Tag Archives: themes

Stop press: arbitrary marketing category finally overlaps more respected arbitrary marketing category

I think we’ll end up looking back and deciding that the favourite critical riff of 2010 in science fiction is the one that goes “hey, look, we’ve won!” Here’s some highlights from a lengthy solo in the same key from io9‘s Charlie Jane Anders:

… the thing that jumps out at you when you read this new wave of lit authors doing SF is how aware they are of the genre. You’re not dealing with Philip Roth writing alternate history without ever having read any of it, or Margaret Atwood denying her SF is SF — Moody is, to some extent, paying tribute to science fiction. Charles Yu’s book is clearly about science fiction. Cronin’s book attempts to channel the style of Steven King as much as possible. Writing a science fictional book without acknowledging the genre would be missing the point for these authors — they’re writing about genre as much as they are about science fictional ideas.


Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that these two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big. There’s a hunger for heartfelt, even disheartening, books set in the near future, and science fiction authors should be doing more deeply personal near-future stories if they want to catch this wave.

I’ve found myself becoming more and more frustrated with this particular meme, for reasons I’m not entirely able to articulate. I think it’s the underlying sense of patting-ourselves-on-the-back, a subtext of vindication that says “hey, we were right all along, and now everyone else is finally catching up and will have to acknowledge the fact that we were out in front before anyone else”. It’s the last part of that subtext that’s the problem, even if you argue (as I think you can, with a limited degree of success) that the first part is true. Yeah, sure, OK: the ivory tower denizens have looked down upon the works of the barbarians, and found them novel (pun intended). This is not a new thing, really. It’s cultural colonialism at best, and we all know how that works out in the long run: “literature” will use “science fiction” for as long as it’s expedient or interesting, no longer, and there’ll be no gratitude beyond that extended by the writers who’ve borrowed liberally from the toolshed. It’s not about genres, it’s about the stories that speak to readers and writers alike, which in turn is a function of the Zeitgeist – something that, by definition, doesn’t do a whole bunch of sitting still.

Interestingly, Anders ends this triumphalist piece by deliberately undermining the very constructs whose triumphs it seems to celebrate:

So it’s finally come true — the literature of the future has become the future of literature. Our collective literary consciousness is crying out for near-future books that are deeply personal, obsessed with technological change, and viciously satirical. We could just be seeing the first wave of a whole new tide of science fiction novels, with authors from both the artificially constructed “science fiction” and “literary” genres making equally wonderful contributions. Let’s hope so, anyway.

If there’s anything for science fiction fandom (and indeed for everyone else) to celebrate, it’s that there are more good books to read. Much as with the YA craze of the preceding few years, I’m really getting tired about arguing over which particular shelves those good books should or shouldn’t be found on… and the utopian “one day soon, there will be only one set of shelves!” riff just doesn’t wash with someone who’s worked in a public library, I’m afraid.

Maybe it’s to do with the geek psychology of feeling like underdogs or outsiders that causes it, but I worry that science fiction’s thirst for validation from those who once dismissed it out of hand is a sign that, rather than leading the literati into the near-future, it’s being charmed out of the driver’s seat by them. Are we in fact celebrating our own sunset, here?

New sf futures from Rudy Rucker

In response to Jo Walton’s Tor.com post about the problem that the Singularity meme has caused for science fiction writers [short and slightly snarky interpretation: The Singularity is such a ubiquitous idea that everyone feels obliged to write around it or beyond it, and there’s a paucity of old-school “people-like-us-but-with-spaceships” stories as a result], the ever-fertile mind of Rudy Rucker has thrown out a whole bunch of new themes and directions for science fiction stories.

Change is of course something that happens to any living art form—think of painting or popular music or literary novels or even TV sit-coms. Yes, it’s sad to see Golden Ages slip away, but it’s sadder still to keep doing the same thing. Inevitably the old material goes stale and the fire goes away. I’m not saying it’s become impossible to write fresh novels about aliens and spaceships and planets. But maybe it’s become a task as difficult and quixotic as writing a fresh doo-wop song.

But why not a new kind of song? And why not a new kind of SF novel? This is, after all, the twenty-first century.

If you think about it, it’s quite unreasonable to regard, say, the physics and sociology of classic space opera as “rules” about science-fictional futures. These are all things that writers made up in, like, the 1930s, and which later writers polished and refined. The “rules” have no Higher Truth and they’re unlikely to apply to any actual future. They’re only stories that people made up for fun, and there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t keep changing the rules.

Testify, Brother Rucker! Here’s a couple of the directions he suggests:

Quantum Computational Viruses

The current trend is to view any bit of matter as carrying out a so-called quantum computation. These computations can be as rich and complex as anything in our brains or in our PCs. One angle, which I explored a bit in Postsingular and Hylozoic, is that ordinary objects could “wake up.” Another angle worth pursuing is that something like a computer virus might infect matter, perhaps changing the laws of physics to make our world more congenial to some other kinds of beings.

The Subdimensions

For too long we’ve let the quantum mechanics tell us that there’s nothing smaller than the Planck length. Let’s view this tiny size scale as a membrane, a frontier, but not a wall. We can in fact go below it…into the land of the subdimensions. Possibly the subdimensional world is a kind of mirror version of ours. Certainly aliens can visit us from there…no need for all those star ships. Just focus on a speck of dust.

Granted, Futurismic focusses on publishing a very specific subgenre of science fiction (and offers no apologies for doing so!), but I tend to see thematic and stylistic diversity as a sign of health in any realm of creation. The end-game of postmodern culture seems to be an increasingly uncritical obsession with retro styles and pastiche – a phenomenon I can see very clearly in music, but increasingly in genre fiction as well. Which is sort of a shame (retro is fun for a while, but soon becomes little more than a costume party – hello, zombies! hello, steampunk!), but perhaps understandable. As Rucker points out, it’s not that there aren’t any routes forward… but the routes available aren’t an easy stroll through familiar gardens.

While it’s nice to walk through a familiar garden every once in a while, I like to explore new places. And that’s why sf is my genre; it’s the only one whose concerns expand and change with time. For example, space operas – while plenty of fun – are essentially as limited in their main concerns as a Regency romance or a Western. Sure, you can reinvent them, subvert them, mash them up with other ideas… and if you do something interesting with it then I will (and often do!) read it with genuine pleasure. But I’m still going to keep looking for writers who are willing to try to expand the sphere of storyability… after all, wasn’t that the defining dynamic of science fiction in the Golden Age, the dynamic that brought us all the forms we’re now pining for?

It’s always baffled me that a genre that purports to be concerned with new ideas can, at times, be such a hidebound and nostalgic institution. Rebellion eventually becomes dogma… another story that’s as old as humanity itself. 😉

Where are the sexy computer games?

Keeping to the gaming theme, here’s Aleks Krotoski at The Guardian asking a very valid question: where are all the sex-based computer games?

It’s not for want of trying. Brathwaite says that when she landed a job as producer on Playboy: The Mansion, in 2005, she found there were countless games developers building titles around love, intimacy and, well, hanky-panky, but they were lost in an ocean of family values propriety, wandering souls buried under regulations and smothered by distributor blacklists, treated as “specialists” whose products only saw the light in extremely independent competitions. And so, with only the odd interruption of a virtual carnal nature, game controversies are dominated by violence. Depravity just isn’t on the regulator’s radar.

And can you imagine what would happen if it were? Just look at the furore over the scenes uncovered in the code of GTA: San Andreas. For heaven’s sake, they were two consenting (digital) adults in an 18-rated game: why did it end up such an issue that the then senator Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to get it banned? Such top-down puritanism forces creative conformity in games for fear that explicitly including sex scenes would lead to a loss of filthy lucre – when on earth has that been the case?

It does seem odd, but then computer games are a comparatively young medium by comparison to film or literature – perhaps the form just isn’t mature enough to carry it off? If that’s the case, though, developments like the interactive software/hardware combinations that run Lionhead’s virtual boy Milo suggest that the technical capability to make a sex-based game that’s going to inspire more than adolescent sniggering may finally be here. How long it will take someone to think of a genuinely engaging set of game mechanics to go with it is anyone’s guess… but I doubt it’ll be too long, despite the puritanical hand-wringing of career demagogues.

Mirror’s Edge – The Emptiness of the Short-distance Runner

Blasphemous Geometries sees Jonathan McCalmont taking a run with Mirror’s Edge, a game whose hipster near-future dystopian stylings fail to disguise its underlying theme – freedom is illusory.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont


After reading my previous column, you could be mistaken for thinking that only great games have themes and subtexts, and that those themes and subtexts only emerge when designers manage to work together and combine the various elements that make up a game into one shining image such as GTA IV’s initial depiction of the isolation and alienation that pervade 21st Century life. This is not in the least bit true.

Many crap games have themes, too. They have themes because every line of stilted absurd dialogue, every frustrating control mechanism, every poorly-designed level and every generic character all support one idea – an idea that the game designers almost certainly never had in mind when they started work on the title. Mirror’s Edge – from EA Design Illusions CE – is not only a terrible game, it is also a game with a clear thematic message: Freedom is an illusion, and all those who would claim to champion it are hypocritical and deluded fools. Continue reading Mirror’s Edge – The Emptiness of the Short-distance Runner