you provide the essentials. Too many authors don't, these days.
You remind me of Heinlein in some ways (although your politics are at polar opposites and your characters are perhaps more believeable). Both of you never let the science intrude on the's there, for those who want to examine it, but it doesn't scream at the reader.

At July 29, 2006 9:23 PM , Blogger Scott said...

Very well said.

I think perhaps your books may serve as a kind of bridge between one way of looking at what the former definition of what SF was, is, and should be, as opposed to what it can (and should) encompass in the future.

It has nothing to do with critics' charges of 'selling out' to appease mainstream audiences; it has to do with acknowledging the fact that SF is more than able to be both hardcore and inviting, scientifically rigorous and narratively open.

I almost view this debate as an offshoot of 'mainstream' literature's arguments about the relative importances of plot versus theme, character versus symbolism, etc.

The reality is, each individual writer's work will fluctuate wildly between one pole of scientific specificity and the other -- and that's fine. Stephen King in the seventies brought the notion of what horror fiction could be away from the realm of Lovecraft and Poe and into the backyards and barbeques of middle America. (With acknowledged from forebearers like Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, etc.) When Clive Barker came onto the scene with a radically innovative and much less mainstream application of what horror fiction could be, it didn't invalidate King's more accesible narratives; it simply widened the field's boundaries even more, and everyone benefited.

The same can be true for SF. I have no doubt that in the next five, ten, fifteen years there will be more than a few authors who will have works published that bear a template similar to the one that you have by now almost patented. That's progression; that's showing that the genre is malleable enough to endorse flexible interpretations of what it ought to (or must) become. I also have no doubt that there will be more authors who continue the hard SF tradition of Larry Niven and Greg Bear.

And if one stops thinking of SF as just 'SF', and instead considers it as fiction, period, you can start to see that the only thing one has to really worry about is telling a good story. It's like the old joke about the agnostic asking the priest to define his religion concisely. "Do unto others as they would do unto you," the priest says. "All the rest is commentary."

For me, it comes down to: "Tell a good story; all the rest is commentary." Assuming the first part of the maxim is made true, than all the rest is commentary, and that commentary, in all its forms, is what makes the diversity of SF so wonderful, and so worth celebrating.

At July 29, 2006 9:43 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Very well said, Scott. Thank you!

At July 30, 2006 3:45 AM , Blogger E.Jim Shannon said...

Okay, I admit it.
I don't write science fiction. I don't have a degree in physics or science or even a BA or a MA to qualify explaining science. However, I do have degree in BS:-)

Meaning I don't write science fiction. I write speculative science fiction. What's the difference? SF demands to some extent long drawn out science concepts explained in a fiction background. Sorry but I'm not a David Brin. The mainstream imo still thinks sf is in the movies, Star Trek etc. Nothing wrong with that. Imo readers want a good story including the mainstream reading public. No wonder why sf would scare off potentual mainstream readers. We here might understand Einstein gravitational theory but the mainstream reader would rather turn too a less complicated horror yarn then e.Jim Shannon explaning 4 pages on quantum mechanincs or nonlocality.

Speculative science fiction on the other hand allows me the luxury of the self explanatory. A laser gun is a laser gun. A space ship is a space ship etc. See the difference? I don't need to be a rocket surgeon to write speculative science fiction. Speculative science fiction bridges the gap between science fiction and speculative fiction, I can have my cake and it to. Writing speculative science fiction doesn't mean your talking down to the sf reader either. Speculative science fiction and any fiction is about people. Piers Anthony doesn't need to know anything about string theory to tell a good sf yarn. That's why I don't write science fiction.

Hope that comes makes sense. It's late, pardon the typos.

At July 30, 2006 8:36 AM , Blogger Lou_Sytsma said...

Excellent entry and responses everyone.

At July 30, 2006 4:09 PM , Anonymous Ted said...

Nicely done write-up.
I would note that I think Fantasy has a similar but different problem - the high barrier to entry of the Jordan effect. Only if each book is really self contained (i.e. Rowling) or is sets of trilogies (i.e. Edding) does one avoid this. Heard a brand new author talk about her book 1 of 11 which is just wrong.

At August 01, 2006 12:30 PM , Anonymous Tamara Kaye Sellman said...

Yes, Robert, it is a tricky walk, but I agree with you on many of your points with regard to accessibility and crossover to mainstream readers.

Whether we, as writers, like it or not, books sell by packaging, hence the value of a mainstream-ish cover over one crawling with bug-eyed alien monsters.

One of my biggest disappointments when I visit bookstores is the rash of fandom that seems to have infected the entire SFF section. I don't mind reading several different titles by one author, but I'm not a reader who is interested in a 10-book series. I prefer variety as well as the knowledge that, when I get to the end of one book, I can move on to something else. The series aspect may sell books for certain authors with big fan bases, but for those who don't "belong" to that fan base, it's a big turnoff. There are so many books to read, so little time. I want a 10-course feast, not all-you-can-eat dragon wings.

Finally, I'll copy here my recent post to the DeepGenre discussion:

Here’s an example, not of a book trend, but a television trend. Consider the program LOST. This could be labeled any number of ways. But since it’s labeled drama, those who previously eschewed sci fi or fantasy are more likely to watch it. In fact, they do. … It’s funny, most of my non-genre-appreciating friends love LOST, while many of my friends who appreciate SFF say it “jumped the shark” a long time ago. … Now, consider how the results might be different, had LOST premiered on the SciFi Channel rather than on network TV. Imagine, all those viewers snubbing their noses at something they might have actually enjoyed, all because of labels?

PS -- I just posted this yesterday at the Margin News Blog without having been aware of all this discussion in the blogosphere:

Is there room for children's perspectives and science fiction tropes in magical realism?


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