There's been quite a bit of discussion around Kincaid's article and related commentary in recent weeks; here are a few more links some may find interesting.
*Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future
*The Future is Not a Land of Enchantment: On SF's "Exhaustion"
*A two part
interview with Paul Kincaid, author of the original LA Review of Books article
to these issues by Alistair Reynolds
*Some worthwhile discussion
of the "Cowardice" article in comments to a LiveJournal post
My general response on reading the Kincaid article (which chimes in many ways with what John H. Stevens writes in "Not A Land of Enchantment") was that, as is so often the case when a critic decries the state of this or that literature, it's more a question of his preferring a particular variety of science fiction that isn't terrifically visible in the marketplace at the moment. For one thing, Kincaid doesn't, I think, personally grasp the value of fantasy or of mysterious, non-rigorous SF; "if anything can happen, then what is the consequence of any action?" is a strange thing for a serious critic to ask, as though all worthy science fiction depends on that sort of narrative rule-following.
But then, perhaps he thinks it does. Kincaid writes, "At its historical best, science fiction presented alien worlds and distant futures that, however weird they might seem, were always fundamentally understandable." Is that true in any meaningful sense? Are the futures in the contemporary stories he mentions really not "fundamentally understandable," or is it simply that they don't push his buttons enough for him to make an effort to grasp the ways in which they talk about the future, and the present? There is, to be blunt, a pedestrian quality to his analyses of individual stories that makes me wonder. In any case, I might be willing to grant that science fiction was more optimistic in the past (so was a lot of literature-- so was the English-language culture that produced that literature-- so was the economy that supported that culture-- all of which matters for these issues), but I'm suspicious of the generalization.
It's especially funny that Kincaid complains about an "anti-SF" attitude in one of the recent stories and then praises, of all people, James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree is one of the great SF writers of all time, her fiction is indeed as energetic and relevant today as it was 40 years, and “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” is a brilliant story-- but it, like a lot of her work, is "anti-SF" in regarding the pleasures of commonly-imagined futures as fatally poisonous. Kincaid struggles mightily to elocute a way in which all this is true and the story still meets his criteria, but I don't see that he succeeds. He really responds to it in a way he doesn't to this selection of recent work. Fine, but I'm not convinced his attempt to explain why has much external validity. Also, complaining that there's nothing as good as Tiptree in a given year is not unlike complaining that literary fiction is in a slump because the next Ulysses
or Mrs Dalloway
hasn't come along lately.
Then there's the question, already touched on here, of what Kincaid is working from. It's three anthologies, not one, but even so you're dealing with two editors (one in his 60s, the other in his 50s) and the results of voting by members of an organization that, although made up of published writers, is as much a part of greying, insular modern fandom as, say, the Hugo voters. In the LJ post mentioned above, Nick Mamatas points out that his work does two things that McCalmont claims SF rarely does, and there are more examples in the comments there. Heck, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk
, in which Mamatas' novelette "Arbeitskraft" appeared, is a whole anthology devoted to a type of steampunk McCalmont thinks doesn't exist. There's science fiction out there doing what Kincaid and McCalmont want. It may not present itself to them on a silver platter, but it's out there. Sturgeon's Law is still true, and 90% of the 10% that isn't crap also isn't terribly good, but quality work continues to be done. There's not enough, but then there never is.