Monday, February 26, 2007

The Death of Science Fiction

Lately I’ve been reading two books of science fiction short stories from the 1950’s, In the Beginning by Robert Silverberg and The Masque of Manana by Robert Sheckley. I’ve been struck by how unrealistic the science is. In every other story characters hop on a spaceship and zip off to Fomalhaut IV or Betelgeuse III (as if people would give a planet a number according to its order from the star instead of a name). Really, the science is sheer fantasy.

Three of the most common tropes from Golden Age science fiction are fantasy: faster than light travel, time travel (going back in time) and telepathy. If you took away those three ideas, you would wipe out most 20th century science fiction, and all three are impossible. What we think of as classic science fiction is for the most part as fantastic as elves, magic and unicorns, but because it uses scientific concepts it has a veneer of plausibility – until you think about the science.

Science fiction today is much more believable. Serious SF does not glibly zip characters off to Aldebaran V, unless the author is making some self-conscious, postmodern homage to the old stuff. The purest expression of the contemporary naturalism in science fiction is a movement called Mundane SF. If the science is far-fetched, then it’s out.

Much of today’s SF is believable and naturalistic. It is also bad. It is often mind-numbingly boring, anti-heroic and plotless. It has all the traits of mainstream modern literature that intellectuals love, or pretend to love, and readers hate.

In such magazines as Fantasy and Science Fiction and Asimov’s we are watching the slow suicide of SF by naturalism. The process started in the 1960’s with the New Wave and the wave continues to this day. The New Wave brought modern literature to science fiction, making it naturalistic and conscious of style. Since then it has been increasingly difficult to take the tropes of Golden Age SF seriously.

This suicide by naturalism is ironic as SF has taken over movies, TV and video games. Visual media love whooshing spaceships, ray guns, aliens and all those giddy concepts from the Golden Age. The science in Star Wars is comparable to 1930’s written SF.

Since the late 1970’s readers have been abandoning science fiction for what used to be its neglected little sister, fantasy. Readers don’t want plotless non-stories about a neurotic scientist suffering a mid-life crisis as he discovers some form of pollution that will destroy mankind. They don’t care if the science is realistic, they want an interesting story about heroes who are fascinating to contemplate. They want romanticism. Today they know they’re more likely to find it in a paperback with a sorcerer on the cover than one with a spaceship or a cover with some modern smears of color on it.


Jennifer Snow said...

It's really tough to identify trends in literature like this, and it helps if you provide some examples of works you consider to be characteristic of the genre. I remember some really horrible naturalistic short stories from fifty years ago, and a lot of modern sci-fi (especially in the military sub-genre) is VERY Romantic, not to mention POPULAR.

I don't worry too much about whether a given piece of literature is "serious", either, as I find that's a pretty subjective measurement in any case. And who says faster-than-light travel is sheer fantasy? The way the author explains it may be, but it may eventually be possible.

Of the sub-genres, I think cyberpunk is the most infected with naturalism (hence why I dislike it the most), but William Gibson, who basically started the genre, is a TERRIBLE naturalist so that's hardly surprising. Military and Nanotechnology (the two other big modern ones) are not so bad, although Nanotechnology is infected with a lot of genetic determinism in many cases.

Myrhaf said...

And who says faster-than-light travel is sheer fantasy?

Einstein says FTL is sheer fantasy. SF writers are ingenious at coming up with concepts such as hyperspace to get around the limitations of reality as proved in relativity theory, but they're all fantasy.

I remember some really horrible naturalistic short stories from fifty years ago, and a lot of modern sci-fi (especially in the military sub-genre) is VERY Romantic, not to mention POPULAR.

Surely, you're not arguing that SF was more naturalistic in 1957, before the New Wave, than it is today. Whatever naturalism there was in the '50s, it was less common in SF then.

The Hugo and Nebula Awards have tended to reward naturalism over the years, especially the Nebula, which is one indicator of how things have changed. Magazine fiction is another indicator; it is very much like mainstream short fiction and sales have declined because people don't want to read it.

The situation in novels is better than short fiction. It is true that Baen is publishing romantic SF with heroes and plots. This why the intellectuals and critics don't take them seriously and why they're often ignored by the awards.

Baen is popular with readers, but the field in general has been losing readers for a long time. One study, done by a bookstore, I believe, suggested that fantasy be separated from science fiction because the latter was a drag on it. The idea frightens science fiction writers and publishers, because right now they're hoping that fantasy readers who have been brought up on Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and D&D will buy the occasional science fiction book.

As Norman Spinrad writes in the latest Asimov's:

"By now, surely every reader of this column and most people at all interested in the 'genre' know that prose science fiction as opposed to 'SF' is in dire straits. It's being squeezed from one side by the abundance of films, TV shows, video games, and so forth purveying its tropes, images, and thematic material to wider audiences than any book is likely to reach, and on the other by the former fantasy tail that has long since come to wag the 'SF' genre publishing dog.

"Writers of science fiction in general who have no real interest in switching to fantasy are struggling to survive as fantasy dominates the lists of SF publishers, the SF racks in the stores, and sales."

As for nanotechnology, Spinrad notes in that same article that some of the stuff writers have nanotech do seems to violate the laws of thermodynamics. It ends up being a kind of magic that writers make capable of doing anything -- turning dirt into spaceships is Spinrad's example. I'm not saying that's bad or even that FTL, time travel or telepathy are bad; I'm just saying they're fantasy. I prefer a good story using these concepts to a boring story with realistic science.

Anonymous said...

I think that when Ayn Rand was older she commented that she could not write any more novels because the culture had become so philosophically corrupted that setting heros in modern culture was near impossible. In effect romantic literature would be too unbelievable in a nihilistic culture.

With that as a preface, I would think that sci-fi would have held out longer against Naturalism. Its a place where you can place heroes and great drama and not have it ridiculed as "corny." I think to a certain extent that is what happened at least with regards to movie and tv. Star Trek for all its flaws was definitely an example of Romanitic fiction. I think the same can be said of Star Wars although that would be more accurately described as "space fantasy" rather than "science fiction."

Today, judging from what I see on television, it seems that there are some elements of romanticism in sci-fi although they are fading fast. Joss Wheedon's Firefly was excellent; highly romantic. The hero Malcom Reynolds was one of the most heroic characters in popular culture in a long time. The StarGate series and Babylon-V have both had their moments. Even the new version of Battlestar Galactica has some gripping moments although I think that the show is fast becoming a naturalist soap opera.

Bill Visconti

Thomas Rowland said...

The last Con I attended was in DC years ago. Ellison and Asimov squared off at one event and we saw a rough cut of "A Boy and His Dog" with Don Johnson. Zelazny was the new guy. I've stopped following SF, but wanted to chime in with the observation that mystery/suspense has followed thw same path with naturalism taking oover at the expense of plot and heroes. CSI is the #1 example of this, And look what Clint Eastwood has made of the Western (and everything else he touches). Where does one find romanticism?

Jennifer Snow said...

Heinlein is the only consistantly Romantic "serious" Science Fiction author I can think of off the top of my head . . . possibly why he's the Grand Master. I've never really enjoyed any of the other big names from way back (like Asmiov or Harlan Ellison).

Maybe I need to go one generation further back to Campbell et al. I haven't read much of their stuff.

Mike said...

Definitely agreed wrt Malcolm Reynolds. Whedon's writing often leaves a great deal to be desired, but he creates some very romantic characters when the inspiration really strikes him.

Anonymous said...

If you are in despair about realistic, meaningful science fiction, please read "A Deepness in the Sky" by Vernor Vinge. In some ways, it reminds me of a Rand novel, but with more violence, in that it is a space based anti totalitarian thriller. You should definitely read this book.

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