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SF author's rant on the current state of science fiction


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#1 of 40 OFFLINE   Max Leung

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Posted September 08 2003 - 05:36 AM

Forward, into the past:
Why are our imaginations retreating from science and space, and into fantasy?
asks SPIDER ROBINSON.

Quote:
My genre has always had its ups and downs, but this is by far its worst, longest downswing. Sales are down, magazines are languishing, our stars are aging and not being replaced. And the reason is depressingly clear: Those few readers who haven't defected to Tolkienesque fantasy cling only to Star Trek, Star Wars, and other Sci Fi franchises.

Incredibly, young people no longer find the real future exciting. They no longer find science admirable. They no longer instinctively lust to go to space.

Y'know...I think he is right. Sure, I can name current SF writers who are on the cutting edge of SF, but unfortunately I can't think of any new writers from the last 5 years.

Vernor Vinge, Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan, Peter F. Hamilton, Iain M. Banks, and many more have been writing SF for 20 years or more...but where are the new guys?

New authors like China Mieville, while excellent and bold, maybe even visionary, really write fantasy and not SF. Sure, he and others borrow SF themes - but all pretenses to SF credibility are thrown out the window once you throw in dragons and magic!

(This is a chance for Jack Briggs to tell us how he REALLY feels. Posted Image )
Mahatma Gandhi, as you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him...a super-callused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

Gamesh....

#2 of 40 OFFLINE   David Baranyi

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Posted September 08 2003 - 05:48 AM

I do notice that some fans refuse to use "Sci Fi," but use SF as an abbreviation of science fiction. How come?

#3 of 40 OFFLINE   Max Leung

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Posted September 08 2003 - 06:01 AM

Sci Fi is to SF as Japanimation is to Anime. Posted Image

SciFi, in my mind, is associated with those pulpy B-movies that Mystery Science Theater loves to spoof.

How would you feel if someone looked at your HT equipment and called it a "hi-fi stereo"? Posted Image

Oh, the discussion on Slashdot about this article is very interesting...and has introduced me to a local author (in Calgary) who just one a Hugo award for one of his books in the "Neanderthal Parallax" series. Anthropological SF! I gotta check that out...it has gotten extremely positive reviews on Amazon.com.
Mahatma Gandhi, as you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him...a super-callused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

Gamesh....

#4 of 40 OFFLINE   Jason Seaver

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Posted September 08 2003 - 06:08 AM

It's not just the media-inspired franchises, though - damn near every book on the shelf at the local sci-fi bookstore (and the meager sci-fi/fantasy section at the other stores) is part of a series. They're usually labeled as such, but not always; I nearly threw Tony Daniel's Metaplanetary across the room when I got to the last page and there was no ending.

It's depressing. I get most of my SF from Analog, Asimov's and Fantasy & Science Fiction nowadays, and none of them are perfect - Analog often seems to have reverted to Campbell-era stories with cardboard characters, Asimov's uses far more pages for fantasy and alternate history than I'd like, and F&SF barely publishes SF at all.

I think the big problem is that somewhere along the line, every sci-fi tale that made it to the mainstream or mass media became a cautionary tale. The advanced technology was always in the hands of the villains, or there was a nasty twist ending, or the very setting implied some sort of monstrous war or catalcysm. Star Wars ended with Luke having to turn his back on technology to trust in something mystical; Star Trek adopted a Prime Directive which basically says "trying to make a people's life better will just screw them up, so stand back." Print authors feel the need to temper triumphant endings with set-ups for the next bloody sequel.

All too often, it seems science fiction isn't offering hope for a better, more exciting tomorrow.
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#5 of 40 OFFLINE   Max Leung

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Posted September 08 2003 - 06:23 AM

Yeah, I get that feeling too. You hear about how simple household chemicals can be used to murder several hundred people; reading that in a work of fiction just makes the pessimism even worse!

Far too much SF paints science as the bad guy - have we already forgotten that vaccines have saved millions of lives? And remember...science doesn't kill people. People kill people!

But then again, the negativity in SF can be attributed to a certain inevitability about human nature: Science is the best way we have of understanding the universe, but people (not the scientists) just end up using it to harm others to gain an advantage over them.

Authors have proposed genetic manipulation to tame our baser intincts, but somebody will always cry "You support eugenics - you're a Nazi!" Oh well - they'll just have to introduce an alien race with the desired traits as contrast instead! [EDIT: Oops actually meant to say that SF authors have always done that]
Mahatma Gandhi, as you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him...a super-callused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

Gamesh....

#6 of 40 OFFLINE   Kevin Farley

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Posted September 08 2003 - 06:25 AM

"He never saw Molly again."

I think it will come back; Possibly with the internet now, the future is actually happening at the moment; The space program is in ruins, and there's a general nihilism concerning the future. I do think it's a phase, and it will go back.

#7 of 40 OFFLINE   Peter Apruzzese

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Posted September 08 2003 - 06:27 AM

Quote:
I do notice that some fans refuse to use "Sci Fi," but use SF as an abbreviation of science fiction. How come?
Harlan Ellison has said that the derisive term "Sci-Fi" should be prounced "Skiffy", like a peanut butter. SF or science fiction seem much better.
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#8 of 40 OFFLINE   Lew Crippen

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Posted September 08 2003 - 06:36 AM

Quote:
All too often, it seems science fiction isn't offering hope for a better, more exciting tomorrow
All the more reason for someone to turn Childhood’s End into a movie.

After all, his works have been successfully adapted before Posted Image
¡Time is not my master!

#9 of 40 OFFLINE   Tommy Ceez

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Posted September 08 2003 - 07:11 AM

I still think Kilgore Trout is a SF genius
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#10 of 40 OFFLINE   Dome Vongvises

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Posted September 08 2003 - 07:32 AM

Quote:
Far too much SF paints science as the bad guy - have we already forgotten that vaccines have saved millions of lives? And remember...science doesn't kill people. People kill people!


If we divided the sciences into three distinct areas of biological, chemical, and physical, the general populace is in touch with two of those, the biological and chemical sciences. And even if we were to talk of physical sciences, most of them deal with engineers that work on Earth, as opposed to the physicists responsible for the science in space technology.

I thought the episode of the Simpsons where NASA panics is hilarious, but it illustrates a very good point: the space program is really out of touch with the common man. Why should the average Joe/Jill care about somebody going into space to fix a loose screw on the space station? It's not helping him/her pay the bills or raise the kids.

And if science fiction has proven anything, it is more of a social science and a written prose that concerns itself with the entire human condition. But I think society has gotten to the point where its individuals only see their own problems and not the larger problems as a whole. And I think this relates to the problem I've stated in the previous paragraph.

So I think those are the two troubles that face science fiction. You have people that are out of touch with that science in their everyday lives, and you have people that only care about their immediate concerns.

I don't read science fiction (eg. the real kind). It gets too bogged down minute details. But I can understand the problems it's facing.

#11 of 40 OFFLINE   Jack Briggs

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Posted September 08 2003 - 07:33 AM

Though SF luminary, fan, and agent Forrest J. Ackerman coined the slang phrase "sci-fi" in the 1950s as an SF equivalent phrase to "hi-fi," it was disparaged from the get-go within "organized fandom."

I have yet to read Spider's essay, but "real" SF has been increasingly marginalized by the media "sci-fi" (or "SF lite") prevailing these days. "Fan types" are getting off on this non-SF (X-Files, post-TOS Star Trek, Star Wars, the superhero fantasies, and other pubescent trivia) "sci-fi" instead of more demanding material that has literary merit as well as scientific plausibility (remember some of the wild rescue-scenario suggestions posted here immediately after the STS-107/Columbia tragedy? Some of those implausible suggestions were an outgrowth of people allowing Hollywood to inform them as opposed to science).

People read less today (at least here in the U.S.). So it's not surprising there are fewer SF magazines in existence than at any time since the genre got its start when Hugo Gernsback started Amazing Stories in 1926. When I first started reading SF seriously, you could go to a newsstand and select from Analog/Astounding, Galaxy, If, F&SF, Amazing, Fantastic, and a number of reprint-only magazines.

Too, given the proliferation of pseudoscientific nonsense today (UFOs, the supernatural, near-death experiences, etc., etc.), people clearly prefer fantasy to science-based speculation.

New talent, in this media-saturated age, has trouble breaking into such a desolate print-SF landscape.

#12 of 40 OFFLINE   Garrett Lundy

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Posted September 08 2003 - 07:42 AM

If Spider Robinson thinks that the state of todays SF is so bad, why doesn't he write a good SF book to raise the national average?

But I do believe he has a good point. What was the last good SF film that didn't involve laser guns, flying cars, giant robots, or superpowered humans? (I think Gattaca)
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#13 of 40 OFFLINE   JayV

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Posted September 08 2003 - 07:59 AM

Check out Orson Scott Card's Writing Reviews, Initiate Brother, and Freedom for an interesting companion to Spider Robinson's piece. It was written a couple weeks before Spider Robinson's piece.

-j

#14 of 40 OFFLINE   Max Leung

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Posted September 08 2003 - 08:19 AM

Hmmm, Contact came out the same time as Gattaca. So I guess it is a draw as to which was the last good SF film. Posted Image

Pitch Black, although not the best SF film, does harken to the good old fashioned "Sci-fi" B-movie years. Well, at least it didn't have giant robots! Ditto can be said for Event Horizon - not the greatest, but hot damn, the whole movie gave me fond memories of playing Doom in a dark room. Posted Image

It looks like the only media that still has strong SF support would be in the area of computer games. Homeworld, Half-Life, Doom, Halo (the novels aren't bad, all things considered), Master of Orion, Total Annihilation, etc. are clearly SF-oriented and extremely popular.

Well ok, they are tuned toward mega-violence - too bad there aren't more SF games like LucasArt's "The Dig", which is one of the few non-violent SF games out there.

Anyways, as to print fiction: it still irks me that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix won the Hugo. Yes, it's a very good book, but where the hell is the SF? I don't know the history of the Hugo awards, but I always had the impression it was about SF. Sure, there is a more broad genre called "speculative" fiction, but anything with magic is still fantasy in my book.

But not all is bleak: After attending a recent local Fantasy/SF convention, it seems that the male/female ratio is perfectly balanced now. There seem to be as many female writers as male writers, although a large majority of the female writers work in the fantasy genre. I'm thinking part of the decline may be that women just aren't interested in SF at all. But this isn't very surprising, considering that the situation isn't that great in academia either.

Still, things may be improving, albeit slowly. I'm hoping that the surge in popularity of Babylon 5 will spur things along again...
Mahatma Gandhi, as you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him...a super-callused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

Gamesh....

#15 of 40 OFFLINE   Holadem

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Posted September 08 2003 - 08:40 AM

Quote:
Hmmm, Contact came out the same time as Gattaca. So I guess it is a draw as to which was the last good SF film.

Pitch Black, although not the best SF film, does harken to the good old fashioned "Sci-fi" B-movie years. Well, at least it didn't have giant robots! Ditto can be said for Event Horizon - not the greatest, but hot damn, the whole movie gave me fond memories of playing Doom in a dark room.

Where is the Matrix? There is one excellent SF concept and story under all the flashy action.

--
Holadem

#16 of 40 OFFLINE   Jason Seaver

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Posted September 08 2003 - 09:13 AM

Quote:
New talent, in this media-saturated age, has trouble breaking into such a desolate print-SF landscape.
Of course, that's true all over. Mid-list books barely exist for any genre, musicians don't have it much better, etc., etc.

Quote:
If Spider Robinson thinks that the state of todays SF is so bad, why doesn't he write a good SF book to raise the national average?
There's a plug for his latest at the end of the essay. Besides, he's got to be at least in his sixties; the point that there aren't new writers appearing is a valid concern. Asimov's has a reward for promising young writers, but doesn't actually publish any, despite their namesake having "Marooned Off Vesta" published when he was, what, 17?

The speed of technological change can work again sf, too - not just in terms of the world "catching up" between writing and publication, but the guys who do extrapolate well often come up with something incomprehensible to a mainstream audience. I've tried showing Charles Stross's "Manfred Macx" stories to people, and they just can't get more than a couple paragraphs in becauses they just don't know what the hell is going on.

It's like the closest thing to a Heinlein juvenile these days is Star Trek, which (aside from the recent sucking) has too often over the past ten years not given audiences ideas that really fire the imagination.
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Trading Post Inn - Another gender-bending soap, with different collaborators writing different points of view.

"What? Since when was this an energy...

#17 of 40 OFFLINE   John Watson

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Posted September 08 2003 - 11:06 AM

I believe the term Speculative Fiction may be current for the varieties of writing that could include Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I've always felt that sci-fi movies were best when they were dystopic about the future. I once suggested that most sci-fi moves were picturing the future negatively, and someone advised me to watch Star Wars or some such fare. Posted Image

As to less of a readership or audience for SciFi, there is perhaps more awareness (justified) of the chaos science-fueled economic progress is leading us to - pollution. But even long-ago HG wells, as well as George Orwell, or Aldous Huxley, could see the tendencies of human nature and its use of technology. (Is Gattaca an update of Brave New world?)

Scientific advance will always be misused - its just human nature, which will not go beyond Good and Evil. When the scientists serve the corporations with the money, they and their craft may well get lumped with Mr Businessman.

All the schemes/fantasies of weeding out anti-social behaviour (whatever that is), by genetic or chemical, or "educational" means founder on the traditional issue of : Who calls the shots; Who prevents the ruling class from becoming corrupt; or ousts it when the inevitable happens. One Bladerunner can only do so much.

But there are still millions who think better living will result from more powerful cars, huge stereo systems, and drugs or "genetic engineering" to make them live forever, disease-free, and that their children can become smarter by learning with computers from the lowest grades. Teenage boys will always fantasize what they could do with an invisibility formula. I just can't imagine I would enjoy the books or movies that endorsed or celebrated those points of view.

The idea of the Matrix, or a thinking planet (Gaia?), has perhaps been spurred by Cyber-space books by Wm Gibson, and seems to have a much more prominent place in modern sci-fi books and movies than the themes of 50 or 100 years ago. This theme of course heads towards theology. Posted Image

I always thought Arthur C Clarke's monolith was just another version of the First Cause.

#18 of 40 OFFLINE   Dome Vongvises

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Posted September 08 2003 - 01:08 PM

Quote:
Teenage boys will always fantasize what they could do with an invisibility formula.


I'm not a teenager, and I still fantasize about that.

dreams of robbing a bank

heh heh heh

#19 of 40 OFFLINE   david stark

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Posted September 08 2003 - 03:22 PM

Quote:
Far too much SF paints science as the bad guy - have we already forgotten that vaccines have saved millions of lives? And remember...science doesn't kill people. People kill people!


But science does help us kill people so much better than before!

a bit more seriously though are there any sci-fi books/films/shows... that don't have science misused in some way? If everything turned out all dandy then the work wouldn't be too interesting would it? All the sci-fi works I can think of have science being used for evil (some times not on purpose). Films/books 2001, blade runner, gattaca all have science being used for bad purposes (intentionally or unintentionally).

#20 of 40 OFFLINE   Jeff Ulmer

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Posted September 08 2003 - 03:38 PM

As a pretty ardent SF fan in my younger days, there are a couple of pretty significant factors that have curbed my indulgence in reading. First and foremost is a lack of time. There are simply not enough hours in a day to take the time to delve into a good book, as much as I'd like to. Second is a lack of really intriguing work, or at least the appearance of a lack of such work. Publishers won't even look at a new writer unless they are producing serials, and much of the time these start off with a bang, but become diluted in the successive offerings as to ruin what could have been a great standalone piece. Third, and quite important;y is the cost of the media. When I'm expected to shell out $10 for a book I have no idea about, chances are unless I have heard raves about it, I'll pass - I've struggled through too many books to find a real value in the expense, especially if it doesn't have a proper conclusion.
Part of me still wants to mine the second hand shops for the old books and classic authors, even though my collection already contains a good many of them. I don't mind blowing a buck on a dud, but at new prices, I'd be pissed, and put off buying more.
If I had the time, I would probably revisit books I know are great before trying something new. I have longed for years to go back to Ringworld, or revisit the Riverworld or all of the Foundation series.
What is needed is material that inspires me to want to read again, something that grips my imagination and takes me to uncharted territory, not simply lesser versions of classic SF, with a bit of modern technobabble thrown in for contemporary consideration.


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