Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Let's Put The Future Behind Us*

I was going to write about realism and space fiction, and at some point I will, but something I discovered via SF Signal (which does a nice job of aggregating all kinds of links to science fiction and fantasy stuff) got under my skin this morning, and it's an itch I can't resist scratching.

Over on the web site of the Science Fiction Writers of America, author and astronomy professor Michael Brotherton published a list of ten hard science fiction novels that have stood the test of time.  I don't want to pick an argument with Michael Brotherton, specifically.  The ten books he's chosen are all solid, often award-winning novels from science fiction's rich and storied history, and he gives good and interesting reasons for selecting them.  He knows his science fiction, and he knows his science.  The problem isn't that there's anything wrong with the list he's generated using his criteria, apart from one obvious thing I'll get to in a minute, but that it exemplifies the way science fiction is all too often backward looking.  The problem is with the criteria.  Specifically with that cute little phrase 'stood the test of time.'

The oldest novel on the list is Hal Clement's A Mission of Gravity, serialised in 1953; the most recent is Carl Sagan's Contact, from 1985.  It's true that everything on the list has stood the test of time, but science has moved on.  A lot.  Three of the novels deal with problems in Newtonian physics; two with using radio astronomy to contact aliens; two more with relativistic dilation effects.  Given their vintage, none deal with or could be expected to deal with anything approaching the current bleeding edge of science - the new cosmology, brane theory, string theory, dark matter, nanotechnology, quantum computing, most modern biotechnological techniques, and on and on.   The list isn't a bad list (except for the obvious problem), but like too many lists of its kind - and science fiction fans and writers love to produce lists - it was produced by looking backwards, not forward, by framing the selective criteria to include a bunch of the usual suspects and to exclude anything even remotely recent.

It also, and now I'm getting to the obvious problem, does not include any hard sf novels by women, or by writers of colour.  At all.  Michael Brotherton does acknowledge this, and names some writers he might have included if he wasn't looking backwards.  He also mentions some writers whose careers began after 1985, and notes, again quite rightly, that 'a field this rich can’t be captured in a top ten list.'  Absolutely.  But it doesn't stop people making lists, all too often generated by criteria that exclude much of science fiction's current variety.  So here's an idea.  Why not frame your lists to exclude the obvious suspects?  Why not make lists of ten great hard sf novels by women, or by non-Western writers?  Or how about twenty mindblowing hard sf novels of the twenty-first century?  Here are a few to get you going on the latter: Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder, Justina Robson's Natural History, M. John Harrison's Light, Tricia Sullivan's Maul. Any others?

*title filched from Jack Womack's fine satirical novel about post-Soviet Russia


Anonymous Mike Brotherton said...

What you see as a bug I intended as a feature. My list was supposed to be "classics" from 25+ years ago. That was part of my criteria. I would love to write a follow-up with much more recent books, or have someone else do it since I don't read as much as I'd like in recent years. Why don't you pitch the idea and do it? Then I can criticize your choices and say "All these books are too new. Where are the old classics?" ;)

November 15, 2012 1:19 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Mike,

There's nothing wrong with your list in itself. It's a good selection - although as you note, all male - backed up by thoughtful comments. My beef is not with you, or your list, or any other single list. I'd just like to see some alternatives to the plethora of lists looking backwards and containing the usual suspects. And isn't there, by the way, more than a little genre anxiety in the way we are so eager to give novels 'classic' status?

I have, at the end of the piece, asked for nominations for a list of great C21st )now I've made a correction) hard sf novels. But the point I was trying to make wasn't that we need more lists. It was that SF looks backwards too often. If we only celebrate the past, then one day the past is all we'll have.

November 15, 2012 8:49 am  

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