Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Dissing of SF

I get awfully tired of the dissing of science fiction. In the last hour, I had to deal with it not once but twice. First, a major publisher doing a nonfiction book followed up in email on a bound galley they'd sent me; they want me to blurb the book. I gave them the blurb, but I added this to my commentary:
Let me gently say that I found your existing back-cover text offensive. Someone at your company wrote:

"The stuff of science fiction? Not so. These are actually the reasonable predictions of scientists attempting to forecast a few decades into the future ..."

Which implies that what we science-fiction writers do are UNreasonable predictions -- indeed, wild-ass guesses -- and that "the stuff of science fiction" is a synonym for far-out fantasy. It isn't -- and given that you're publishing a book by a science-fiction writer, and soliciting blurbs from science-fiction writers, I hope you'll re-think this ill-advised cover copy.

The careers of serious science-fiction writers such as myself have been all about "reasonable predictions," and to suggest otherwise is to insult not only your own author but the core readership for this book, by implying they've been foolish to listen to what science fiction has to say. If you mean to say, "The stuff of fantasy," then say that; don't be unfair to science fiction and its practitioners.
Then a Canadian magazine, which is sponsoring a $110-per-ticket public debate I'd agreed to be part of, sent me their draft ad copy for the event, identifying me as "world-renowned futurist Robert J. Sawyer." My response:
It's silly to bill me only as a futurist. I am by far better known as a science-fiction writer. Either say:

"world-renowned science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer"

or, if you want to use the word "futurist," use it in addition to "science-fiction writer":

"world-renowned science-fiction writer and futurist Robert J. Sawyer"

I'm adamant about this, I'm afraid. I simply refuse to try to pass as someone who should be associated with your magazine by hiding what I do for a living. I am a science-fiction writer, and you either think there's value in having one such on your panel, in which case I'm happy to participate, or you don't, in which case I'll politely bow out.
I can understand people dissing SF out of ignorance, but why people would diss it at the same time they're coming to an SF writer for a favour is utterly beyond me.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At January 29, 2008 8:42 PM , Blogger S.M.D. said...

That's awesome that you stood up for yourself. You should be proud to be an SF writer, because doing that for a living is possibly the coolest job in the whole world. You get to tell cool stories about future technology and changing worlds, all under the guise of reality. Most of us don't get to do that for anything other than fun, but you can do it as a career--meaning you get paid to have fun.

At January 29, 2008 9:55 PM , Blogger ryan mannik said...

Star Wars really WAS the worst thing to happen to science fiction, wasnt it

At January 30, 2008 1:36 AM , OpenID cgyrask said...

This dissing of Science Fiction is worse in the U.K., at least if the newsletter Ansible is to be believed. Every issue gives two or three examples of "As others see us...", quoting from daily press.

At January 30, 2008 3:41 AM , Blogger envaneo said...

Why is it the mainstream always insists science fiction is about “The Future?” Do we really know what some tech aficionado is dreaming up in his basement on his PC today? This is why I like the Mission Impossible movies. It is science fiction like but in the present. Science fiction can even get away with exotic and new concepts in today’s world not 20 years from now. Does having a flux-capacitator lend it more credibility because it’s set 20 years from now? I think the opposite. Juxtapose a ray gun or a spaceship right now, in today’s reality and imo that’s real science fiction. This is what world building is supposed to be about. Even world building doesn’t have to be about “The future.” Who knows what new flinger-flanger, some think tank organization needs to use to sort out high drama unknown to us at this very moment down our block? Every story doesn’t always make the news at 11. And why should science fiction stick to clichés? Ray guns robots and bug eyed aliens. Come on. Give me the totally weird juxtaposed against everyday reality anytime. That’s science fiction.

And btw Star Wars is not science fiction it’s speculative science fiction but still arguably the greatest piece of movie fiction to come out since Lord of the rings. It’s contribution to speculative fiction can not be denied. Even then Star Wars is not about “The future.” Star Wars exists in a vacuum based upon Campbell’s “A hero’s journey.” The Matrix used the same device. Not all science fiction is about “The Future.”

Sorry for the Rant.

At January 30, 2008 3:45 AM , Blogger envaneo said...

Sorry the above Rant was written by me :-)

Jim Shannon

At January 30, 2008 8:19 AM , OpenID strausmouse said...

Blasphemy, Ryan! Blasphemy!

At January 30, 2008 9:32 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Ryan shouldn't take the heat for something I've often said. In terms of the public perception of science fiction as an adult, thoughtful, grounded-in-reality, reasonably extrapolated mode of discourse, STAR WARS is the worst thing that ever happened to science fiction. I talked at length about this last year at the Library of Congress and in an essay in The New York Review of Science Fiction entitled "A Galaxy Far, Far Away My Ass! Science Fiction as Social Comment." (I'll get the essay up on my website sometime this spring.)

At January 30, 2008 9:55 AM , Blogger ryan mannik said...

Star Wars is fantasy. Harry Potter with laser-guns. Dark Wizards and MAGIC for pete's sake. MAGIC! I don't think Arthur C. Clark's 3rd law applies either, it's not presented as anything other than supernatural magic.

The best movie to come out since the Lord of the Rings? Star Wars came out in the 70s.

Additionally, if your definition of Speculative SF includes Mission Impossible, I just don't know what to say, but I suspect Mr. Heinlein just rolled over.

At January 30, 2008 10:02 AM , Blogger ryan mannik said...

Also I'd like to point out that the last 5 or 6 mainstream SF works I have read have been set either in sometime in the last 30 years (the PAST!), or just barely a few years into the future.

At January 30, 2008 10:36 AM , OpenID strausmouse said...

Actually you should have said, "Star Wars really WAS the worst thing to happen to science fiction, wasnt it...until 'Alien Vs. Predator.'"
I suppose I can see how, from a true sci-fi aficionado's point of view, Star Wars became the mainstream's focal point for what "sci-fi" was, and how that would be a burr under the saddle of those who took the genre more seriously, and not as a source of purely fantasy entertainment.
But as a confirmed Star Wars geek, my knee-jerk reaction is to lash out with things like "Blasphemy!" when I see it cast in any kind of negative light.

At January 30, 2008 11:42 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

"As a confirmed Star Wars geek, my knee-jerk reaction is to lash out with things like "Blasphemy!" when I see it cast in any kind of negative light."

So I see. :)

At January 30, 2008 4:24 PM , Blogger envaneo said...

I said Mission Impossible is “science fiction like.” The MI movies are really adventure/speculative fiction.

The point I’m trying to make is that the mainstream seems to think science fiction has to be set in “The Future.” I’m no expert but I think this is setting a dangerous president for science fiction about the “The Future” could end up being just another science fiction cliché the mainstream can diss about. I’m not saying having a science fiction novel set in “The Future” is a negative thing either but does a science fiction novel always have to be set in the future? The very books you have read indicate this does not always need to be the case. The last several science fiction novels I’ve read were in “The Future.”

But this sounds more like a discussion for Rob’s community then my response here. The best science fiction novel I read last year (what 10 years old now?) was Jennifer Wingert’s “Grasp the Stars.” A novel set in space but pardon the pun (also conceived in a vacuum) GTS was not set or about in “The Future.” That’s the point I’m trying to make here.


At January 30, 2008 4:28 PM , Blogger ryan mannik said...

Not another dangerous president, we're not even rid of Bush yet.

thanks you folks, i'll be here all week, try the shrimp!

At January 30, 2008 11:25 PM , Blogger zafri106 said...

Thanks for sticking up for science fiction. Although my father has an irrational hate for anything labelled science-fiction, I convinced him to watch Firefly, and he fell in love with the show.

I still have yet to convince him to try out battlestar galactica (which, despite its title, is one of the best shows on television in my opinion) but maybe one day.

On another note, to ryan who said that star wars is fantasy, I hope you're not implying that fantasy is somehow worse than science fiction. Because, like sci-fi, there can be terrible clichéed fantasy and there is good fantasy (a la GRRM, Tolkien, and Goodkind before he began moralizing too much).

I laughed when, as a prelude to the interview they mentioned your name (Robert Sawyer) and popular canadian author with the addition "an achievement made even more amazing by his ability to reach it while writing books that are consistently marketed as Science Ficton."

Although I'm sure this is present because sci-fi is somehow less mainstream than other fiction, I still find it a bit disheartening.
As far as I can tell, there are plenty of fiction novels that could be classified as science fiction or fantasy that simply avoid it to gain access to a greater (?) pool of possible readers.

In any case, keep up the good work! I look forward to reading the Quintaglio trilogy as soon as I'm done with this semester of Chaucer, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Atwood, Laurence, and Ross.

At January 31, 2008 12:23 AM , Blogger envaneo said...

Ok, my bad mispell. That's why we have copy editors :-)

As for Bush, don't get me started.

Someone has to stick up for science fiction and I'm glad Robert J Sawyer is. It seems to me we need more gateway science fiction novels for the masses. I'd say Robert Charles Wilson's "Spin" is a Gateway novel.


At January 31, 2008 5:45 PM , Blogger Chris Moriarty said...

Rob, thanks so much for voicing what so many of us have so often felt. Of course science fiction is dissed in the mainstream literary world. Science fiction is a transformative literature. Transformative writing threatens people's habits and assumptions. Most "grownups" cope with this threat by dismissing SF as "kid stuff." To which my response has always been that I am proud to write for people who are still young enough to have open minds, be they fourteen or forty.

At January 31, 2008 5:57 PM , OpenID prof-brotherton said...

I approve. It's hard enough whenever I try to convine people that actually getting the science right in a book or movie would be better than just having the veneer of science. Part of the problem is that there is a bunch of dumb stuff labeled "science fiction" that gets mixed in with the serious work like you do. Squawking at an appropriate level when things things arise is probably the best we can do without some huge paradigm shift in worldwide marketing that isn't likely to happen.

At April 02, 2008 11:14 PM , Blogger see write said...

I think the main conception people have of sci-fi is Star Trek and Star Wars. People who don't read sci-fi don't realize that what is being published is very different from what you see in TV and movies.

But a lot of the predicted science in sci-fi has actually been borne out, so why would a sci-fi authors predictions be unreasonable?

I like Star Wars, but as mythology, not as sci-fi. The way Lucas ties in all those diverse myths is pretty cool.


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