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Wednesday 1 January 2003

Minor Futurism: Where SFF is Headed

An essay by Gabe Chouinard

As a society, we’ve passed through our era of technological progress, and have moved into an era of technological refinement. We’ve abandoned looking outward toward the stars, and have turned our gazes inward. From self-help pop psychology to biotechnology, our focus has undeniably changed. Gone is the halcyon dream of Progress, with its shiny chrome futurism. Instead, our future looks grimy and slimy, dominated by terrorist splinter cells and stem cells. It’s a world of mass commercialism, AOLFuture 8.0.

So where does that leave the SFF community? Where does that leave literary SFF?

As we drift along in post-9/11 publishing torpor, such questions seem not only inconsequential, but almost pointless. Few want to ask the questions; fewer still want to explore the answers.

And yet....

There is definite motion in SFF these days. Not a Movement, or even a pseudo-movement. It isn’t coming from the publishers, who continue to cast aimlessly about in search of the Next Big Thing. Nor is it coming from the writers, who still do their own things, putting out work they’ve always been interested in creating. Critics certainly aren’t doing it; while there are some good critics out there, the vast majority of criticism is still meaningless pap. (On a positive note, 4 out of 5 readers found this paragraph helpful....)

And yet...

If you’d visited Tokyo recently, it’s possible that you would have noticed the oyayubisoku, or “thumb tribe”, staring intently at their mobile phones instead of talking into them. If you’d been there, you would know that they weren’t crazy — they were text messaging. This fad, this phenomenon, is an example of what Howard Rheingold refers to as “smart mobs”. Total strangers, completely mobile, completely in touch with one another. Information passed with blinding speed, whole blocks of people simultaneously informed of... well, whatever. There’s a sale on Adidas shirts in a boutique. Mizuku is having an off day brewing sake, stay away. Shoto Riders just hit the newsstand. There’s a riot on Kyoto Street... get over there ASAP.

It’s an amazing phenomenon, and indicative of strange new social trends that are just getting started. How would you like it if your phone buzzed to let you know that someone sexually compatible with you is two tables away in a restaurant? Hell, you even know what he looks like, since your phone sent you a picture, along with a list of his hobbies, physical traits, favorite positions, underwear size...

Which has nothing to do with literary SFF.

Except it does. In fact, it has everything to do with literary SFF.

But let’s get something clear right now, before we even really get started. Science fiction, as a branch of literature, hasn’t been ‘about’ technology since Hugo Gernsback was still calling it scientifiction. Modern SF has never been about the tech.

We live in a glossy, tabloid-style SF future. SF so permeates our society, most people don’t even recognize it as SF. To most, our sexy iBooks, mobile phones and Handspring Visors are just things, omnipresent objects. There’s nothing science fictional about it. In fact, looking to the horizon, there’s nothing even vaguely SFnal on its way. No going off to hang out on the moon, no humanoid robots trudging to work in the factories so we can all play golf, no genetic Armageddon on its way. The magical, mystical power of Progress is gone.

With it goes science fiction.

SF as a literary genre has been dying a slow death for a decade. It trundles doggedly on, terminally ill, brave face forward; but that doesn’t disguise the fact that there haven’t been any real, noteworthy strides — no injections of innovative life — since the brief flare of Cyberpunk in the Eighties. There have been multitudes of glorious, well-written, extremely good SF stories and novels in the last decade. But they’ve all been works of art sinking into a stagnant pool.

There, I said it. Are you surprised?

Recently, there has been plenty of crossfire conversation on where SFF is going. Some have proclaimed the ‘radical hard SF’ or ‘new space opera’ as the new face of science fiction. Others, bolstered by projects like Peter Straub’s recent Conjunctions issue, are proclaiming an era of cross-genre interstitial mainstream-fantasy hybrid fantastica as the latest-and-greatest.

Not true.

Radical hard SF is interesting and (no bones about it) trés cool. Peter F. Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon is one of my favorite novels of the year, and Alastair Reynolds ranks high on my list of favorite writers. Yet, radical hard SF/new space opera displays all the worst traits of modern SF. It’s written primarily by fans, for fans. While soaked in widescreen skiffy imagery pulled straight from the movies, radical SF, by embracing ‘hardness’, instead alienates itself from the average reader. Have engineering degree, will travel. This intellectual elitism is what made modern SF stagnant in the first place, so it’s no wonder radical hard SF hasn’t gained much outside attention — unlike the media circus surrounding the stars of the Cyberpunk movement.

On the other hand, we have the vague ‘cross-genre’ fiction. Again, there are hordes of talented writers in this substratum of SFF. Some of the writers I admire most dwell out here on the fringes: Jonathan Carroll, Kelly Link, Graham Joyce, M. John Harrison, etc. But the gnawing in my gut refuses to believe that cross-genre work will ever be the norm, or the dominant force in SFF. Cross-genre literary fantasy appeals only to a finite audience. Does anyone think many readers will drop David Drake in favor of Jeff VanderMeer? For most readers, these writers are too hard to nail down, too difficult to consolidate in one hand as a genre. So while cross-genre literary fantastic fiction is impressive, it’s generally beyond all but a portion of the existing audience.

And yet....

Now new in paperback, Al Sarrantonio’s Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction attempted to define SF’s new direction, post-millennial changeover. With a lot of unnecessary sturm und drang, this original anthology pretended to be a Dangerous Visions for our era. Aside from the fact that most of (maybe even all of) the stories in Redshift were excellent, the anthology fails miserably in defining any sort of direction for contemporary SFF. There’s no focus, no face-forward for the genre within Redshift. In other words, no direction.

And yet....

Everyone is all thrill-a-go-go over SFF at the moment. Don’t believe me? Then don’t go see The Two Towers. Don’t look for updates on X-Men 2, Spiderman 2, The Matrix sequels, or Alex Proyas’ I, Robot project. Stop watching Buffy, and quit talking about Farscape. No more clamoring for the return of Firefly.

Do Movie Execs Dream of PKD?

So why is SFF as a literary genre doomed to failure?

Quite simply, it’s the Fans.

If you’ve been to a convention lately, you’ve seen it. Fandom runs amok; but it’s the wrong kind of fandom. The majority of convention goers could give a shit about literary SFF. They’re out to claim allegiance to whatever skiffy project has caught their fancies, be it Star Trek, Star Wars, Farscape or what-have-you. Fandom has evolved so radically, most SFF writers, editors and publishers can’t even comprehend them, much less appeal to them. Theirs is a world of video game systems, movies, TV series. All non-literary.

In his essay “Paradise Charted”, Algis Budrys mentioned (way back in 1980) that Fandom “...could probably exist and even prosper independently of science fiction, so intertwined and vociferous are its interpersonal concerns.” It would appear that Budrys hit that one on the head.

Any genre requires readers/consumers. Horror fiction, for instance, exploded in popularity in the wake of Stephen King... and quickly died out as a genre when the vast majority of it became unreadable. Ditto for westerns, which have been reduced to Max Brand, Louis L’Amour, and the ‘erotic westerns’ like the Longarm series. And when’s the last time you saw a case in a bookstore overflowing with military adventure novels like the Don Pendleton/Mack Bolan Gold Phoenix editions that featured such groovy titles as AbleTeam, Navy SEALS, Phoenix Force, et al?

The omnivore fan (as David Hartwell so aptly named him in his essay “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is Twelve”) has fallen away, lured from SFF literature by ubiquitous tech toys and faddish games. Bright kids today may still start out reading comics, but they graduate to playing Grand Theft Auto III and HALO, not to reading. Reading demands far too much time and effort for our speedy, flashy modern world. We’re losing our potential omnivores too quickly.

On the fantasy side, J.K. Rowling was the Great White Hope. With the phenomenal success of her Harry Potter series, it was assumed that all those kids (and adults) would screech for more more more, thereby opening the floodgates on fantastic fiction. And yes, more people started picking up books... but it was mostly already voracious readers who were quite simply picking up stuff from the shelves where they normally wouldn’t browse; the Young Adult section. So yes, a minor increase in sales.

Pottermania is another fine example of the smart mob in action. Buzz manufactured interest. Interest sparked communication. Communication fueled sales, primarily via word-of-mouth and the Internet. Layer upon layer, building a bestseller, an intricate framework of factors that no one person controlled. Certainly the publisher had very little to do with it, at first, until they began feeding the fire. Certainly J.K. Rowling had very little to do with it, until the stories of her success started flowing. This was pure fandom at work.

These smart mobs work the other way as well. This year, Del Rey released Robert Newcomb’s debut novel, The Fifth Sorceress, with all sorts of accompanying manufactured buzz. Newcomb was touted as the Next Terry Goodkind. The novel had all the essential ingredients for success; a pastoral secondary world, magic galore, a pissy young Prince holding the fate of the world in his unwilling paws... all the Epic Fantasy tropes that scream for bestsellerdom.

By all accounts, that never happened.

The smart mobs quickly spread the word — Newcomb was quite less than he’d been touted as. The book, while not exactly horrible, was nothing spectacular. There were hints of misogyny. Newcomb wasn’t worth buying in hardcover, the mob decided. And the fans heeded the decision... and spread it on.

And yet....

Most people agree that SFF has been adrift, directionless and Movement-less since the Cyberpunks. Most people agree that modern SFF is insular, and even ‘impenetrable’ to non-genre readers (which, if true, only serves to underscore the fact that sooner or later, we’ll just run out of appreciative readers). And most people agree that we don’t know what the fuck to do about it.

Before we look forward, though, let’s dip back into the past for a bit.

Oddly enough, writers have never been the driving force in SFF publishing. Every frisson that led to change in the genre, every Movement that trotted through to remake the line-up on the shelves, surrounded an editor.

Good ol’ Uncle Hugo with his scientifiction. John W. Campbell, Jr. and his insistence on “idea as story”, remaking the pulps in his own wildly idiosyncratic image. J. Francis McComas and Anthony Boucher bringing lit value to the genre via F&SF magazine. H.L. Gold and Galaxy, followed by Frederik Pohl and the Futurians. On and on! Michael Moorcock at New Worlds. Terry Carr helming the Ace Specials. Damon Knight and his Orbit series of anthologies. Judith Merrill and her Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies. Harlan Ellison and Dangerous Visions. On and on! All with their unique foibles, each with their idiosyncratic personality tics, each with their individual tastes and guiding voices.

Where are those editors now? Where are our idiosyncratic madfolk, pushing and shaping and molding writers into coherent pieces of a whole? Everyone recognizes a Campbell story when they see one. Do we similarly recognize a Gardner Dozois story? A David Pringle story? An Ellen Datlow or Terri Windling story? A David Hartwell story?

And yet...

Is this a bad thing? Is the industry harmed by its lack of forceful editors shaping the field? Certainly, the time of Movements is past. Science fiction has grown beyond the need for guiding Movements, grown into a morass of styles and types. The market no longer demands a particular form of SFF; rather, those readers that are still devoted to speculative fiction are willing to move about, dipping into various pools and subgenres. SFF readers have grown much more flexible over time. Our overarching need for a definitive answer on “what science fiction is” has passed, swept away by the mainstream’s incorporation of SFnal tropes and styles. SF is no longer a ghetto, and the need to crawl from the wreckage of our genre is gone. And while people in the field still resist this idea, it would appear the fans have made the decision on their own.

And yet...

Questions, so many questions.

What’s the future of SFF?

There are two answers.

a) fragmented

b) fantasy
I’m certain there will always be science fiction, even of the ‘hard’ variety. But it won’t dominate the field, for a variety of reasons. It’s inaccessible to all but an elite few, and trends in publishing continue to push for the widest possible audience available. It’s rife with clichés, which modern readers have no time for; this is an age of creativity and innovation that we’re living in, where Idea reigns supreme. For ‘hard’ SF to continue in the mode of ‘idea as story’, we’d have to find a generation of writers that weren’t using all of their ideas on corporate consulting and trend-watching. Who can spend precious ideas on SF stories when they can be milked for megabucks on a groupware blog?

What we call ‘science fiction’ will be a fragmented, niche-oriented market. There will be no coherent, overriding style that will guide what we consider to be ‘real science fiction’. The modern marketplace has evolved over the course of the past decade, to the point where it’s become a series of Hydra-like heads squiggling about in a tangled mass. They’re all beneath the umbrella of science fiction, but there are no clear-cut delineations of segments. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it encourages the branching out of ideas to incorporate pieces from all aspects of literature. Nor is it a good thing, as a fragmented market leads to specialization, with less chance of any single author making an impact on the field... or sales.

But hard SF will remain, even if the only outlets are two highly-targeted e-zines aimed at tech geeks and engineers. There will always be readers who enjoy the rigorous use of hard scientific fact over literary devices. There will simply be fewer of them.

Most likely, though, is this: there will be a multitude of independent presses that will produce works that appeal to specific audiences. With many of the independent presses currently producing works, there is an attitude that accompanies a publishing house, which isn’t genre-specific; it’s house specific. It’s happened with publishers like Four Walls Eight Windows. It’s happened with publishers like The Ministry of Whimsy. It’s happened with publishers like Golden Gryphon. The attitude becomes the guiding principle of the publisher, much like the attitude that has accompanied Baen for years.

And yet...

There will be a dominant form of commercial SFF, however.

The younger generations of writers who are slogging their ways up through the mines of publishing are unlike most of the old guard in one vital detail: unlike our aging practitioners, these writers grew up on a steady diet of both science fiction and fantasy, whereas most SF writers today grew up solely on SF. This is producing an interesting cohesion within contemporary speculative fiction, where aspects of both sides of the fantastic fence appear in a single work.

Science fantasy.

Yes, science fantasy has always been the bastard stepchild of both SF and fantasy. But more and more, we’re seeing writers like China Miéville, Matthew Stover, Greg Keyes, John Marco, Steven Erikson and a host of others who straddle the genre lines with ease and excellence. Not especially cross-genre, since none of them has turned their nose to SFF traditions. Rather, these writers embrace both sides, melding them into a coherent science fantasy result. They’re fantasy writers, plain as day... but with the rigorous demands of science fiction underlying their work.

Science fantasy also allows its writers much more freedom than either hard SF or straight fantasy, and this is an age of freedom as well. More and more, we’re embracing individualism, and lauding the taking of chances in our art. In our genuinely no-brow culture, high art resides next to popular culture, intermingled and cross-pollinated. It’s the era of ‘no limits’, a DIY-society that demands more than empty calories from its entertainment. It shows in the music industry, in film, in every aspect of our artistic culture. And the evolution of SFF literature requires those same standards that are applied to everything else.

Yet, it is important to bear in mind that the Lowest Common Denominator is still a terrible thing. As artists of all sorts, it is our responsibility to challenge established notions of taste, and to bolster our culture from within. Without embracing that credo, science fantasy runs the same risk of stagnation and inbreeding that straight genre fiction suffers from.

Is this the shape of things to come?

Our current cultural shift is one that requires fantasy. We’ve grown tired of the future, have grown tired of the promise of Progress that never really comes. We’re tired of looking outward, and have turned our gazes inward. It’s time to stop exploring the Outer Rim, and time to start exploring the Inner Being. Science fantasy allows that; hard SF does not. Likewise, science fantasy is more accessible to a generation of potential fans that have grown up on media sci-fi, such as the Star Wars movies. Science fantasy is a freewheeling almost-anything-goes subgenre that fulfills the needs of a culture that has developed a ‘half-imagination’ over the years.

It isn’t a Movement, but it is movement — a progression of thought and the development of a pair of genres that have been mired in tradition and rigid, unblinking coda. This is where the excitement is.

And the fans are helping it along. If you visit the message boards, everyone is talking about the above-mentioned writers. No one is talking about the same-old, same-old stuff coming down the pipe. It’s all old news to the fans, and they’re itching for something new. The smart mobs are watching, braced for impact... and they’re looking for something good to read in the meantime.

Gabe Chouinard ( may be an agent provocateur, but we aren’t sure. We do know that he’s the editor of the forthcoming s1ngularity ezine, and that he writes a bit. He babbles a bit at

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