Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pack Up the Kit Bag?

Has Elvis left the building? Is it time to pack up and go home? Is SF dead?

Not that I want to pack up, but a recent article in LOCUS really got me thinking.

I was reading the interview with Barry N. Malzberg in the recent October issue. He was talking about how science fiction has changed over the last century. His comment was "Science fiction has so infiltrated the culture that you don't need it any more. If you look at it as a familiarization of science and engineering for the larger culture - which is exactly what Hugo Gernsback said he wanted - it succeeded beyond any limit of his ability to envision."

That really made me sit back. Part of the appeal of these funky little stories in the old pulp magazines was that they were describing a foreign culture. SF was a weird sub-group. Most people had no conception of the inner workings of science and technology, and were completely inexperienced in projecting this into the realm of possibility. Now it's everywhere. It's in the local paper, it's on the cable channels: popular science documentaries, science shows.

We used to play this game: Ask someone if they like speculative fiction (usually they say no). Then ask them to list their favourite top ten movies. Invariably they end up listing something that has quite significant speculative fiction elements. The point is that it is so familiar that it has become invisible.

SF - and what becomes noteworthy in the eyes of reviewers (or editors) - becomes highly experimental work that is actually a high-art interpretation of the genre itself. Being part of the 'scene' goes hand in hand with encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, because a good SF story is just not enough anymore. It needs to somehow redefine something that is actually dwindling to non-existence.

Then there is the issue of form. Reading that same LOCUS issue, which was discussing some of the history of pulp, it really struck me that at one point this was the new thing. Has this form of fiction completely lost its relevance in this new world?

My wife recently flew back to Brisbane from Adelaide. The flight had maybe 400 people on-board. Blocked by the trolley, she had to walk through almost the entire length of the flight to find an available toilet. On the way she scanned the people to see what they were up to. In every single row there was at least one laptop and at least one person playing games on an iPhone. These are forms of entertainment that simply did not exist when pulp made its appearance. Of all those people she passed, two were reading a book. Two!

OK. Here is my provocation. Is SF - and the form of fiction in general - dead? What do you think? Do we all need to apply our imagination to neat little iPhone games instead?


Karen T. Smith said...

Oh god I hope not, because if so I'm out of a job (er, not a paying job yet but my YA sci-fi novel's in the mail to 6 different NY editors...)

I actually think the prevalence of tech discussion in everday settings is making things really *interesting* for sci-fi writers. Instead of inventing crazy wacky new stuff or insane new worlds, we can get down to the parts I always have found most fascinating about science fiction - how will technology change our lives?

Case in point - most of what your wife saw in the aisles didn't exist 10 years ago. 15 years ago only a very few would have been on laptops (and them only for a short while because battery lives were so short.)

15 years and a dramatic change in how we pass our time, entertain ourselves, store content, it's all changed! What's next? What will we do when the cars drive themselves, when we can make the exact outfit we want to wear today at home in five minutes, when flying isn't so cost-prohibitive for many?

What's next?! I look forward to writing it!

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Karen. Me too. I've dedicated a lot of time to trying to establish myself a writer. I'd be a little upset if it really was for nothing.

I think as long as we can get excited about the future, we can make other people get excited about it!

Good luck with the subs.

Brendan said...

I wonder how many of the people your wife saw on her trip were reading on whichever device it was they had?

From what you say I don't think SF is dead it may just be sneaking into the consciousness of 'mainstream'. This is all to the good since it give SF authors an expanded market.

There is always going to be a market for people who can look ahead and say "what if...?"

Mike said...

You might enjoy this. I was just talking with a student about self-programming computers. He's a Master's degree student in software engineering. So fairly sharp.

He assured me that we don't have to worry about that. So I asked him what he would think in a few years when he gets in his new car and drives to work a couple of times, and the next time he gets in the car, it asks him if he would like it to take him to work. His eyes got big, and I pointed out that this would be a relatively easy thing to do -- take current car navigation systems, add a little pattern recognition, and let the system identify repeated destinations and ask if you want to go there again. He admitted that could happen. And I asked him whether that would be AI or not? Well... And would ordinary people think the car was "thinking"? Ummm...

Then I asked him what he was going to do when his wife asked the car where he went every night? And his eyes got really wide!

And they pay me to torment students like this, too.

Scott W. Clark said...

I think the point that it was/has been a kind of education in tecnology application is looking at it too narrowly (though I may have misunderstood it--read it too fast--need to get back to writing.) SF was a celebration of a workdview. That worldview was progress only a part of which was situated in the technology.

But there is no confidence in that worldview anymore and so we end up with post modern nihilism on the one hand or progressivist pc on the other (a devolution of progress or a pseudo-progress.) Neither is appealing.

David Barron said...

I think Mike illustrated everything I could say on the subject. Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction even, will not be close to obsolete until such time as people aren't surprised that the Future Is Now, much less that the Future Can Be Now or that the Future Will Be Now.

On a more concrete note, until everybody in the world has a high-speed Internet connection and access to some form of reliable mass transit, there will be Science Fiction.

And when they do? We'll move on to something even more awesome.

MataPam said...

SF doesn't just present tech and science, it challenges people to think about the ways it could be used.

Best example I can think of is Lois Bujold's _Falling Free_. Genetic Engineering, combined with uterine replicators and distance from authority to allow the creation of anything anyone wanted.

We can still look into the future, and while we won't see every future science discovery, every techy gadget, we'll see a lot of it, and we'll make people think about how it could be used and abused. About how it will change society and how it will change individuals.

SF losing its "ick" factor and getting shelved with general fiction won't change that. If it ever happens. People seem to like categorizing and splitting things up. And it makes browsing less time consumming.

As for the competition with games - bet you half of them are based on SF concepts, and the players are more likely to read an SF novel about an alien invasion than before they played shoot the alien games.

Ben Godby said...

To go off on a tangent about it, I think there's a lot more "dystopian" or at least pessimistic SF these days versus the "golden age," which probably annoys people who take a positive view of the SF field. The rise of steampunk, the greater popularity of fantasy, etc., is just an example of how we're turning back rather than forward in our speculations at the moment.

In "The Human Condition" (published in 1958), Hannah Arendt makes a great statement: that science fiction was being "overlooked" as a "vehicle for mass-sentiments and mass-desires." Not so any longer. The sentiments and the masses have been cyber-punked, alienated from the future - and, ironically, I suspect that it has to do with our superfluity of technology (specifically communications technology) and our awareness of how awful the world can be.

So, we turn back. We climb aboard zeppelins and gyrocopters, or else ride horses and dragons to a place of rest and repose.

And then we lose our train of thought!


C Kelsey said...

Mike Resnick also likes to point out that SF is one of the best ways to look at and understand humanity. As SF writers we can put people in fantastical scenarios that are realistic, and open a whole new way of thinking about how we work.

Anonymous said...

I've always considered the key aspect of sf is that it "looks forward." Now this translates to machinery, computers, travel, and other societal components for most folks. We will always be looking forward. Societies aren't generally set up to stand still. There's always a better way to make a toaster. For this reason alone, I believe that sf is healthier than it's ever been, whether that translates to an actual book or not. Yes, it might translate to a computerized game, a movie, a holograph or God knows what in the future. I also believe that the art of storytelling is still alive and well, as is the "fiction" part of science fiction.


Dave Freer said...

Heh, Mike, I love that. I think you're underpaid for that torment ;-).

Answers (on a postcard to the publisher of your choice): No, I don't think the market is dead, although it is changing (ergo the rise in ebook sales and fall in PB sales), and some publishers who don't move with this are dead (or dying). Secondly I think Ben is right - Dystopian sf is fashionable, and particularly in rough economic times, not a great seller. Thirdly for everything that becomes commonplace... there are three new possible paths. Exciting times, but not easy ones.

Brendan said...

It probably doesn't help that a lot of the things people predicted we would have, haven't eventuated. A lesson Doc Brown learns the hard way.

Doc Brown Learns a Lesson

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Brendan. I tend to think you are right. It's more about the people who get excited about a sense of possibility. No doubt things are in transition, its just a matter of somehow connecting with those people, and getting them to pay to read stories:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Mike. It's a pleasure to see someone who enjoys their job:)

That's a gnarly question - what exactly is an AI. For myself, my definitiion of AI is pretty loose - consciousness on the other hand is another kettle of fish. I think a car AI could be 'smart' but not 'intelligent'.

Chris McMahon said...

I agree that it was a narrow interpretation. I think it part it was intended to be provocative.

What world-view were you talking about? That technology would lead us to a golden future?

Brendan said...

Talking of the Singularity, today one of the web comics I read posted this: Questionable Content

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, David. I notice you have chosen two things that the Universe has decreed we will never have! The speed of the internet will always be slower than we need it to be (because people will always be producing systems that cannot cope with the new software they are selling and new formats push the limit of the systems), and since the beginning of time, public transport has been designed torment innocent souls:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Matapam. I agree. As long as there are people and new technological advancements, there will be the potential for new and exciting cultural interactions between them - and SF stories worth writing about.

Maybe we should try to break down those artificial barriers. Maybe SF should be more widely read than ever before - not less!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Ben. Interesting perspective. I think you are right. A lot of the trends in SF are really related to how we as a population are engaged with science and technology.

In the golden age there was a general belief that technology would bring a postive future. Then people got scared about radiation, DDT was revealed as something with substantial environmental impacts and the 'down side' of technology just started to show its ugly face all over the planet as the pace of change accelerated.

No wonder people want to escape into cyberpunk!

Somehow we need to be able to show people that there can be real wonder and excitement in the future.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. And there is the problem right there! You are trying to make people think!

You are right though, I tend to forget the amazing power our medium has.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. One of the things I was hoping for in this post was for all you guys to tell me everything that was wrong with that particular hypothetical provocation. I really want to believe that people want us to lead them into those new realms of possibility.

I really did suddenly get a sense though, that we are really in a new world. I can't wait to see where our stories land when the dust settles!

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Dave. I'll take the postcard, as long as it's from Flinders:)

Perhaps 'May you live in boring times?' Maybe we would all be better paid:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Brendan. I want to know where my personal jet pack is!

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Bendan. That Doc Brown skit was hilarious!

Brendan said...


A case of perfect timing. Both the skit and the comic I only found today going through my morning list of news, blogs, and comics.

Dave Freer said...

Chris - as far as I can work out the golden boring age for pay for sf writers was 1970-1980-ish. Then PB copy numbers started dropping with more income starting to come from hard-cover sales. I've been told around 40K sales paperback was common in about 1980 for a newbie. Yes, they might have been getting around 28 cents a book, but that still put their income 2-3 actual earnings now, and that's without inflation. The newbie pay entry froze at around 1990 - $5000 on average. It's actually moved slightly down since then. Thing is $5000 could buy quite a lot more back in 1990.

Chris McMahon said...

Brendan. That actor had Doc Brown's voice down pat. I must try to find the automatic drying controls . . .

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. I am amazed at how static the advances have been. In that same article Malzberg was whinging about how the $5k advances were not enough to live on - and that was 1970!

Something is rotten in Denmark.

Mike said...

Just a quick note about that prediction thing -- I really don't expect SF to get it all right. That's a job for the technical prognosticators. What I do expect SF to get right is how we might react when things of this sort come up, where we might fall on our face as we trip over the law of unintended consequences, and such. In other words, stretch our human experience to give us at least a taste for what might happen. Doesn't really matter whether they get the details (flying cars, belts, etc.) right, but that stretching -- we need that!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Mike. That's a good point, and really that is our main job as storytellers. People forget that in the Golden Age a lot of those old writers had the people dynamic down pat.

Kate said...

Sod the prognosticators (and that's the polite version). SF is not dead and never will be. It's mutating, as it always has.

As soon as one SF meme finds its way into general consciousness, a bunch more spring up, mate, and eventually the one that's most interesting to the most people will find its way into general consciousness as well. Ad infinitum.

Even when the silly bloody dystopian "humanity is EEEEEEVILLL!" buggers are running the show - although the cycle does slow down then because most people don't like having their "consciousness" "raised" (mine's entirely too elevated as it is, thank you very much), and book sales tank. Gee. Funny that.

Also funny how the dystopian SF is what gets flagged as "mainstream" - 1984, and Brave New World come to mind. But anyway...

People want to be able to think the future is going to be better than the present (civilized, non-nihilist people do, at any rate). As long as that desire exists, there's a market for SF.

Same as there'll always be a market for fantasy because it lets you take the immediacy of current situations out - so you can cover a lot more ground without hitting hot buttons, if you take care not to insert political rants.

All of which presumes interesting stories about interesting characters, of course. Absent those, it ain't fiction, it's proselytizing.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. I certainly hope there will always be a market for SF:)

I think we always need to paint things as more dramatic than they are & use the contrasts to bring out the story. But Dystopian gets a little dreary after a while. I personally like to get excited about the future - of course we all need villans:)

Synova said...

I think that it's true that speculative fiction is practically mainstream anymore. And it's expanding rather than contracting. I don't know what that means about selling books though.

OTOH, people express frustration about the lack of the sort of book they really want to read. I read a comment just today in response for author recommendations that all of the really great female science fiction writers were nearing the ends of their careers. The obvious logical problem with that is that an author gets to be really great by accumulating that body of work and a new person who is every bit as great hasn't done that yet.

Is the problem (if there is one) a lack of readers, a lack of authors, or a difficulty bringing the two together?

Mike said...

Synova -- I think we've got at least a couple of problems right now. First, especially with epublishing, we're awash in options. So many, in fact, that it's hard for writers to figure out where to go, and incredibly difficult for readers to find them! Second, and it's part of the same problem, is figuring out an effective way to pay. So that writers make a living and readers don't feel ripped off. I suspect we may end up with more storyteller's bowl, webscription, and so on efforts, but I'm not sure how it will sort out. We've got to have channels that work to get good stuff in front of readers AND pay the writers enough to keep doing it. Not an easy challenge, but I do expect we'll solve it.

Scott W. Clark said...

I suspect that question about worldview was for me. That world view is progress and there's a whole literature on it. (I should put it in quotes--"progress"-- or maybe capitalize it.) It's the idea that since reason is now in charge (as opposed to superstition from the dark past) societies will only continue to improve and there will be no rise and fall, boom and bust.

When this was believed, sf was optimistic and forward looking. It isn't believed anymore. That can explain why all the dystopian sf.