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If You Think of It, Someone Else Is Already There

Posted by Sunday on Apr 1, 2008 at 2:59 am in Literature

For a few years now I’ve been quietly hating on science fiction a little. There has been trend of scifi going “normal,” to the extent that writers of the genre are now often writing about today, with only a few stale, chewy treats of speculation, like cheap raisin-bran cereal. On this front, I’ve lost a few of my favorite writers.

I don’t believe that writers have “failed” or any nonsense just because they don’t write the same novel over and over again. Though repetition works for Stephen King, many other writers work their craft because they are interested in it, and in exploring new ideas. When William Gibson, the author I credit for giving my understanding of literature a version upgrade (“You mean, it’s not illegal to write a fragment?”), wrote a novel called Pattern Recognition, there was a fair amount of fallout. You see, “The Father of Cyberpunk” decided to have other children. The most common negative reviews can be condensed into: “Why no more Neuromancer? Boo!” And while I also wish he’d written something more speculative, I harbored no ill will. He already wrote Neuromancer. And I can read it whenever I want to. Expecting him to write another one is like having your significant other say at a party, “Why aren’t you funny right now? Be funny. C’mon and be funny. I expected you to be funny always. My disappointment over your lack of funniness is profound and I have turned against you.”

But, I have this criticism: is it science fiction? Should we be calling it that? My answer is no. I appreciate what the publishers and perhaps Gibson himself are trying to do by staying, ostensibly, in the genre (after all, why avoid your fanbase?), but I also feel a teensy manipulated. And I mean that in the least victimy way possible – I ran out and bought Pattern Recognition in hardback, without reading the jacket flap and without hardly glancing at it, and any fault of that is entirely my own (it was at a live reading and I would have purchased a treadmill from him if he had asked me to). And again my own fault after doing the same thing with Spook Country, the book that followed Pattern Recognition. These were good books; well written, engaging, fresh. But they are science fiction in only the most generous of definitions, a fact that does not keep them from sitting on Border’s scifi shelves and ranking high on Amazon’s scifi lists.

A similar event happened with Geoff Ryman. Some time ago, and despite writing one of the most brain-busting, far-future weird-outs I’d ever read (The Child Garden), he produced The Mundane SF Manifesto, also known as How To Make Subspace Rend Her Clothes. In short, the Manifesto says: there will never be interstellar travel – hence never any alien contact, terraformed worlds, etc. – so stop writing about them. Oh Geoff, why? Why it gotta be like this? To my eternal heartache, a movement thus followed, even such that some, while not directly following the Manifesto, could still be seen carrying the torch (I would unhesitatingly rank Cory Doctorow in this group). An entire movement of people who feel that science fiction is somehow best served by making sure that plausibility reigns.

Happily, there are those other than myself who disagree. Rudy Rucker, a long-time-player in scifi and a Ph.D in mathematics, gently spoke out against the so-called Mundane sub-genre, foremost by pointing out that basing a philosophy on the impossibility of interstellar travel is just bad science (his entire blog is a lesson on how to remain genuinely civil and opinionated at the same time). Pay attention to the comments at the end of his post: people seem to be agitated at the idea that “bad science” might ruin their scifi.

The upside has forced me to examine how I am limiting my own writing: do I discard ideas because they resist explanation? Or because I fear it would be to much work to suspend disbelief? But I still come around to the same lament: since when are there so many predicates in “What if?”

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April 1st, 2008 | Literature

10 Responses to “If You Think of It, Someone Else Is Already There”

  1. shane Says:

    it’s right there in the name of the genre, dude. “what if” may inspire science, but science is 100% about tearing things apart and validating them. If you write without significant concern for suspension of disbelief, you’re writing fantasy right? I feel like science fiction is a rather stuffy genre for this reason, it leads to sprawling, way-too-detailed writing with no adventure. Great, you can imagine a future, and you can tell me how some stupid keep-you-from-having-to-lift-a-finger device functions. Now try imagining a compelling character with a conflict I can relate to. Science is an unfair word for literature, it’s so closed. Take cryptonomicon, would I call it sci fi? I guess so. But it’s an Indiana Jones adventure, it gets the reader following everymen who have rad adventures and cool stuff happens. It isn’t concerned with getting something ungettable. it makes suspension of disbelief simple. So it’s not to say that I don’t respect like near- ot far-future imagineering, and I haven’t read any of the books you refer to. It just got me thinking that I’m not totally clear on what you mean when you say “science fiction” or how, for example, the recent Gibson novels fall short. And I suspect it questions the use of the term in a different way.

  2. subspace Says:

    Uh, yeah. The word “fiction” is also right in the title – the genre itself is clearly not historically about empirical science – what we’re looking here are fictional sciences. I don’t think that writing without explanation makes it fantasy, it just makes it less “hard”. Because there is a sub-genre for people who want every little thing explained to the detriment of story, and this is called “Hard SF”.

    When I say science fiction, I mean the typical tropes (I really like what Rudy Rucker calls them: Power Chords) of aliens, robots, utopia/dystopia exploration, space travel, alternate words, advanced nanotechnology, etc. From the fringe (like Crptonomicon) to the classics (like War of the Worlds, they share a common theme of presenting the universe not as we know it (or knew it).

    The new “Mundane SF” field presents the world AS we know it, with very, very few alterations. Often these alterations hover on the verge of invention/incorporation and deal more with societal variations than technological ones – Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe (EST) is a good example. In EST there is zero unknown technology (this means no aliens, no alternate worlds, etc.) and the “science fiction” aspect of it is that online society forms into distinct “tribes” broken into time zones. It’s marginally science fiction, really holding on to its one little string attached. It’s certainly no more science fiction than Fight Club was, probably less so, but the slot machines of the publishing industry put it into science fiction. So it would appear, in this instance, to just be fiction. Minus the science.

    With Gibson’s new books, the stories have similar arcs; it is now, things are as they are. There is some adventure and peril. It’s not science fiction. Yet it remains categorized as such. My argument is that this is a commonality made more so by sub-genre variations like “Mundane SF”. It’s not cool to be ‘out there’ anymore. It’s cool to write about the internet – and not freaky mind internet or anything. Just the internet. Like the one we are on right now.

    My reaction is a powerful blend of “Huh?” and “Meh.” A greater analysis would take into account the sales levels for different genres, since I’m left to assume that money is the encouraging element in this new trend (and not just ‘coolness’). But it is also a sign of the current world, which I can’t say I’m happy about either: instead of Reagan/Thatcher-era dystopia analogies, we’re getting Net Neutrality analogies.

  3. CmdrSue Says:

    About twenty years ago I started saying “I love science fiction too much to read very much of it.” And I’ve pretty much stuck to that. I’ll read something on recommendation and every now and then I’ll get a wild urge to pick something up. But for the most part I avoid it to save myself the overwhelming anger of seeing my favorite type of fiction fall short of its potential. There are all sorts of things I’ll put up with in horror, mystery, romance, or even, for God’s sake, “literary fiction” that I can’t stand to see in science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy. (I give fantasy a little pass as long as its whimsical. If it purports to be epic the writer had better be a good one.)

    I’m not sure why I care so much, but I always have. And I agree that SFF should be very, very speculative for me to really enjoy it. From what you describe, EST is to science fiction like a book with no mystery (murder, puzzle, hidden information, etc.) would be to the mystery genre. What’s the point?

  4. subspace Says:

    I wish I had the fortitude to read less science fiction sometimes, because I certainly get disappointed. There have been in recent years books that are praised with exuberance, books that won awards – and I read them only to find I don’t particularly like them. Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End was one; it won the Hugo award and I just couldn’t get behind it – I would have chosen two other of the contenders over it, and several other books that weren’t contenders.

    I’m not sure what the point of Mundane SF like EST is. I’ve been thinking about it a lot the last few days. It reminds me a lot of some musicians sitting around playing a well-known song together but mixing it up a bit for fun. I feel like they are entertaining themselves by goofing on an idea, but maybe it shouldn’t be recorded permanently, you know? But why? Why record it? I’ll get back to you when I get it all sorted out.

  5. halcyon Says:

    Some people like cover bands.
    Some people like to be told what they already know.

  6. quagmire Says:

    Hal: Don’t be dis-in’ on my porridge my man!
    Porridge fueled the Industrial Revolution … hence, all the fine mass-produced things we have learned to embrace.
    Cover bands are okay when you’re gettin’ sloshed with yer friends in the bar. I don’t wanna go home and hear ‘em on my stereo.
    “The vast majority of people DO like to be told what they already know.” That’s exactly why the genre of science fiction does not appeal to the comfortable majority.
    Shane sez: ” …science fiction is a rather stuffy genre for this reason, it leads to sprawling, way-too-detailed writing with no adventure.” WTF? Oh, you mean like stuffy ol’ Dune, or Snow Crash perhaps. No adventure there! Too detailed? Well, I’ll give you that one … much of sci-fi is not for the simple minded. May I suggest the ‘Science Fact-fiction’ section of the racks. They tried many years ago to unilaterally substitute the word ‘science’ with ‘speculative’ for this genre. Shane woulda liked that I guess. Maybe it would be better if it had stuck.
    I like my science way out there on the edge, about to fall off into a maelstrom of ugly fucking bug-aliens who want to kick Earth in the nuts with all six of their feet!
    Imagineered science, speculative science, absurd science, cool fucking robots that you can’t tell from humans science …give it to me, right here in this big fat vein in my arm … now! … in High Definition! (heh, I just got summa dat big-ass Sony LCD / Xbox / PS3 and 5.1 crak! mmmmm, savory!)

  7. quagmire Says:

    Oh Shit! I just had an epiphany after my brilliant retort up there. To wit:
    The solution to this whole over-ANALyzed stream is simple. We re-name the genre Fiction Science or, fi-sci if you will.
    So, you see Shanes of the world … it then falls under the auspices of ” … 100% about tearing things (fiction) apart and validating them (again, fiction).”
    So, you know, kinda like Christian Science is the study of Christianity, well …
    From now and forever I dub thee ‘Fiction Science’.
    That should make it a little ‘more clear on what (we) mean’ when we use the term.

  8. halcyon Says:

    Wait, is Fi-sci the boring one or the one with killer robots and space nymphos?

  9. quagmire Says:

    @ Halcyon: Fi-sci is the one you want! Space robots and killer nymphos, space herpes, Jabba The Butt, Lukewarm Skystroller, over-the-hill cowboynaughts, solar-wind yachts, hot Cylon babes (did ya notice they didn’t make any Hottie Cylon dudes!… male writers), FTL (not FTW) ships, worm-hole freeways … I think you get the point!
    Yeah, I invented the term to differentiate from the old label, in that it acknowledges a ‘fictional approach to science’ rather than the other way around. The fiction-is-in-the-science as it were. Nay-hole sayers challenge the concept of taking ‘science’ into the realm of ‘fiction’, they say (correctly) that science is all about ‘… knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method …’(Webster).
    Well, I say, let’s approach ‘science’ from the other end of the Multi-verse! Let’s be Gods of Space and have a jolly time looking at puny Earthlings and their first attempts at ‘science’. We, as Gods of Space (said with an echo effect like Pigs-in-Space), know that the silly Hu-Mons don’t have a fucking clue of what ‘IT’ is all about, they waste their short life-periods arguing about labels for their feeble literature. We should send giant, flesh-eating bugs to show them just how much their ‘science’ really knows!

  10. Squidnapper Says:

    With all due respect to Ryman — and speaking as someone who probably outmundanes the dude in terms of ass-covering technical references — I can’t be nearly as polite as Rucker. The whole Mundane shtick strikes me as idiotic and profoundly antiscientific at its core, insofar as it presumes that we know everything already. No more breakthroughs, no more significant discoveries. No more paradigm shifts.

    That’s not verisimilitude. That’s fundamentalism.

    In my own experience, rigorously plausible sf staledates faster than yogurt with the lid off. One of the hardest-sf stories I ever wrote went from cutting-edge at the time of sale to factually obsolete by the time it was printed. On the other hand, the only downright fantasy I ever wrote — absurd, unresearched and completely off the top of my head — has actually acquired scientific credibility in the two decades since I wrote it.

    Geoff does seem like a really nice guy. But sheesh.

    Does this comments thing take html tags, btw?

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