Being on vacation (more or less) has given me a lot of time for reflection. It's also given me a little time to catch up on my reading — beach books, or what passes for them in my universe. I'm quite capable of immersing myself in trashy brain candy — indeed, of wallowing in it to excess — and that's pretty much what I've been doing (with a few notable exceptions).
Actually, that's a little bit unfair. "Trash" is probably the wrong word for any kind of literature; it's just a convenient (and somewhat condescending) shorthand for easy reading — stuff that is undemanding, and doesn't expect too much of the reader. Within any given genre, there's a certain body of work that conforms most closely to the expectations of the readers — the normal patterns and preoccupations of their particular field. It's not transgressive, it doesn't question the normative expectations, it shares the collective cultural outlook, etcetera. Nevertheless, it performs a vital task for those of us who aren't content to go with the flow: it tells us where the flow is.
Talking about genre ... I work in three roughly overlapping areas: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (I also occasionally make excursions into the undergrowth of technothrillers and even romance, but those aren't my main stomping grounds — they're not how I'm perceived by readers.) Of these fields, fantasy out-sells SF by a factor of 2:1, and has done for most of my life. Horror used to sell well, but crashed and burned around 1990. There's recently been a tenuous recovery. Where you draw the dividing line between these fields is a matter of some debate, especially among the more tiresomely obsessive-compulsive fans — the rest of them (myself included) just go with the old judicial definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it".
So what can the lightweight normative exemplars of these genres tell us about the state of the reading public?
For starters, the strange rebirth of the horror field is quite illuminating. We used to know what horror was about — it was about Killer Whelks menacing a quiet English seaside town, from which a strong-jawed but quiet fellow and a not-totally-pathetic female lead might eventually hope to escape with the aid of a stout two-by-four and a lot of whelkish squelching after trials, tribulations, and gruesome scenes of seafood-induced cannibalism. Then Stephen King came along and transcended, becoming a mini-genre of his own. Attempts were made to replicate the phenomenon, but instead the bottom dropped out of the market.
The new horror isn't about whelks, killer or otherwise: it's about vampires, werewolves, and middle America. With police and detectives. Hell, you could even call it cop/vampire slash and have done with it, except that you'd be missing out on the tedious Manichean dualist drivel into which all these series eventually descend (unless they end up as soft porn instead — a very lucrative market, as Laurel Hamilton and her imitators have discovered — call it the fang-fucker subgenre). For the sad fact is, there seems to be some kind of law about contemporary American horror getting into furry sex by volume three then suffering a fit of remorse and going all god-bothering and Jesus-fondling by volume six. It must be all the crosses and holy water they need to fend off the blood sucking fiends, I suppose, but the endless re-hashing of tired old religious-sexual neuroses is getting to be a stereotype of the genre, and it's not healthy. Horror isn't about being born-again: it's about bloody screaming catharsis, not a warm security blanket of belief that blocks out all menaces. But in the new horror, if the bloodsuckers are remotely sympathetic the story turns into some kind of supernatural redemption epic, and if they're not, the protagonist eventually goes all googly-eyed and born-again. (Or the author does — I'm thinking of Anne Rice here, you understand.) It's enough to make this old-time atheist throw the book against the wall. I mean, these are meant to be horror novels! Where's the sense of dread in living in a universe where there's a cuddle and a warm glass of ambrosia waiting for us all in heaven?
(Parenthetically speaking, one of the reasons I'm so pleased with Liz Williams' recent foray into the supernatural detective field is that her two novels, The Snake Agent and The Demon in the City have nothing whatsoever to do with warmed-over Christian theology. They're straight Confucianism all the way, and when one of her demonic protagonists discovers that he has a conscience this is cause for regret rather than redemption. The result is oddly like Chow Yun Fat trying to make a supernatural kung fu action movie version of Miss Smila's Feel for Snow. If the rest of the pack would follow suit, my vacation reading pile would be a lot less predictable ... but I digress.)
Enough about the crap new horror, now for the crap new SF.
Probably the fastest-growing sub-genre in the swamp is alternate history. I've been known to dabble in it myself, I hasten to admit: it can be fun and educational, a desert topping and a floor wax. But mostly floor wax these days, I find, because a lot of authors who should know better are turning to it in a mad collective ostrich-head-burying exercise rather than engaging with the world as it is.
Science fiction is almost always a projection of todays hopes and fears onto the silver screen of tomorrow, and so you get such excesses as the cosy catastrophe genre in British SF, 1947-79 (in which all those annoying Other People get put away in their box — six feet under — while the protagonists have post-fall-of-civilization adventures, all with a bone china tea-set: John Wyndham was of course the master) or the sixties counterculture and lysergide fueled paranoia trips of Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs — and the deafening silence about the future that is radiating from the United States today.
Oh, there are exceptions. Vernor Vinge is swimming strongly against the flow in "Rainbows End", where he envisages a future just a couple of decades hence where the machines dance. Peter Watts is doing stuff with the genre that just shouldn't be possible (evolutionary biology, exobiology, and vampires in spaaaaaace — all done with a deft touch of plausibility and a refreshingly pleasant dose of bleakly nihilistic existential despair). And there are a few others. But for the most part, the loudest movement in the genre has been the buffalo stampede over the cliff of historical might-have-beens. Our field's strongest energies are going into tiredly re-hashing the US Civil War, the Second World War, the War of the Triple Alliance, and the Russian Revolution. And they're not even Doing It in spaaaaaaace. Well, some of them are: if I see one more novel about the US Marine Corps in the Thirty Seventh Century (with interstellar amphibious assault ships and a different name) I swear I'll up and join the Foreign Legion. Folks, the past is another country, and you can't get a visa. Ditto the future: they speak a different language and they get capitalism and the war on terror and the divine right of kings confused because they slept through history class. (Just like half the folks writing alternate history epics — and the other half ought to know better.)
This turning away from the near future is going to be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the post-9/11 decade in American science fiction, as the chill wind of change blows through the hitherto cosy drawing room of the American century. The Brits aren't drinking the Kool-Aid — well, some of them are serving it up in pint glasses, but most of them have got better things to do with their time — and this is why just about all the reviewers in the field are yammering about a British Invasion or a British New Wave or something: it's not what the British are doing, but what the American writers aren't doing that is interesting.
American SF was traditionally an optimistic forward-looking genre, the marching music of the technocrat movement (which, thankfully, withered up and blew away before it got a chance to build any mountains of skulls, thus providing us with the luxury of a modernist movement that we can remember fondly). Now the whole space exploration thing has dead-ended and the great American public have shuddered in their political sleep and realised — crivens! — that not everybody likes the way their lords and masters have been carrying on for the past five decades — the fragile optimism is lacking. So where better to flee than into the nostalgic past, to fight Nazis and communists and slave-trading aristocrats?
Finally, there is the blasted heath that is fantasy. At least the two decade long post Lord of the Rings hang-over is mostly over, and the post-movie-trilogy bean fest has faded somewhat. There's some really interesting stuff going on there (paging Paul Park, Paul Park to the white courtesy phone — or Steven Brust, at a pinch). But fantasy is, almost by definition, consolatory and escapist literature. Pure fantasy doesn't really tell us anything about the world we live in, and I fail to discern any huge new movements sweeping the field as symptoms of the cultural neuroses of one country or another.