Whither Science Fiction?

Judy, Judy, Judy!

I’ve been a fan of science fiction since the early 1960s. I was already an avid fan and ready audience for Lost in Space (1966–68; Judy was one of my earliest childhood crushes), It’s About Time (1966–67), and I was glued to the TV set enthralled when Kirk, Spock, and the rest, first boldly went in 1966.

By then I’d already consumed all I could of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, along with Verne, Wells, and Burroughs (I didn’t discover Tolkien or Howard until high school a few years later).

Movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and Forbidden Planet (1956), all had me avid for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

It’s been a whole lot of years, and a whole lot of science fiction, is my point.

Of course, science fiction is much older than I am. As a form of storytelling, it goes back at least to the early 1800s.

Many consider Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley in 1818 (published New Year’s day!), as the first definitive science fiction novel.

Edgar Allen Poe jumps in almost 20 years later, Verne doesn’t show up until A Voyage in a Balloon in 1851. His Nemo novel isn’t until 1870. Wells doesn’t publish The Time Machine until 1895. His The War of the Worlds comes out in 1898, just before the turn of the century.

This means, incidentally, that the world’s first definitive science fiction writer is Mary Shelley, a woman. Yet women have fought for recognition and parity in science fiction ever since.

§

Arguably, though, all our mythologies and fairy tales are a kind of science fiction.

Thematically, science fiction uses fantastic storytelling devices to tell stories about people, their feelings, their motivations, their actions and consequences. As such, it attempts to explain the world (as good storytelling does).

Fairy tales and myths serve exactly the same purpose. They provide normative stories and parables. So does science fiction. So does fiction in general.

[There are also ripping good yarns, which are just for fun.]

I have long argued that science fiction isn’t a genre so much as a platform or approach — one that is as old as storytelling. Every other literary genre is found in science fiction: mystery, romance, adventure, horror, police procedural, comedy of all sorts, and anything else you can name.

All stories twist reality! Science fiction just twists it a bit more.

§

Speaking of genres, science fiction spawned a new one in the 1980s that seems to require the SF platform to tell at all: Cyberpunk.

It’s one of the better children of the “SF New Wave” — the prior two decades when authors began to experiment with storytelling.

(Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison are two most remember, but I was a huge Roger Zelazny fan. It was a time of social iconoclasm, not just literary. A lot of what was written was very interesting and completely unreadable.)

In 1984 William Gibson publishes Neuromancer, which is perhaps analogous to Shelley’s Frankenstein in being seen as the first definitive novel of a genre. It’s the first of the Sprawl trilogy, the others coming out in 1986 and 1988.

(The term “cyberspace” comes from Gibson’s 1982 short story, Burning Chrome.)

Bruce Sterling (the other father of cyberpunk) published Schismatrix in 1985.

However, consider that Ridley Scott brought us Blade Runner in 1982. It’s also a key seed in what grew. The movie is based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

By the time The Matrix rolls around in 1999, cyberpunk is mainstream.

As with Shelley’s Frankenstein, I think many social factors came together to give birth to both science fiction and cyberpunk (and most other things).

Ideas whose time had come, so to speak.

(For that matter, A Clockwork Orange came out in 1971. Not exactly cyberpunk, but certainly headed that way. Got the dytopian future part.)

§

The point of all this history and lead up is an article by Lee Konstantinou in Slate, “Our Sci-Fi Is Broken, and Hopepunk — Whatever That Is — Can’t Fix It”

I clicked into the article in the first place because only the first four or five words showed up in my newsfeed, an abbreviated assertion certain to catch my attention!

The author’s main point is that a segment of science fiction is stuck in “punk” mode. One result of this is a burgeoning list of sub-genres: steampunk, biopunk, nanopunk, stonepunk, clockpunk, and many more.

The deeper point is that cyberpunk is essentially anti-authoritarian. It’s about individuals against rules, technology, machines, and corporations. It’s about the power of the individual “hacker” (in the original sense of “tinkerer-fixer”).

Yet modern living makes it pretty clear the lone wolf stands no chance. The entire ethos of cyberpunk is, in hindsight, wishful thinking. To be still dealing in that ethos now, without moving it forward socially, is to be stuck doing variations of a 30-year-old theme:

We are still, in many ways, living in the world Reagan and Thatcher built — a neoliberal world of growing precarity, corporate dominance, divestment from the welfare state, and social atomization. In this sort of world, the reliance on narratives that feature hacker protagonists charged with solving insurmountable problems individually can seem all too familiar. In the absence of any sense of collective action, absent the understanding that history isn’t made by individuals but by social movements and groups working in tandem, it’s easy to see why some writers, editors, and critics have failed to think very far beyond the horizon cyberpunk helped define. If the best you can do is worm your way through gleaming arcologies you played little part in building — if your answer to dystopia is to develop some new anti-authoritarian style, attitude, or ethos — you might as well give up the game, don your mirrorshades, and admit you’re still doing cyberpunk (close to four decades later).

The author acknowledges that many very good stories come from these sub-genres. It’s more a question of moving on and having science fiction address the future in a more 2000s way than a 1980s way.

Which I think is happening. Various “punk” forms aren’t the only science fiction being written by any stretch.

Pick any genre, and I think you’ll find the same sprawl of variations and sub-genres (and sub-sub-to-the-nth). I think you find that speciation and specialization in almost any field involving anything.

I don’t really have an opinion on whether “punk” needs to move on. I suppose if it sells, it doesn’t. I did find several points the author made interesting.

§

To start, I disagree that Snow Crash (1992), by Neal Stephenson, is a parody of cyberpunk. The author misrepresents a unified opinion on that; some critics found the humor indicative of genre parody.

I don’t see that at all.

It’s not nearly slapstick enough to be parody, although it can be pretty funny in parts (as in the booby-trapped vagina). The book is so rich in ideas (cyber guard dogs, shared virtual reality universe, coolest wheels ever) that I have to see it as a serious work.

Full disclosure, I’m a big Stephenson fan, and I really like Snow Crash.

I love the idea behind the title, and I found the language-as-code stuff really fascinating. The book has a lot of great stuff in it.

§

I do think the analysis of genre speciation is right on. The same thing has happened in music; think of all the sub-styles.

As Konstantinou writes, some of this is legit, people finding genuinely new ways, but some of it is just an attempted market grab. In particular with science fiction “punk,” much of it is nothing more than a new coat of paint.

Some of it seems to be aspirational, they try to steer SF into less dystopic stories. (My only opinion on this is “Meh, when has that ever worked.”)

§

I’ll leave you with two final thoughts:

¶ It strikes me that cyberpunk lends itself to mass marketing. Blade Runner was not popular when it came out, but popular taste now is very much in favor of the visuals the genre provides: high technology, dystopia, cyber-stuff, virtual reality, black leather, mirror shades. All hugely visual.

Also all hugely shallow. It’s easy to see why it’s a marketing success. It’s the movie equivalent of fast food hamburgers, which have famously sold billions.

I think perhaps punk gets lost in the sell and people forget the ethos. (Which as Konstantinou says, has questionable relevance now.)

¶ Remember how people used to ask: “Is rock is dead?” Sometimes people ask if science fiction is dead. Konstantinou is sort of asking that about cyberpunk

I think the obvious answer is no, rock and SF aren’t dead.

Remember story space? It is possible (inevitable, really) that the SF story space (or rock & roll space) has gotten well populated.

Think of it as a landscape where writers have built houses. In some cases housing tracts (book series) or castles (major works). Some even have small villages (known realities for many stories).

It has to happen that the landscape begins to fill. It’s possible to build new houses, but it’s harder and harder to build them any distance from other houses.

Even territories become well explored. There might be room for a house, but who would care? It would look like far too many other houses.

§

Maybe, very much cyberpunk style, we need technology to provide entirely new forms of artistic expression, entirely new landscapes.

If, indeed, such a thing is possible. Perhaps storytelling is forever limited by certain constraints: plot, theme, narrative, character.

Consumption of story space is just one of many rising curves humanity faces. It’s interesting to ponder what it means to “exhaust” rock & roll or science fiction.

Can those wells run dry? Can the neighborhood be too full?

Or is there a way out, new alternative landscapes?

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

20 responses to “Whither Science Fiction?

  • Kevan V

    A good anlysis of the state of the genre and an enjoyable read, but I have to take exception to “A Clockwork Orange” being any sort of sci-fi, much less dystopian future.

    The story has always some across as contemporary social satire to me. Much of what was driving that story: Misspent youth, corrupt authority structures and anti-government organisations with shady ulterior motives had been around for ages when the book was written and still remain with us today.

    It’s as timely today as it was when it was written.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, exactly, that’s how truly great SF is — the best SF is always relevant. And it’s why I mentioned A Clockwork Orange — Burgess wrote it in 1962, and, as you say, it wasn’t new then.

      The only thing that makes A Clockwork Orange SF is the technology and an alternate reality. Some of the best SF, that’s all it is — just a little spin off the main axis.

      (Ever read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest? I think that’s SF!)

      • Kevan V

        I’ve not read Infinite Jest, I’ll keep it in mind for future reading.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Let me caveat that a little. I’ve started reading Infinite Jest twice, put it down twice, and found no reason to pick it up again. I wanted to read it because it has the status of a cult book among fans, many of who say things like, “It changed my life!”

        I’ve gotten the impression it’s one of those stories that grabs the young (Tolkien is another example) and is so different from the norm it can take over parts of someone’s brain (in a basically good way). It’s like discovering pizza for the first time.

        But if you’ve been eating pizza for a long time, even a great pizza is… just another pizza. Reading Infinite Jest I found myself wondering why people get so enamored with it. One theory I have is that it’s weird enough, surreal enough, to be a kind of SF, to have that same fantastic undercurrent that SF does.

        For people with no real exposure to SF (and certainly not the good stuff), such a book might seem pretty amazing.

        Of course, I’m a cynic and a misanthrope, so your mileage may vary. 😀

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Years ago I remember reading a sci-fi author who pointed out that once you became known as an F/SF author, it’s very difficult to branch out of the overall genre, but within the genre you really have access to the broadest range of concepts.

    As you noted, speculative fiction isn’t so much a genre as a meta-genre. Within it you can have mystery stories, romances, war stories, epic quests, self discovery, and a lot else.

    On still doing cyberpunk or other sub-genres, I think it’s actually pretty rare that a new sub-genre gets created. Often the originating author didn’t even intend it and it’s only evident in retrospect. Most stories fit within some established mold, which is actually a selling point. The benefit of a genre story is the reader knows what they’re getting and the author knows there’s a market.

    And outright new ideas are actually fairly rare. It’s hard to come up something the authors from 1925-1946 didn’t think of in one form or another, although fresh perspectives on them can feel new, and success often comes down to actual story execution.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “On still doing cyberpunk or other sub-genres, I think it’s actually pretty rare that a new sub-genre gets created.”

      I do agree their creation is often unintended and comes after the fact. Are you disagreeing the wide range of styles (in punk SF or music) exists or that it is meaningful?

      They do seem to exist, at least in many minds. I don’t know if you followed the link to the Cyberpunk derivatives Wiki page. I had no idea cyberpunk had speciated so much. I knew about steampunk, but that was about it.

      Konstantinou makes the point some of these sub-genres (in both SF punk and music) were designed in advance explicity to create a supposed new niche and that can be legit or purely cynical. If an author is dealing with nano-tech or genetics, is that a new sub-genre or just different tech in a more general genre.

      I stopped paying close attention to SF somewhere in the early 2000s. It became mainstream, and there is so much of it I gave up trying to keep up.

      “And outright new ideas are actually fairly rare.”

      Yeah, that’s “story space” for ya. Hard to find a place to build no one has seen.

      Gems do come along, although I suppose it depends on exactly what one considers a “new” idea. I finally got around to watching The Ballad of Buster Scuggs last night, and was enthralled. I was so disappointed when it was over, because it was such a tasty meal. Brilliant writing!

      It’s a western, so not new in overall genre, but the way it was told was gold. When it was over, I immediately watched the first 30 minutes or so, because the first story with Tim Blake Nelson is hysterically funny.

      That film did what I most ask for in a story: Take me someplace new!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “Are you disagreeing the wide range of styles (in punk SF or music) exists or that it is meaningful?”

        Oh, not at all. I didn’t intend to imply anything about it.

        Interestingly, one of authors I read, Neal Asher, writes what could be considered space opera cyberpunk, although the specific cyberpunk nature seems less prominent in his more recent books.

        “I stopped paying close attention to SF somewhere in the early 2000s. It became mainstream, and there is so much of it I gave up trying to keep up.”

        I can see that. I actually rarely pay attention to the top bestsellers or major award winners. It’s only rarely what I want to read. What I tend to focus on are space opera with posthuman aspects. These are popular, but outside of the core mainstream. (It seems telling that most of these come from British authors.)

        I watched the beginning of the Ballad of Buster Scruggs, until I realized it was an anthology. I’m not big on those. Although I’ll admit it seemed well done.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “What I tend to focus on are space opera with posthuman aspects.”

        Did you ever read Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson? Been a while since I read it, but if you haven’t, it might fit that criteria. (More space opera than posthuman, IIRC.)

        “I’m not big on [anthologies].”

        I know what you mean. I think that’s why it sat in my Netflix queue for so long, even though I really like the Coen Bros. (I’ve liked everything they’ve done; some more, some less, but liked’m all.)

        The Coens can be so unique. Fargo seems old-hat now, but it was pretty amazing when it came out. (It was like Pulp Fiction that way. Something old done in a really fresh way.)

        And I get the impression they are big fans of westerns (as in their True Grit remake, the one film of theirs I still haven’t seen, but which I understand is closer to the original novel than the Wayne film).

        The dialogue and background authenticity in Scruggs (which is like a delicious stew) contrasts with some really weird Coen Bros stuff. I was laughing out loud through the entire thing while also being enthralled with the dialogue, characters, and story.

        For a while, it’s going to be my favorite Coen Bros movie!

        (Speaking of anthologies, Electric Dreams on Prime? Each episode based on a Philip K. Dick story. And it’s in 4K HDR, so it looks gorgeous. If you’re not into it, I highly recommend. Prime’s answer to Black Mirror, which is also awesome.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Can’t say I’ve read Spin yet. One of these days!

        I generally like the Coens too, and didn’t realize this was one of theirs. Maybe I’ll give Scruggs another chance.

        I keep forgetting about Electric Dreams. Thanks for reminding me. Is it as dark as Black Mirror? I like the concepts in BM, but not the darkness. The message seems to be that reality will punish us for the hubris of trying to use technology to build a better world. It’s a pessimistic message that I’ve never found entertaining. I’m actually thankful I didn’t discover science fiction pre-Star Trek, since that’s pretty what most of it was back then, at least in film.

        (Truth in advertising, I also hate most horror, mainly because of its underlying message of hopeless powerlessness.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Is it as dark as Black Mirror?”

        Thinking about an answer led me down a mental path with a lot of material. This would end up being a very long reply, and I’m thinking it could make a decent post.

        At a rough sketch, I realized I see three kinds of dark: of the heart, of the theme, of the plot.

        The first is about evil characters, and it’s the darkness I absolutely shun. It’s why I won’t watch Scandal or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. Too much darkness of heart, and I don’t want to know those people. I wouldn’t let them in my home; I won’t let them in my mind.

        Darkness of theme is what you suggest about Black Mirror. (I think the interpretation of that theme might be varied; I don’t read it quite the same as you do, but I can see what you’re seeing.)

        Darkness of plot is just the difference between comedy and tragedy. It occurred to me that shows like Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Black Mirror, and yes, Electric Dreams, use tragedy to make the message memorable.

        Ask most to name some Shakespeare plays, and I bet most name Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Othello,… the tragedies.

        I don’t view Black Mirror or Electric Dreams dark in the heart sense. The characters are generally good of heart and trying to do the right thing. As in life, there are exceptions.

        Thematically, both are dark. If you read Black Mirror as Frankenstein (Prometheus, really, right?), then you will probably also read Electric Dreams that way. In both cases, humanity is usually getting the short end.

        And the stories in both cases are typically tragedies. Perhaps for the reason I mentioned.

        I would like to find the Philip K. Dick stories the show uses to compare. I’m not sure whether my view of the show is based on what they done with it or the original material. Also, full disclosure, I’ve only see the first few episodes. (But I really like it. I also really like Black Mirror.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Interesting distinctions on darkness. I can’t say I care for any of them.

        Darkness of the heart implies there are no good people in the world, nobody worth cheering for. I also generally avoid those. Game of Thrones actually does have sympathetic characters, but I can understand the impression that it’s a show only about vile people. But it’s why I stopped watching The Last Kingdom, because I didn’t like any of the characters, particularly the protagonist.

        Darkness of theme seems like it’s saying the universe is against us, all our efforts are vain, and in fact we are hubristic for even trying. Not my cup of tea.

        Darkness of plot can be good as long as the characters have agency and there is at least a plausible way they could survive, but it’s a lot more emotionally pleasing to read or watch a story with at least a satisfying ending.

        Frankenstein strikes me as both a dark theme and a tragedy. I don’t care for it. I much prefer Dracula, where the characters have agency and are able to fight the threat.

        Thanks for the head’s up on Electric Dreams. Maybe when/if I get in a macabre mood.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Game of Thrones actually does have sympathetic characters,”

        As do those others I mentioned. For me it’s about ratios, I guess. And about the main characters, the ones I’m supposed to identify with and root for. I won’t root for dark-hearted characters (usually; there ares some exceptions).

        I think you put your finger on it with dark theme; ultimately it’s existentialism.

        I’m like you; I very much prefer happy endings.

        “Frankenstein strikes me as both a dark theme and a tragedy.”

        I think very much so. And a story about the hubris of messing with things beyond our station.

        Did you ever read Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tapes or The Frankenstein Tapes? He tells Bram Stoker’s and Mary Shelley’s respective stories from the point of the monster, and of course the humans have gotten it all wrong. Dracula, in particular, was a Good Guy, just misunderstood by that idiot Jonathan Harker. 🙂

        I enjoyed the Dracula one especially. Saberhagen went on to use the Count, as the hero protagonist, in a number of sequels. Sherlock Holmes figures in one of them.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I have read some of Saberhagen’s books (some Berserker stories and a fantasy novel, I think), but hadn’t heard of those. Thanks. I’ll have to keep them mind.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, Fred was one of those guys who did a lot of both fantasy and fairly hard SF.

        He had a whole fantasy series, Book of Swords, IIRC, that I liked a lot. About magical swords.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I think the one I read was in the ‘Empire of the East’ series. I remember it being pretty good, but I got it from a used bookseller who, of course, didn’t have any of the others in the series. This was long before Amazon was around to help with those problems.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah. I’ve got the “heavily revised omnibus version” from Ace that has the first three books. Until I looked at the Wiki entry I didn’t realize there even was a fourth book.

        That’s one thing about losing track of SF… not realizing there are new books in series I’ve enjoyed.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        (From now on, can we just assume we Like each other’s comments? I’m starting to get paranoid I’ll miss one and give the wrong impression. Henceforth, unless stated otherwise, you get a virtual Like on all comments.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Haha! Absolutely. If I occasionally do it out of habit, don’t feel any obligation to reciprocate.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah, good point! Likewise.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Heh. I was just looking at the email I sent to my laptop from my iPad with the link to the article I discussed here. I was assuming my newsfeed tricked me by only showing me the first few words of the article’s title.

    It was the only thing that explained my clicking in. I wouldn’t have had I read that entire title (I don’t think). But the email jogged my memory, because the email subject is the title I saw in my newsfeed:

    “Something Is Broken in Our Science Fiction”

    Bastards. I hate that.

    And no wonder I clicked in.

And what do you think?

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: