Discussion in 'Science Fiction & Fantasy' started by Yminale, Oct 23, 2012.
Please read article before you post.
Random thoughts while reading the article:
* Ah yes, W.B. Yeats' dig at those mean communists.
* Nobody uses 'Moslem' anymore. Speaking of retrograde attitudes...
And while interesting the broadness of its premise (SF currently is exhausted) is largely restricted to a single short story anthology, however influential it may be. But then I frankly don't read enough SF, or enough current SF, to have that fair a sense of the market.* It's certainly true that fantasy has a bigger slice of the market an - as observed - it's got its foot in the Nebula door, these days.
*I do have a couple of books - Redshirts, The Hydrogen Sonata, chiefly - from this year I intend to get around to, though. Those are very space opera, however, and the former is satire, so that's neither here nor there.
Frankly I was shock by the article. I always thought that short form SF/Fantasy was proof that SF was vibrant and innovative. I've read all the Hugo and most of the Nebula nominated shorts and yes there are few that I've asked "WTF is this doing here?" but for the most part the stories have been excellent and the winner is usually the best of the best. That being said the article writer is confusing the yearly best with GREAT. I don't think any one person or group can point to a work and say "this is Great". That's a consensus made in time.
1. SF/F that is more culturally diverse with more new foreign writers is the best most welcomed trend EVER.
2. SF/F is becoming to insular at the same time. Just because some one famous like Paul Cornell or Neil Gaiman or Cory Doctorow wrote something, It doesn't mean it's good. Mike Resnick must be personally banned from all SF awards because he writes the same sad depressing story.
As far as I'm concerned the more translations of international SFF, the better. I have some Kobo Abe around here somewhere that I picked up on the strength of his cinematic collaborations with Hiroshi Teshigahara.
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
*A response 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.
More irrelevant errata from me, per Moody's links:
The term 'grimdark' originates from the wargame franchise Warhammer 40K (a reference to the oft repeated quote 'in the grim darkness of the far future there is only war'). That a term that originated basically from Games Workshop's baroque space opera line is now largely associated with fantasy is interesting.
Currently reading Tidhar's Osama, and it's very good. Now obviously while I can't really see non-Anglophonic as something that 'we are starting to see' it's always good to see more of it.
...and I have little sympathy for the Singularity in general. At best, it's an idea you can string a sci-fi story around, but it's not some science-assured nerd rapture, as much as some proponents would insist on its inevitability (which I doubt) and its plausibility (which still sounds iffy to me).
I found Osama more interesting as a notion than successful as a novel, but it's certainly a good example of ambitious, relevant contemporary SF. Which is why McCalmont's claim that Tidhar "achieved notoriety as a writer of Steampunk novels" is amusing, and a good example of what's wrong with the "what I've seen = the state of the genre" approach. Doubtless for some readers Tidhar's steampunk novels are his most salient work (I've read the first, and it's not bad-- dodges a lot of iffy steampunk tropes even if it does go a bit too traditional at the end), but what I've seen, and what has made me think of him as a significant writer, does indeed draw on his experiences in places outside the bounds of traditional genre fiction. (The story "The Projected Girl," from Ellen Datlow's anthology Naked City, is especially fine.) Not that there's anything wrong with Tidhar and other writers using their talent to explore the tropes of Western literature-- as on the commenters on the LJ post suggests, there's something unpleasant about the implication that authentic work by them involves "engag[ing] with the realities of those places." And it makes me wonder to what extent the exhaustion at work here exists in reader rather than genre. Unless one imagines that Tidhar and others magically become better when writing about "exotic" locales, then the difference such work provides is cosmetic, a matter of narrative furniture rather than literary substance. To what degree, then are critics of the status quo tired not of uninspired work but of particular trappings common to inspired and uninspired alike?
I haven't finished it yet but so far I'm sure if I'd shelve it as SF. It has the alternate history trappings of Man in the High Castle, but its sense of that is more corrosive and ephemeral even than PKD's - like it's a metafictional game. But then I'm sure however it ends will likely colour my perception there.
I'd really first heard of him when he nicely articulated what I don't care for in steampunk. I have little sympathy for or frankly interest in romanticized depictions of the British Empire.
I was using "SF" in the sense of "speculative fiction," encompassing fantasy and horror as well as science fiction. I wouldn't want to give anything away about the ending (although I thought it was obvious a long way off), but I think Osama qualifies as at least one of those three.
You might want to check out The Bookman, that first of Tidhar's steampunk novels-- it's certainly not about romanticizing the British Empire, and I think it manages to be recognizably steampunk without offering the pat morality or wheezy Victorian-tech that drags so much of the genre down. The ending isn't quite as innovative as the beginning, but overall the book is as fundamentally thoughtful about genre, power, and morality as Osama, and rather better paced. I indeed to read the other two novels in Tidhar's steampunk milieu when I get a chance. But I suppose this discussion is becoming more suited for the "What SFF book are you reading?" thread.
I think the gauntlet laid down in McCalmont's article is probably the most interesting of the ones you linked in that he wants science fiction to be both actually dealing with science but also to be socially conscious and politically motivated (and to be honest is a more interesting and articulate read than Kincaid's). The idea that science fiction wasn't able to meaningfully engage with the 2008 economic collapse because we default to capitalism so reflexively is particularly pointed. I like China Mieville, but he has a point - when Iron Council is his novel that people criticize for being overtly political but to the extent it is it's about the Parisian Communards and the spirit of 1848
Spoiler: Iron Council
and the revolution ends with cyclic failure anyway.
On the other hand there are some ah... odd turns of phrase. World Cinema is strongly defined by its relationship to Hollywood, which is massive, but there's a lot more to it than that, distinct non-Hollywood and non-Western traditions of cinema, many films made by and for non-American audiences, and a kind of circular loop - Hollywood is always absorbing talent, concepts, and remaking entire films from outside its reach. While the reality is Hollywood has a lot of power and a lot of money, and the West in general has a fair bit of that, it's not quite as dire as 'Iranians must make Taxi Driver references to have movies.'
I'll confess to not having read McCalmont's essay all that closely, in part because I think the very things that make it such a grand challenge to the field are the reasons it's not actually as clever as it thinks it is. I've mentioned his outdated conception of steampunk, but the way he treats China Miéville is also instructive, and relevant to the things he claims to want from SF. The City & the City is indeed socially conscious and politically motivated, but it's not the exact kind of that that McCalmont wants, so it's a "sterile fantasia" and so forth. Piffle. I don't even like The City & the City that much, but the book's failures have very little to do with its not being a precise kind of Marxist-inspired fiction. (I should say for the record that I have no particular objection to Marxism as an analytical tool.) Miéville's Iron Council (which I haven't read), a novel so politically engaged that it drew a fan backlash, comes in for a similar slating in the comments, apparently for daring to acknowledge that moral ambiguity still exists in situations where one political structure is obviously preferable to another. There's criticism that demands greatness from fiction, and there's criticism that mistakes a personal set of values for such greatness, and I fear McCalmont tends in that direction. Exacting standards are not the same thing as high ones.
I liked Iron Council well enough. It has problems, but they're more to do with pacing. Again, when your political statement amounts to sympathy for 19th century revolutionaries I can't honestly find it that controversial.
The weird thing about the comments for me are the little details, honestly. He calls Okorafor's Who Fears Death a novel about fantasy Nigeria twice, when the book - and another commentor - makes it clear that the novel is supposed to relate to Sudan. Whatever one thinks of the novel or how loosely it relates to its purported country (or whether or not it also relates to Nigeria in which case that eluded me entirely), those are not the same place.
I think McCalmont has hold of some valuable ideas about Western capitalist influence, but tends to apply them in an overly rigid fashion-- even if he's one of the people who doesn't know what "literally" means, "our culture is now so utterly wedded to the principles of neoliberal democracy that it has become literally impossible for us to imagine what it might be like not to live under a capitalist system" is pretty silly. You're not necessarily going to see that sort of thing imagined in the SF mainstream, which is regrettable, but I doubt that absolutely no one is doing it. In fact, looking through the comments again, I see people pointing out multiple authors, all recognizable names, who engage with alternatives to capitalism, and McCalmont dismisses them because he has other problems with their work. Fine, but that's irrelevant to the specific issue. The line between discernment and nitpicking becomes an issue again.
Little mistakes like Nigeria/Sudan can be telling. How can one have any faith in his ability to gauge Okorafor's engagement with the real world when he has no idea which specific part of that world she's writing about? It also suggests an inattention that, while understandable if he wasn't enjoying the book, makes him a poor critic of it. (I haven't read it myself, though Okorafor is another entry on my ever-growing list of writers to investigate.)
I hadn't seen until now the absurd distinction between SF and fantasy that he makes in one of those comments where he references Nigeria. If he's really reading SF and fantasy with those assumptions in mind, he's going to project an awful lot onto it that isn't there.
There hasn't been anything really innovative or interesting going on in sf since cyberpunk in the '80s.
Briefly, the avantgarde promoting the blending of fantasy, SF and horror is exhausted. This is due primarily to the inherent poverty of their project. These (which are not even all the same kind of thing) don't reinforce each other, they tend to cancel each other out. What's left is a sorry remnant.
There is also the exhaustion of their idols in the literary elite, who are worn out pacing within the narrow confines of their ideology. You know, human nature is eternal, the world makes no sense, people are bad, shit happens and you die, yadda yadda yadda.
You mean steampunk because cyberpunk was lame pretentiousness just like everything else in the 80's.
Another link: a very recent post by Kincaid in which he continues to consider these topics, including a big collection of links to other responses. I still think he's making various distinctions that aren't ultimately very useful, but he's clearly a thoughtful person working hard to clarify what the things he perceives about the shape of the genre might mean.
I reject this point utterly. One of the best things about well-written sf is that it can help us make sense of our world, and times of crisis and doubt about the future have always produced great genre fiction, from Wells to the 60s New Wave.
Science Fiction is becoming more closely related to reality, not because it attempts to predict the future and those prediction are coming true(which never really was the main goal), but because there exists a demonstrable condition of mathematical patterns and trends in industrial technology and biotechnology that are more quickly delivering what we can hypothesize and speculate upon. It is outpacing it even now. It is likely in my opinion that within 10 years, science fiction and science--both pure research and technological development--will often intersect in a real-time level, and the resulting moral, social and cultural questions are ripe for exploration, whether positive or negative. Any writer that doesn't acknowledge it is living an outmoded past. The best writers have already stated this, and suggest SF is struggling to keep up. Change is so common now even seemed previously amazing is ordinary to many...planet at Alpha Centauri, been there, done that...untethered hiking robots, same....downloading/uploading our brains, child's play.....drones over enemy territory using rudimentary AI for target choices, bought the movie...handheld computers with more power than a moon mission, don't make us laugh!
Two more related thoughts on this...first, people already basically experience SF in virtual worlds, games also lead to virtual spaces like Second Life, a rudimentary avatar based exploration of environment that may well be experienced first hand in a few shorts years because of exploding information technologies.
The positive side of modern SF feeling outmoded....in 20-40 years it's likely we'll be experiencing the science fiction.
Separate names with a comma.