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Science Fiction & Fantasy Farscape, Babylon 5, Star Wars, Firefly, vampires, genre books and film.

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Old November 4 2008, 02:51 AM   #1
Lapis Exilis
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The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Born in 1818 (the year Shelley's Frankenstein was published), speculative fiction has been through many phases, with important eras popping up every once in a while.

The two great types of SF developed in the mid to late 1800s - action adventure (Jules Verne) and social commentary (HG Wells). Both were heavy on fantasy elements, but wove in plenty of science.

In the 1940s, hard SF developed, reflecting technology and the nuclear age. Authors became adept at weaving both action adventure and social commentary together. Several classics were published, from Foundation to 1984. Meanwhile fantasy as its own genre was born only a few years before in 1937 when Tolkein published The Hobbit.

Film got a whiff of science fiction in the 1950s and we were graced by what are essentially fantasy films like The Blob and various other invasion horrors. The Lord of the Rings is published.

In the 1960s, SF got trippy and SF film got serious. Stranger in a Strange Land marries the counterculture to SF (successfully or unsuccessfully could probably be debated.) Star Trek, a somewhat similar combination of action-adventure and social optimism seems born out of the same impulse and 2001 also hints at ideas of the evolution of human consciousness as a new thread in SF. Planet of the Apes harkens back to Wells with its dystopian vision.

SF drops off in major production in the 1970s, but cult fandoms form and grow strong around Star Trek and LotR. Then came Star Wars and speculative fiction went Pop in a big way. Meanwhile the still existing trend of mega-series begins in books with universes like Ringworld being invented. Feminist SF appears in the works of LeGuin. Surrealist fiction hits in the works of Angela Carter and others.

The 80s are huge with SF in films and on tv. The book shelves are filled with 10 and 12 book series in science fiction and fantasy. Comics, the unconsidered fantasy works of the 20th century, start to get serious attention. These trends continue into the 1990s. New genres spin off such as paranormal romance, and contemporary fantasy - most strongly showing up in the popular works of Joss Whedon.

So where are we now? Harry Potter makes SF as profitable in books as it has been in movies since the 1980s, but I can't remember the last new science fiction book that got me really excited. The Prequel Trilogy makes us all question going to the well of a fictional universe once too often. Star Trek revs up for a major reboot. Superheroes are burning up the box office, while their books are playing to a dwindling audience. Heroes and Lost blow the roof off tv - for a little while but now just seem to be frustrating fans. Fandom itself is an established phenomena that changes the dynamics of creative producers and audience - or has it?

What do you think? What era of speculative fiction do we find ourselves in now?
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Old November 4 2008, 03:42 AM   #2
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Looking at the bookshelves, this is the era of military SF; tie-ins to TV, movies and games; superheroes, and booksellers' persistent conflation of fantasy triple deckers with SF.

Looking at the movies, we're in the era where the FX are the only kind of plausibility that counts and cool is the only esthetic principle.
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Old November 4 2008, 05:04 AM   #3
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Can't say I've read a modern piece of speculative fiction in ten years--there's simply too large of a backlog of Arthur C. Clarke, P.K. Dick, and many others on my reading list.

As for cinema, stj has a read that is about correct, although it ignores some interesting things that have been operating on the fringes: Sodderbergh's remake of Solaris, newcomer Shane Carruth's fascinating movie Primer, and a few others. But there's no doubt that the money is going to science fiction films that are big, flashy, and ultimately light on substance. But, since 1980, that's where all the money has been going anyway, whether it's science fiction or not. I have high hopes for Rendezvous with Rama, but I strongly doubt that a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey could ever be made in the film industry as it exists today in the United States or the United Kingdom for that matter.
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Old November 4 2008, 10:41 AM   #4
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

stj wrote: View Post
Looking at the bookshelves, this is the era of military SF; tie-ins to TV, movies and games; superheroes, and booksellers' persistent conflation of fantasy triple deckers with SF.

Looking at the movies, we're in the era where the FX are the only kind of plausibility that counts and cool is the only esthetic principle.
I'm inclined to agree, apart from the fact that even worse than that, we barely even get non-comic book scifi movies anymore, and almost no space opera. I like comic books and often, comic book movies, but they don't replace proper science fiction in my affections.
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Old November 4 2008, 01:50 PM   #5
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Lapis Exilis wrote: View Post
Born in 1818 (the year Shelley's Frankenstein was published), speculative fiction has been through many phases, with important eras popping up every once in a while.
Wouldn't it date to at least Swift's Gulliver's Travelers, 1726?
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Old November 4 2008, 06:33 PM   #6
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

One trend that disturbs me-it used to take me an hour or more to peruse the scifi section of Borders or Barnes&Noble. Now it takes 15 minutes, because I won't read R.A.Salvatore or Jim Butcher, can't stand vampire novels(series) and fantasy does little for me(how many ways are there to go out and slay the dragon, anyway?). I also ignore the vast number of tv/movie to book tie-ins, cutting my pool of possibility in half. Star Trek(and 1632) is/are the ONLY franchise I will read, and I barely touch that, judging by all of the titles mentioned in the TrekLit forum that I've never picked up.

Clarke is dead, Asimov and Heinlein gone, Foster is quickly becoming a hack, Brin no longer has any ideas(or he wouldn't keep recycling Asimov's). If it weren't for the rare jewels from Scalzi, McDevitt, and Steele I wouldn't have anything worthwhile to read and would have to take Honor Harrington or Hammer's Slammers on long plane flights.
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Old November 4 2008, 06:50 PM   #7
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Cicero wrote: View Post
Lapis Exilis wrote: View Post
Born in 1818 (the year Shelley's Frankenstein was published), speculative fiction has been through many phases, with important eras popping up every once in a while.
Wouldn't it date to at least Swift's Gulliver's Travelers, 1726?
Or even More's Utopia, 1516?
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Old November 4 2008, 07:03 PM   #8
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Mistral wrote: View Post
Clarke is dead, Asimov and Heinlein gone, Foster is quickly becoming a hack, Brin no longer has any ideas(or he wouldn't keep recycling Asimov's). If it weren't for the rare jewels from Scalzi, McDevitt, and Steele I wouldn't have anything worthwhile to read and would have to take Honor Harrington or Hammer's Slammers on long plane flights.
There are others. For example, Richard Morgan is an absolutely fantastic writer - I can't recommend him highly enough, if you can take some graphic sex and violence then "Altered Carbon" is a perfect modern scifi-detective, cyberpunk story with a great central idea. China Mieville writes in prose that flows like olive oil (admittedly, he writes steampunk-esque fantasy, but it's so fucking good). Richard Paul Russo was someone I found who has two books out, the first, "Unto Leviathan" was very good and I'm yet to read the second. Then of course, there's always Iain M. Banks. I realise there might be a bit of a drop-off in terms of great science fiction being produced, but there's plenty to keep you reading. In my opinion, at least.
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Old November 4 2008, 07:51 PM   #9
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Bishbot wrote: View Post
Mistral wrote: View Post
Clarke is dead, Asimov and Heinlein gone, Foster is quickly becoming a hack, Brin no longer has any ideas(or he wouldn't keep recycling Asimov's). If it weren't for the rare jewels from Scalzi, McDevitt, and Steele I wouldn't have anything worthwhile to read and would have to take Honor Harrington or Hammer's Slammers on long plane flights.
There are others. For example, Richard Morgan is an absolutely fantastic writer - I can't recommend him highly enough, if you can take some graphic sex and violence then "Altered Carbon" is a perfect modern scifi-detective, cyberpunk story with a great central idea. China Mieville writes in prose that flows like olive oil (admittedly, he writes steampunk-esque fantasy, but it's so fucking good). Richard Paul Russo was someone I found who has two books out, the first, "Unto Leviathan" was very good and I'm yet to read the second. Then of course, there's always Iain M. Banks. I realise there might be a bit of a drop-off in terms of great science fiction being produced, but there's plenty to keep you reading. In my opinion, at least.
At a book a day there's less than you might think. Never tried Russo-I'll give it a spin. Mieville is a mood thing-gotta be in the mood. Banks is ok, but Morgan is supreme sh** IMO. Good ideas but it hurt slogging through his recycled world-again, IMO. Of course, I think the same thing about Alastair Reynolds, so who am I to talk. I'd suggest Ken McLeod if you like Morgan-his ideas are just as interesting and his writing is, (IMO) far better. Also, Robert Sawyer if you want to have fun without straining the brain. There are a few lights out there-but crap like Butcher and Salvatore are trying to drowned it out(and don't get me started on Ringo!)
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Old November 4 2008, 08:12 PM   #10
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Canadave wrote: View Post
Cicero wrote: View Post
Lapis Exilis wrote: View Post
Born in 1818 (the year Shelley's Frankenstein was published), speculative fiction has been through many phases, with important eras popping up every once in a while.
Wouldn't it date to at least Swift's Gulliver's Travelers, 1726?
Or even More's Utopia, 1516?
Eh, there's a lot of ideas on what counts as the beginning, but since so much fantasy has its roots in the heroic epics of the ancient world (if you want you can take things back to The Illiad and The Odyssey), it's hard to draw a line for modern fantasy. So, I usually go with the much easier to define beginning of Science Fiction, which is usually but not universally marked at Shelley's Frankenstein. I believe modern fantasy as a genre was eseentially invented by Tolkein, and both Swift and More intended their exaggerations purely for satirical political purposes rather than the extrapolation of society and technology. It's certainly debatable though.
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Old November 4 2008, 08:13 PM   #11
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Canadave wrote: View Post
Cicero wrote: View Post
Lapis Exilis wrote: View Post
Born in 1818 (the year Shelley's Frankenstein was published), speculative fiction has been through many phases, with important eras popping up every once in a while.
Wouldn't it date to at least Swift's Gulliver's Travelers, 1726?
Or even More's Utopia, 1516?
Like the Arabian Nights and Theologus Autodidactus, Utopia isn't generally considered true speculative fiction, but you could make a case for it, as cases could be made for works dating to the pre-Roman period. It's my understanding that Gulliver's Travels, together with Voltaire's Micromegas, 1752, is generally regarded as the incipience of speculative fiction (within the field, and within fields interested in, but not a part of, literature).

Bishbot wrote: View Post
Mistral wrote: View Post
Clarke is dead, Asimov and Heinlein gone, Foster is quickly becoming a hack, Brin no longer has any ideas(or he wouldn't keep recycling Asimov's). If it weren't for the rare jewels from Scalzi, McDevitt, and Steele I wouldn't have anything worthwhile to read and would have to take Honor Harrington or Hammer's Slammers on long plane flights.
There are others. For example, Richard Morgan is an absolutely fantastic writer - I can't recommend him highly enough, if you can take some graphic sex and violence then "Altered Carbon" is a perfect modern scifi-detective, cyberpunk story with a great central idea. China Mieville writes in prose that flows like olive oil (admittedly, he writes steampunk-esque fantasy, but it's so fucking good). Richard Paul Russo was someone I found who has two books out, the first, "Unto Leviathan" was very good and I'm yet to read the second. Then of course, there's always Iain M. Banks. I realise there might be a bit of a drop-off in terms of great science fiction being produced, but there's plenty to keep you reading. In my opinion, at least.
None of these are for me. I have no interest in reading about graphic violence or sex (or any sex, for that matter). What I'd like is Golden Age-style science fiction, ala Asimov, Heilein, Van Vogt (though more scientific), Dickson, Welles, etc. I know of only one author who has delivered this since the death of Asimov (though Card occasionally comes close), but she's written only twice since his death.

Does any one know why the field has declined so? When I've picked up old issues of Astounding Science Fiction or Galaxy, they're wonderful to read through (even after the size change), with several excellent stories and a couple of decent ones (occasionally a poor story creeps in). But the several times I've bought Asimov Science Fiction's or Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the stories have been terrible. Not only are the plots poor, but the characters are of a newer stock variety which is even more transparent than the old by virtue of a set of standard details having been layered on: swearing a lot, sour disposition, family problems, etc. - usually all entirely extraneous to the story, and uninteresting for their endless invariance. I find sex and swearing (not just 'damn,' and 'hell,' which were used sparingly before, but 'sh--,' 'cr--,' 'bi--' (seriously, why?), 'fu--' (over and over again), and so on) in a vast number of stories, little optimism, little positivity toward humanity - really little positive at all. They're terrible. Frankly, looking for a quality story, I'd be better off looking in old issues of Black Mask. What's gone wrong?
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Old November 4 2008, 08:20 PM   #12
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Lapis Exilis wrote: View Post
Canadave wrote: View Post
Cicero wrote: View Post

Wouldn't it date to at least Swift's Gulliver's Travelers, 1726?
Or even More's Utopia, 1516?
Eh, there's a lot of ideas on what counts as the beginning, but since so much fantasy has its roots in the heroic epics of the ancient world (if you want you can take things back to The Illiad and The Odyssey), it's hard to draw a line for modern fantasy. So, I usually go with the much easier to define beginning of Science Fiction, which is usually but not universally marked at Shelley's Frankenstein. I believe the traditions of modern fantasy really spring from Tolkein, and both Swift and More intended their exaggerations purely for satirical political purposes rather than the extrapolation of society and technology. It's certainly debatable though.
Well so did Shelley, really. Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus) was of poor science for its time, and really was meant almost entirely as a warning against scientific advancement (some would argue that it was meant only to aver only unconsidered experiments, but to suggest that some portions of the universe are best left unknown is ultimately antiscientific). More recently, other famous science fiction stories have been intended entirely as allegory: The War of the Worlds, for instance, or much of Star Trek. Allegorical intent has not generally adversely affected the consideration of a work as speculative fiction, especially so long as the speculation was within the reason of the time (which Frankenstein wasn't any more than Voyager's 'Threshold' was).
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Old November 4 2008, 08:20 PM   #13
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Cicero wrote: View Post
Canadave wrote: View Post
Cicero wrote: View Post

Wouldn't it date to at least Swift's Gulliver's Travelers, 1726?
Or even More's Utopia, 1516?
Like the Arabian Nights and Theologus Autodidactus, Utopia isn't generally considered true speculative fiction, but you could make a case for it, as cases could be made for works dating to the pre-Roman period. It's my understanding that Gulliver's Travels, together with Voltaire's Micromegas, 1752, is generally regarded as the incipience of speculative fiction (within the field, and within fields interested in, but not a part of, literature).
An argument against those two works as beginning points of the genre(s) is that nothing followed them. While Swift has had some influence on other authors, for the most part those were lone forays into fantasy worlds. Precursors or antecedents more than beginnings. But that's splitting hairs a bit.

Bishbot wrote: View Post


None of these are for me. I have no interest in reading about graphic violence or sex (or any sex, for that matter). What I'd like is Golden Age-style science fiction, ala Asimov, Heilein, Van Vogt (though more scientific), Dickson, Welles, etc. I know of only one author who has delivered this since the death of Asimov (though Card occasionally comes close), but she's written only twice since his death.
She who? And do you know the works of Octavia Butler? Much more Wells than Asimov, but stark and powerful stuff.

Does any one know why the field has declined so? When I've picked up old issues of Astounding Science Fiction or Galaxy, they're wonderful to read through (even after the size change), with several excellent stories and a couple of decent ones (occasionally a poor story creeps in). But the several times I've bought Asimov Science Fiction's or Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the stories have been terrible. Not only are the plots poor, but the characters are of a newer stock variety which is even more transparent than the old by virtue of a set of standard details having been layered on: swearing a lot, sour disposition, family problems, etc. - usually all entirely extraneous to the story, and uninteresting for their endless invariance. I find sex and swearing (not just 'damn,' and 'hell,' which were used sparingly before, but 'sh--,' 'cr--,' 'bi--' (seriously, why?), 'fu--' (over and over again), and so on) in a vast number of stories, little optimism, little positivity toward humanity - really little positive at all. They're terrible. Frankly, looking for a quality story, I'd be better off looking in old issues of Black Mask. What's gone wrong?
It's a good question, though it can be looked at as a lot of the great writers of SF got recategorized. Salman Rushdie writes the purist of brilliant fantasy, and Margaret Atwood has done some tremendous science fiction - but you're not going to find them on the SF shelves. A ton of "literary" fiction is SF these days.
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Old November 4 2008, 08:27 PM   #14
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

Mistral wrote: View Post
Bishbot wrote: View Post
Mistral wrote: View Post
Clarke is dead, Asimov and Heinlein gone, Foster is quickly becoming a hack, Brin no longer has any ideas(or he wouldn't keep recycling Asimov's). If it weren't for the rare jewels from Scalzi, McDevitt, and Steele I wouldn't have anything worthwhile to read and would have to take Honor Harrington or Hammer's Slammers on long plane flights.
There are others. For example, Richard Morgan is an absolutely fantastic writer - I can't recommend him highly enough, if you can take some graphic sex and violence then "Altered Carbon" is a perfect modern scifi-detective, cyberpunk story with a great central idea. China Mieville writes in prose that flows like olive oil (admittedly, he writes steampunk-esque fantasy, but it's so fucking good). Richard Paul Russo was someone I found who has two books out, the first, "Unto Leviathan" was very good and I'm yet to read the second. Then of course, there's always Iain M. Banks. I realise there might be a bit of a drop-off in terms of great science fiction being produced, but there's plenty to keep you reading. In my opinion, at least.
At a book a day there's less than you might think. Never tried Russo-I'll give it a spin. Mieville is a mood thing-gotta be in the mood. Banks is ok, but Morgan is supreme sh** IMO. Good ideas but it hurt slogging through his recycled world-again, IMO. Of course, I think the same thing about Alastair Reynolds, so who am I to talk. I'd suggest Ken McLeod if you like Morgan-his ideas are just as interesting and his writing is, (IMO) far better. Also, Robert Sawyer if you want to have fun without straining the brain. There are a few lights out there-but crap like Butcher and Salvatore are trying to drowned it out(and don't get me started on Ringo!)
Oh well, I tried, obviously I don't agree with you about Morgan, but I'm not going to try to turn this thread into a different one by trying to persuade you. I can certainly see why his writing might polarise.
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Old November 4 2008, 08:36 PM   #15
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Re: The State of Speculative Fiction Today

I question Tolkien inventing the fantasy genre. Sure he's probably the reason we have such a section in our bookstore but he was hardly the first. George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, William Morris, and Lewis Carroll all wrote what have to be considered fantasy stories, not to mention The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Most of these were acknowledged by Tolkien to have a heavy influence on his work. Plus (even if Lewis was Tolkien's friend), The Chronicles of Narnia began to be published before The Lord of The Rings was, though after The Hobbit.
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