Friday, October 05, 2012

Rip It Up And Start Again

So critic Paul Kincaid took on a commission to write a review of this year's crop of best SF&F anthologies, and was dismayed by what he saw.  And after his review began to cause a bit of a stir, he amplified his thoughts in an interview, published in two parts.  It's all good, useful stuff.  Paul Kincaid is sincere, insightful, and very careful about articulating exactly what he means.  He's very careful, for instance, to point out that he doesn't think that SF is a dying genre.  But he does think that it is exhausted.  That it has reached a point of crisis.  That it has lost confidence in the future - or in presenting comprehensible futures.  Undermined by the feeling that 'the present [is] changing too rapidly for us to keep up with', it has reeled backwards, producing thinly-imagined futures based on unexamined second-hand furniture lifted from older sf.  Stories in which most of the sf tropes are mere decoration that if stripped out wouldn't much change the plots, and most of the science is based more on magical thinking than on actual cutting-edge research.

Like every genre, sf has always mined its past, of course, but Kincaid senses something new: a lack of passion.  A lack of edge.  Of danger.

Way back when, when I was writing Eternal Light, when the whole 'Radical Hard SF' and 'New Space Opera' thing was kicking off, I was part of a bunch of writers who, along with Interzone editor David Pringle, felt something similar.  If you were going to reuse the old tropes, we thought back then, you shouldn't take them at face value.  You should strip out their guts and rebuild them from the ground up.  You should weld in the new biology, the new physics, the new cosmology.  Punk it up.  I still think that.  The internet makes it much easier to keep up with what science is doing now (twenty years ago, I was working in a university, so unlike many of my contemporaries, I had a whole library of scientific literature to draw on; now, much of that stuff is just a few keystrokes away).  Ditto cutting-edge fashion, architecture, information technology . . .  The future is unfolding all around you, right here in the happening world of the present.

But as Kincaid points out, the present isn't a comfortable place, right now.  Which is perhaps why too many sf writers recoil from it, into cosy futures from days past.  And there's a professionalism in the genre now that wasn't much in evidence twenty years ago; perhaps people aren't inclined to take risks that might affect their brand.  It's certainly harder to publish a different kind of novel, every time, than it once was.  And let's face it, twenty years on, it's possible that I've become part of the problem.  I'm not sure what my 'brand' is, let alone how to nuture it, but it's possible, yes, that I've grown lazy and complacent.  That's why critics like Paul Kincaid are useful - to ask hard questions, to point out uncomfortable truths.  That's why we should take them seriously.  That's why, if they point out a problem, we shouldn't react defensively, but try to figure out how to solve it.  How to do better, next time.

All I know is that I wrote The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun because I was excited by images of the real landscapes of real moons captured by actual robot spacecraft, and wondered what it would be like live out there, and walk across those craters, those wrinkle ridges, and how it would change the people who did.  I wrote In The Mouth of the Whale because I wanted to mash the ur-trope of interstellar travel and colonisation with riffs on posthuman transcendentalism into an extended metaphor about death and rebirth.  And one of the seeds of Evening's Empires was a reaction to the ongoing denial of science in favour of the kind of magical thinking that has people reject vaccines for homeopathic pills.  'In good times magicians are laughed at,' Fritz Leiber wrote in his short story, 'Poor Superman'.  'They're a luxury of the spoiled wealthy few. But in bad times people sell their souls for magic cures and buy perpetual-motion machines to power their war rockets.'

Which is kind of where we came in.

6 Comments:

Blogger Mark Pontin said...

'And let's face it, twenty years on, it's possible that I've become part of the problem.'

Oh, you'd be one of the people Kincaid's observations least apply to. Someone with real science chops almost always attempting to do real SFnal ideation is how I think of you.

Speaking frankly, IMO in some of your fiction the prose is fine while in others of your stories the prose surfaces aren't always as I might like. But there's always something going on and I'll always read you.

October 06, 2012 1:47 AM  
Blogger Paul Weimer said...

That quote from Poor Superman is a killer one. I need to re-read that story.

October 08, 2012 11:36 AM  
Blogger Adam Roberts said...

Mark: " in some of your fiction the ... prose surfaces aren't always as I might like."

I was very surprised to read this: whatever other excellencies Paul displays as a writer, his prose has always struck me as amongst the most sophisticated and impressive in genre today. He writes with Golding's vividness and precision.

October 10, 2012 5:08 PM  
Blogger Mark Pontin said...

Our host does write with vividness and precision often and his prose is certainly among the best in the genre today.

I don't wish to be churlish: after all, it's all just opinions and everybody has one. It may be that I'm hoping for some impossible-to-sustain fusion of Paul's science/ideational chops with, say,a Mike Harrison-type of prose luminosity.

October 10, 2012 8:43 PM  
Anonymous Cristian Tamas said...

Excellent article, sir !

I'm Cristian Tamas from the Romanian Science Fiction&Fantasy Society (www.srsff.ro/), a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of the SF&F genres.
I'm kindly asking you to give me your permission to translate your article "Rip It Up And Start Again" into romanian and to post it on our site.
You'll be credited as the author, we'll mention your permission and we'll insert a link towards the original.

Yours respectfully,
Cristian Tamas

October 17, 2012 5:27 PM  
Blogger Casey Samulski said...

I think you've gotten it exactly, Paul.

It's not that the future is moving too quickly, as some have complained, it's that the discomfort of the present is so real and repellant, perhaps even so reminiscent of the dystopian visions generated in years past, that there is a reluctance to engage with it honestly.

In that sense, it is fear-driven and willful blindness.

October 24, 2012 2:03 AM  

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