Christopher East – Defining Futurismic Fiction

Christopher East @ 30-11-2004

Christopher East lays out what Futurismic fiction is all about in his new column.

“Ever try stuffing a melted marshmallow up a wildcat’s ass? It can be done, but you have to like your job.”

The words of James Morrow, from his novel This is the Way the World Ends, a quote that came to mind when I sat down to articulate our purpose in publishing short fiction at Futurismic. “The reason we’re shoveling our hard-earned money into a high-risk, no-profit web venture to publish science fiction short stories in today’s harsh economic climate, for a readership some say is dying and others say is dead, in a culture inundated with more entertainment options than ever before, and spending tons of nonexistent free time to do it, is to…well…uh…”

No, I’m not likening short stories to melted marshmallows, and I’m not comparing SF readers to feline bungholes. (Needless to say, I should hope…!) Basically all I’m saying is hey, it’s a tough job, but it’s a job we want to do.

Yes, times are tight. Yes, short fiction is a tough sell in today’s world—not to mention yesterday’s world. But that’s just it. The science fiction field has a long tradition of passionate, crazy, determined practitioners struggling mightily to pursue their art, market their wares, attract their readers…to get involved in what they think is the most volatile, fun, engaging, and creative literature there is. We at Futurismic would like to think that we’re passionate and crazy and determined enough to be among them.

Ultimately the reason we’re becoming a fiction market isn’t all that interesting. It’s pretty much the same reason every other genre short fiction venture has come into existence—from the professional magazines to the labor-of-love websites to what I fondly refer to as the “guerilla small press.” We love short fiction, we love the science fiction genre, and we want to share that with you. It’s as simple as that.

Perhaps there’s a better question to ask: how is Futurismic going to be different from any other genre fiction venue?

To answer that question, I need—ironically enough, given the mission of this site—to go back in time. Most of us have heard the old saw “the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve.” Well, I was twelve in the early-1980’s, and that was my Golden Age. When I first started reading science fiction heavily, the field was in the midst of the cyberpunk boom, that edgy, stylized, hip subgenre pioneered by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and company. I may have come into science fiction via the traditional route, fascinated by aliens and spaceships and time travel, but once I got there it was the cyberpunks I zeroed in on as my SF flavor of choice.

Cyberpunk was exciting to me because more than any other SF being published at the time it felt really connected to the world, it felt real, it was fast-paced and immediate, frightening and fascinating and full of imminent possibility. Stories about distant galaxies and alien worlds and travels through time, however entertaining and inventive and full of interesting concepts they might be, started feeling more and more like sheer fantasy to me. It seemed concerned with taking me away from the world, getting my mind off it, whereas cyberpunk seemed engaged with the world, speaking to its issues and concerned with its immediate future.

This is a generalization, of course, my personal perception…and that’s not to say that the field doesn’t have room for both kinds of stories. But for whatever reason, I found cyberpunk considerably more compelling, and inspiring, and entertaining than traditional SF. And I remember assuming at the time that cyberpunk was the future of science fiction. To me it seemed the way the field was going, the way it should go.

Like I said, I was twelve; it was my Golden Age.

Since then, of course, the luster of cyberpunk has faded. Some say it was a marketing scam. It was style over substance. It was a brief spark of inspired creativity, which quickly collapsed into a pile of clichés. It’s a historical footnote in the field.

I’m still a bit surprised by these dismissive attitudes about the cyberpunk movement, though. Because even if it no longer exists as an active, bona fide subgenre of science fiction—in its raw, original form, anyway, with mirrorshades and neck-jacks and all that jazz—I think its influence is still out there. It was and still is an important shaping force for modern science fiction; its fingerprints are stamped all over some of the field’s best work. And in fact you could argue that it was a shaping force for contemporary reality, or at the very least an accidental predictor of it. The cyberpunks were onto something.

Now, what does this have to do with Futurismic‘s new fiction section? I don’t want anyone to get the idea that we’re all about resurrecting the cyberpunk movement. The whole notion of doing that is contrary to this website’s whole vision of looking forward; we don’t literally want to produce the fiction of 1984. What we are interested in doing is resurrecting that sense of science fiction being connected with the world we live in—in dialogue with it, a part of it, speaking to its issues. Norman Spinrad once wrote—I believe it was in one of his book review columns for Asimov’s—about good science fiction having “a feedback loop with reality.” That’s what I think we’re looking for here at Futurismic: science fiction that strongly maintains that feedback loop with reality.

And as a reader, I’ve found that the stories that do that for me the most are immediate, near-future, usually Earth-based stories involving people confronting the tough challenges—and presented with the unique opportunities—of the twenty-first century world. That may seem like a rather small net to be casting, but really it can be as large as we want it to be. These stories can be starkly realistic, unbelievably gonzo, serious or light-hearted, satirical or straight…they can engage this “futurismic spirit” from the past, present or future, head-on, backwards, or sideways. But they all have to have that sense of connection with now, with the startling weirdness of the present, because the world we live in now—as many SF minds have pointed out, and probably with more eloquence—is a science fictional world. Instead of turning away from that world to escapist SF visions, I think we should embrace it, wrestle with it, and figure it out.

In light of that, we’re not looking to create a trend so much as recognize one that already exists, because really, “futurismic fiction” has been out there, in one form or another, for years. It’s in the work of authors like Bruce Sterling, Maureen F. McHugh, Charles Stross, and Nancy Kress. It’s in the short fiction of Alex Irvine, Carolyn Ives Gilman, and David Marusek. It’s in the loopy futures of Rudy Rucker, the offbeat visions of Paul Di Filippo, the sprawling novels of Neal Stephenson, and the near-future adventures of Peter F. Hamilton. Cory Doctorow, Simon Ings, Paul McAuley … the list goes on. If you’re familiar with these writers, and the diversity of their styles and approaches, I think you’ll see that our scope really isn’t that narrow. And if we included writers who occasionally wrote in this vein, the list would be even longer.

We’d like to lengthen that list. We’d like to provide a consistent, high quality source of this particular kind of science fiction. The field has its professional magazines and websites which cater to a broad spectrum of genres, and it has its specialized outlets for fantasy, hard SF, horror, and slipstream fiction. Many of them occasionally publish what we’re calling “futurismic SF,” but none of them are devoted to it.

That’s why we’re here. We’re confident there is an interest in this kind of work out there, and committed to seeking it out and bringing it to you. We certainly hope that you’ll come along for the ride, help us to grow and thrive and create something here, and bring some exciting, innovative new SF to the world.

Chris East
November 30, 2003

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3 Responses to “Christopher East – Defining Futurismic Fiction”

  1. John Coffey says:

    I think I’m with you. This is about Zeitgeist du jour. It’s SCI FI during the appetizers and history by the time the cognac arrives. You follow the curve along the bleeding edge until you run out of knife and extrapolate. It’s two guys in their local pub discussing their happy awe at the human genome project over a pint, when all of a sudden they receive text messages informing them that they owe backpayments on a licence fee as their sequences have been patented. Great. When are you open for submissions again, I may have something for you!

  2. Peter Hollo says:

    Just wanted to say “Hurrah!”

    I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read on Futurismic so far, and it’s great to know that there’s one source of short sf that I can really rely on to reflect my tastes.

    Congrats, and keep up the good work!

  3. Chris East says:

    Thanks, guys! John, we’ll be open again on March 8th. I’ll be posting something more official to the blog about this later tonight.

    Sorry for the late reply, by the way, I only just noticed these comments. 🙂