Friday, October 20, 2006

Don't Look Back In Anger

Science fiction is in trouble, no doubt about that, either. It has lost a considerable share of the market it once owned, its audience is growing older because it is having trouble attracting new readers, and it has lost confidence in itself. Reading through the responses to my little rant, and thinking on it some more, I know that I can’t offer a pat solution to this (and hey, if I had a solution, do you think I would share it with you, until I’d written that genre-defining, best-selling novel?). But I think a couple of things have become clearer.

There’s nothing wrong with old skool sf. There isn’t even anything wrong with old-fashioned Star Wars style sf, if that’s what floats your boat. But if that’s all science fiction has to offer, then it will no longer be a vital genre: it will have become a museum of taxonomy. Because retreating from the present into the familiar comfort of the past means giving up on something that makes science fiction distinctive. It means no longer dealing with the shock of the new, no more wild extrapolations or metaphorical constructs ripped from the bleeding edge of science and technology, an end to pushing trends to their limits, and explorations of the limits of what makes us human. Goodbye to all that; hello to a little cell that’s getting smaller by the minute, padded with worn-out tropes from some mythical Golden Age, inhabited by catatonics.

Science fiction isn’t going to win a new and wider audience by turning its back on the world and talking to itself. It has to engage. It has to produce novels that are part of the world’s conversation. Paul Cornell is right. If someone somewhere could write a definitely great populist but finely imagined science fiction novel, it would not only be a lovely thing in its own right; it would, like a supernova, make the science fiction galaxy more visible. But I’d go further. One singular novel, or one lone author, is in danger of being traduced by the too-good-to-be-science-fiction brigade. If we’re going to get our mojo back, we need a shelfload of good books that connect the present with fabulous futures, weird worlds, and even weirder ideas made as real and plausible as any armchair.

So if you’re a writer, write from the heart as well as from the mind. Aim for an audience if you like, but know this: at best you’re going to hit nothing more than a temporary, here-and-gone demographic. Wouldn’t it be better to try to write the book that means more to you than any other book? You’ll probably fail. But you can always try again, and fail better. And, dear reader: buy books. Tell people about the books you like. Spread the word. Behave like you have found the best and finest secret in the world. And who knows? Perhaps you have.


Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

Fail better!

What fine advice -- Faulkner said that all you can hope for is to create the best failure you have in you and move on to the next, with luck, better bigger failure.

The essence of that approach means, of course, ceasing to write with one or both eyes on the "market" which is what the field's -- all the fields of literature and the rest of the of the arts -- best artists have always done, and exactly what the "we're just here to entertain" crowd disparages.

I went recently to my first con since just after OMNI closed (a decade ago and how can that be?) In the course of a panel discussion this topic came up. Entertainment, I tried to point out, is one thing, and not at all what the "we're just competing with TV and sports and beer-money" crew seeks to sell (sic.)

What they are offering is distraction and nothing more than that.

What surprised me, but shouldn't have, was how much the distractors agreed with me, and saw that as the primary responsibility not just of themselves but also of all sf.

That failure, broad as the market, ongoing and by now so deeply ingrained in so much of the "field" as to be self-sustaining as well as self-limiting, goes a long way to explain, from my perspective anyway, why sf-as-entity has lost readers, real readers, while holding on to distraction-besotted fans.

Here's to real readers -- and real failures. We can't have too many of either.

October 21, 2006 4:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Sf's no good,
They bellow till we're deaf.
'But this looks good!'
Well, then it's not SF."

October 22, 2006 12:15 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Keith,

Good point well made. There's nothing wrong with entertainment (I watched the second part of Back to the Future last night, an exemplar of good, well-thought-out entertainment if ever there was one); and it can even reach the head as well as tickle the funny bone. Distraction, though...feh. If a book (or TV program or whatever) has no higher ambition than to occupy a couple of hours of someone's time and then pass from their mind without trace, well, that's not for me. And won't ever be taken seriously by anyone ever - including publishers.

Ian - is that by Robert Conquest? I was going to drop it in, but was too lazy to look it up, unlike you.

October 22, 2006 11:05 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree.
A big problem is that such major sf novels seldom get real publisher support. Bear for example
has written truly gripping technothrillers, but his latest (QUANTICO) got shrugged off by Del
Rey, who refused to publish it, even though it was under contract.

October 24, 2006 8:30 pm  
Blogger Martin Wisse said...

Welcome back to the seventies!

Maybe science fiction as a genre is destinied to die out, its interesting parts absorbed back into the mainstream, the rest remaining as fodder for an aging population of fhans?

November 01, 2006 1:28 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

I hope not Martin. The mainstream only takes the bits it wants - the stuff that's, y'know, real. Not the fantastic made-up stuff wildly extrapolated from the, well, real.

November 01, 2006 6:40 pm  

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