Science fiction: back to basics or pitch for the geeks?

The blogosphere debate about the causes and solutions to sf’s perceived demise shows little sign of dying down just yet, especially not now that a few more heavyweights have pitched in. Since the last time I rounded up the state of play, we’ve had Mark Chadbourne suggesting that sf is really “failing in the art of communication”, plus returns to the ring from Paul McAuley and Ian McDonald, with a pair of observations from Lou Anders.

But the one that really sang to me was a hefty screed from Charlie Stross, suggesting that a new target market may be the best answer for those worried about the falling readership problem:

“We’ve arrived in a different future, and central planning doesn’t work. Things are fast, chaotic, cheap, and out of control. Ad hoc is the new plan. There’s a new cultural strange attractor at work, sucking in the young, smart, deracinated mechanistically-minded readers who used to be the natural prey of the SF movement. It’s geek culture. […] These people have different interests from the old generation of SF readers. And unfortunately they don’t buy many [fiction] books, because we aren’t, for the most part, writing for them.

“This isn’t to say that they don’t read. There is a literary culture that switches on the geeks: it started out as a branch of SF. Yes, I’m talking about cyberpunk. But while cyberpunk was a seven day wonder within the SF field, which subsequently lost interest, the geeks recognized themselves in its magic mirror and made it their own. This is the future they live in, not the future of Star Wars and its imitators, of the futures of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. And in addition to cyberpunk — the golden age SF taproots of their field — some of us are beginning to address their concerns. Among the quintessentially geek authors, the brightest names are Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow and Douglas Coupland and (in his latest incarnation) Bruce Sterling. (I’d like to append my own name to that list, if only to bask in their reflected glory.)

“The authors I listed above are not writing SF for your traditional SF readers. They are writing something quite different, even if the forms are similar, because the underlying assumptions about the way the universe works are different. There’s no need for the readers to internalize a bizarrely rehashed bundle of strange ideological preconceptions about the role of science and technology in society, which have accreted remorselessly since the 1930s until much modern science fiction is incomprehensible and alienating to the outside world; that’s because they are writing fiction that is based in the world-view of the present day. You don’t need to study golden age SF and its literary conventions to get Neal Stephenson, because rather than constantly referring back to it, he references (a) the science fictional zeitgeist in popular culture, and (b) the cultural milieu and outlook of WIRED’s readership. Which is why he managed to write a 1100 page novel about cryptography with a plot that didn’t quite join up in the middle, and it still outsold everything else on the map. He’s got your audience, right here, buddy, right here in the palm of his hand. Thanks to generation slashdot.”

YES. There it is. Go read the whole post, though; it’s rewarding, and it will make it fairly clear that Stross isn’t laying out some sort of manifesto, just raising some questions.

Now, that sings for me because I’m pretty much part of the market he’s talking about there (although I’m not as deeply entrenched in hardcore geekdom as I might be – I don’t have the time or reason to buy and play a games console, let alone hack one). And it ties in with the responses I’ve heard from people who I’ve tried encouraging toward the genre – the preconception of sf by non-readers is still very much a picture that involves all the classic hallmarks of the pulp ‘Golden Era’. It doesn’t help that the books that are (quite rightfully) considered to be (and lauded as) the originating classics of the genre are often of this type – nothing is harder than trying to convince someone who’s read a bit of Asimov that sf isn’t actually all like that.

All of the authors Stross plugs in his post are ones that rank highly in my personal taste spectrum. I enjoy a great many others too, but those guys write stuff that has me nodding and muttering affirmatives to myself as I read it. They write stuff that talks back to me, books and stories based on preconceptions that are a part of my everyday life. They don’t need the same suspension of disbelief that, say, an Iain M. Banks space opera requires. Stross suggests that writers worried about the decay of genre sales should peerhaps be aiming toward “creating a new revolution” rather than looking back to the faded days of pulp glory for a shot in the arm. (And then, Stross being Stross, he cheerfully states his intent to do exactly the opposite with his next project. Selah …)

Almost all of these author posts say the same thing: that they write their books to be the best they can be, or as Ian McDonald puts it: “I write books, each book is my answer to what I think is SF’s problem.” Which means that there is very unlikely to be any sort of genuine consensus or overarching ‘roadmap’ for where the genre is headed. Like all art movements, its members walk their individual paths and the final destination is an agglomeration of these disparate journeys.

I really enjoy seeing this sort of debate occuring, though, for a couple of reasons. Firstly it gives a great insight into the approaches that individual authors take to their work, and a window onto what they’re trying to achieve with their art. Secondly, it strikes me that the debate itself is a sign of health in the genre. Even if the readership is falling (which seems to be open to dispute), the people writing the stuff still care enough about what they’re doing to argue over what the problem might be. Much better than a chorus of shrugs followed by a mass migration to a more lucrative market!

I’m pretty positive that sf will survive, even if not in the form that I am most familiar with – if anything, I’m sure that sf will become more popular as we become increasingly technologised (because of the way it can be used to hold a mirror to the here and now), and also because I can’t imagine the human race losing its ability to dream big and its love for a bloody good story. Of course, only time will tell what sort of stories they choose to partake of …

One thought on “Science fiction: back to basics or pitch for the geeks?”

  1. One would think that one of the reasons why Cryptonomicom sold really well was because it was such a darn good read to boot. Stephenson is arguably the brightest light in the genre’s firmament.

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