Will Gillis on sf’s changing face

Paul Raven @ 22-01-2010

I don’t know whether William Gillis wrote this little screed about the changing face of science fiction as a response or reaction to Jo Walton’s piece about the reading protocols of the genre, but it certainly serves as an interesting counterpoint to it. I like to read the viewpoints of smart readers coming from outside the loose tribe of fandom, because it enables us to see some of the stories we tell ourselves about the genre’s evolution in a different light:

… the modern age has given rise to a very distinguishable modern clique of SF authors interested in worlds with recognizable causal connections to our world. In a world deprived of anything more than an anemic NASA how we get there matters (or, alternatively, how it diverged). The other hallmark of the internet age is the density of the snarkiness, reference and speed of ideas — if Blade Runner signified the beginning of the shift away from abstraction with advertisements referencing real corporations, today’s authors plaster their prose with injokes. Rather than trying to abstract away, they embrace our inherent ties to the world as it is in order to milk a higher density out of our shared language. The internet has given everyone the sensation of having passing knowledge in every field, and modern SF authors are expected to be versed and deliver on many if not all fronts.

There simply isn’t the patience for limited-focus authors. And while I still heart Delany and Le Guin, I think this is a good thing. Nothing’s worse than sitting through a work full of intellectual spark on one front to find it dead on another. A great mathematics twist matched with a ridiculous carbon copy of the author’s culture transposed upon a ridiculously different environment. A finely constructed anthropological or psychological thesis with cliche and implausibly-portrayed tech.

Perhaps Gillis has hit upon the reason that the enthroned classics of the genre frequently fail to move new readers in the way they moved us when we discovered them… but having typed that out, it feels like a tautology. How about you – did the sf classics from before your time hold up to their reputations, or were they interesting in the way that archaeology is interesting?

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9 Responses to “Will Gillis on sf’s changing face”

  1. Jonathan M says:

    Gillis is definitely on to something. Charlie Stross, I think, very definitely follows this particular template. The abstraction from the world is minimal, instead you are projected forcibly into a genred version of the now. When the Stross lens is correctly focused it’s a wonderful thing (see Accelerando). However, when it is Hubble-like in its lack of alignment, the result can be really cringe-worthy (see his short story about Neverwinter Nights *shudder*).

    I think this approach is one of the reasons why he famously moaned about how difficult it was to write about the future. Of course, many genre authors can and do write about the far future. But then, not all genre writers share Stross’ methodologies.

    I think the archness of this technique is one of the reasons why SF now has a broader appeal than maybe it once did : It’s a recognisable technique.

    The “Golden age of SF is 12” myth relies upon a rather outdated and arrogant vision of the way that people engage with literature. The idea is that, at aged 12, you are more receptive than you are as an adult and so you are able to grock SF in a way that more hide-bound readers cannot. They never learned the rules.

    But the truth is that modern book readers are well aware of postmodernism. They know that books contain literary techniques and that these techniques are things to be adjusted to. In fact, the idea that there ARE different ways of writing is central to the case for SF including less white male writers : Other people have different approaches to writing and SF benefits from the inclusion of their techniques and viewpoints.

    Have a look at non-genre specific blogs and what you’ll find is that culturally switched-on people DO read genre, They don’t struggle with the norms of the genre. they don’t have to work at getting it. They understand that genres have rules and techniques and these are things that you learn to adapt to if you are interested in reading a wide-array of titles.

    Gillis may be right than contemporary genre fans lack the capacity for adaptation just as some closed-minded mainstream readers refuse to engage with SF. Small-minded people who don’t want to engage with anything new are present in all sub-cultures.

  2. Athena Andreadis says:

    Science Fiction Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
    http://www.starshipreckless.com/blog/?p=1169

  3. Dave Reinersmann says:

    For me, there was definitely the “archaeological” aspect to the enjoyment of the older works (for me, esp Heinlein), but the stories still hold up to me. When I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or anything by Le Guin, I’m reacting to the point they’re trying to make with the work. Yes, the prose is excellent, and yes, the plot and characters are rich, etc., but I always had the feeling that they (and not just those two authors, to be clear) were making a statement with sci-fi, political, social or otherwise.

    I still feel that classic sci-fi, even something as niche as Asimov, has a place in modern literature beyond its value as a classic. For example, As capitalism runs amok, with corporations being given rights as citizens and money being an accepted form of speech, and Marxist-Leninist communism having been proven unworkable, Le Guin’s vision of anarcho-communal living still hits a nerve. The fact that she doesn’t adequately discuss the science of how they live or delve too deeply into gender relations or any number of other issues doesn’t take away from the main tenets of the work.

    I don’t dispute that addressing multiple fields in a work will become ever more crucial to an audience’s enjoyment of that work. But if the author still has a goal, a point, to his fiction, then the story can still be enjoyed, as long as he avoids the transparent laziness of the last two lines in Gillis’ block quote above.

  4. John Lunn says:

    Very entangled problem which will only be resolved with a complex approach by writers who call themselves SF writers. The more I read about this issue I come to feel that SF is out there speaking through other genres as well as the straight SF. I think the salient point, made by Jonathan M., is that focused genre readers want a focused genre and they may be the ones lamenting the morphing and evolving of SF into new frontiers.

  5. steve davidson says:

    Nope. No archaeological feel here. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I posses the UBER SENSAWUNDA gene; maybe it’s because I’ve refused to grow up and accept that things have to be the way they are rather than the way they oughta be. Maybe it’s because I think Ellison’s story When Jefty Was Five deserved it’s Hugo, but I read every story, regardless of era, the way the author intended – which is that I should enjoy myself and set back for the ride.

    How is it that some can read modern Steampunk – but find AC Doyle too dated? How is it that some can watch LOST, and turn it into a hit, but turn up their noses at Foundation? (Niche? Asimov is a niche?!?)

    What the F is wrong with you people? It’s make believe! Sometimes it’s closely controlled and right-now very believable make believe, sometimes it’s wrong that-didn’t-happen make believe and sometimes it’s maybe-kinda make believe and sometimes it’s just-plain-crazy-fun make believe. None of it is any more legitimate than any other, regardless of what era it comes from.

    Are your imaginative powers really so weak that what they call the calculating machine, or how they get around town, or the clothing styles they wear can put you off?

  6. John Lunn says:

    Amen, Steve

  7. CA says:

    Maybe Iain M. Banks’ Culture cycle could be seen as a mix of science fiction and political fiction. It can be read as a very interesting way to develop philosophical and political reflections on the potential role of “intelligent” machines in an advanced society: http://yannickrumpala.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/anarchy_in_a_world_of_machines/

  8. Paul Raven says:

    Are your imaginative powers really so weak that what they call the calculating machine, or how they get around town, or the clothing styles they wear can put you off?

    Are yours so weak that the only reason you can imagine for people liking different stuff to you is some sort of mental defect or weakness? Seriously man, I have a lot of respect for some of your arguments, but you really need to stop taking it so personally when people don’t like the same authors as you; you’d find everyone took you a lot more seriously as a result.

    No one’s talking about legitimacy here. Try this rule of thumb: unless explicitly declared to the contrary, anyone talking about science fiction’s appeal, style, content or history is expressing a personal preference. No one wants to start a pogrom, come round your house and burn your Asimov collection, OK? If you really want to convince people that your own viewpoint is worth considering, try laying off the insults and get-off-my-lawn crap. You’re in danger of becoming a cartoon of your own nom-de-plume.

    Sorry if that was a bit blunt, but hey, it’s 8am on Monday morning and you were near the top of my email queue. To be clear: I’d love to read more comments from you, as you’ve the knowledge and experience of the older end of the genre that I (and many others) don’t have. But I’d appreciate you treating the opinions of others with the respect you feel your own deserve. Cool?

  9. Patrick H says:

    I’ve written a big post about this on my own blog. I dunno how blog responses work, as I’m kinda new at this bloggy thing, but to summarise I have two observations.

    One is that good writing is the surest way to triumph over history. In my post I compare The Space Merchants with 1984, two SF dystopias that came out around about the same time. One is still read today, in fact is a vital part of the political and literary space, while the other is nearly forgotten, even by SF fans (although it got a well-deserved airing as part of the SF Masterworks series). I think it would be wrong to suggest that the thematic content of 1984 is more vital to us than The Space Merchants – the tyranny of commercialisation and consumerism portrayed in The Space Merchants is every bit as telling as Orwell’s Big Brother.

    I think the key difference between these works is the depth of characterisation – Winston Smith is a very real person, and his reactions to his circumstances speak to us far more deeply than what happens to the larky hipster Mitch Courtenay in The Space Merchants. So, the difference is in the actual quality of the writing – well-written books are, by and large, better remembered than poorly written ones.

    I think that the techno futurist type writers that Gillis holds up as “the modern mellieu of SF writers” almost wilfully ignores what’s really going on in the genre, both within the genre and the way it’s approached by mainstream literary types. These guys – Vinge, Stross, Doctorow etc – represent a tiny fraction of the SF audience, which is more concerned with secondary worlds and, to a lesser extent perhaps, the allegorical/maetaphorical stuff that he claims is on the decline. In fact, mainstream practitioners of SF -Atwood, Will Self, Cormac McCarthy – write pretty much exclusively within this allegorical space.

    I expand on all this at great length here: http://philosophicalasides.blogspot.com/2010/01/science-fiction-old-and-new.html

    Is it cool to link like that? It seems preferable to just reproducing my screed here!