New year, old genre: is it time for science fiction to die?

Paul Raven @ 28-12-2009

gravestoneWhile the rest of us were stuffing ourselves with food and alcohol, editor Jetse de Vries was bashing out an essay* re-examining a refrain that’s been heard a few times in the last year or so: is written science fiction dying, is that a good thing, and if not, what should (or could) be done to save it? [image by timparkinson]

Regular readers (or those who know Jetse already) will be quite right to suspect that it’s another variation on his suggestion that science fiction needs to reacquire relevance by not only highlighting the big issues of the day but examining potential solutions to them, rather than revelling on post-apocalyptic gloom. But that’s a massive oversimplification of a fairly wide-ranging essay, so take twenty minutes to read the whole thing – while you may not agree with all of his points, there’s a lot of sound thinking and food for thought in there. Here’s some snips from the conclusion:

SF doesn’t want to (try to) tackle today problems. It just wants to highlight them, exaggerate them into apocalyptic disasters and let the world go down the drain in five hundred different ways. SF is very good at imaging how civilisation (or the world in general) ends: if it only used part of that imagination thinking about solving an actual problem it might have had some more respect from the world at large.

So let’s call it what it is: a failure of the imagination. Yes, quote me on it: ‘most written SF today suffers from a failure of the imagination’. It’s lazy, it avoids doing the hard work.

[…]

In short, SF should get off its arse, be totally open to outside influences and other cultures, and get involved with proactive thinking, proudly using science, about the near future.

Previous discussions (including some right here) around these points have highlighted the sharp division of opinion they create. I still find myself somewhat on the fence with respect to “optimistic” science fiction (in that I’d very much like to see more of it, but have no wish to see the demise of the darker flavours), but Jetse’s points about science fiction’s WASPish makeup, plus its perplexing resistance to taking creative risks and breaking with established tradition, hold a great deal of water for me.

That said, I still find myself thinking that the problem is one of imprecise nomenclature; given that it’s still almost impossible to get any three people to agree on a useful working definition of science fiction, maybe we should give up defending the ragged and patchwork flag of a territory whose citizens long since underwent a diaspora into the continent of the cultural mainstream.

[ * To be fair, and knowing Jetse, I fully suspect he did some eating and drinking over the holidays as well… indeed, probably a lot of drinking. 😉 ]