It has been one of those weeks for furious discussion on the Internet. Lou Anders’ post, which I linked to a couple of days ago, prompted a lot of response including a long piece from Ian McDonald, more commentary from Fiona Avery, and a new post by Lou.
This being the Internet, discussion has quickly moved on from the original topic of movie reviews onto much more “religious” topics (“tie-in novels, threat or menace”, and so on). But the core of the discussion is Ian’s assault on an article by Kristine Kathryn Rusch in Asimov’s
Firstly, binary thinking is the natural mode of behavior for fandom (and possibly for most humans). This tends to be exacerbated by the Internet with its discussion modes centered on belief circles and flame wars. Most of the discussion is, as usual, just posturing.
Second, there will always be publishers who say things like, “our focus groups tell us that books sell better if they have happy endings, so we want you to re-write the end of the book.” Equally there will always be authors who refuse to compromise their art for anything so sordid and grubby as actually selling their books. Most people are in between. It is just the way of the world. Yelling about it won’t change anything.
But I am interested in the root question here, which is about the perceived lack of upbeat nature of modern SF. Are we really a bunch of dismal Cassandras? Can we change? Is there a reason for this? I think there might be.
People who campaign for a return to the simpler, happier fiction of Golden Age SF are talking about a return to the 1950s. Not literally, of course, but perhaps culturally. You see, popular fiction doesn’t just happen, it grows out of a cultural background. The first half of the 20th Century saw the world go through a period of horror of a type that today tends to be experienced only by people in unfortunate places like Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo and Dafur. Two world wars and an economic depression left major scars. And yet, as the world emerged from those disasters, people began to experience the miracles of technology. Suddenly it was possible (at least in come countries) for ordinary people to aspire to owning a car, a television and a telephone (not to mention an interior flush toilet). It was a time when it was possible to believe that science would save the world, and the fiction produced reflected that.
I don’t think the same sort of writing is possible today. If anything, science, in the form of global warming, genetic engineering, pollution and the much hyped gray goo of nanotechnology, is seen as a threat to our lives, not a promise of hope. So are people going to be turning to science fiction for their upbeat happy endings? I think not. They are much more likely to turn to books set in worlds that are manifestly not our own: books that talk about fairies and unicorns; books in which good triumphs simply because it is Good.
Now of course we have things like Star Wars, but that isn’t SF in the way that Hugo Gernsback would have understood it (at least the original trilogy, which is all I’ve seen – Karen Traviss tie-in novels are likely to be another thing entirely). Lucas freely admits that what he did was create a mythological story in an outer-space setting. And he has The Force, which we all know will fix it so that the good guys win in the end.
Now sure you can write happy books with SF-like themes. Chris Roberson, for example, is making a career of doing so. But I don’t think we can make science fiction happy and upbeat with just a Picard-like wave of the finger and an imperious “make it so”. We have to write from the cultural background in which we live, and if you are writing books about science then these days that means addressing people’s fears, not promising them fantasy endings. Ignoring that requirement will probably just get you laughed at. The “that’s just science fiction” put-downs we see so often in the media these days are, I think, a product of belief that SF is still mired in the 1950s.