Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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Problems in Science Fiction

Here's a savvy article about some problems in science fiction today.


Shattered into dozens of incommensurate tribes and forced together by award ceremonies held in mid-size hotels and conference centres around the globe, genre culture overflows with books purporting to be the very best of what science fiction has to offer. This self-congratulatory urge is most evident in the steady flow of Year’s Best anthologies that collect and reprint some of the year’s most notable pieces of short fiction.

Okay, you did a great job on something. Smile, high-five with your friends, and get back to work.

The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be apprehended.

One enormous problem I see here is that what we can predict of the future kind of sucks. We're running out of resources and room. We're cooking off the atmosphere. These are the roots of dystopia, which is one branch of futuristic SF, but not the fun branches. This is not what enables people "to boldly go where no one has gone before." So there's a lot of SF that boils down to guns, war, environmental collapse, and other bitterness. This is not what I come to SF for. If I wanted that, I'd watch the news. We've largely lost the sense of wonder. I want to read about exploring strange new worlds with new life and new civilizations, and I'd rather not have to shoot all of them in the process.

The most common account of why science fiction no longer attempts to engage with the future is that the future is now deemed to be out of bounds. The world, we are told, changes so quickly that any attempt to predict the future would necessarily be out of date by the time the book was released.

*shrug* So what? That isn't new. Sometimes you write the thing and mail it and the next day read an article about it or even refuting it. You still wrote the thing. People still enjoy reading the old Mars novels even though we know there are no canals over there. You're worried about the time delay in publishing? Okay, credible threat. Stop hitching your book to dinosaurs and just post it online yourself as soon as it's done. Or even while you're writing it if you like that sort of thing.

To throw up one’s hands in confusion is a convenient way of avoiding the serious social and ethical and political questions raised by our problems (as with our ecological crisis).

Yabut that's what science fiction is FOR. It's supposed to think about this shit before a smoking wastebasket turns into a four-alarm fire.

This can seem an understandable response to their genuinely intimidating largeness, but the feeling of being overwhelmed hardly seems to account for the whole tendency.

*hairy eyeball* You handle large problems by cutting them down to a size you can handle. If you don't feel up to saving the Earth from global warming, then focus on one threat like storms, one country, or even one person. Who knows, you might save the world along the way. I started with the Republic of the Maldives in Terramagne coaxing superheroes to move there and help them stay above the rising waterline. But it turns out that what they're doing leads to advances which change how the world deals with superpowers in general.

There is, too, the fact that so many of the obvious responses to such problems – substantive critique of the prevailing orthodoxies, efforts to envision really meaningful alternatives, despair in the absence of such – are regarded as naive, disreputable or simply risky for the career-minded, encouraging the ever-present temptation to self-censor.

Dude, if you want career security and indifference to your possibly-offensive language, nobody told you not to be a plumber. People will always need their toilets fixed, and most won't care if you call it a fucking sonofabitch bastard while you're doing it.

Widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.

LOL green frog skins. If you can't imagine any culture other than the one you're standing in, you aren't well suited to write speculative fiction.

Me, I got fascinated with an essay about Smaug's impact on Middle-Earth economy, compared it to the uber-rich hoarding wealth, and speculated what would happen if hundreds of dragons attacked in waves. They gathered up almost all the precious metals and jewels, so there went the established economy. Out of this ruin, each race rebuilt a new economy based on something different. Yes. I made six different neighboring economies in one setting. Some are closer to capitalism than others. Some are more like commodity-cash and others more like barter. They're different from each other and that makes exchanges challenging.

Over in Terramagne, it's different yet again. People with superpowers have a whole auxiliary economy of favor-trading because cash just doesn't capture the value of superpowers very well. But you can trade kind-for-kind a lot easier. The catch is, it's not something you can hoard like cash. Quite the opposite, it works more like the Native American gift economy, in which doing things for other people makes you respectable and popular. This applies even to supervillains, and it's a key way they keep the real whackjobs from gaining too much power: it's hard to build up a stockpile when almost nobody wants to work with you.

If you want to write good speculative fiction, you really need to get your head out of your own culture on a regular basis.

The most obvious manifestation of science fiction’s exhaustion with the future has been an intentional blurring of the line between that which was traditionally thought of as science fiction and that which was traditionally thought of as fantasy.

This is not new. Genreblending goes way back. If you like it, great; if not, do something else. But it doesn't mean the end of anything, because people are always free to ignore it and write hard science any time they want.

One of the most striking examples of science fiction’s loss of interest in the future is the field’s growing fascination with counter-factual histories.

*sigh* Also not new. The value in alternative history is that it encourages us to look at linchpins closely to examine how they might have gone differently. This allows us to make more mindful choices are contemporary issues. Why does the Civil War fascinate us? We're having problems with race right now. What about the Victorian period and steampunk? We're having class problems right now. If you can't go forward, go back and then try again. That's not just literature, that's physics.

Both Aliette de Bodard and Lavie Tidhar are rising stars in the world of speculative fiction. Though undeniably talented in their own right, both writers are beneficiaries of the growing realisation that speculative fiction is too white, too male, too straight and too Anglo-American for its own good. One of the more surprising things about the increasing status of writers from traditionally marginalised groups is that while these writers frequently possess insider knowledge of other countries and cultures, their most celebrated works seldom engage with the realities of these places.

Some people just want to get wet slowly. Meanwhile others of us have discovered the diving board and are cannonballing. It is a big pool. This is okay.

The reason I refer to this repercussion as ‘Humanistic’ is because this type of story relies upon the assumption that, while the human experience may differ from culture to culture, it retains an unchanging emotional core that allows people from different times and places to understand each other provided they have a shared vocabulary.

ROTFLMAO "Shakespeare in the Bush"

Great literature doesn't mean everyone will read it from the same human experience. It means they'll get something out of it -- but that won't always be the same thing.

In an effort to resolve this tension, the field has begun celebrating works by authors from traditionally excluded groups on the understanding that, while these writers have unique perspectives we should all be listening to, their stories must never actually deal with the realities of what it is like to be excluded or oppressed.

*headdesk* Thank gods for crowdfunding. I mean really, why would you not want to write the stuff that some readers are clamoring for because other people aren't writing it? The competition is lower, and you make more of an impact where there are few other examples of its type.

The long dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.

Like when Asimov invented friendly robots. Now there's a clue.
Tags: economics, politics, reading, science fiction, writing
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