Fantastic Fiction: SF Rebranded

A little while back I read a fascinating series of articles on SF Signal (Part One here, Part Two here) about the Death of Science Fiction – which, like the death of Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated.

This is one of those great debates in the genre.  Does the lack of interest in the space program mean the death of science fiction? Does the growth of pseudo-science mean that science fiction no longer has a place in our culture? Or, the nitty-gritty one, does the fact that fantasy novels outsell SF novels by a factor of many mean that SF writers are wasting their time in a dying genre?  This was (put more brilliantly than my crude summary) the argument of Mark Charon Newton a while back, which I responded to in a blog of my own.

In his two highly articulate SF Signal pieces, John H. Stevens takes an unusual approach to this argument. He doesn’t ask if the death of science fiction is really occuring – it’s not, so long  people still read and write SF – but he asks WHY is the question always being asked?

His response, which is erudite but rather brilliant I feel, is that:

‘My proposal, at least for now, is that the fables of this death and their effects on the readers and writers who narrate, read, and respond to them are attempts to grasp, codify, and represent the mythogenic rejuvenation of SF. These narrative episodes are part of SF’s mythology, reiterating and reestablishing aspects of it, seeking to understand SF’s storied, contested, confabulated history and the genre’s frequent renewal by its practitioners and readers. SF is based less on clear lines of relation to the past than other genres, is much more mutable and predatory, and relies on the redevelopment and proliferation of mythical ties and sources in the past and linkages laterally to contemporary genres and trends to maintain both its longevity and its freshness.’


He also says:

‘Talking about SF is often as important to many producers of the literature and its adherents as the production and reception of the literature itself. The far-flung fandom community is bonded not by just what they read, but by what they say about what they read, and this holds true for individuals in all social positions, from writer to editor to reader (which, at the end of the day, everyone is).

What brings people together in conversation is not just love of fantastical stories or the pleasure of strange ideas, but also moments of contention about their meanings and broader significance. “The Death of Science Fiction” creates a sort-of ritual discursive space for this; as Brooks Landon noted “[s]ome of these considerations are laments, some are warnings, and some are celebrations, but all posit some form of end to SF, or at least to SF as commonly recognized.” This flexibility creates potential for a lot of debate and for reification of positions as people try to predict this death or refute it.’

Double Whew!  Serious discourse of the brain-hurting variety; but I do see what he means. And I think it’s fascinating that he’s describing a debate about science in terms that are more congruent to the world of fantasy – using words like myth, regeneration, and rejuvenation; science fiction as the Fisher King who dies and is reborn.

There is a mythical, irrational aspect to our love of science fiction in other words; and fandom itself is a participation in a mythic process of belonging.  SF/F writers create worlds; readers inhabit them; and create ‘meta-worlds’ of their own through fora and journals and blogs.  We belong to the world of SF/F,  in a way that’s comparable to the way that Bilbo Baggins belongs to the world of the Shire.

I can’t believe I used the word ‘meta’ then.  You know what I mean.

Die-hard SF purists might well rebut this entire argument.  Because there is a pure intellectual exhilaration in the original, pure ‘hard SF’ project of the 30s and 40s and 50s  that was all about predicting the future, extrapolating social trends; guessing amazing things that might happen.  And there was a time when there were genuinely NEW ideas in hard SF – Robert Heinlein’s story ‘By His Bootstraps’ for instance was, for me, my first introduction to the concept of temporal paradox caused by time travel; now it’s the staple of every DR WHO episode.  Generation ships or colony ships are now  a cliche of science fiction; but once upon a time, someone wrote about this idea for the very first time.

Originality and novelty were once, in other words, key elements of the science fictional project. But for now – until aliens are discovered for real – it’s hard to think of a modern SF novel that has a scientifically credible extrapolative  idea we’ve never seen before.  There’s just too much darn stuff published; SF is now like the romance story – there are only so many ways of being in love, and they’re all already known about.

So  what now makes science fiction unique? Anything? Nothing?  Does it actually need to be unique or fresh at all? Can’t we just happily carry on reading variations on themes and enjoy them for their own sake?

Well actually yes of course we can.  There’s plenty of stuff I read and love that isn’t especially fresh or new; and I enjoy it BECAUSE  of the sense of the familiar.

But I’m attempting to reach for a brainy idea here.  So stick with me a moment.

What Stevens is essentially arguing is that myth is at the heart of science fiction fandom; and by extension, is at the heart of science fiction itself.  ’Myth’ is a slippery word at the best of times – it can mean ‘the collective unconsciousness of mankind’ but that’s a fairly woolly and unscientific hypothesis really.   But in looser terms, we all know that certain ideas and concepts and stories have a ‘mythic resonance’.  STAR WARS for instance did have huge mythic resonance when it was first released, and ever since – and it’s a movie based very closely on the ideas of myth propounded by Joseph W. Campbell in his book THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.  Lucas himself wrote:

‘I  came to the conclusion after American Graffiti that what’s valuable for me is to set standards, not to show people the world the way it is…around the period of this realization…it came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology…The Western was possibly the last generically American fairy tale, telling us about our values. And once the Western disappeared, nothing has ever taken its place. In literature we were going off into science fiction…so that’s when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and I started reading Joe’s books. Before that I hadn’t read any of Joe’s books…It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs…so I modified my next draft [of Star Wars] according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent…I went on to read ‘The Masks of God’ and many other books.’

So following that idea:

The Golden Age science fiction novels embodied the myths of Exploration and Adventure; they were, all too often, imbued with the can-do optimism of Americans who wanted mankind to conquer new worlds the way the settlers had conquered the West. [MASSIVE generalisation, I know, but the American optimism of  great like Asimov, Heinlein and Niven is a huge element in their appeal.]

Cyberpunk is a different myth, a different aesthetic; cynical, modern, challenging.

But what do we have now?

Well, sifting through books I’ve read recently, we have ZOO CITY, an award-winning great SF novel that’s really more fantasy, written by the South African Lauren Beukes, about a world in which criminals are ‘animalled’.

We have LIGHTBORN by Tricia Sullivan, an award-nominated fine novel about ‘shine’, a scientific extrapolation that allows minds to be expanded; but which is really more an atmospheric exploration of characters in crisis.

We have THE CITY AND THE CITY, by China Mieville, a fine SF novel which is really more a fantasy novel since there’s no scientific explanation for its premise; except, in my view, it’s really more a magic realistic fable after all.

And there’s THE WIND-UP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi, a near future  thriller extrapolative thriller about a world in which genetic experimentation has screwed up crops.  It’s been mildly criticised by some for being ‘overfamiliar’ in its concepts – in other words, it’s all been done and said before, in terms of the actual extrapolations. But it’s a hugely acclaimed book, absolutely deservedly so, because of the richness of the world-building, the brilliance of the writing; and the mythic power of the storytelling.  [I've no idea WHY it's mythic, it just is.]

And there’s Peter F. Hamilton’s DREAMING VOID trilogy, the purest of space opera by one of the the most established of SF writers – which is a) brilliant and b) full to the brim of mythic resonance and actual magic.

This is a random sample – I spend more time writing than reading so I rely on critics like John Stevens to provide the definitive overviews of these things. But I’m fumbling for a general conclusion here, and it’s this:

1) There’s no such thing as Science Fiction any more.  Or if there is, it’s a subgenre not a genre.  I say this because so many of the best recent, and best ancient SF novels, mingle fantasy with science fiction shamelessly. Anne McCaffrey does it in her Dragonworld Books; Peter F. Hamilton does it, as noted above.  According to some, the real genre is speculative fiction.  However,  efforts to rebrand ‘SF’ to mean ‘Speculative Fiction’ have died the death; it’s like trying to replace English with Esperanto. Nevertheless, it’s a worthy cause.   Because the things that connect science fiction, heroic fantasy, urban fantasy and certain kinds of horror are far greater that those things which divide them.

2) Almost by definition, all hugely popular fiction speaks to the zeitgeist of its age – from Harry Potter (who writes about magic in the ordinary world) to Dan Brown (who writes about dark hidden conspiracies which don’t exist)  to Stieg Larsson (who writes about the dark hidden conspiracies which DO exist.)  By reading popular fiction, therefore, we are exploring the preoccupations of the age in which we live; as well as participating in those preoccupations.

3) Since werewolves, vampires and wizards are so dominant in popular fiction, that tells us we live in a world in which we yearn for magic, and for better-than-natural sex.

4) ‘Myth’, ultimately, is another name for ‘Story’; and stories are what help define us as communities.  Which brings us back to John Stevens’ argument about ‘mythogenic questions’.

5) There’s a point where generalisations about stuff like this gets a bit silly, and we may have hit that by point 5).  But on a personal note, I would say there are three kinds of novels I read:

a) Fantastic Fiction (aka speculative fiction)

b) Crime Fiction

c) Everything Else

There are still those who use  ‘speculative fiction’ as a  genre definer , but I’ve come to find it a bit arid a term for my taste. So I shall therefore take the initiative in referring to FF when writing about my favourite books, rather than using the clunky acronym SF/F & UF or suchlike.  I am, from now on, an FF writer, not an SF writer.  It’s already of course  used as a genre definition by some websites, and damn it, it has a ring to it.

My rebranding of SF  is a futile thing to do of course, since no one in the real world will pay any attention; but it is a way of highlighting that what truly excites me in science fiction is not the science, it’s the way that the extrapolations of science lead one inevitably into the realms of the fantastic.  Parallel universes; time travel; particles with no mass; quarks; it’s all fantastic, yet real.  Knowing the science is important; just as you’d expect an historical writer to know the facts about the period.  But science IS fantastic; that’s the great appeal.

But urban fantasy also qualifies as FF, since it’s a genre of stories set in a real world with elements of the fantastic.  And heroic fantasy doesn’t count as fantasy if it has no element of the fantastic – GAME OF THRONES without the dragons? Please!  Ursula Le Guin writes fantastic fiction; so does China Mieville; so does Neil Gaiman.

So that’s my counter to John H. Stevens’ Death of Science Fiction article; call it Fantastic Fiction and it’s suddenly it’s part of the dominant genre. And the mythogenic rejuvenation of SF will have led to the creation of a wholly new creature, emerging Phoenix-like from the internet babble.

But, less whimsically, I’m left with questions not answers. What are the new myths that will capture the imagination of our culture?  What are the stories that speak to the zeitgeist? Naturally I have no idea; but if I do find out, I shall start writing them.

And if YOU know, do let me know…

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