Friday, December 25, 2009

Should SF Die?

(Cross-posted from the Shine website.)

There’s been a lot of musing about the fate of science fiction, lately. To be clear, I’ll be discussing *written SF* here (predominantly), not SF in movies, comics, video games or other media. To summarise (and this is far from complete, but I hope it touches upon the main points):

  • According to Ashok Banker, SF is morally and ethically bankrupt (to put it mildly: his interview at the World SF News Blog has been deleted on his request, because some idiot stalker is now threatening not only him, but his family and friends, as well);
My viewpoint is that SF is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and that lack of relevance can be attributed to developments and trends already mentioned in the points above, and SF’s unwillingness to really engage with the here-and-now. That doesn’t mean that SF needs to die (actually, a slow marginalisation into an increasingly neglected and despised niche-cum-ghetto is probably a fate worse than death), but it does mean that SF needs to change, and that it needs to become much more inclusive of the alien (and I mean alien in ‘humans-can-be-aliens-to-each-other’ sense) and proactive, meaning it should not just shout ‘FIRE! FIRE!’ (and do almost nothing but), but both man the fire trucks *and* think of ways to prevent more fires.

That’s the short version: allow me to expand on it below the cut.

There have been several flame wars on the internet about what SF exactly is. For one, I think it’s as much a marketing niche as a genre defined by certain hard-to-define characteristics. For another, I think that if SF wants to prevent becoming more marginalised, it needs to ditch the common concept that it’s ‘the literature of ideas’ and should try to become ‘the literature of change’.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Ideas flow by the bucketloads as half-drunken people quip witticism in a bar, as stoned students discuss RPGs at a frat party, as white collars desperately brainstorm in anther effort to hide a lack of true inspiration. The utmost majority of ideas are ethereal, as lasting and interesting as the latest trending topic on Twitter. Yes, there are those very rare good ideas: and I’m willing to bet that most really good ideas are carefully kept under wrap until they’re patented and ready for the big time (see, for example, how Apple launches new products like iTunes, iPods, iPhones, etc.). And renaming SF ‘the literature of really good ideas’ is lame at best and pathetic at worst.

SF — should it be willing to move forward — needs to reinvent itself as the literature of change. This means that SF needs to be willing to change, itself, and continue to be willing to change, to either adapt, or — dare we think it? — be proactive. Because, let’s face it, SF hasn’t been particularly proactive in the last few decades. This also means that SF needs to be open to outer influences instead of being afraid of those. SF as a species should be willing to cross-fertilise with everything around it, and thrive, or otherwise become a genetic dead end.

So let’s apply this viewpoint — SF as a literature of change, willing to change itself, as well — to the points, mostly mentioned by others, above:
  1. SF is racist (Ashok Banker);

  2. SF is predominantly an anglophone white man’s game (Lavie Tidhar), not open enough to women, people of colour, LGBTs and cultures other than western ones;

  3. SF is on a commercial dead end because (a)women aren’t buying it, (b) it can’t keep up with the current rate of technological change, (c) it’s eaten up from the outside by the mainstream and (d) most people grow up on fantasy films, anyway (all Mark Newton);

  4. SF, like much of the current US way of thinking, is too dismissive of actual science (Athena Andreadis);

  5. SF is not exploring relevant topics deeply enough (me);

1. SF is racist:

Let’s jump immediately into the deep end. Is SF racist? And of so, should it die, or should it mend its ways?

First one qualitative distinction: SF is not a homogenised group thing, but rather a collective of writers and readers (and publishers, editors, reviewers, critics, fans etcetera) that prefer to experience story in a certain mode. Saying that *all* SF is racist is a bit like saying all Christians, all Muslims, all Buddhists, or all atheists are racist. Unfortunately, some Christians, Muslims, Bhuddists or atheists will be racists. Fortunately, some of them will not be racists.

Thus, not *all* SF is racist: throughout its history novels and short stories by people of colour have been — and continue to be — published: Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Vandana Singh, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor and David Anthony Durham immediately come to mind, and then I realise I am overlooking many, many others (for which my profound apologies).

Therefore, a better question is: ‘Is SF, as a genre, predominantly racist?’ That’s a tough one to answer. Are the SF novels and short stories written by, or about, non-white or non-western people just a small, negligible minority in a sea of conservative WASP tales? Or is there a trend towards more inclusion of diverse cultures in SF?

On the one hand, it is extremely hard to deny that the majority of both SF writers *and* SF protagonists are white males. The Racefail discussion earlier this year does not exactly show SF from its best angle, and incidents like The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF don’t exactly help in that regard, either. I remember that some statistics were made of the number of male/female authors in the SF digests, but can’t find them right now, although I do distinctly recall that the majority of writers in them was male (and white).

That none of the 57 Hugo Awards for Best Novel have been won by people of colour (and 15 by women), is not a good sign. That all of the SFWA Grand Masters are white, and that only 3 of the 27 SFWA Grand Masters are women doesn’t help matters, either. Compare this with a literary prize like the Man Booker Prize (where 8 people of colour, and 15 women have been awarded among the total of 43 recipients), or the Nobel Prize for Literature (where 9 people of colour, and, admittedly, only 9 women have been awarded among the total of 106 recipients), then one can clearly see that SF still has way to go in that respect. OK: one could also say that the whole of western literature has quite a way to go in that respect, but I do note that the number of ethnic and women recipients of both literature and SF prizes has been going up since, say 1960 or so. If looked from that perspective, SF has much more catching up to do than literature.

So in SF there is, undeniably, a strong bias for fiction written by, or written about, white males. Part of this is historically grown (yes, the whole western world was more racist in the past — think slavery, witch hunts, concentration camps and other atrocities — and only slowly becoming less racist over time), but I can’t escape the impression that a large part of it is due to the fact that SF, that is: a very large part of the community that we call SF, is very conservative, and as such very much behind the times.

(Obviously, there remains the question how much of this bias is intentional, unintentional, or just plain white privilege at work. It’s another tough question on which I don’t have an easy or definite answer. I’m ignoring it for the moment, as I like to concentrate — in my best Shine fashion — on improving things, on looking for solutions.)

On the other hand, I do have the feeling that the tide is, finally, slowly, yet inevitably turning.

One very recent point of light is provided by Ahmed A. Khan’s and Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad’s A Mosque Among the Stars anthology that portrays (at least one) muslim, or Islam, in a positive light. Then there are anthologies like Cosmos Latinos, Dark Matter and Visions of the Third Millenium, and websites like SciFiNoir, the Carl Brandon Society, Afrofuturism, and The Angry Black Woman (even if the latter is only partly about SF & fantasy), and more.

If there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that I am missing quite a few similar ethnic SF loving people out there, for which my apologies: the more, the merrier, as far as I'm concerned. And do enlighten me!

2. SF is predominantly WASPish:

Check out several summaries on the World SF News Blog about how much SF short stories from international writers are published: it’s very little, indeed.

Still, this is an area where I do see quite a bit of forward movement, to wit:These are all examples of international SF with — mostly, although not exclusively — non-white writers and protagonists. Maybe they’re just drops in the bucket, but these drops are not colourless: they are distinct, and they keep falling in greater numbers. Like in literature, the landscape will change. And this is a change SF should embrace.

Then there is the problem of ‘writing the other’: should people from culture A write about people from culture B, or not?

Of course, this is frought with perils, but still needs to be done. If everybody in the world would only write and read about their own culture, cultural exchange and quite possibly culture itself would die a slow and painful death. Trying to imagine oneself in another’s place is highly important, and trying to write from another culture’s viewpoint is part and parcel of that.

Make no mistake: this has been done (Men Writing SF as Women, Women Writing SF as Men are just two examples), and hopefully will continue to be done. However, SF often takes the easy way out by using a white male protagonist who is slowly (or often incredibly quickly) accepted in the alien culture (FernGully, Dances with Wolves [OK: not SF but a telling example], Avatar), and then — as the hero — solves all problems. That Hollywood movies do it is one thing, but if written SF is reallyfifty years ahead’ of big movie SF, then shouldn’t it feature much more stories where the hero is a (non-white) native and/or female and/or LGBT?

The obvious answer here is that SF needs to open itself more, much more to writing from other viewpoints: other sexes, other ethnicities, other cultures. For a literature that’s supposedly interested, and often about, the alien SF, but all too often, seems ethnocentric and infused with xenophobia.

3. SF is on a commercial dead end:

Here’s where Mark Charan Newton has stirred up quite a ruckus — and rightfully so — but while this would have been a good chance to analyse how much written SF sales are dropping, and the deeper causes to that, that unfortunately happens only somewhat in the follow-up post (‘What is happening to SF is a negative feedback loop, reinforced by the way modern publishing works, as well as some potential cultural problems’), where Richard Morgan comments:
...that where the SF/F genre is concerned,the message has gone out, loud and clear, that in order to make successful artefacts of mass entertainment, you must not challenge your audience with anything that a 14 year old American mid-western teenager can’t instantly relate to.
This, BTW, is totally aimed at SF movies. Hence Morgan’s and Newton’s musings on risk-taking (‘Is fantasy too risk-free?’/‘risk isn’t everything to casual readers’). However, there are already whole SF lines aimed at ‘no risk’-taking: see the Star Wars, Star Trek and other sharecropper novels that indeed sell pretty well, thank you. I don’t think most ‘original’ SF needs, or should, compete with that. Written SF should be ahead of Hollywood, right?

Mark provides a good explanation of ‘frontlist sales’ in bookshops, and while his observation that —
What we have is a vicious circle. If there are only a few SF books selling well each year, that isn’t enough room for it to acquire significant market share/nurture a culture. It attracts fewer new readers. And as Dark Fantasy rises, this will only squeeze SF out further.
— is certainly true, it overlooks the positive effect that a truly new SF blockbuster, a game changer can have. An obvious example from over two decades ago is William Gibson’s Neuromancer: while not the very first cyberpunk novel, nor the best, it broke cyberpunk to a larger audience, paving the way for more titles and more sales for SF overall.

And Neuromancer took risks: in many aspects it was different from the ‘mainstream’ SF that it preceded. So obviously, if SF keeps churning out the same old/same old all over again, it will certainly dwindle into insignificance, both commercially and artistically.

So in order to get out of this slump, SF must re-invent itself. For that, SF must welcome change, and change itself. It should face the modern world and the near-future, instead of running away from it. For that, it must — inevitably — take risks.

Roughly speaking, both the New Wave and cyberpunk were catch-up exercises: with the New Wave SF caught up with the cultural and sociological changes of society at that time (60s/70s), with cyberpunk with the technological changes (back in the early 80s, almost no SF was about computers, software and the internet).

One might argue that with the short burst of SF novels and short stories about the technological singularity in the early oughts SF was, for once, trying to be ahead of the game. However, this focused merely on the high tech computing frontier, and mostly ignored a flesh-and-blood world that was (and is) suffering major problems like environmental degradation, overpopulation, climate change and more.

It’s high time SF faced that one head-on, and while some may argue that it’s already doing this, I fear that the ‘dystopia-only’ approach is proving less than fruitful. More on this later. But it seems imperative that SF does its next catch-up exercise, and quick.

(And quite possibly I’m wrong: maybe SF should be about mind-blowingly virtual avatars doing mind-numbingly stupid things, a kind of reverse ‘science fantasy’ where SF is merely a thin veneer on an escapist fantasy power dream. The cynics among you may observe that this has always been the case...;-)

Then also it might be smart to aim this at a larger audience: not just the ‘14 year old Midwestern American teenager’ (where we can safely add *white* before teenager), but maybe at women, blacks, hispanics, asians and other ‘minorities’ (I wouldn’t call women a minority, as there are more women than men on average, hence the quotation marks)? As Mark Newton remarks, more women read books, and they’re spending the most money on books. And those other ‘minorities’ read as well, increasingly so. So it’s not only wrong-headed (to say it softly) or medieval (to say it hard) to marginalise women, non-white people, LGBTs and other cultures from SF, it is also commercially stupid.

4. SF dismisses actual science:

This fresh in from Athena Andreadis, where she laments the casual attitude with which American society at large, and also — seemingly — SF in particular, dismiss science and the scientific method.

The prize quote:
The real problem is not that science is hard to portray well in SF. The problem is impoverished imagination, willful ignorance and endless repetition of recipes. In short: failure of nerve.
Amen to that, and I’ll expand on it in the next and final point→

5. SF is not relevant enough:

Where we finally arrive at one of my favourite bugbears. Yes, I know: SF does handle urgent, near-future topics like climate change, pollution, environmental degradation, overpopulation, biodiversity loss and more. However, it almost exclusively shows how things will go from bad to worse to worst, and almost never comes up with the merest hint of a proposal to a solution.


Because SF is mostly behind the times. While an offhand remark from Nick Mamatas in his brilliant Avatar review — “Avatar does represent a step forward in science fiction film in that it is only forty years behind science fiction literature rather than the usual fifty years.” — sollicits applause and warm fuzzy feelings of entitlement in several comments, the truth is that written SF is, in most cases, way behind the curve of actual scientific, technological and sociological developments in the real world.

As Marcus Chown muses in his Guardian review of When It Changed:
The discovery that we live in a universe far stranger than anything we could possibly have imagined poses a problem for science fiction writers, whose stock-in-trade is, of course, imagining what the future will bring and the impact it will have on us.

Geoff Ryman thinks that a lot of science fiction writers, faced by this difficulty, may have given up, and that a lot of science fiction — particularly what appears on TV and film — is little more than cowboys in space.
It’s worse than that: most SF writers are not only overwhelmed by developments in science, they are doubly overwhelmed by (the pace of) today’s technological and sociological progress. It’s why the utmost majority of SF writers shies away from near-future SF: things change too fast and too unpredictable for them to keep up. Which leads to the usual excuses, and to most SF written safely in the far future, which has another advantage: instead of all today’s problems and developments happening in a highly complex and often strangely intertwined manner, an SF writer can isolate a problem quite nicely on a different planet or different timeline.

This is both a folly (most of today’s problems are complex and intertwined by definition: if not they’d be different problems) and writerly cowardice as in ‘it’s too difficult so I ignore it/run away from it’ and the already cliché’d repartee ‘it’s not up to SF to imagine solutions to today’s problems’.

Because that’s the problem: SF doesn’t want to (try to) tackle today problems. It just wants to highlight them, exaggerate them into apocalyptic disasters and let the world go down the drain in five hundred different ways. SF is very good at imaging how civilisation (or the world in general) ends: if it only used part of that imagination thinking about solving an actual problem it might have had some more respect from the world at large.

So let’s call it what it is: a failure of the imagination. Yes, quote me on it: ‘most written SF today suffers from a failure of the imagination’. It’s lazy, it avoids doing the hard work. As Athena Andreadis said:
However, the nation's radical shift to the right also brought on disdain for all expertise - science in particular, as can be seen by the obstruction of research in stem cells and climate change and of teaching evolution in schools (to say nothing of scientist portrayals in the media, exemplified by Gaius Baltar in the aggressively regressive Battlestar Galactica reboot).

This trend culminated in the choice of first a president and then a vice-presidential candidate who flaunted their ignorance and deemed their faux-folksy personae sufficient qualifications to lead the most powerful nation on the planet. Even as the fallout from these decisions deranges their culture, Americans cling to their iPods, SUVs and Xboxes and still expect instant cures for everything, from acne to old age, seeing scientists as the Morlocks that must cater to their Eloi.
It seems not only true for the unthinking masses at large, but for a large amount of SF, as well.

In short, SF should get off its arse, be totally open to outside influences and other cultures, and get involved with proactive thinking, proudly using science, about the near future.

Conceptual breakthrough doesn’t happen by looking at the other while not trying to understand her/him/it: it happens when a fresh understanding, a new insight opens up the previously weird and uncanny behaviour of the other, enhancing our view of a highly diverse world, opening us up to the beauty of it all.

Sense of wonder doesn’t arrive by watching the world from the safety of the couch or the local pub: it comes from engaging with the strange and the alien, then truly understanding it, and seeing the world in a new light.

Conceptual breakthrough doesn’t happen by pointing only to the things that go wrong, shouting fire and then depicting the seven-hundred-and-twenty-fourth version of Ragnarok: it happens when engaging with a problem so deeply that either obvious or lateral approaches come to the fore.

Sense of wonder doesn’t come when the scientific, technological or sociological causes of a phenomenon are ignored, taken for granted or not understood: it comes when the root cause — which can be something initially alien like quantum mechanics, string theory, complexity or chaos theory — suddenly becomes obvious, when a new way of looking at the world becomes clear, when a wonderful new understanding dawns.

Neither can be achieved without hard work and inspiration, quite possibly more hard work and inspiration than ever before (in that manner, like in When It Changed: collaboration may be the new way forward. It is already so in science, so why not in SF? Must writers remain isolated islands in a sea of change?), but this is also the challenge. Is SF up to this challenge? If not, I suspect it’s bound for a slow deterioration not unlike that of, say, the western (I know: there are still plenty of western *movies* — which even show more signs of engaging with today’s culture that SF: Brokeback Mountain, anyone? — but western fiction has been on life support for decades). If SF is up to the challenge, then it may become relevant once again.

Since this is the festive season, I remain hopeful (although that’s hard, sometimes), and next year I intend to lead by example.


Ernest Hogan said...

Mutate or die -- we should do it soon. Or maybe just change names:

"Witchcraft always has a hard time, until it becomes established and changes its name." -- Charles Fort, LO!

Or:"What will you do when the label comes off/and the plastic's all melted/and the chrome is too soft?" -- Frank Zappa, WHO ARE THE BRAIN POLICE?

As for sf being racist -- between Lucian of Samosata, a Syrian, and the folks who came up with the Arabian Nights story "The Ebony Horse," it looks like it was invented by the Arabs!

I see I need to review George S. Schuyler's 1930s Black Power Sci-Fi epic BLACK EMPIRE . . .

Sorin Camner said...

Dear sir, I would like to quote from your essay on my blog - and, even, to translate it and publish it in romanian, maybe to be discussed, then, on, the Romanian Science Fiction and Fantasy Society site. Please be so good and allow me to do that. Please mail me on Thank you very much.

Kind regards,

Sorin Camner, vice-president of RSFFS

Jetse de Vries said...

Hi Ernesto--

I knew you would come up with angles (I almost wrote angels) that I was unaware of.

And you lead by example, too.

Many thanks!

Jetse de Vries said...

NOTE: I accidentally deleted two *actual* comments while removing spam that had somehow bypassed the captcha filter.

Apologies to Athena and the other commenter!

Fabien Lyraud said...

SF is'nt dying. But three phenmenons have poored the genre :
- Politisation in mid 2000. The developpement of near future sf, illustrating the will of the author of alignate themself for or agianst Georges W Bush Politics
- Posmodernism. break and deconstruction. Break with history, break with ethics (apology of transhumanism), break with humanity, break with body, break with continuity of genre.
- Developpement of commercial licence which invade and phagocyte all the segment of popular SF. Less and less original popular exploitation space op nowadays but only Starwars novels or 40k novels.
This conjonction of theses three trends is the cause of the actual SF collapse.

Sven Damgaard Ørnstrup said...

Hi Jetse,

I just stumbled over this blog post by accident – searching for pictures of fire, actually. But instead you set ME on fire! Great article on SF! I agree with you in a lot of your observations.

I also know that you discuss generel tendencies, and that you know there are exceptions to the rule.

But still I feel a need to mention Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. By now the series is 15 to 20 years old. But still it stands as a proud example of what SF can achieve in regards to a serious and imaginative discussion of the challenges and possibilites(!) that our current society / world faces.

You probably know the series, since you seem to be very into the genre, but since this is really the kind of SF, that you are asking for and since the series wasn’t discussed in the article, I thought it deserved to be mentioned.

Again thank you for a very interesting article.

Greetings from a fantasy writer – yeah, I guess I chose the right genre ;-) – from Denmark