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Is Science Fiction Dying?

It’s interesting to look at how science fiction has evolved over the past 120 years or so. I have wondered whether the increasing complexity of technology and perceived need to break out from oft-repeated story concepts are leading to a marginalisation of science fiction, due to the ‘need’ to cater to the harshest critics of science fiction, uber-geeks who can understand the concepts involved, at the expense of the general reading public.

The near-tautology of speculating on the future of science fiction is an interesting one, and a couple of weeks ago New Scientist hosted a feature on that very topic:

These days, science can be stranger than science fiction, and mainstream literature is increasingly futuristic and speculative. So are the genre’s days numbered? We asked six leading writers for their thoughts on the future of science fiction, including Margaret Atwood, William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Plus, we review the latest sci-fi novels, highlight the writers to watch and reveal the results our poll of your all-time favourite sci-fi films and books.

With an introduction by Marcus Chown, the feature is definitely worth checking out if you’re at all interested in the genre. Coincidentally, around the same time PBS also ran a feature on how the science fiction pulps are struggling to survive (rather ironically) in the modern world of free content on the Internet.

This year I’ve been revisiting many of my science fiction favourites of my youth, as I stopped reading fiction for quite a long while. Anybody got good recommendations for some quality ‘modern’ reads?

Editor
  1. Good old SF
    I was in a bookshop just the other day, browsing as I love to do. I have always been drawn to the SF section because that was all I read as a teenager (many years ago). It was a natural progression from Superman and Spiderman comics to Philip K. Dick and Thomas M. Disch. Anyhow, back to the bookshop: I have become increasingly dismayed at the comparative lack of good, makes-you-think SF on those shelves. These days they seem to be filled with Fantasy titles (which I would not class as Science Fiction at all), while the “real” SF is of the Inter-Galtactic Wars variety with which I lost interest soon after reading Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and watching the Star Wars movies.

    So I came away with three novels from the “General Fiction” section.

    Incidentally, the one SF book that had more effect upon my teenage mind than any other (and that I have re-read since) is: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. If you haven’t read it and tire of trying to find a good modern alternative, then I can highly recommend it.

    Dave.

    http://www.davidsmuse.co.uk

  2. A few books
    I recommend Rudy Rucker’s Postsingular (Amazon), but you’ve probably already read it.

    Fairyland by Paul J. McAuley (Amazon) is a great read, very original with brilliant ideas.

    Cory Doctorow’s books are okay, but I find his ideas are better than his fiction. I recommend Little Brother. It’s a Young Adult novel, but your kids can read it when you’ve finished (Amazon).

    Something different (and topical), try India in the year 2047 — Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (Amazon). It’s a hard slog at first, but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with some mind-blowing ideas and scifi.

    Last, but not least, is the ineffable Takeshi Kovacs. For kick-arse action and horrifyingly real scifi concepts, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon is brilliant (Amazon).

    I hear Cernig’s mate Charles Stross is pretty good at the scifi as well. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. From the late Chrichton
      I haven’t read Chrichton’s latest novel, ‘Next’, but I thought ‘Prey’ was rather good.

      Although I suppose some purists would argue if what Chrichton wrote was genuine SF, or techno thrillers. Then again, so many people wan to catalogue things, distinguish between Hard SF and Light SF.

      For me, great literature is not about the story per se. It’s about using the story or the general concept as an excuse to discuss something far deeper and important from the human condition. In that regard, SF has not match.

      —–
      It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
      It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

      Red Pill Junkie

  3. I share your feeling, Greg.
    I share your feeling, Greg. I read science and science fiction voraciously all my life, but during the last five years SF just hasn’t held my interest.

    I attribute part of my waning interest to what I now perceive as a narrow-mindedness on the part of most SF writers, at least the hard-SF subset.

    Science fiction used to be about pushing boundaries of imagination. But there are two big problems with that, now.

    On the hard-SF front, the Standard Model of physics is starting to show its age. It doesn’t describe things very well any more, and it’s been thoroughly mined by very clever writers anyway. If I read one more ‘generation starship’ novel I’ll barf.

    Soft-SF has the opposite problem. It’s long been devoted to exploring unbridled imagination, but once you reach the point of ‘everything is a figment of your imagination’ I don’t know where else it can go.

    Of course there is still the human element, and exploring relationships (human-to-human, human-to-sentient entity, human-to-universe). But at that point it’s just general fiction with some set dressing.

    Egan, Stross, Bear and other peri- and post-Singularity authors do make a valiant effort to keep the SF flame burning, but after a while such material ceased to excite me. (And I won’t buy any more Greg Bear books since he and Jerry Pournelle and some others started helping the Dept. of Fatherland Security as consultants.)

    And so I have gone back to reading old public domain books from Project Gutenberg (and their free audio counterparts on Librivox.org)

    I really enjoyed H. Rider Haggard’s “She” books, which have some SF trappings, as well as a fascinating titular character. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” turned out to be a kickass tale, somewhat reminiscent of a Michael Crichton quasi-SF novel. And its predecessor, “Carmilla” by J. Sheridan Lefanu was also entertaining.

  4. Recent Sci-Fi picks
    I’m somewhat deliberately out of the current stream of pop culture, having chosen to live in the boonies and soak myself in the wonderful pulp culture of 1860-1960. So my notion of “recent” extends back into the 1980’s…

    C. J. Cherryh is one of the best modern American writers, let alone genre writers. “Finity’s End” and “Cyteen” are her two summing-up novels of her Alliance/Union universe, which began with her David Lean-sized epic “Downbelow Station” in 1979. “Cyteen” is one of the best explorations of a society based on widespread cloning that I’ve ever read.

    Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” is THE great sci-fi novel of the 90’s, and one of the very few sci-fi comedies. Think “Neuromancer” as filmed by Luc Besson or Terry Gilliam ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s also chock-full of really profound ideas, many of interest to readers of TDG…Stephenson’s later book “The Diamond Age” is THE novel about nanotech, and just as fertile with ideas, but it’s a much more somber work.

    Lucius Shepard has written some wonderfully weird Arkham House stuff. David Brin has given us both terrific space opera (the “Uplift” series) and mind-bending concepts (his 1988 novel “Earth” has the first popular reference I know of to global warming).

    1. Stephenson
      I’ve read about Stephenson’s books and I’m deeply intrigued. However, I do know he’s a very demanding author, and his phone book-sized novels which need one adult pine tree-worth of pulp each to be printed look too challenging for my ever-limiting free time :-/

      —–
      It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
      It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

      Red Pill Junkie

  5. Highly recommended, very “grail-ish”
    I can’t remember how I found it on Amazon, but I recently purchased Blindsight by Peter Watts.

    Very good indeed, I have to say – and should appeal to Daily-Grail types as instead of being purely spaceships and lasers, it is a First Contact type story that essentially takes a long hard look at the nature of consciousness itself.

    Or, if you’d rather not spend the cash and have access to a printer and lots of recycled paper (books always read better on the printed page than the screen, I feel), you can download it for free from the authors own website. The notes and references at the end show how well-researched the book is too.

    Enjoy!

  6. Go Against the Grain
    I wish sci-fi authors would go against the political correctness that has beset the genre lately. I wish they would challenge and even contradict the current scientific mindset. By this, I mean that they should offer competing theories to explain some of the phenomena that science is currently struggling with. Ancient texts (Bible, myths, etc.) offer a wealth of material to draw from.

    For examples:

    -What if there is a soul and what if the mind is much more than just the brain? What if the universe was created by a powerful entity for a specific purpose?

    -What if powerful creatures did come down to earth in antiquity and violated the prime directive by sexually intermingling with humans and teaching them metallurgy and other skills, thus giving rise to ancient religions?

    -What if most ancient myths are not to be taken literally and are merely coded metaphors used to hide secret scientific knowledge in plain sight? Alchemy, anyone?

    -What if there is no space or spacetime and a technology is perfected that allows instantaneous travel from anywhere to anywhere? What kind of world would we have without borders? How would life change if you could have breakfast in New York and lunch on Mars?

    -What if we are moving in a sea of energy and everything that ever occurs is recorded in this sea? What if a few of us gained the ability to tap into this recording of the past and learn powerful historical and personal secrets? Some humans seem to have perfect memory recall. Maybe these mental mutants are tapping into a recording of their life history. The akashic records come to mind.

    My point is that it is time for sci-fi authors to rebel against the old guard rather than sheepishly go along with it. We need blatantly anti-scientific sci-fi in my opinion.

    1. instantaneous travel from anywhere to anywhere
      For most, it’s easier and cheaper to get around than it used to be a century ago, and this has brought about widescale change.

      Instantaneous travel and ‘free’ energy, would completely destroy our current social and environmental order (such as it is), but what would replace it? How could the introduction of such technology into the mainstream be managed, and can any lessons be learned from our recent history?

      No answers from me, just questions!

      ——

      I don’t believe in belief!

      Perceval

      1. The Doors
        If a simple instantaneous travel method works really well, it would be pointless to lock the doors at your house. Anyone could just teleport in when they wanted. Your mother in law, or people who think you have a nice collection of valuable paintings.

        —-
        It is not how fast you go
        it is when you get there.

        1. Paladins
          That’s why Paladins think Jumpers are an abomination before the eyes of God.

          It wasn’t such a bad movie. You might want to grab it on Blockbuster one of these days.

          —–
          It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
          It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

          Red Pill Junkie

    2. Agreed
      [quote=Mapou]My point is that it is time for sci-fi authors to rebel against the old guard rather than sheepishly go along with it. We need blatantly anti-scientific sci-fi in my opinion.[/quote]

      That’s exactly what I’ve been feeling, you’ve summed it up well in your final statement. More writers taking on the heretical (e.g. bringing back concepts of spirituality as being intrinsic to the cosmos…rather than making the technology at the forefront of science fiction).

      Kind regards,
      Greg
      ——————————————-
      You monkeys only think you’re running things

      1. no-tech
        Greg, boss-man ๐Ÿ™‚
        No that is not it, Greg just pokes us in the side, as is his duty.

        I think we need new personal stories. Along lines unfarmiliar with the established science. The bad predictions have never worked, and they have never been the point of science fiction.

        For example: Star Trek is basically a Western, set in outer space, no ?

        —-
        It is not how fast you go
        it is when you get there.

  7. Peter F. Hamilton
    I’ve recently gotten into Hamilton’s work. Using the Commonwealth Saga (which is two books, Pandora’s Star & Judas Unchained) as the reference I find him to meld the positive qualities of Asimov (R. Daneel Olivaw era hyper-detailed crime sci-fi), Herbert (the engaging epic qualities of Dune), and Gibson & Stephenson (killer cyberpunk). Massive stories with excellent character development and long, interweaving story lines…the best of the best. If you want to add the Night’s Dawn trilogy into the mix (The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist & The Naked God) you can shift the comparison to Clarke (carefully considered alien species and creative technology) mixed with Stephen King (think the creepiness and epic story of The Stand) and Books of Blood/Damnation Game-era Clive Barker (nasty horror) for a series with a completely different feel.

    Highly recommended, Hamilton has renewed my interest in and enthusiasm for modern SF!

  8. SF suggestions, etc
    For starters, I HATE “sci-fi” (the term) as it conjures up visions of pimply geeks wanking off in basements…I prefer science fiction or speculative fiction as good term.
    What do I like or suggest? Some of the grand masters, like Heinlein, Silverberg,lots of staying power. And I’ve discovered Stephen Baxter – British guy, hard SF but with a warmth and spirituality to it (check out Transcendental). Dan Simmons is the same way – SF with a spiritual element to it. Can’t stand Arthur Clarke – one of the coldest writers I ever came across! Character development is just DULL with Clarke and as for any spiritual element? Forget about it…
    Other faves for me include Connie Willis, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and James Tiptree Jr – JTJ was edgy and provocative, especially when it came to pushing the envelope on gender issues (JTJ was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, RIP)
    And for sheer fun – Mike Resnick’s many books, but I just love the “Santiago” series – rollicking SF with empires and characters to die for! It’s “Foundation” with a sense of humour and characters you can love – unlike with Asimov’s books, where character development is nebulous at best.
    I think SF is like faith and religion – it can change and adapt to the times but still be with us.
    Greetings from a proud female speculative fiction fan!!!

    1. I resent that!!
      [quote]For starters, I HATE “sci-fi” (the term) as it conjures up visions of pimply geeks wanking off in basements…[/quote]

      I totally resent that statement!!

      Some of us don’t even have basements ๐Ÿ˜›

      PS: I agree that for Clarke & Asimov giving depth to characters is not the biggest priority; they are too busy forging believable worlds and talking about “the big picture”. For them, individuals are almost unimportant.

      —–
      It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
      It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

      Red Pill Junkie

    2. old trends
      I like the old guys and girls. In addition to the classics that you mention, there is of course Stanislaw Lem. He comes from a different direction, but only slightly if you look hard.

      They all write about the human condition. About human interactions, in a speculative way. Between humans many generations apart.

      And also about interactions with non-humans, across species. Spider Robinson does that sort of thing too.

      What all of these have in common is that technology is entirely incidental. There may be rockets and teleporting devices and things, but they are just devices get the story to the human/alien character issues.

      I don’t really like much of the work of Clarke, he was way too preachy. But that is a matter of personal taste.

      —-
      It is not how fast you go
      it is when you get there.

  9. Thanks!
    Thanks to everyone who’s commented on this thread – I’ve got more than few good ideas to whack on my Xmas wish list now! I just need to work on the spare time issue, and I might actually be able to read something…

    Kind regards,
    Greg
    ——————————————-
    You monkeys only think you’re running things

    1. Good reads?
      Drai, agus Draiocht!

      Bud!
      As seen in the torrent of replies, there’s a ton of stuff out there.
      Lately, I’m really into Stephenson’s work, and it flows like heated butter. You’ll find yourself asking for more after just a taste. Don’t let so many pages put you off.
      You’ll find yourself inhaling them.

      Also, Peter Watts gets my green flag.
      Watts has a way of making the End of the World as we Know It seem like “OK, We fuckedup, hand me a shovel, and it’ll be cleaned up soon. maybe. Hand me a shotgun, just in case”.
      Peter’s got his work available for download free. Suck it up
      off his web page. Wilder, deeper stuff is broiling out of this guy every day.

      Liz Bear (nom de plume)
      Takes a blend of classic fantasy,age-old knowledge, and good science and weaves tales that make the Long Winter nights seem only minutes.

      And my favorite, Jose Farmer. The Unreasoning Mask.
      An unrecognised masterpiece of Man’s role in the multiverse.
      Thanks to Spider Robinson, who saw this too.
      (by working his daughter, Josie, into his work).
      S.R. is also crafty as hell.

      And on, and on…

  10. The line is blurry
    There used to be a clear line between Science Fiction and Science Fact. Advances in technology has blurred this line over the years at a breakneck speed.

    Many things on Star Trek for example which were once fanciful are now common place and spot on. Such as the square pieces of plastic holding volumes of data in the day of reel to reel data drives are now common place today.

    However…riding along side that phenomenon…

    People are so used to watching TV shows like The X-Files presented in such a way that it seems plausible that they start to accept the stories as fact instead of the fiction that it is.

    As a result its easier now for all the “Richard Hoaglands” of the world to be accepted for revealing “ground breaking” revelations about “anomalies” this and “cover ups” that presented in the same technobabble style which is so familiar on SF TV shows. (favoured catch word: anomalies)

    I love to immerse myself into a good SciFi book, TV Show or Movie and imagine what if this were all possible. However I do know what is fiction and what is fact and can separate the two.

    There are those who cannot separate the fact from the fiction and believe for example that crystal skulls were made by aliens – as “no technology exists today to carve them” – bull.

    For these people no matter what evidence there is to the contrary it’s all an X-File type of misinformation and conspiracy and they will blissfully adjust their tin-foil hat smug in the knowledge that they “know the truth”. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Cheers

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