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Wed, 01 Jan 2003

Gabe Chouinard sounds off in Locus

Gabe Choinard has a good rant in the current issue of Locus in this essay. It's a thought-provoking attempt to define the state and future of science fiction as a genre.

To leap unhesitatingly to his conclusion:

Our current cultural shift is one that requires fantasy. We've grown tired of the future, have grown tired of the promise of Progress that never really comes. We're tired of looking outward, and have turned our gazes inward. It's time to stop exploring the Outer Rim, and time to start exploring the Inner Being. Science fantasy allows that; hard SF does not. Likewise, science fantasy is more accessible to a generation of potential fans that have grown up on media sci-fi, such as the Star Wars movies. Science fantasy is a freewheeling almost-anything-goes subgenre that fulfills the needs of a culture that has developed a 'half-imagination' over the years.

I sort of half-disagree with his conclusions. Gabe has put his finger on a couple of important sore points, but I don't think he's identified the cause of the mallaise -- arguable, if it exists -- that currently afflicts written SF.

Firstly, I think to some extent he conflates the SF readership with fandom, and this is a mistake. While fans are readers, there are many readers of written SF who are not SF fans, and extrapolating from patterns of behaviour observable in fandom to the broader readership is not an entirely safe course of action.

Secondly, and more importantly, I think he's misidentifying the cause of the shift in the popularity of sub-forms of SF. To some extent, written fiction of any kind is a victim of marketing; authors don't generally sell their products directly to the readers, and a mallaise afflicting the distribution chain can be misattributed to the consumers (by the producers) or vice versa.

Most importantly, there are two reasons why out current cultural shift might seem to demand fantasy. One is consumer-centred; the hypothesis that our entire culture is teetering on a knife edge of incipient future shock suggests as a corollary that readers want to escape into an experience that reaffirms their sense of permanence -- like most genre fantasy, which rarely questions or overturns the initially established order. (SF is a literature of revolution, and potentially disturbing to a readership who want reassurance.) But there's another hypothesis that needs to be addressed -- the possibility that the pace of change is currently so fast that predicting even the near future has become problematic for the majority of writers, and the producers are therefore shirking the hard task of doing so and retreating into fantasy (which, after all, sells solidly and is easier to extrude).

Gabe clearly attributes much of the mallaise in genre SF to the readership. Me, I'm not so sure. And I'll probably have more to say on this matter in future (if I pull my finger out and write that critical essay I've been gestating for a couple of months, instead of working on the next novel).

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posted at: 19:56 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

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Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
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