whither science fiction as a genre?

There’s been a lot of intropspection about science fiction by science fiction authors recently. It started with Elizabeth Bear’s essay in Clarkesworld, titled “Dear Speculative Fiction: I’m Glad We Had This Talk“, where she personifies sci-fi as a genre into a goth teenager, accusing it of the attitude that “nothing fun can have value; that only grimdark portentousness and dystopia mean anything.” Abi Sutherland had a follow-up in the same vein, where he advises a now-sobbing adolescent Science Fiction (or, “Fic”) to stop “acting like an outsider hoping to join a high school clique” and to “stop mistaking darkness for value.”

To be honest, I don’t really agree with the critique. Admittedly, I am way behind on the Hugo nominated books, but what I do is religiously follow the annual Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Dozois, and as far as I can tell the range of science fiction (at least in short story form) is as wide as ever. I am something of a short-story zealot however – to me it is the purest form of SF.

Meanwhile, Charlie Stross sounds the alarm over the vitality of the genre as a whole, pointing to ebooks as the culprit. I’ll excerpt the main part of his argument:

I am not sure it is possible to write introspective, complex SF as a screen medium. The natural length of a feature movie is around 120 minutes; the traditional movie script runs at one page per minute, with 250 words per page—that buys you, in literary terms, a novella. Add in the expectations of studio executives and the dumbing-down effects of editing by committee you end up with huge pressure to make the script commercial rather than complex. Some director/scriptwriters have the clout to get what they want: but then you end up, as often as now, with George Lucas. Nor is there much scope for a dialog in which directors build on someone else’s ideas. So a large chunk of cinematic SF is stuck, spinning its wheels, mistaking ever better special effects and ever bigger first weekend box-office draws for progress.

Written SF harbours a much more complex ecosystem in part because the works are potentially bigger (big enough to encompass big ideas) and in part because it’s still, to some extent, ghettoised.

Genre, in the ebook space, is a ball and chain. It stops you reaching new audiences who might like your work. You are an editor, presented with “Rule 34”: do you choose to market it as SF, as crime/police procedural, or as mainstream literary fiction? Wouldn’t it be better to market it as all three, with different cover designs and cover blurbs and marketing pitches and reader recommendations and reviews for each bookstore category?

Stross says this problem is unrelated to the issue being discussed by Bear and Sutherland, but it strikes me as quite related indeed – science fiction novelists seems to be chasing after literary validation, in part to escape that genre ghetto and in part to broaden it. Meanwhile, the sub-field of short story sci-fi seems to be weathering the transition to e-formats well – Asimov’s is ridiculously affordable, though there are complaints about formatting. And of course teh aforementioned compilations are great value for cream-of-the-crop – Dozois will release volume 29 this year which is an astounding milestone in and of itself – and the year retrospective he writes about the entire field is worth the price alone. I wonder how many other science fiction authors read it?

7 thoughts on “whither science fiction as a genre?”

  1. Science fiction is in something of the situation that Microsoft is. Microsoft’s biggest competitor is Microsoft of five years ago. Every new version of software they come up with has to compete against their previous version, and that’s becoming increasingly difficult

    Likewise: modern SF writers are competing against each other. They’re competing against writers of other genres. They’re competing against other kinds of entertainment. And in particular, they’re competing against the growing body of SF written in the past.

    I just started reading an SF book — but it was written in the 1950’s. Why should I risk a book written by Raymond Xanatos, or someone else I’ve never heard of, when I can buy Clarke or Heinlein?

    And another issue: SF is up against the same problem as Hollywood: it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find story ideas which are worth telling, which haven’t already been told. Hollywood is further down that path than SF, but it’s the same path nonetheless.

  2. Steven makes an interesting point, though I think one of the strengths of SF is that it is one of the few genres to really build off of its past (rather than just competing with it). I think Eric S Raymond wrote about this once, but the idea is that once you’ve established certain concepts, you don’t need to go into a ton of exposition to explain them, except for where they’re different from past examples. Basically a shared literary foundation. Experienced readers of SF can extrapolate massive amounts of information about the setting of a book just from a single word, like “Groundcar” (having it called “ground” car implies that it’s not dominant form of transportation, and that there’s something else involved, presumably an “air” car, which also has a ton of implications that experienced readers will immediately know because they’ve read it before.)

    Regarding the Elizabeth Bear essay, it’s something I’ve seen more in general, than in SF. Take a look sometime at a big film festival’s program – most of the films listed are trafficking in human misery of one kind or another. There’s a situation now where stuff like escapism and seriousness are being polarized. My favorite works of art tend to have both. There’s an element of escapism, but there’s a lot of depth there if you want to look closer.

    Again, it’s hard for me to say whether or not SF books are suffering from this – I don’t read enough current SF to say for sure (like Steven says, I’m still catching up with older works a lot of the time). For instance, I haven’t read any of this year’s Hugo nominees. But it seems to me that there’s still a lot of positive stuff going on in SF, even if there’s more dystopian stories than there used to be. I’m a big tent kinda guy, so I don’t think it’s a huge problem. But I will say that I tend to prefer lighterhearted stuff that manages to have a lot of depth (and great ideas, which to me is the hallmark of great SF).

  3. Why should I risk a book written by Raymond Xanatos, or someone else I’ve never heard of, when I can buy Clarke or Heinlein?

    Well, to be blunt, modern SF authors are far better writers than Clarke or Heinlein. I myself read every single thing those two authors wrote religiously, before I even got to high school. But today’s stuff is just superior.

    For example, I just finished Glory Season by David Brin (for free, thanks to the Kindle and my library). It’s a concept I won’t spoil but is something that was almost impossible to have been written 50 years ago.

    The reason sci-fi gets better in my opinion is because of teh science. Science improves and fiction follows – we can envision things like virtual realities, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and even information singularity, which were uterly beyond imagination 50 or even 30 years ago. Snowcrash for example literally blew people’s minds. There’s just no comparison because we live in a wider universe now than the architects of the “golden age” of sci-fi ever dreamed. I think they themselves would be ecstatic fanboys themselves over today’s writers.

    And to be honest, a book isn’t an investment of time or money the way that a TV show or movie is. You can get them for free, read them almost anywhere or anytime, and even give up on them with no real cost. They are frictionless, unlike visual media.

  4. Steven – I get my free ebooks through one of two means: 1. local library lending, exactly identical to physical book borrowing, except that its handled digitally (which is only possible because DRM exists, which is why I am leery of a DRM-free world), and 2. the Amazon Lending Program, which allows Kindle-hardware owning ($99), Amazon-Prime subscribing ($79/yr) account holders of Amazon to “borrow” ebooks for an unlimited period of time, but limited to a maximum of one book a month. In both cases I am paying for the service (through property taxes in teh case of the library, and through direct cost to Amazon) and teh authors are indeed getting paid, either from the publisher who sells books to the library (at significant bulk disocunt from retail) or direct payments from Amazon out of a several-million-dollar pool that is divvied up between authors based on how ofte their books are borrowed.

    I did allude to these details and even link to the Amazon program in earlier posts but I can see how that might have gone unnoticed in my wall o’ text posts of late. In no way however is my free ebook habit comparable to, say, torrenting anime.

  5. The Amazon program also results in direct financial benefits to authors by way of increased exposure and sales:


    Incidentally, you can also “loan” an ebook you bought from Amazon to another Amazon user, and the latter doesn’t even need to own kindle hardware. see:


  6. I don’t think a science fiction novel has to be dark, brooding, staid and lengthy to have an impact. I recently finished a book so new it glistened as I tore it from the bubble-wrap, and it was superb! Seriously; it was the size of The Great Gatsby, but any longer and the story wouldn’t have made as much sense.

    It was called Tangent by Mike Pomery. If you want an example of a super-modern style of Science Fiction, look it up on Amazon or wherever. You’ll need to bring your vocabulary along for the ride though.

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