But recently, an acquaintance asked "Do you believe in science fiction?" Being in a contrary mood, I answered "no." What I meant, I admitted when pressed, was that I did not believe in the valorization of SF as the literature that's going to somehow save the world.
But then we got into an interesting conversation about what SF is, exactly, and how it feels, and whether it still serves any purpose. Does it serve any purpose?
Well, to that, I say thee yea.
The death of science fiction has been being announced yearly since I can remember, and it hasn't happened yet. It's a niche market--it has been and will be, as near as I can tell, because the joys of good SF are similar to the joys of good mystery: these are stories in which figuring out what is going on is an intrinsic part of the fun, and frankly, puzzles just do not appeal to that many people.
So the way to make SF more mainstream is to take the puzzles out of it--but at that point it stops being SF and starts being Wagon Train to the Stars. Which is fine--I love me a good space opera as much as the next girl (if the next girl is James Tiptree, Jr.)--but it's not what we're talking about here. Likewise, military SF is not really what we're talking about here, because that draws more of its foundation tropes from either Horatio Hornblower or All Quiet on The Western Front, depending on which subcategory of mil-SF we're in.
So there's that. Let's just assume for a minute that what we're talking about in this context is the range of "mainstream" SF, if you can justify using any such term. Fiction that's about sensawunda and testing ideas to destruction, in short.
Jonathan pointed out that modern SF treated quantum mechanics as magic, and it was not doing a good job of giving us futures we can believe in.
This was apparently the quarter in my slot, because it crystallized a lot of things I've been thinking lately.
I believe that SF is a useful and revealing narrative tool. I believe that it has applications no other genre can approach, and one of those applications is the alienation and illumination of aspects of the present that may be too buried in the noise of the world to get a good look at.
SF has always had a poor success rate at predicting the future. Thankfully, predicting the future is not what it's for, or we'd have to cop to being utter failures.
What we are pretty good at, though, is raising awareness of the possibilities, and allowing people to make conscious choices between the extremes. It's hard now to write Engineering In Spaaaace! SF because that's not science fiction anymore--that's the world as it is. And you have to be pretty creative to find an angle that hasn't been mined. Planetary romances are hard--problematic in this post-Prime-Directive age, where we have a set of conventional wisdom about the evils of colonialism and Honky Saves The Day stories that make Barsoom a tad uncomfortable reading.
Quantum mechanics (and nanotech) do indeed get treated as magic much of the time. This is not new: Larry Niven was doing it before I was born. Rigorously adhering to known science has always been the core of a tiny subset of SF. The rest of the time we've been making shit up like mad--slow glass, psychohistory, positonic brains, time travel, aliens with no souls. (There is an entire small subgenre of Jesuit Vs. Alien stories, f or crying out loud. I blame Blish.)
This does not mean I'm agin super-rigorous SF. Dragon's Egg and Blindsight remain two of my very favorite books.
But hard SF (and not the sort of moderately crunchy SF I have been known to write**) has not been a majority of what's printed for at least fifty years, and before that my knowledge of the genre is too thin for me to state with authority. And even the "hard SF" of my youth had Clarke's Law to guide it--where we have Grey Goo, he had omnipotent aliens. Handwaving quantum mechanics is not significantly different, to my mind, than handwaving enormous psychic monoliths.
The fact is, SF is still looking for a unifying force, and has been since cyberpunk. Mundane SF was an attempt to address this, but I think it failed due to prescriptivism. I don't think we need that unifying force.
The genre is bigger and more diverse than it has ever been. Nnedi Okorafor is writing Zelaznyesque science fantasy; Peter Watts is writing hard SF as crunchy as anything the Golden Age could offer; Caitlin Kiernan is writing planetary romances of a dead mars; Kim Stanley Robinson is writing climatological studies imbedded in adventure novels; Jonathan Lethem is writing concretized metaphor; Ted Chiang is writing jewellike little SF stories that take as their starting-point Biblical myth; Chris Moriarty is writing fast-paced thrillers full of AIs and nifty ideas; Richard K. Morgan is writing political critiques under the trappings of reimagined cyberpunkish realities--and on and on--and it's all science fiction.
That diversity in and of itself is the important thing under development right now. I'm not old, and I am old enough to remember when the African-American SF writers were Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and Steven Barnes--and I could not have named an Asian one. I remember when there were five or six writers tackling queer/gender issues--and many of them were straight and cisgendered. Now, the arguments are about how to open the genre to more voices and faces.
We have the fourth-generation problem, yes. The genre is not being born any more: it's not an adolescent. It's adult, and established, and a little set in its ways. But the diversity of fandom and prodom at this point is unrivalled, and those perspectives are essential to establishing an ongoing literary conversation. It's true: there is no next big thing. Steampunk is an aesthetic, and one that draws more on fantasy tropes than SF. It's possible to write steampunk SF--Julian Comstock is one such book--but it's not common.
That's your trend, SF. The thing you're looking for is here, has been here for a decade, and is being overlooked. The problem is not that the Red Marses and the Spin States and the Blindsights are not being written. It's that there's a whole bunch of other stuff going on too****.
Which, well. I fail to see as a problem.
There's another issue, about giving us futures we can believe in. I'm afraid that all too often, we're getting futures we do believe in, and they're not very nice. No more Kimball Kinnison frying steaks in space (we believed that? Really?) while his wife does wifely things at home. These days, SF wants to talk about world-ending post-colonial messes to clean up, and having inadequate tools to clean them with. It wants to talk about unprecedented lossed of privacy, targeted advertising, inevitable involuntary changes in our way of life, structuring and privileging families-of-choice--
If SFF reflects the zeitgeist (and really, it does, and it always has) then when we express a nostalgia for these older stories, we're expressing also a nostalgia for our own innocence, when it did not behoove us to be aware of the damage our warp drives might be doing to subspace or how the ecological and cultural impact of our space colonies might affect the life on other worlds.
If I were to use SF as a lens to view the world, I would learn all sorts of things about a culture. The economic and fast-forward future preoccupations of the 80's, reflected in cyberpunk, have given way to the fear that there will be no future at all (the Singularity, which might as easily be called the Nerd Deluge as the rapture of the geeks) or the fear that that future will be terrible. (Mr. Bacigalupi, I'm looking at you. And I might as well hold that Ragnarok lens up to my own work, too***.)
The futures we're reflecting now are more ideologically complicated, because the social fabric of fandom itself challenges some of our naive assumptions--a challenging that started decades ago, frankly, and has over the years offered us such answers as Bill the Galactic Hero and "Enemy Mine".
You can't just send a guy to terraform Mars anymore. Now he's got to do an impact survey, and confront the anti-terraforming factions. And maybe encounter a few moral ambiguities along the way.
I'm kind of okay with that, honestly. Everything we do in the world carries a weight of moral ambiguity, even if it's just simply surviving.
These kinds of stories are harder to write, and harder to read, but I feel less like a villain for doing my best to write them, and acknowledge a world full of ambiguities and compromises.
*ob. disclaimer: this post grew out of a twitter conversation with Paolo Bacigalupi, Jonathan Strahan, John Klima, and Caitlin Kiernan. Which of course we didn't think to hashtag.
**this may change, as I am on to a great idea currently and I want to see how crunchy I can get with it.
***funny thing is, that great idea (above) is a Technology Saves The World story. I might be about to write an anti-dystopia.... well, it's always good to change things up, I guess.
****and there has been for forty years, really, to give credit where credit is due