Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sci-Fi and Me

In The Sunday Times - my defence of science fiction.


  1. Can the decline of SF, and the rise of fantasy, be attributed to the fact that SF is now the new realism, while fantasy continues to offer a form of escapism to its readership?

  2. I grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and I still have huge affection for SF. Yet I've been reading less of it since the rise of popular SF. I remember when it began to happen at my local independent bookshop and how I began to turn away in disgust from the SF section as it became increasingly dominated by spin-offs from Star Trek, Dr. Who, Buffy, Babylon Five. It's even worse now. Serious science fiction writing has been crowded out by fandom. My subscription to Interzone lapsed, not because I no longer enjoyed it, but because I was worried about my self-image. Nothing says 'friendless outcast' quite like the latest Gregory Benford book tucked under your arm.

  3. yeah, big chip dale - what he said!

    if we want it, we'll have it and if we don't, we won't. now that's what I call culture.

    actually, I'm quite surprised because, on the internet at least, you sometimes have to beat SFF&H enthusiasts away with a stick.

  4. Nice article Bryan. I share you views on Sci Fi too. Have you got round to the Devil's Whore yet? It starts as academic knockabout but ends very close to science fiction. The sequel, System Reset, is definitely science fiction.

    John Illsley

  5. I grew up reading sci-fi -- Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Edgar Rice Burroughs (the Mars series, which I adored), Ursual LeGuin -- and I still enjoy it when the well-written piece comes my way.

    You Brits have the greatest living sci-fi writer in your country, but you may not know it because he is astonishing in every literary genre. I am referring to David Mitchell. His "Cloud Atlas" is one of the most inventive novels I have ever read with an incredible sci-fi narrative about a post-apocalyptic world and its genetic clones (Sonmi -- one of my favorite characters in fiction).

    If you haven't read "Cloud Atlas," you have really missed one of the best novels of the last decade. And his more traditional "Black Swan Green" is also pretty fantastic.

  6. "I will define science fiction, first, by saying what sci-fi is not. It cannot be defined as "a story (or novel or play) set in the future" since there exists such a thing as a space adventure, which is set in the future but is not sci-fi: it is just that: adventures, fights and wars in the future in space involving super-advanced technology. Why then is it not science fiction? Space adventure lacks the distinct new idea that is the essential ingredient. Also, there can be science fiction set in the present: the alternate world story or novel." (Philip K Dick)

    Most modern sci fi books are just way too derivative. And classical sci fi is often tedious in light of modern society. Compare Gibson, Sterling and Dan Simmons (Illium/Olympus) with Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein etc. The old stuff sounds old. Language has evolved.

    UK education in the 1970's and 1980's featured a number of sci fi stories designed to counter communism: Brave New World, The Lotus Eaters, 1984. No wonder sci fi bores people.

    And then there's Star Trek and Star Wars... Star Wars fell foul to commerce. Star Trek became unspeakably formulaic and boring.

    We reached the year 2000 and there were no flying cars, no moonbase alpha, no alien invasion and no real interest in space anymore. People are more interested in Britney Spears than they are in the universe.

  7. i grew up reading Fantasy, most of it crap. i'm surprised at how popular it is now, and also how crap most of the lauded stuff is, Robert Jordan, Scott Backer.

    i wonder if the appeal of SF lies in an interest in seeing this world differently (The Matrix) and seeing how it could be (Blade Runner), whereas Fantasy appeals to those nostalgiac for a time of melee combat, real ale, and horses.

    Dune was in some ways a mixture of these two - technology had annulled itself, the shield making knife fighting practical once more, and the Butlerian Jihad having overthrown AI in favour of mentats. i note that Robert Jordan's hugely successful and hugely crap Wheel of Time books rips off many of Herbert's stuff with the Fremen for his Aiel desert dwellers.

    Fantasy also tends to be utterly detached from any kind of reality: the 'medieval' world of these books is bullshit, their combat & war scenes are bullshit, and people tend to prefer bullshit to anything based in reality, however distantly.

  8. I agree with the sentiment in the article, but my problem with science fiction since about 1980 is that it has become too pessimistic, and (sadly) it does seem as if the great sub-genres (first contact, alien invasion, time travel, etc) have already been done about as well as they can be.

    When I was a child in the 1960's, there was considerable amount of science fiction written for children in my local public library, and I can still remember in outline some of the stories, even though I am probably destined never to find the books again now. But the essential element of most of them was an optimism that exploring the planets and stars was an exciting and wondrous exercise, and humanity had a future. I miss this sense of optimism in adult science fiction now.

    (I suppose you can call Star Trek and other TV science fiction optimistic, but really it is for the most part just too formulaic and repetitive to hold much interest now.)

  9. Bryan we still have one original SF short story magazine in Britain, Interzone, and I'll arrange for you, and others who ask, to be sent a sample copy if you/they contact me me at
    roy (at) ttapress (dot) demon (dot) co (dot) uk

    Interzone is now in its 25th year and is more the heir to 'New Worlds' than 'Astounding' but Stephen Baxter started his career in its pages as did Greg Egan and many others. Both Aldiss and Banks have also featured in its pages.

    It has a new publisher and has changed recently so maybe Big Chip Dale can try it again.

    A Google on the magazine's name plus SF and TTA will find the website.

  10. Excelent article. Am I the only one to have noticed that the best SF is written by trained scientists (Isaac Asimov) or trained engineers (Arthur Clarke)? By the way Steve, do not try looking for the books that you read as a boy as the magic is gone the second time round.