Charlie's Diary

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Mon, 18 Apr 2005

On swings, roundabouts, and long-term trends in science fiction

(Or: dammit Ken, I wasn't going to write this just yet!)

Conversations in bars tend to bring out the armchair philosopher in me. At the drop of a hat I'll start pontificating about things I know absolutely nothing about (or worse, that I know just enough about to be dangerous). So you should take the following spiel with a pinch of salt: just because I flew a kite in front of Ken MacLeod and he didn't shoot it down at once, you shouldn't assume that this is some sort of definitive ex-cathdra statement of TRVTH issued by <snark>the new genius of British SF</snark> and hereinafter to be carved on gold tablets and paraded before the massed ranks of the SF literati. It was just a pub conversation which started with the question, "why is the Hugo novel shortlist entirely British this year?"

To some extent the British shortlist is a coincidence. There are lots of American SF and fantasy writers producing good (possibly even great, although that's a word I prefer to leave to posterity) work this decade. However, none of the usual suspects emitted a book within the right window of opportunity to pique the interest of the Hugo nominators: Dan Simmons is between volumes, as are Lois McMaster Buljold and George R. R. Martin and Connie Willis. I'm not sure what Neal Stephenson is working on after the Baroque Cycle, but it'll probably end up on the shortlist. And so it goes. These folks are all automatic Hugo nomination fodder, and for good reason -- they combine some degree of literary respectability with a dedicated following of fans. There are other American authors who deserve to be on the shortlist but aren't. By way of some examples, Bruce Sterling makes the cut with monotonous regularity in the short categories but his novels don't ever seem to push the right buttons, and there are those maverick authors who will never be on the list because they aren't seen as respectable. (I'd be extremely surprised if any novel published by Baen Books made the shortlist, for example, regardless of its merits. There's a certain degree of snobbery within the ghetto, after all, as even the most debased look for someone else to feel superior to.)

But I digress. For some reason, the USA didn't produce any nominees this year. As a large chunk of the nominations were received from American voters, and British voters are happy to vote for American nominees, it's clearly not a case of nationalist sour grapes. So what went wrong? Why did the smaller country, whose SF/fantasy output is dwarfed by that of the USA (much as its population is -- by a 1:5 ratio) sweep the shortlist?

Here's my speculation: American SF is going through a gloom-laden period induced by external social conditions, much as British SF did in the 1947-79 period (and differently, in the 1980-92 period). Extrapolative SF is often used by writers as a mirror for reflecting our concerns about the present on the silver screen of the future. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Puppet Masters" were artefacts of the late 1940's/early 1950's paranoia about communist infiltration. "Fugue for a Darkening Island" was a dismal if-this-goes-on dirge played to the tune of Enoch Powell. "Neuromancer" was 1980's corporate deracination hooked up to an overdose of MTV, mainlining on hidden assumptions of monetarism. When SF is at its most overtly predictive -- especially when it speaks of the impending future -- it is talking about the present, capturing the zeitgeist and projecting it forward. (It takes a very special kind of imagination to capture tomorrow's zeitgeist, and all too often it goes unnoticed because it's just too damn weird to understand.)

Anyway ...

During the 1947-79 period, an era of British political history dominated by the long shadow of the retreat from empire, there was a definite note of pessimism to SF's vision of the future. Certainly there were optimistic hold-outs, but they seem (in my blurry beer-addled memory) to have been outnumbered. From John Wyndham's cosy catastrophes to "The Machine in Shaft Ten", things didn't look so good. A black, trenchant miasma hung over the typical future visualized by British writers of SF, a pessimism about the future that either lurched headling into the distance (to outrun the terminator of civilization) or revelled in decadent and decaying cultures that lusted after -- and ultimately received -- oblivion.

1979 marked the beginning of an interregnum in British SF. I believe I can say without risk of contradiction that, love her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher's government was a polarizing force in British culture. It shook society to its core, closing off some avenues and opening up others. It was a period of deep uncertainty and stark division, during which the post-war consensus established by the One Nation Conservatives and the Old Labour Party evaporated as if it had never existed.

Let me be frank: I was not and am not a Thatcher supporter. Nevertheless, I will credit her with settling the biggest questions left unanswered by the post-empire order: what was to be the future of the British economy and British society? The heavy industries -- coal, steel, shipbuilding, heavy engineering -- went to the wall. Those that survive today are much smaller specialists competing in global markets, not the archaic and historic legacy of the 19th century. And it was during the Thatcher years that the fate of the British Empire was finally sealed -- not with a bang but a firework show, as Chris Patten managed the hand-over of Hong Kong in 1996.

I believe the mood in British SF began to shift during the second Thatcher term, but the shift only got underway in earnest on Black Wednesday, September 16th 1992. I was sitting in a hotel room along with a bunch of other writers attending the annual Milford SF writers workshop when the news came through that the interest rate had risen by first 2%, then 3%, in one day flat -- and then John Major, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, publicly announced that the UK was to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Politics in the UK largely plays second fiddle to economics, and right then and there a buzz of excitement swept round the room -- Major's capitulation marked the end of the Conservative Party's credibility as the party of sound economics, and the beginning of the end of the interregnum. The break with the post-war consensus had been made, and now a break with the polarized, bitter debate over where to go next was impending. Britain's future within the EU was becoming visible, and a new political epoch was dawning in which rather than being a retreating imperial power the culture of the UK would reflect its position as one of the poles of influence within a new, nascent superpower.

Now, the Thatcher interregnum produced a big enough sea change in British SF as it is. The polarized social debate is clearly visible in such works as Peter F. Hamilton's Greg Mandel novels, Iain Banks's Culture stories and novels, and the shattering of society into fringe cultures is reflected in a variety of works by authors as diverse as Storm Constantine and Paul McAuley. Interzone dumped a whole sackful of fish food into the aquarium by buying the early short fiction of many authors (subsequently identified as the Interzone generation), myself included. Turmoil in society reflected turmoil in the worlds envisaged in the SF authors embedded in that society wrote.

And that brings us to the British present. The new space opera is predominantly a British form within the field -- a huge irony because, as Ken notes in his weblog, much of it has its roots in American SF of the 1960's and 1970's. Here we've got Iain, of course, but also Peter Hamilton, Paul McAuley (when he isn't reinventing the scientist-detective thriller), Neal Asher, Ken MacLeod (when he holds still long enough), John Meaney, myself, and others. The epistemological and philosophical quarry that Ian Watson toiled in alone throughout the 1970's is now a vast open-cast mining complex worked by such luminaries as Justina Robson, M. John Harrison (in his second coming), and Tricia Sullivan. And the politics ...!

Politics is currently largely taboo in American SF. The dialectic is stilled by the dead hand of decisive victory: the commies lost, game over. Global capitalism uber alles is the shape of the future and there's nothing of interest to be accomplished by railing against it. In contrast, the game is very much not over in the UK. Politics lends British SF a preoccupation with the shape of ideas about how we should live, rather than stifling it with ideologically dictated parameters that define how we shall live. Writers like Jon Courtenay Grimwood, China Mieville, and Ken MacLeod are illuminating all sorts of strange nooks and crannies within the eroded heroic sculptures of the future that furnish the collective imagination. There is nothing quite like this happening in American SF today, although during the New Wave of the 1960's these questions were asked, and asked pointedly.

So. Why not?

Here I'm going to shortcircuit the endless debate and bring up my proposition: that the shape of American SF, as with British SF, is determined by the cultural zeitgeist, by the society's own vision of its future. And I propose that the American future is currently uncertain, unpleasant, polarized, regimented, and pessimistic. The American century that dates to VJ Day, August 1945, is more than half over. Much as the shadows lengthened over the coal-driven British Empire during the age of oil, so the shadows are looming over the oil-driven American Empire. Peak Oil is a spectre haunting the corridors of Washington DC, as it haunts the centres of power in every other nation. But the United States is unusual among the industrialized nations in its dependence on oil, and its vulnerability when the price of oil begins to rise. Transportation and climate militate against the easy adoption of other lifestyles, and the demand for stability in the oil market is leading the current administration ever deeper into the morass of Middle Eastern politics.

This is not the place to list all the controversies or uncertainties haunting the American psyche in the wake of 9/11. Nor am I going to leave any hostages to fortune by prophesying either a reinvigoration of American hegemony, or a Soviet-style collapse. I'm agnostic on the matter. What I am willing to assert is that this uncertainty is haunting science fiction and warping the sort of fiction that is being written.

In American SF today there is a huge surge in the proportion of alternate history counterfactuals: as James Nicoll notes, AH is often used as a consolatory literature that, at its worst, says "we go back in time and make history happen the way it should have happened! Yay, Us! In a completely contrived scenario, we can win!"

The boom in fantasy probably needs no further explanation. Ditto the military-SF field, which at its worst reflects the self-indulgent imperialist excesses of the British penny dreadfuls of the early 20th century.

Real extrapolative near-future SF is scarce enough to make individual instances of it noteworthy. Bruce Sterling has written more than his fair share, and has lately been joined by Elizabeth Bear (whose near-future SF trilogy -- beginning with "Hammered" -- superficially resembles Mil-SF, until the ruthlessly extrapolated background becomes grimly clear). Kim Stanley Robinson is chipping away at it too, in "Forty Signs of Rain", and he even breaks the prime directive by getting all political. (But hey, what are rules for if not for breaking?)

Finally, a whole bunch of the most talented in SF, the best and the brightest, have run off to write historical fiction. Neal Stephenson leads the pack with his mammoth 17th century doorstep. Bruce Sterling's writing post-9/11 technothrillers with verve, insight, and a complete aversion to his earlier twenty-minutes-into-the-future stomping grounds. And William Gibson's last magnum opus, "Pattern Recognition", is the 1980's cyberpunk masterpiece that "Neuromancer" ought to have been -- a brilliant, literate, thoughtful, and gritty epic of near-future SF set in the second year of the twenty-first century (two years before its' publication date).

So: what's almost totally absent is convincing near-future SF about a future America that is anything other than a dystopic rubbish dump. Bleakness is the new optimism. Writers living in the USA today just don't seem enthusiastic about the near future in the way that they did as recently as the 1980's, where at least the cyberpunk future of cliche was a vaguely habitable pastiche of the globalized present. They are, in fact, exhibiting the same canary-in-a-sociological-coalmine mallaise as British SF writers of the 1960's and 1970's. When the future looks grim, how on earth can you write optimistically about it?

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 22:10 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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