Saturday, November 15, 2008

What happened to Science Fiction?

Mall of America (11)

I spent the afternoon at the Mall of America ahead of my plane back to the Netherlands, buying clothes, a little melatonin, browsing for Christmas presents, getting a haircut, enjoying a plate of beef brisket at Famous Dave’s BBQ restaurant. I browsed the bookstore for some reads for the long-cold Dutch nights to come: Daniel Silva’s Secret Servant, David Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Robyn Meridith’s The Elephant and the Dragon, and Emanuel Derman’s My Life As A Quant.

Once again, I bypassed the science fiction section.

Growing up, science fiction was my genre. I collected the Tom Swift Jr. series, fell in love with the future through Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, and Wells, begged to go to the biggest-screen showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey when it opened.

Today, though, I can’t remember the last SciFi novel I read, or the speculative collection of short stories that I tucked into a travel bag. Curious. I wandered back over to survey the current offerings, and quickly uncovered five reasons why I fell out of love with Futureworld.

  1. The intrusion of Fantasy. I read Tolkien, and enjoyed most of Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon series. But two things tarnished the brand for me. Fantasy became lazy: magic was invoked as a simplification, making fantastic things happen without the need to worry about why. Just give the hero a wand , a medieval cloak, and competition (or temptation) from black arts, and the story was finished. Second, the D&D / Warcraft influence became too pervasive: the action overwhelmed the ideas and the plots were dumbed down to computer-game quests.
  2. The emergence of spin-outs. I enjoyed the early Star Wars and Star Trek a lot, but they have now spawned endless derivative products. Today everyone from Dr. Who to Heroes have their own series, metastasizing across colorful columns of shelving. The resulting monoculture is neither interesting nor stimulating.
  3. The challenge of the New Wave. In the late 60’s writers started experimenting with alternative styles of writing science fiction, shunning narrative in favor of nonlinear and artistic techniques that made stories virtually unreadable. Short story collections (e.g.: World’s Best SF) went heavily into New Wave , in particular, and I remember just giving up after struggling through the Dangerous Visions anthology.
  4. The depression of Cyberpunk. I liked the alternative “high tech and low life” feel of the sub-genre. It was refreshingly novel and genuinely stimulating in early versions (Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dick’s short stories) and I was thrilled with Stephensons’s Snow Crash and the Blade Runner movie. But the dystopic visions of drug addicted and mechanized humanity is profoundly depressing in novel-length doses, and my interest waned even before the authors stopped writing.
  5. The lack of speculative ideas. Clarke’s Childhood’s End was a wonderful book, speculative and insightful, an immersive story of people like us confronted with scientifically plausible and completely overwhelming events. Short story collections like Tales of the White Hart combined good humor with unexpected consequences of technology. Authors like Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Ursula Le Guin (The Dispossessed) created wholly realized worlds that mortal readers could explore and think about. The books were filled with challenging ideas and provocative visions, yet were wholly realistic. The Lathe of Heaven, for example, extrapolated technologic advance to explore social, ethical, and philosophical implications in a very profound way that I still think about today.

Mall of America (9)