Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The State of Science Fiction

Recently, in response to Matt Cheney's review of New Worlds: An Anthology, Michael Moorcock took exception to what he regarded as Mr. Cheney's preference for the more "conventionally written" science fiction stories in the collection and added that he found the review "condescending". Mr. Cheney then responded, and this has had the fortunate effect of bringing others into the discussion (always a good thing), as can be seen at the SFSite boards here.

Now, I haven't read the anthology and so am not qualified to discuss it. But reading Moorcock's e-mail reminded me of an article I read not long ago by Brian W. Aldiss in the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Volume 119 Number 3, entitled "Oh No, Not More Sci-Fi!" In his article Aldiss raises the question of the current state of science fiction much as Moorcock does in his e-mail. Moorcock gives his position as follows:
"The reviewer picked out three of the most conventionally written stories for praise (they are indeed good stories) and clearly believes that the unconventional work by the likes of Ballard, Aldiss, Sladek and many others, which remains some of their very best, is somehow inferior to later, more conventional, work. I feel obliged, on the part of the authors, to object to the reviewer's tone, which reflects the prevailing conservatism of so much of the sf community. It's no surprise to me that the majority of sf is no better today than it was some forty years ago. Indeed, with a few great exceptions, it has become essentially a reactionary genre mostly read and written by a characteristically conservative community with little serious interest in confronting modern issues or of developing literary techniques able to reflect contemporary reality."

Science fiction, this argument seems to be, is hampered by its lack of experimentation, its unwillingness to take risks, to innovate and to confront rather than simply entertain, and as a result it has stagnated. Aldiss in many ways seems to agree with this assessment.

"Science fiction is stuck in its fin de si├Ęcle phase. A parallel case is what some see as the end of pop music's creative phase. That faithful reporter of the science fiction scene Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field shows what has happened. In every issue we are treated to people roistering, writers, fans, artists, publishers, editors, all mugging together for the camera. Here are the stars of a cut-rate culture, attending more and more conventions, clutching more and more awards.

"... Do none of these Locus folk work? Are they forever having a Wonderful Time? Is there no place or time where a writer sits alone and attempts to find a way to convey plausibly the hard truths of existence? Or can partying and adulation occupy a whole lovesome lifetime?"

Both Moorcock and Aldiss raise a valid point, for certainly much of science fiction is simple entertainment, and innovation is often seen in creative worldbuilding or exciting plot twists rather than creative new attempts at style or in efforts to confront the difficult, changing truths of the modern world. Much of it is escapism, pure and simple, and I think this is one reason that conventional literary criticism often has such a hard time taking it seriously.

What neither Moorcock or Aldiss address, though, is the question of why, and while both acknowledge the existence of science fiction that does innovate and challenge, both imply that such work is very much the exception. These two points seem to me to be related, in that the science fiction culture of fans and Cons and escapism that they are critical of is simply the most public and most commercial side of the genre, which Locus, as a reporter of the commercial side of science fiction and fantasy, naturally focuses upon. The success of franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, which provide us with a alternate universes often more pleasant (and certainly more ethically simple) than our own, especially in this frightening age, has I think naturally drawn many other science fiction storytellers into the escapist mode. It's big business, escapism, and people are clearly willing to pay a lot for it.

But we must be careful, too, not to get drawn into the trap that the most visible part of the picture is necessarily all of it. Yes, many science fiction fans love their Cons and their ability to escape for a time into another world, but this does not preclude them from being able to recognize and appreciate challenging literature; one may thrill over the Federation's triumph over the Borg and still be able to appreciate the powerful cautionary message of Orwell's 1984, for example. And there is well done, experimental science fiction out there, such as (to give only one recent example) A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion Story by Douglas Lain, which appears in a recent issue of Strange Horizons, an online magazine that frequently publishes such fiction. As well, there are science fiction authors willing to take dramatic risks to make a point, who are willing to write ethically and intellectually challenging works. They aren't the most obvious in the genre, but they are there, often hidden in small fanzines and published by small presses, and just as you are challenged by reading them, often you are challenged in simply finding them. The effort, in my experience, is frequently worth it.

Science fiction, like all literature and all storytelling, evolves. Moorcock and Aldiss give us a snapshot of a moment in that evolution, a branch of it. But I should hope that they can see that the culture illuminated by Locus and the focus on entertainment alone are only a part of a much larger and richer whole that continues to draw writers of considerable talent into its fold, because it often gives them a vehicle to innovate and to challenge in a way that "traditional" literature does not.

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